Archdiocese of Chicago

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Decisions of Conscience

The relation between external and internal in the spiritual life comes to a head when making decisions of conscience.  Cardinal Newman, soon to be beatified, pointed to the distinction when he said we should toast conscience first and the Pope second.  Cardinal Newman was extraordinarily sensitive to the internal workings of grace in our souls; he was himself a convert brought to Catholicism because of the action of God in his soul internally and because of his studies on the doctrinal positions of the early Fathers of the Church externally.  Doctrine and conscience came together, but the teachings are just abstract without the internal conviction that is the work of grace.  Cardinal Newman expected external and internal to come together in the lives of those genuinely searching for truth.

Conscience is a practical judgment about what should be done, not a decision about right teaching.  Conscience needs to be formed by right teaching, but the motives for acting are so many and so varied that a person can conscientiously judge to act in a way that is objectively morally wrong.  This tension arises in political life, in sexual morality and in the internal governance of the Church.  Lent is a time to think this through and to bring together conscience and Church teaching; it is a time for conversion.

Cardinal Francis George, OMI

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