With all the hullabaloo occurring in Washington, DC, these past two weeks, I worry that an important issue is going to be lost by the media, or, at least, be put on the back burner. I’m referring to the annual March for Life, a live demonstration, now in its 48th year, that’s intended to stir up the minds and consciences of Americans about the ugly slaughter of the millions of unborn children in our country. The pandemic will certainly limit the number of attendees this year, and the overshadowing by the other hot political issues will diminish the numbers who will come to our nation’s capital to voice their dissent about the taking of innocent human life, even though the Catholic Church hasn’t ceased its defense of all life. Too many Catholics have justified their rejection of Catholic teaching on the life issues, human sexuality, marriage and family life as a matter of “following their conscience,” but apparently without any proper understanding of just what “conscience” means. Based on its Latin etymology, the word “conscience” means to share knowledge with someone else about what is right or wrong. Conscience does not act in isolation on some sort of personal or individual intuition disconnected from someone or something else. For a Catholic, a properly formed conscience means to share God’s knowledge and the Church’s teaching about right or wrong. So those who carelessly invoke “I follow my conscience” to justify their rejection of divine law as taught by the Catholic Church are saying that they have chosen to follow the thinking, knowledge and values of someone or something other than the Pope or the Catholic Church.
An illustration of the proper use of conscience was when Saint Thomas More invoked his conscience in refusing to sign Henry VIII’s Oath of Supremacy, declaring the King to be the Head of the Church in England. Thomas was not just following a personal preference, but was declaring that he was thinking with the Pope and would follow him, not the King. Thomas and several others gave their lives in defense of their Faith, using a well-formed conscience. Numerous others chose instead to think with the King, and follow him.
Related to the question of conscience is the relationship between the law and the heart. One may know and understand the law, have no qualms of conscience about following the law and thus may even have the will to comply with the law, but still may not like the law on an emotional level, such as the legal requirement to pay taxes. That’s why, Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God” (Mk 12:17), Most of the time, we should comply with civil laws even if we do not like them, unless there is a moral objection. Our first Pope, St. Peter, instructed Christians how to relate to civil authorities: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God, that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Peter 2:13-14).
Even when we obey the law, that does not mean that we have given the affection of our heart to any particular civil law. While the law may try to coerce the body through imprisonment or financial penalty, the only law that can compel the heart is Christ’s command to “love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” This law is written on our heart (Jeremiah 31:33).
Real love expresses itself not just in words and affections, but in our actions. That’s why St. Paul objected to Christians suing fellow Christians in civil court and letting unbelievers decide the case. He saw the very fact that Christians have legal disputes among themselves as a complete failure to love one another as Christ loves us (1 Cor 6:1-7).
The late Cardinal Bernardin was asked by an interviewer how Catholics could defend themselves from being called “single-issue voters.” He said, “Depends on how you approach it. In one sense, I think there is a single issue, and that issue is life.” Also, “I know that some people on the left, if I may use that label, have used the consistent ethic to give the impression that the abortion issue is not all that important anymore, that you should just be against abortion in a general way but ‘there are more important issues, so don’t hold anybody’s feet to the fire just on abortion’. That’s a misuse of the consistent ethic, and I deplore it.”
Similarly, there are those who misuse the teachings of Pope Francis to support their own agendas. It is a mistake to try to distill the Church’s teachings into political categories of “liberal” or “conservative.” The doctrinal teachings of the Church are catholic because they provide universal principles that apply to all aspects of life across the spectrum of human activity. And so, the pope has been outspoken both in his concern for the poor and in his defense of the right to life of the unborn from the moment of conception, placing this concern under the umbrella of his critique of what he calls a “throwaway culture.”
In an address to the Parliament of the European Union in Strasbourg, France, in 2014, he said, “There are still too many situations in which human beings are treated as objects whose conception, configuration and utility can be programmed, and who can then be discarded when no longer useful, due to weakness, illness or old age. . . . To tend to those in need takes strength and tenderness, effort and generosity in the midst of a functionalistic and privatized mindset which inexorably leads to a ‘throwaway culture’.”
Pope Francis has often reminded people that the biggest obstacle to putting our love of God and neighbor into action is the devil. In his Palm Sunday homily in 2013, he said, “Ours is not a joy born of having many possessions, but from having encountered a Person: Jesus, in our midst. It is born from knowing that with Him we are never alone, even at difficult moments, even when our life’s journey comes up against problems and obstacles that seem insurmountable, and there are so many of them! And in this moment the enemy, the devil, comes, often disguised as an angel, and slyly speaks his word to us. Do not listen to him! Let us follow Jesus! We accompany, we follow Jesus, but above all we know that He accompanies us and carries us on his shoulders. This is our joy; this is the hope that we must bring to this world. Please do not let yourselves be robbed of hope! Do not let hope be stolen!”