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Asking the clergy: What if your conscience conflicts with your religious teachings?

Francis Maniscalco

Francis Maniscalco Credit:

Faced with a difficult moral or ethical choice, should you decide what to do by looking inward? Or should you turn to Scripture or a religious adviser and adhere only to the teachings of your faith? This week’s clergy discuss the balance.

Msgr. Francis Maniscalco

Pastor, St. Thomas the Apostle R.C. Church, West Hempstead

Many people take conscience to be a purely personal reality that enables them to decide on their own what is right and wrong. The traditional Catholic view is not so individualistic. Conscience is considered an inborn capacity to distinguish between right and wrong based on a law that God writes on our hearts and minds.

Because of its God-given dignity, one must follow one’s conscience and never be forced to act contrary to it. At the same time, we are obliged to form our consciences properly. They, like our minds and bodies, can become weak through not being nourished or exercised properly or being exposed to harmful influences.

Our consciences are formed not in isolation but with the aid of our religious faith and the example of the good people in our lives. Because religious faith is an essential component in forming consciences, both should be in harmony. If, however, after careful and honest consideration, we come to a conclusion different from the dictates of our religious faith, we are still obliged to follow our consciences.

When a 19th century British statesman claimed that Catholics had no freedom of conscience because they were subject to the Pope, Catholic philosopher and theologian Cardinal John Henry Newman responded with the traditional Catholic view that conscience must be followed even if it contradicted the commands of a Pope. For emphasis, he added that if he were to offer an after-dinner toast, it would be “to the Pope, if you please, — still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”

Rabbi Eli Goodman

Chabad of the Beaches, Long Beach

Conscience is defined as an inner feeling or voice viewed as acting as a guide to the rightness or wrongness of one’s behavior. The problem is, it’s not so simple to find out what is right and what is wrong. What is unequivocally right in one person’s mind can be considered categorically wrong and immoral by another. The great philosopher Immanuel Kant once observed that after debunking any rational proof for God, he still believed in God. He said, “Two things awe me most, the starry sky above me and the moral law within me.”

The “moral law within me” aptly refers to one’s conscience. As we can see, one’s conscience is a very powerful force that is not subject to any logical explanation. It has the ability to cause one to act against one’s very nature. We are all born with an inherent desire to do what is right over wrong; however, one’s conscience is subjective and can change from one day to the next. When you are a child, it’s your parents who guide you with what’s right and wrong, and when you get older it’s your education or environment that can greatly influence right from wrong. What is right or wrong often changes as you grow and experience life. The only objective source of what is right and wrong, comes from God, the Bible/Torah. That must be the overriding decision maker because your conscience is subject to the winds of change from one day to the other, while something that comes from God can be assured to be the absolute truth. Absolute morality can only be a product of the unchanging realization that there is an absolute divine “eye that sees, ear that hears, and all your actions are chronicled in a ledger.” (Avot, Chapter 2 Teaching 1)

Ines Frank

Teacher of meditation, Global Harmony House, Great Neck

The conscience is my inner navigator that reminds and guides me in what is true or right for me to believe in and in terms of actions I perform. That inner voice keeps me on a path of love and compassion. If I keep acting against my conscience, inner conflict will arise and that creates feelings of guilt and remorse; blame will arise to hold someone else responsible for my situation or how I feel, which leads to anger and, eventually, feelings of hatred. I am separated from my true self, and I am separated from others.

Loving feelings for myself and others have vanished. As far as I am aware of, the original meaning of all religious truths and teachings is to help guide people toward a peaceful and harmonious life. For me, if any religious teaching doesn’t support this, then my conscience would speak against it. Why would I want to follow a direction where my own actions will bring sorrow, pain and suffering in my life? But here courage is needed to actually stand up for myself; not to oppose or rebel, but because I value my intrinsic nature of peace, and I respect who I am. And again, if I don’t listen to my inner guide I will sabotage my inner peace, experience pain and hurt and share that with the world around me.

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