Yesterday was the Feast of St John Fisher (1469-1535) and St Thomas More (1477-1535).
John Fisher was a bishop, Thomas More a married man and a father of four children.
King Henry the eighth appointed himself head of the Church in England.
Both men could not accept this in conscience because it contradicted the faith of the church. Both believed that the pope was the successor of St Peter and the one to whom God had entrusted the leadership of the Church under Christ.
While John Fisher held to his beliefs, he did not judge other bishops who gave in to the pressure that the king had put on them and said “I condemn no other man’s conscience, their conscience may save them, and mine must save me”. He refused to judge them.
Thomas More did his best to avoid martyrdom but could not in the end compromise his conscience among other things he said, ‘I am the King’s good servant – but God’s first’.
Again he told his judges that ‘we may yet hereafter in Heaven merrily all meet together to everlasting salvation’.
Conscience is an act of the intellect. It is not a funny feeling inside.
Conscience is a decision that ‘This is a right, good and integral way to act’. It is about making moral decisions.
The right way to act is based on our beliefs and values. Our understanding of life and the world and meaning, effects our beliefs and values.
In decision making we examine the situation and act according to what we believe is right.
A person can have an erroneous conscience. Our environment greatly effects our belief system. For example, a person who grows up in a very violent family can believe that the right way to settle differences is by violence and that might is right.
Many including myself would consider this to be objectively wrong. The person may subjectively consider this to be right.
A person can also have a very delicate conscience. For example, one who has not properly matured as an adult and still bases all that is right and wrong simply on what his or her parents told them to do. They can be greatly influenced by the ‘Super Ego’. This is a harsh ‘parental voice’ censuring all that the person is doing. An overly anxious person can also have a delicate or scrupulous conscious.
Such a person may live in the fear that they are doing something wrong all the time and not make mature thought out decisions.
A person can also have a lax conscience. For a number of reasons, based on often choosing what is ‘easy’ and not what is ‘right’, one can not give much thought to the morality of their actions but be guided by instincts, the pursuit of pleasure, and the urge to control others etc., instead of objectivising truths and a true hierarchy of values. They can drown their conscience and not let it affect their decision making.
A hierarchy of values is about the greater good. For example, e.g. to steal something brings some good to a thief. However they are not following the greater good of justice and integrity.
For a Christian to be true to our beliefs we need to have an educated conscience. This means being informed by the teachings and values of Christ and the Church’s teachings.
Again a mature and educated Christian conscience needs to be well informed. Sometimes a person has to make difficult decisions and regardless of what choices they make some deeply held value can be compromised. The principle then is to choose the greater good.
This means that we need to be as well informed as we can about the areas that we need to make decisions about. We can also benefit by seeking advice from knowledgeable and wise persons in guiding others on moral issues.
Prayer for guidance is also very helpful, essential. I remember a wise old knowledgeable man, a moral theologian and Conon lawyer saying, ‘Church law cannot cover every case’.
This does not mean that we make ourselves alone as the arbiters of what is objectively right and wrong.
However in the end after taking all the necessary steps to be well informed and seeking wise counsel we have to make the decisions of conscience ourselves.
I repeat that this is not relativism, we need to be faithful in choosing what is right and not just what is easy. This faithfulness to conscience cost Sts John Fisher and Thomas More their lives.
Lord grant me your wisdom.