Thursday, July 23, 2009

Conscience Formation

During the summer months, Mass attendance at our little parish has dwindled substantially, prompting our pastor to post a sign out front that says, “There is no vacation from God.” I grew up with the idea that attending Sunday Mass was not optional. In second grade, Sister Clarencia told us missing Sunday Mass was a Mortal Sin unless we were truly sick and unable to go, and if you die with a Mortal Sin on your soul, you will go to hell. I also remember the story of the guy who left Mass right after Communion only to be hit by a train on the way home. Today, it seems to be no longer "spiritually correct" to use such scare tactics, but they worked on me.

All of this makes me wonder how to get people back in the pews. Fear, while being an effective motivator for some, is not best reason for going to Mass. How do we get people to desire the graces they need to reach the ultimate goal of eternal salvation? Those of us who have been around awhile see the change that has taken place, especially since Vatican II. The emphasis on the Fear of the Lord has been replaced with the God is Love message. The danger of damnation is not talked about much anymore. Rather, Catholics want to leave Mass feeling good about themselves and many priests try to accommodate them.

Our current pastor is rather old school in his delivery. His homilies are stern at times, and folks come away feeling they have been chewed out for not living their lives to his standard of holiness. I suspect this has affected summer attendance more than family vacations. We will see whether attendance returns in the fall.

I don’t envy priests today. God knows there are many borderline Catholics out there who need to be drawn into a closer relationship. If the homily drives them away, there is little hope for bringing them back. Yet, sugarcoating the message can hide the bitter truth. There is a hell and people will go there. As our spiritual Father, the parish priest has to provide the delicate balance of a loving parent and firm disciplinarian.

Our diocesan paper carries a question and answer column by Reverend John Dietzen. In the July 12 issue, someone asked about a claim made at a Catholic symposium that Pope John Paul II said we can follow our consciences only when in accord with church teachings. The questioner wondered if that was really what the Pope taught. Before I read the answer, I thought to myself, I know how I would answer this. We have to follow our consciences, BUT we have an obligation to form our consciences in accordance with Church teaching. If we believe something contrary to what the Church teaches, we have a problem.

In his answer, Father Dietzen quotes from Pope John Paul’s book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, in which he says, “Man cannot be forced to accept the truth.” “He can be drawn to the truth only by his own nature, that is by his own freedom.” The Pope also cites St. Thomas Aquinas, who “maintains that it is wrong to make an act of faith in Christ if in one’s conscience one is convinced, however absurdly, that it is wrong to carry out such an act.” And finally, he refers to a statement by Cardinal John Henry Newman, also from the Pope’s book, where Cardinal Newman placed conscience above any outside authority, civil or religious.

When I read Father Dietzen’s answer, I immediately thought many Catholics will use this to justify most any behavior. All of these statements, taken out of context, emphasize the need to follow our own consciences, but little is said about our responsibility for forming our consciences. Father Dietzen concluded by saying, “People must search for the true and the good, especially when conscience itself becomes almost blind because of a habit of sin. But an honest conscience which searches for what is right always retains its dignity.” Perhaps he could have gone on to say that “the true and the good” can be found in the teachings of the Church and believing something in opposition to Church teaching is neither true nor good.

People need to be very careful when taking statements out of context to illustrate a point. I envision people further taking statements from Father Dietzen’s article out of context to support their own belief. According to the Pope and Cardinal Newman, conscience rates above any outside authority, civil or religious. Therefore, if I don’t believe it’s a sin to miss Mass on Sunday, it’s not a sin. If I don’t believe using artificial birth control is a sin, it’s not a sin. If I believe a woman should have the right to choose abortion, I can still receive Holy Communion.

Now, there is an element of truth here. We cannot commit a Mortal Sin if we truly and honestly believe it is not a sin. Yet, we have a responsibility as Catholics to form our consciences in accordance with Church teaching. If the Church tells us it is sinful to deliberately miss Mass on Sunday, to use artificial birth control, and to promote legal abortion, then it’s a sin for us to do any of those things. Yes, we must follow our consciences, but we must make sure our consciences are properly formed.