The sovereign conscience

Last week I wrote of the elephant in the room: the gulf, revealed in the analyses of responses to the synod questionnaire on marriage and family, between the moral belief of many of the laity and the teaching of the Magisterium. While I can offer no simple solutions I believe that considering the question of the formation of conscience may shed some light.

 I come from a generation in which the formation of conscience was only too simple. You had to do no more than to look at the relevant moral teaching and examine whether it applied to the activity in question. End of conscience formation. The supplementary issue was whether the activity was a grave matter. For example, I was taught that, for theft £5 was sufficient to qualify. Adjusted for current value, that would be £183 today. In sexuality everything was apparently grave – from entertaining an impure thought to goodness knows what. Of course, full knowledge and consent were required. But since the teaching was clear, and we were assured that sufficient grace was always available, even looking at an airbrushed nude in Lilliput carried a penalty which made the medieval torture chamber seem appealing. No wonder that nowadays in moral matters I often consult my wife. Being a convert, her conscience is still intact.

The response of the bishops in general to the publication of Humanae Vitae was to give loyal support to the teaching, while pointing out the need to respect the consciences of those unable to agree. Unfortunately there has been little real guidance on the process of forming the conscience. While this is, in fact, explained in the Catechism, it is not presented in a form which is easily comprehended.

In my generation it seemed very simple. You formed your conscience by applying the moral law as set out by the Church, and you obeyed it. In today’s generation forming your conscience appears very largely to be deciding what you would like to be true and supposing that to be a decision of conscience. I suggest that neither of these explanations serve. 

 The first issue arises from a paragraph in Gaudium et Spes: “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbour.” Too often this is interpreted as merely a statement of the sovereignty of conscience. What may be overlooked is that this sovereignty requires that we are alone with God. Put in simple terms, that means that we must be open to God. Inclinations, instincts, emotions, pressures are all false friends here. We may not be able to eradicate them, but we must be aware of how they can deceive our fallen natures. 

We are asked to make a decision based on what we really think in the depths of the heart. And that’s difficult. It cannot be done without the action of the Holy Spirit. It is true that our conscience ultimately trumps the Church’s teaching – even if that obliges us to leave the Church. But the next step is to acknowledge the Church’s authority to teach the moral law. For some, this may be the point when they judge that the Church must be followed simply because of its deeper understanding, but even those who feel confident to decide are under obligation as Catholics to discover what the Church says and the reasons for this. The intention is not to discover why the Church is wrong, but to discover why it is right. Dignitatis Humanae, in speaking of conscience, does not require us to obey blindly but to “attend” to her teaching. This serious attention is not optional for the Catholic. It is only following this that one may claim a decision of conscience. And whatever that may be, it is sovereign, though it must remain open to new insights.

 If I take the vexed question of artificial contraception as an example, it is important to note that dissent in no way affects the status of the individual as a member of the Church. It is clear from different episcopal documents that this most serious outcome is compatible with the continued use of the sacraments. And the confessor who attempts to unsettle a formed conscience exceeds his brief. Yet, another temptation remains. The Catholic who has imbibed the principle that the Church is always right may well be left with a nagging sense of infidelity as a result of his decision. But this is another false friend. In truth, the infidelity would lie in following Catholic teaching rather his own moral decision. No one can hide behind the Church’s skirts on the Day of Judgment.

Moreover, it does not follow that dissent on one issue should lead to dissent on others. A decision of conscience, Newman pointed out, applies to us personally and in the particular circumstance of the decision we have to take. “Conscience (says St Thomas) is the practical judgment or dictate of reason, by which we judge what here and now is to be done as being good, or to be avoided as evil.” Discussion about whether this or that moral principle should be held by the Church may well be interesting and important, but it has no direct bearing on our decision of conscience. The bar may be high, but once we are confident we have made a decision according to our best understanding, we have nothing to fear.

About Quentin

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43 Responses to The sovereign conscience

  1. Brian Hamill says:

    When the question of her using the formula in our wedding regarding ‘obeying me’ came up for discussion, I told my wife-to-be (and still-is) that the word obedience in its original sense means ‘to listen to carefully’. She replied (and still does) she was quite happy to listen to me carefully. This left open the question of her ‘doing’. Jesus told his disciples to do the same for the Scribes and Pharisees, who ‘sit on the chair of Moses’. The teaching of the hierarchy in the Church has to be respected, if one wishes to be a member; that does not mean it should be adored, which is what it has been at times in the past. To take a simple and uptodate example, the new translation of the missal has come in for a lot of well-justified criticism. Some have now advocated ignoring it and using the previous formulae for the responses. To my mind this highlights one of the keys to conscience formation. What harm is done by using the new translation? Fundamentally, and that is a key principle, none. It may hurt our aesthetic sensibilities but it does them no harm. After all the Latin translation of the Vulgate in places like the Psalms is awful Latin as Jerome used Hebraic not Latinate word order which must have really jarred many an ancient ear. On the other hand, the practical outcomes of Humanae Vitae can in some cases, perhaps most, have real harmful effects, the unintended consequences of an ill thought out aspect of fundamentally good teaching on the responsible and respectful use of sex.

  2. Ann says:

    The first issue arises from a paragraph in Gaudium et Spes: “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbour.”

    I was never quite sure why this is written as so, because it sounds like it means to follow your own conscience, as long as your conscience is informed and ordered towards good, but then like you say, we can’t rely on our instincts or emotions as they maybe deceiving. On the other hand, we should follow the rules of the church, who’s conscience is formed by many (bishops etc) for the people who can most likely follow their own conscience, but would be afraid to incase it’s wrong.

    • Vincent says:

      I think the Church herself is saying that we must do what we really think to be right, no matter what. It is consistent with this for someone to say “I’m not confident that I can make a good decision here – for this or that reason. So I’ll follow the Church.” That’s no different from saying that I take my doctor’s advice because he knows about medicine and I don’t. But if one has some reason of substance to doubt the Church (or one’s doctor!), then one would be obliged to look into it further.

  3. Iona says:

    It’s the “being alone” with God that is the difficult bit, – being alone with Him, and not taking all our hang-ups and settled habits of thought and disordered desires with us.

  4. Nektarios says:

    Conscience is God’s monitor on the soul, warning us when we are in moral danger.
    It will speak when one least expects it. One can chose to ignore it of course,
    but that would be going against ones conscience. Guilt ensues. Ignoring guilt, a seared conscience follows. It is the history of the vast majority of mankind.
    A formation of conscience one needs to be clear, is not a matter of formation. What we call formation, be it in Church, the family, the workplace or society at large is, let us be absolutely clear, has nothing to do with conscience as such, but has everything to do with moral, psychological, Church and State control so that we can function as a society or man ordered religious.
    One is born with conscience because God has written His law in our hearts – were that not there, God could never judge us, for we would be mere animals.
    Formation does not produce conscience, it dulls it, stunts it, offends it, and others seek to subject it.
    In otherwords, formation of conscience by another human being is called conditioning.

  5. St.Joseph says:

    Your comment regarding stealing £5 qualifies for stealing,have I understood that wrong.
    So £4 would not.I was taught that everything we steal from someone not only money -but their good name included their possessions taking ones name in vain (including Gods)-or their husband or wife etc;
    Are we confusing in all this ‘rules’ We need rules to show us how to behave even owners of dogs need to teach them rules.. even those who drive need the Highway Code

    If we were able to live by our conscience alone we would live in the deepest jungle where cannibalism takes place ‘we all need instructions’
    What over-rules our conscience sometimes is our free-will to do as ‘we’ like.
    I might be driving my car late at night and come across a red light and decide not to stop as I don’t see anything coming-however there was it had no lights or I did not see it..
    I can not say ‘Oh dear’ I did not see it ‘I am sorry’ – I broke a rule it was my own fault!
    I am to blame!!

    • Quentin says:

      You have misunderstood. Stealing is stealing. The issue was “grave matter” as the necessary basis for mortal sin. £5 was just the common judgment of what would be grave matter in this case.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Quentin thank you,surely if someone took 50p from a blind beggar man’s basket that would be worse and considered to be’ very very’ grave.
        Sorry but I was never told what you say, then I never learned the penny Catechism.
        I appreciate what you say ‘Stealing is stealing’ I never knew their were conditions.
        The scenario I mentioned about the Red light-can be used in the method of Fertility Awareness versus contraception. If one gave it some thought.

      • milliganp says:

        Obviously inflation is a recent phenomena as £5 was the answer I got a decade or two later. As you say, it’s the point at which a sin becomes grave and therefore mortal. God does not condemn us to eternal damnation lightly, but we also need to beware the slippery slope of vice. An individual sin may not be mortal but an unchecked pattern of sin dulls the conscience.
        As another example, I believe Acquinas held that drinking alcohol was not of itself sinful but that drunkeness was since in drunkeness we loose the use of reason.

  6. Iona says:

    Nektarios – a person’s conscience must be informed before he or she can be expected to make judgements in accordance with it. For example, if someone believes that a foetus in its early stages is a mass of undifferentiated tissue, they might judge that abortion of such a foetus is OK and cannot be considered the equivalent of murder. But once they become informed about the nature of early foetal development they will see the situation in a different light.

    • Nektarios says:

      If I say my conscience, the conscience would be such a petty affair. This is what it has sadly been reduced to, being conditioned by every self-appointed authority under the sun and there are thousands of so-called authorities.
      If I take your example, of `conscience needing to be informed’ about whatever, then all one has is a conditioned response which one calls conscience. But that is not conscience in my view. Conscience is much finer than that.

      • milliganp says:

        Part of the process of informing conscience is the selection and weighing of sources of judgement. For the Catholic this is a hierarchy of Gospel, other scripture, tradition and the teaching authority of the church (the CCC is not infallible teaching but is a very close approximation). To go against this teaching needs something more than mere disagreement. The modern trend of living together outside marriage and the almost universal use of artificial contraception are very unlikely to be justifiable by a call to conscience.
        To the person who says “I have a right to decide how many children I have”, one has to ask, “who gave you the right and who gave you the gift of creating life”. Against the measure of that question most so-called informed consciences cannot stand.

  7. Nektarios says:


    So what is conscience actually?

    • milliganp says:

      Conscience is still the inner voice and still supreme. The conscience of a child may not differentiate stealing a sweet from stealing a car, but we expect an adult to do so. The formation of conscience is, by our nature, performed by the admission of external influences.
      As an extremis example there would have been many involved in the German extermination programmes who would have justified there actions through the Church’s teaching on the 4th commandment to obey lawful superiors.

      • Quentin says:

        Interestingly, Cardinal Ratzinger considered the issue you raise, and almost in the same terms. It almost the best short piece on conscience that I know. Search for Holding out for a hero on this Blog; you will find my description, and a link to Ratzinger.

      • milliganp says:

        Quentin thank you for both links. The idea of the teaching of the Magesterium as an invitation rather than a command would probably lead to a wry smile in many. I was particularly touched by (now) Benedict’s reference to psalm 19, ” who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults.”

      • Portiuncula says:

        Surely using natural methods of contraception is saying that I have right to decide how many children I have.

  8. milliganp says:

    While composing a reply I decided to look up “conscientious objector” on Google. In the UK these we’re called conscies – a term of abuse. If you use Google images you will find all sorts of materials from the 2 world wars denigrating these people (and the Quakers who formed the largest pacifist religious group). An appeal to conscience is not always accepted by society, in the UK any appeal to Christian ethics is subject to scepticism if not outright ridicule.

  9. St.Joseph says:

    Thank you for the Link on conscience also the posts on ‘Holding out for a hero’,some very interesting comments were made.
    I think that we as Christians see our conscience especially Catholics to what the Church teaches..
    We are able to work it out for ourselves, when we are serious about our faith and love of Holy Mother Church. The teachings are well balanced and from the 10 Commandments.

    John Nolan made a clear comment on Beware of the Elephant in the room on March 20th 3.56.
    It is clear that we need an informed conscience to understand it all.and certainly a love for the Sacraments and Holy Mass-not only as a duty-but as our whole life.
    That is something that takes time to develop and if we are not taught or more importantly teach ourselves by reading the CCC and like everything else in life it does not come to us like a flash of revelation like the conversion of St Paul.
    I would ask why the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not used more, Pope Francis has made that point-is it because there is no need to be reconciled or we don’t know what to confess as now we believe what we believe ourselves’ and no longer need the guidance of the Church.So our conscience is clear!
    Catholics ought to be responsible as to know what is right and wrong-so we do have to question-but be open to the Holy Spirit and pray to Him, He is God too. There are plenty of prayers to the Holy Spirit to ask for guidance He will surely enlighten our minds.

  10. Nektarios says:

    I read through the former Pope Ratzinger and Cardinal Newman’s thoughts on the matter of `conscience’ – `Holding out for a Hero.’ I could agree that the transition of definition about conscience was a long time coming to some fruition.
    But that is partly what begs the question, is definition of conscience actually conscience?
    You see, Adam had it and Eve had it in the Garden of Eden. Perhaps they did not know or have any phraseology about conscience, but the effects they certainly felt and acted accordingly.

    If obeying the Commandments is central to a good conscience, the Commandments point in two directions, first towards God, and secondly, towards man. But I see the issue not as possessing a good conscience first and foremost, but God’s intention, which was for man’ happiness and well-being.

    To me, conscience is a matter of sensitivity towards God and towards man and acts accordingly.
    Conscience is a much finer capacity we have than either Ratzinger or Newman considered.
    What they consider, is man in a fallen state, and therefore needs order and imposed laws by others.
    How very convienent for them, and for the Popes who according to Ratzinger, is the `conscience
    of the Church’. but as I have just pointed out, conscience in the Garden of Eden existed, and in a weaker, more darkened state after the fall, still existed and continues to the present.
    Is is any wonder the vast majority of mankind are in a state of fear, sorrow, anxiety? Is it any wonder man has sought to salve his guilty conscience by reinventing it to suit him/herself?

    • St.Joseph says:

      Is it any wonder the vast majority of mankind are in a state of fear, sorrow, anxiety’?
      I don’t think so!!!.
      More correct to say and that is that the’ vast majority of mankind are godless, selfish, materialistic and without the Baptism of Salvation.where he can receive the Grace to obtain the Eternal happiness that God has prepared for those that Love His!
      He seeks to salve his pride by’ I will not serve- only to to suit himself!
      And definitely not the Church where God speaks to us all even if it comes through other means eventually where the Holy Spirit has spread His wings and lands where He Wills!

    • Quentin says:

      Nektarios, I realise that you have thought much about conscience. But I wonder whether you have missed an element here. It is precisely because our consciences are “in a weaker, more darkened state after the fall” that we need the rules. That is why God promulgated the Commandments, and Jesus gave his Church the authority to teach morals. Cardinal Ratzinger is exhorting us to compare this teaching with our deepest understanding of good and evil. God does not want mere “rule keepers”; he wants people to seek the good because we recognise it as the good. This is why he speaks of invitation rather than command.

      • milliganp says:

        Through Moses, God gave the people of Israel the ten commandments as well as hundreds of other rules on morals, ritual cleanliness and faith practice. Jesus radically extends all these commands to only two, pure love of God and neighbour. Indeed I am sure it was not only in relationship to divorce that Christ says “Moses gave you this law for your hardness of heart”. So a fully open and honest conscience needs no more than these two rules – such a conscience would be literally incapable of sin.
        Since I am not perfect I am grateful to have others help me in this process of discernment. The church is not my ruler, it’s a family of which I am lucky enough to be a member. Not all the members are fully house trained but it’s a place where I know I am better than on my own. The sovereignty of conscience is a reflection of the sovereignty of God and I, like all Catholics believe the church is part of Christ and therefore part of God.

      • Nektarios says:

        Quite so, you argue well, Quentin, so has all the teaching on morals produced the desired effect?
        Has all the entreaties and overtures from on high produced a keeping of the Commandments and after the spirit of them?
        If we say yes, we are speaking about a semblance of order, and essentially conditioning of the mind producing fear, but that is not conscience.
        Conscience, is not a product of conditioning. It is a product of Love. It operates inwardly towards God, and outwardly towards man in a Spirit of Love. I suppose in part this is what our Lord meant when he said, `by this, shall all men know that ye are my disciples if ye love one another’.
        As I said earlier, it is a matter of sensitivity towards God in Love and man with that same spirit.
        Who has that to answer Milliganp very honest posting below?
        The regenerated man, the spiritual man who is born from above, born again into that spiritual life, which is nothing less than the life of Christ in us, that person, has the means and power to exercise a true conscience in the Love of God.
        None of us will ever reach the state in this life where one is incapable of sinning for we all have an old nature and an enemy of our souls to contend with.

        Think about conscience in the natural man, in say the Muslim world. They are often radicalized and go and commit atrocities on their fellow human beings and Muslims too who don’t conform. But that is not the Christian life. When it does happen in this life,
        among Christians, it is a conformity to this world. It is a brutalization of conscience;
        and invented conscience, a behaviour without conscience.

  11. St.Joseph says:

    When the rich young man asked Jesus what can he do to receive eternal life .Jesus told him ‘To sell all that he owned and give the money to the poor’ and ‘Come follow me!.I think probably Jesus meant that to mean single people.But the message was also for us to belong to His Church as one Body of Christ and that we would be unable to go it alone unless we shared in the Eucharist.
    As you say millignap we share as a family member married or not! Each having our own responsibilities.
    And that is just what we do when we take part in the activities of the Church and supporting Her charities’
    The RC is not only a label on our Baptisim Certificate.

    • Ann says:

      I think what Jesus was saying to the rich young man knowing he had kept all the commandments, was to sell his possessions and give money to the poor and he would be able to enter eternal life, because he would be following jesus then. But the rich young man couldn’t understand this because he was attached to his possessions, so he went away unhappy.

  12. John de Waal says:

    If you break down the word “conscience” as “con”. “Science” it means literally (I think) “with knowledge”. One problem today is that many people, I suspect, think conscience means whatever their opinion is – no matter how ill-informed it is.

    I remember being told by a priest once that “conscience” is not permissive,ie. you may or may not do something. It is a command- you MUST do it.

    An interesting case from history is that of Henry VIII and St Thomas More. Both appealed to conscience – only Henry’s always told him to do what he wanted anyway. St Thomas More’s conscience led him to the scaffold!

    Is conscience usually inconvenient? Alas, in my experience, yes!

  13. johnbunting says:

    A problem of conscience is the temptation to play off one thing against another: to feel that one’s own personal faults are pretty insignificant compared to the horrors going on elsewhere in the world. I would feel guilty if I was spending more on non-essentials like hobbies etc. than I was giving to charities who are trying to relieve the suffering of people subjected to horrific barbarity in places like Syria, Nigeria and the Central African Republic. Then I think, “Well, come on, I’m not doing anything remotely comparable to that”; and the text about ‘Straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel’ comes to mind.

    • Nektarios says:

      Let me ask you John, in the days prior to mass communications like we have today, would we have heard what is going on in Syria, Nigeria, and Darfur or Egypt or even Russia?
      Conscience, loves ones neighbour especially those of the household of God, however
      the kind of emotional blackmail that goes on to get money out of us to support the poor and needy around the world, one becomes swamped -even within the many RC charities, not to mention so many others.
      When one looks at the actual percentage that actually gets through to those on the ground in need it is very, very small and overhead costs of charities cost a small fortune.

      The root of these problems need solving: pray, write to your MP, the Government agencies
      such as the Foreign Office and so on to put pressure on their Governments to cease from
      war, cease from corruption, feed their people and so on.
      Giving money in to war zones is fraught with difficulties.
      Perhaps adopting what I am saying here may be more benefiecial to the poor and needy around the world.
      What does your conscience say, about your neighbour next door, the same street, or estate or town….. I am sure there are enough issues there for your loving conscience
      to work with and with those in your neighbourhood you know.

    • St.Joseph says:

      The Apostle Judas who held the purse strings complained to Jesus for allowing the woman to rub oil on His feet as the money would be better off going to the poor.
      Jesus answered him by saying ‘We will always have poor in the world,but you will not always have me’!.
      I often wonder how Jesus meant us to deal with the poor when He preached often on loving our neighbour. I have never heard a sermon on that..
      I often think if He was telling us in advance to look after His Church so She would continue to keep it alive or else too it would go away.Maybe He knew He had to leave the Apostle John in His Mothers hands when dying on the Cross. The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world..

  14. Singalong says:

    “I would feel guilty if I was spending more on non essentials . . . ”

    Now that we know so much, and in such detail, about the sufferrings, deprivation and misery of so many people in our own neighbourhood, our own country, and throughout the world, we cannot close our hearts and our minds, and use whatever excess share of the world`s resources we may have, just for our own benefit, or that of our own families. Our Lord`s parable of Dives and Lazarus would be ringing in our ears, and His command to love our neighbour as ourselves.

    Nektarios has mentioned some of the complications we encounter when trying to put this apparently straightforward principle into practice, and there are many others which tax my conscience very frequently. How much is it right to spend on activities and hobbies which help to keep one reasonably healthy mentally and physically? Is it just rationalising to describe them this way, which is really saying that they are essential? And anyway, spending money on goods and services, is helping someone`s business to flourish, which is the system in our society. How do we weigh up whether to save prudently for our possible, needs in old age, or to donate now to the immediate desperate need of others? When do we decide that it is justifiable to replace a worn out carpet? If we have money in savings, what is the Bank or company using them for?

    I sometimes buy The Big Issue, although I do not like all the contents, and and talk to the little lady, Romanian, I think, who sells it here, and has been telling me recently about her poverty, her baby`s operation, and other difficulties. This time I found it contains separate advertising for the Campaign for assisted dying, so I have written to the editor about that, will I buy it again?

    It is not just money that we have to spend. Our time and energy can also be used for our own benefit and for others, and apportioning it fairly is also very important, and sometimes needs very careful consideration. I don`t think we always know all the motives for the choices we make about these things, and wonder how possible it is to have a truly clear conscience. Quentin and Milligan`s quote from Pope Benedict, March 23rd 11.05, resonates, though I would not have understood it when I was younger and everything seemed very clearcut.

    • St.Joseph says:

      I was sitting in a Cafe today in my home town after having a hypo sugar drop and was just wondering at the tables of unemployed with children babies and puschairs both males and female ranging from early twenties to seventies.Paying for food and drinks,looking at mobile phones and discussing how big their TVs were in different rooms.This seemed to be a meeting place regularly ,and not the only public restaurant or licensed premises I noticed when passing by.
      I am not bias to people enjoying themselves or having fun,but do people know how to economise today like we had to years ago,and still do nowadays..
      One only has to see the trolleys in the Supermarkets full of unnecessary items ,
      As a widow now I am careful who I donate money to-I prefer to do it through the Church.
      Maybe a couple one being our local Hospice and British Legion.

      • Singalong says:

        More complications St. Joseph! They have not been brought up in the Make Do and Mend culture, and they desperately need it, and help to keep out of the clutches of loan sharks, whose wicked activities should be stopped.

  15. johnbunting says:

    Thankyou, Nektarios and St Joseph.
    In answer to your question, N; we have certainly known plenty about events in the world’s trouble spots during my adult lifetime, since about 1960.

    Believe it or not, I do exercise a little discretion about the charities I choose to support: in one or two cases by some aquaintance with people working for them; in others, from their published accounts and newsletters. I do not think it is universally true that ‘the percentage that gets to those who need it is very, very small’; or that they are spending ‘a small fortune’ on overhead costs.
    However, I did stop supporting one well-known charity when they made large severance payments to senior executives, and supported a controversial policy of which their founder, a Catholic, would almost certainly not have approved.

    ‘What does my conscience say about my neighbour next door?’ you ask. Well, pretty much the same as it says about the ones abroad. Perhaps I should have mentioned that I do support a few charities working here, as well as occasionally giving a hand or a lift to an elderly neighbour.

    I agree that ‘giving money into war zones is fraught with difficulties’, but that is often where the need is greatest. Are you suggesting that charities should leave such places? Certanly charity begins at home, but it does not follow that it should stay there.

  16. Nektarios says:

    This is part of a much longer piece by, Elder Ambrose of Optina, one of Russia’s greatest spiritual Saints.

    I thought this might be helpful to us, as we are presently discussing `conscience’ and charity.
    He gives us a very clear perspective on it.

    The desire to toil for the good of mankind appears very admirable, but is misplaced. In words,
    everybody wants to labour for the good of close ones, ignoring or paying very little attention to the necessity of first shunning sin themselves and then worrying about others.

    The broad schemes of the modern generation about grand activities for the good of all mankind has the appearance that of someone, not having finished an educational course, wishing that he could be a professor and instructor in a university. However on the other hand, to think that if we cannot move humanity forward then we shouldn’t labour at all, is the other extreme. Every Christian is obliged to toil according to his capacity and position for the good of others, so that everything timely and orderly, and that the fruit of our labours are presented to God and His holy will.

    In conclusion, I would say this: advise your son not to confuse outer human endeavours with the spiritual- moral. In outer devices and partly in the sciences, let him find progress. But in a Christian-moral respect, I repeat, universal progress in mankind is non-existent and cannot be. Everybody will be judged according to their deeds.

  17. johnbunting says:

    Thanks, Nektarios; you quote a valuable distinction there, between ‘grand activities for the good of all mankind’, and ‘ the obligation on every Christian to toil, according to his capacity, for the good of others’.
    There’s a typically incisive saying of William Blake that makes much the same point:
    “He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars: General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite and flatterer”.

    • Nektarios says:

      Quite so, John,
      But before we move on from Elder Ambrose, let us to heart not to mix up` outer human endeavours with the spiritual -moral.’
      It is clear from the discussion, we do confuse often the issues such as charity making them matters of conscience, the spiritual and the moral.
      There is much more that can be said about conscience of course, but we would need to go deeper on the one hand and higher on the other. For example, th power of conscience,
      the beauty of conscience, the energy of conscience and so on…. for another time perhaps.

      • St.Joseph says:

        I see a problem here with all this discussion on conscience.That is how do we explain to a young girl of 14 she must have a conscience and not have an abortion also in lots of situations when the only thing that mattets is getting out of a situation that needs a responsible action to be taken especially when they have no knowledge of the Creator or even believes or heard of the Commandments?
        They won’t be reading SS blog.

      • Quentin says:

        You know, St Joseph, I wouldn’t try to persuade her. Doesn’t do much good in my experience!

        I would affirm my great sympathy for her position – without any blame (she’ll do that for herself). Then I would ask her to sit down with me and talk the whole issue through. I would assure her of my support whatever she chooses.

        In our discussion I would be careful not to ask “persuasive” questions, but I would try to help her to make the best decision which she can. I would listen carefully to her, and show her that I understand her feelings, whether or not I share them. It may not be my decision, but it will be hers.

        I would of course make it gently clear to her that I could not help her with arranging an abortion because, just as I respect her decision, she will respect mine.

  18. Ignatius says:


    I buy the Big issue too. I buy it as a gesture of solidarity with the sellers and do not concern myself unduly with the contents of the magazine which seems to have lost its way rather. I like your other comments:

    ” How much is it right to spend on activities and hobbies which help to keep one reasonably healthy mentally and physically? Is it just rationalising to describe them this way, which is really saying that they are essential? And anyway, spending money on goods and services, is helping someone`s business to flourish, which is the system in our society. How do we weigh up whether to save prudently for our possible, needs in old age, or to donate now to the immediate desperate need of others? When do we decide that it is justifiable to replace a worn out carpet? If we have money in savings, what is the Bank or company using them for?”

    Generally speaking ‘we’ are afflicted by our selfish cares and concerns and need to give more. I think that accepting ones selfishness for what it is goes some way towards the dilemmas you mention. If we affect our tendencies to self serve for what they are then these tendencies become considerations in our decisions rather than ruling them. I think this is the huge benefit of the examen of conscience, not that we cower before our manifest sinfulness but that we begin to observe ourselves more clearly which leads to a more proper balance. The other pitfall is a heart which condemns us -Paul speaks of this somewhere in his letters to the churches We should not allow our hearts to condemn us and drag us into guilt ridden over compensation. In the end I think one just has to pray about stuff and then do ones best. In my work I see plenty of sad unhappy people desperate for mental peace which they look for in physical prowess…a mistake in my view.

  19. St.Joseph says:

    Thank you for that.
    It is something I did many a time when looking after young girls who had no support from their parents or social workers.
    It is such a difficult situation to be in,then when the case of adoption came about when the babies were born they stayed for 4 weeks. I was in a difficult situation when people thought the mothers ought not to be housed- people thought that they were sponging on the State. although I did not have any financial gain. Quite the opposite at times,however I have no regrets thank God.And my children supported me even if they were inconvenienced at times.It did not do them any harm.

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