The Challenge of Conscience in a Rather Unjust World

This month’s blog article comes from fellow Passionist, Dr. Brian Gleeson CP.

“What is conscience?” a teacher asked her class of small children: Quick as a flash, one boy piped up: “It’s what makes you tell your mother before your sister does.” St Paul the Apostle once made a startling comment about his personal struggle to follow his conscience and do the right thing: “I do not understand my own behaviour,” he wrote. “I do not act as I mean to, but I do the things that I hate” (Rom 7:15-16) Talk about true confessions! But perhaps he’s not the only one to admit that he did not always do what his conscience told him but sometimes went against its guidance. I wonder, in fact, if there’s anyone other than Jesus, who has always followed their conscience perfectly and done the most loving thing in every life-situation.

At least Paul was not trying to cover up, find excuses, or blame anyone else for his failures. Unlike the man and woman in the famous story from the Book of Genesis, chapter 3! We know them as “Adam” and “Eve”. But in this poetic and symbolic story about human nature in general, rather than a factual account of the behaviour of the first man and woman in history, they represent you and me. “Adam”, then, is Everyman, and “Eve” is Everywoman. As the Dutch Catechism puts it: “The sin of Adam and Eve is closer than we imagine. It is in our own selves.”

Let us focus on that part of the story that deals with the fall-out from their disobedience to God and God’s commands (3:7-13). They had eaten the forbidden fruit, despite God’s lavish gift to them of the whole Garden of Eden and its trees. They have refused to accept their right relationship with God as creatures of God. They have forgotten their dependence on God for their very existence. In wanting to be just like God and deciding for themselves what is right and what is wrong, they’ve simply become, as the saying goes, “too big for their boots”.

The effects of their sin are immediate. The details of the story provide a wonderful psychology of sin. Sin causes feelings of fear and shame and guilt. No longer content to be creatures and accept their human limitations, they lose their innocent, trusting relationship with God. They are now afraid to face God. Despite God being said to stroll among them in the gentleness of a cool breeze after a long hot day, the man and the woman skulk away from their Creator and hide themselves in the trees (v.8). They are ashamed, ashamed that their wrong-doing has been exposed. This is suggested by the detail that they have become ashamed of their God-given bodies, ashamed in the presence of each other, and ashamed before God, and so they try to cover up (v.7). The man attempts to blame God for the mess they are in, saying it was God who gave him the woman as his partner (v.12). His complaint also illustrates how sin tends to separate people from one another, and how it can even destroy interpersonal relationships. The woman, for her part, protests that the serpent tricked her into eating the forbidden fruit (v.13).

What is at work here is a psychology of self-justification and a refusal to take the blame for doing anything wrong. We seem to be living in an age of blunt consciences. Some drivers run over pedestrians, but instead of stopping to assist the injured, they drive on. Family peace is shattered in homes by repeated offences of abuse, disrespect and violence. The Women’s “Me too” Movement has been disclosing hundreds of instances of sexual assault and even of rape. Fraud, deceit and distrust abound. Our “Big Four” Banks and other finance agencies have been “ripping off” customers and diddling them out of their life-savings, leaving them stranded and homeless. Slavery and slave-trafficking continue here and there. We hear again and again of wage theft, of employers paying their employees far less than the award wage, and in some instances, paying nothing at all. Then there’s the desperate situation of many people in Syria, being driven from their homes and livelihoods by the scourge of constant war. Too many people in too many places feel unnoticed, unwanted and rejected. And too many rich people are getting ever richer at the expense of the poor.

That’s just a small snapshot of the sins of society today. Just as concerning are the reactions of the offenders, who exchange such lines as these: “If it feels good, do it!” “Take no responsibility!” “Shrug your shoulders and walk away!” “Blame the boss! Blame your mum! Blame your childhood!” “Admit nothing!” “It’s their word against yours! Deny it!” “Plead not guilty!” “Laugh it off! Just say ‘The devil made me do it’, or something, anything, other than that you goofed, that you did it!”

What then, is the answer to all such moral dilemmas and challenges? St Paul puts the question this way. “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me [from myself], from this body doomed to death?’ His answer to his own question is this: “God [will] – thanks be to him – through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 7:24-25) Paul is saying in other words: “Salvation, or redemption, must come from God because it must come from a greater source of being and of healing power” (Monica Hellwig) than ourselves and our own resources.

This is the healing power that we experience in an ongoing personal, family and community relationship with Jesus Christ our Saviour. His role and activity as our Liberator/Saviour could hardly be better expressed than in these words from the Letter to the Colossians, words to us of comfort and hope whenever we are struggling to obey our consciences and do the right thing: “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (1:13-14). (bgleesoncp@gmail.com)

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About Passionist JPIC Australia

I am a priest with the Passionist Congregation and a part of our Australian Province which includes Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam. I have been ordained since December of 1992. I was born in the Philippines, though am from Spanish decent. I came to Australia in 1972 with my family when I was 11 years old, and we settled in Brisbane. That is where I did the rest of my growing up. On completing high school, I went to Queensland University where I studied for 4 years, completing a B.Sc. with a major in Microbiology. The following year I decided to enter into the Passionist Congregation to study for the priesthood. I trained for 9 years, and have been a priest for 25 years. In my time as a priest I have been Director of the Passionist Family Group Movement in Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland; conducted over 400 Parish Missions all around Australia and New Zealand, but particularly in Victoria and Western Australia; worked in adult faith education, Sacramental preparation for children and parents; Hospital chaplaincy; High school chaplaincy, in-services and retreats. In the year 200 I became engaged in developing young adult retreat teams and training them to carry on our high school retreat programs. I am also chair of our Province’s committee for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC). I am also a member of ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans).
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