It was not just a once-in-a-lifetime experience when Thomas More showed up on the scaffold in London on July 6, 1535 and said he would die "the king's good servant, but God's first."
More had been preparing for the act of conscience which led to his martyrdom for all of his 58 years.
He had had good parents who were quite ambitious for their bright youngster, a good mentor, and a good education. More had spent four years living as a monk with the Carthusians, a community of hermits. He decided that was not his calling, left the order, married and had four children. Yet for the rest of his life he remained faithful to some of the ascetical practices he had learned while with the Carthusians.
He was a lawyer, an intellectual and eventually the lord chancellor under King Henry VIII. The leading Catholic intellectual in England, he wrote treatises refuting the errors of Protestantism.
But when Henry wished to divorce Catherine of Aragon and began to sever relations between the Church of England and the papacy, More began to express his reservations. It was by holding firm to a higher law than the law of the land that More began his journey to the gallows.
Few of us will have to make decisions as courageous as that of Thomas More. But all have a responsibility to form their conscience, not in the light of what their friends think or what is considered up-to-date thinking, but in the light of God's law.
We are not born with our consciences already formed. To some, conscience does not need to be formed in the light of God's law -- each person's conscience makes the law. As I discussed in last week's article, this is a distorted view of conscience.
If we are to grow to moral maturity, we need to break out of the prison of our selves and let ourselves be changed and molded by the way of life God has set out for us.
The surest way on this path is by following the teaching of the church. Now, some Catholics resent the church's teaching and want the church to change that teaching. They see the church's teachings as legalistic and arbitrary social conventions.
But the morally mature person sees the moral law as an expression of what is good for the human person. He or she does not ask, "What is the minimum I have to do to get by?" Rather, she seeks to uncover the implications of faith for her entire life.
Our moral development begins early in life. Moral theologian Germain Grisez describes the first level in the development of conscience as the rise of the "superego" in young children. "The demands of parents and others on whom the child depends become internalized as an authority over (super) the conscious self (ego)" (Christian Moral Principles, p. 73). The superego can be a rigid and non-rational introduction to right and wrong and not always in accord with the moral law.
As children get older, they begin to interact in groups and the social conventions of the group begin to exercise a moral force over them.
Many people get stuck at this level. They tend to reduce all morality to the level of customs and peer pressure which may be somewhat arbitrary. At this level, one is liable to be suspicious of those who claim there is moral truth. One is likely to believe that such truth claims are a form of oppression, a way that the group tries to control its members. With such an outlook, one feels justified in asking the group to change its laws.
The church, however, is not just a group with its own conventions. The church is the body of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Liberty said that "in forming their consciences the faithful must pay careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth" (no. 14).
Through the church, one can know the truth. But to believe that the church teaches truth requires an act of faith.
However, there is no moral maturity or well-formed conscience without a belief in moral truth. The teaching of Christ and his church is not an imposition from the outside, it is a gift which, if accepted, enables us to become more fully human.
There are many ways we can form our own consciences -- reading Scripture, praying, and practising the virtues are some of them. The most important thing is to form a strong desire to live a good life and daily try to implement that desire.
There are things we can do to help our children form their consciences too. We can set moral boundaries which they are not allowed to cross. We can set a good example, we can discuss the meaning of their actions with them and we can pray for them. As they get older, we can show them that some rules are made by men and women, and others are the result of a natural law. We can also give our children some room to breathe where they can learn to be themselves.
But maybe the most important thing is to realize that we cannot make our children good. They are free persons who will determine their own moral destinies.
Formation of conscience is a life-long job. There are few tasks that are more important. We may never be called to make the ultimate sacrifice as was Thomas More. But a well-formed understanding of moral truth will enable us to make the less dramatic sacrifices which are a vital part of every person's life.
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