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Can Our Conscience Mislead Us?
Q. We have always been taught one must follow his conscience. But consciences are not always correctly formed. Their guidance can be wrong. If my conscience tells me to do something -- or allows me to do something -- which objectively speaking is wrong, am I still bound by my conscience?
Name withheld by request
A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D:
The Catholic Church teaches that we must follow our conscience. That simply means we must always do what we truly believe is right and good. But the Church does not stop with enjoining the following of conscience. The Church teaches with equal emphasis that we must correctly form our consciences -- that is, we must ground them in the Church's moral and doctrinal teaching.
Both correct and incorrect judgments of conscience bind us, but in quite different ways.
The judgment of a correct conscience binds us absolutely. To go against it would be sin. An incorrect conscience binds us only incidentally, and on condition that we change it if we learn the truth in the matter concerned.
Consider two points emphasized by Pope Benedict XVI in his teaching on conscience. The fact that one must follow even an erroneous conscience, he noted, "does not signify a canonization of subjectivity." Moreover, though one must follow even an erroneous conscience, "it can very well be wrong to have come to such skewed convictions in the first place. The guilt lies then in a different place, much deeper -- not in the present act, not in the present judgment of conscience, but in the neglect of my being that made me deaf to the internal promptings of truth. For this reason, criminals of conviction like Hitler and Stalin are guilty" ("On Conscience," Ignatius Press, 2007).
In an ironic vein (he must have smiled when he wrote this), the Pope pointed out: "It is strange that some theologians have difficulty accepting the precise and limited doctrine of papal infallibility, but see no problem in granting de facto infallibility to everyone who has a conscience."
The History of Abstinence
Q. I was wondering about the rule that Catholics could not eat meat on Friday. When did it start? I know we don’t have to anymore, if you do some other penance. But what was the origin of this.
— Mary Lambert
A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin:
God imposed abstinence in the Garden of Eden when He forbade Adam to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (see Gn 2:16). The Old Testament identifies individuals (Judith, Daniel, Esther, David) who abstained from various foods, including meat. Jesus prepared for His ministry by eating nothing for 40 days (Mt 4:2), but the New Testament contains only one clear reference to abstinence from meat, when the Council of Jerusalem proscribed eating “what is strangled and … blood” (Acts 15:20).
The Church’s earliest non-scriptural documents (“The Teaching of the Apostles,” written about A.D. 100) and writers (Clement of Alexandria [150-215], Tertullian [c. 200]) mention Friday abstinence from meat, thus demonstrating how early the Church honored the day of the Lord’s death. At times, abstinence from meat was customary on Wednesday and Saturday, as well.
“To fast and abstain on the appointed days” is a precept of the Church, and bishops regulate the appropriate times for this penance. The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes the Church’s Code of Canon Law, which emphasizes the value of fasting and abstinence to “prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart” (Canon 1249; Catechism, No. 2043).
Q. I get tired going to confession and hearing myself telling the same old sins over and over again. Can I ask God directly for forgiveness of minor sins?
Name and address withheld
A. Here’s a reply from OSV columnist Msgr. M. Francis Mannion:
Guess what? Priests go to confession and repeat the same old sins over and over, too.
So, don't be embarrassed. It's not as though confessors expect you to come up with new and exciting lists of sins each time.
The truth is that most people confess old familiar sins, and don't often experience radical or instantaneous adjustments to their moral lives. We are very much creatures of habit.
While they are appropriate matter for confession, venial sins can be forgiven by prayer, good works and the regular examination and presentation of conscience to God.
Is Bartending Immoral?
Q. I have a few friends who are bartenders and have often wondered about the morality of such a profession. Is it immoral to be a bartender? If so, does the same hold for any other job that involves the sale of alcohol or other substances that are detrimental to one's health, such as cigars and cigarettes? I've tried doing some research on this subject, but haven't found much information.
A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D.:
It's not immoral per se to be a bartender, or to sell alcohol or tobacco, because the use of neither alcohol nor tobacco is intrinsically evil. However, the abuse of alcohol or tobacco, to the point that it injures health or impairs judgment, is immoral.
A bartender does have a moral responsibility to watch out for patrons so that they don't overindulge or put themselves in danger. In the event that a customer has imbibed too much, the bartender -- as well as any other responsible onlookers -- has a moral obligation to insure that the patron doesn't drive a vehicle while inebriated, because of the mortal danger to himself and to others. They should call for a taxi.
Similarly, sales clerks do have a moral and legal obligation to uphold the laws of the land and not allow minors to purchase alcohol or tobacco. Such laws are reasonable, just and good, and they oblige us in conscience.
The Four-Way Medal
Q. My question is about the Four- Way Holy Spirit medal. What is this medal and its effects?
The “four-way” medal takes its name from its cross-shaped design, and from the four devotional representations that adorn it. The medal honors the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Immaculate Heart of his mother, St. Joseph and St. Christopher. The significance of the hearts of Jesus and Mary is obvious; that of the saints less so. St. Christopher is honored as the protector of travelers, and St. Joseph is venerated as the patron of a happy death. Taken together, the four remind us of our life’s pilgrimage and the examples of holiness God has provided to guide and protect us on the paths that lead to his kingdom.
The Church distinguishes among sacraments, sacramentals and acts of piety. Sacraments make the life of Jesus present to us through the action of the Holy Spirit (see Catechsim of the Catholic Church, No. 1111). Sacramentals — for example, holy water — remind us of Christ’s death and resurrection. “For well-disposed members of the faithful … sacramentals sanctify almost every event of their lives with the divine grace which flows from the Paschal mystery” (No. 1670). Medals, like the Stations of the Cross, and processions, manifest the Christian’s interior life, which “has always found expression in various forms … surrounding the Church’s sacramental life” (No. 1674).
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