Very hastily written thoughts on human conscience
‘Teach me to do what pleases you, for you are my God’ – Psalm 143.10
Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) has rightly received much attention in both the Christian and secular press: it represents both a restatement of the extravagant and beautiful Christian doctrine of marriage and family life but also a significant shift in the pastoral focus of the Catholic Church. The Pope, fittingly in this Year of Mercy, encourages the pastors of the Church to meet people where they are and walk with those whose situation falls short of the demands of Christian marriage – especially the divorced and remarried. As one would expect, it retains an absolute condemnation of homosexuality (although, as I am arguing in an essay at the moment, there is a not insubstantial change in this teaching) but, this aside, I wanted to briefly discuss a central focus of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation and one I think is worth holding in mind in the midst of current Anglican disputes over the recognition of same-sex marriage: the role of conscience.
The Pope’s exhortation repeatedly asserts the sovereignty of human conscience as ‘man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary,’ the place where the voice of God ‘echoes in his depths’ and the heart communes with God and seeks His will in our lives (quoted by Pope Francis from Gaudiem et Spes, §16). In the Christian conscience, God directs our hearts to what is right and helps us to make the demands of the Gospel our own as we journey as Christ’s disciples. Of course, we often act against our consciences, but God’s still, small voice always draws us back to the Way of Christ. It is for this reason, claims Amoris Laetitia, that the Church is ‘called to form consciences, not replace them’ [§37].
How does God’s voice make itself known in our conscience? In a myriad of beautiful, profound and often surprising ways! God deals with us as individuals and speaks to us as beloved children, there is no ‘one size fits all’ with the God who notices even a sparrow falling to the ground. In some people, God’s activity manifests as a sharp pang of conscience, reminding them that what they are doing is wrong. In others, it is an irresistible invitation to a new and fuller life. In other it is a comforting feeling of consolation which follows making a good decision. Sometimes it is a vivid feeling of closeness to the divine that comes to us in the midst of prayer. We cannot sum up the countless, varied and manifold ways in which God reaches into the lives of his people and stirs our hearts. Emotions, desires, insights, memories, feelings – all of these are ways God works through our hearts.
This may seem wishy-washy and critics of faith may dismiss all of this as pious-claptrap. But it is nothing of the sort. Thomas Aquinas famously said that ‘all that is against conscience is sin’ (Summa II.i.19.5) and even the teachings of spiritual hierarchs are to be ignored if they contradict our conscience. Of course, as Francis also affirms, we are not referring to our merely human understanding of right and wrong but to a formed conscience, which knows the Gospel and is shaped by a loving relationship with Jesus Christ in the sacraments of the Church, private prayer and the reading of Scripture. But, for those engaged in this lifelong process, the voice of our conscience is a powerful, God-given thing, calling us onwards in our discipleship and shaping us into Christ likeness.
‘What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.’ (1 John 3.2)
We ought to remember this when we discuss the difficult moral questions of our time, whether it be abortion, same-sex marriage or all those whose lives fall short of the ideal taught by the Church. In his always revolutionary tone, Francis reminds us: ‘A pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.’ 
All of this stems from the striking fact of Christian spirituality – that God works in all our lives, to bring us fullness of life and direct us. In the beloved words the Lord spoke to Jeremiah: ‘for surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.’ To every single person, Pope or prisoner, gay, lesbian or straight, faithful or faithless, God can speak these words and, as he forms our conscience in the ways of Christ, he continues to help, guide and comfort each one of us. Which is, I would argue, something the Church ought to remember as it ‘lays down the law’ on same-sex marriage.
What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer.
Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Read Amoris Laetitia in full here.