Saturday, October 22, 2016

Conscience, Persecution, and Sins of Omission

It is common sense that nobody wants to suffer if they can avoid it. It’s also true that the Church does not demand we seek out persecution. But, if conscience does put us at odds with a government, we have to accept suffering or even death rather than do what is morally wrong. This has always been our obligation. We cannot appeal to what a feared government might do in our time if we don’t compromise on what we believe to avoid that evil. That means we can’t try to appease this immoral government might do if elected, and it means we can’t violate our conscience to block the immoral government from taking power.

That doesn’t mean we have to be passive sheep, taking no action against evil. It does mean we can’t do evil so good may come of it. That’s hard because sinful nature leads us to justify wrongdoing by excusing the evil done by saying either it’s not evil or it’s not important. So, some Catholics try justifying a vote for a pro-abortion candidate by downplaying the evil of abortion compared to issues they just happen to agree with. Other Catholics try to downplay the evils the other candidate does or supports by arguing it’s not important compared to the evils they’re trying to stop.

Catholics have used both tactics, fearing what the more loathed candidate will do. That doesn’t mean they’re acting out of bad will. Some Catholics might be sincere and are unaware they have reasoned badly, putting them in opposition to the Church without realizing it. That’s a reminder we should always be evaluating our views in comparison to what the Church teaches. One thing I’ve learned over decades of studying Catholic teaching is just because we don’t know the answer to something doesn’t mean there is no answer.

Don t panic

I believe we must start by not panicking. 2017 will not be the first year the Catholic Church was ever persecuted. Nor is it likely to be the worst persecution ever experienced. To be honest, I suspect Christians living in ISIS held territory wish they had our problems instead of theirs. I don’t want to commit the fallacy of relative privation here. It’s false to say because we’re not suffering as badly as another group of people, it means we’re not suffering. No, what I mean is we need to realize that the world has persecuted the Church in different ways and to different degrees throughout history. So it may wind up being our turn to take a stand even if it means ostracism, lawsuits, fines, or imprisonment.

What makes this frightening is that we have been unjustly harassed by the government, but we haven’t physically suffered for our beliefs. Now we might, and we want to avoid this at all costs. That can be dangerous. During Diocletian’s persecution in the early fourth century, Christians who had been undergoing a period of relative respite and safety were suddenly targeted all across the Roman Empire. Caught by surprise, many yielded to the state rather than suffer. That’s the danger of being so afraid of suffering that we betray Our Lord.

Like I said above, It’s natural that Catholics are trying to make the best of a bad situation and limit the evil suffered. But, again, we can’t do evil so good may come of it (see CCC #1756, 1789). That means we can’t violate our conscience (which we have an obligation to form by the teaching of the Church) and we can’t call evil “not important” to justify embracing a bad means to seek protection. That means we need to be aware of what the Church teaches and why it’s important so we don’t treat evil as unimportant. We need to seriously consider the proposed solution to see if it requires us to violate our conscience by choosing to do evil or to tolerate an evil which outweighs the good sought.

What people are getting wrong is this: It’s not a case of saying, “I will tolerate the lesser evil from candidate X to stop abortion or World War III.” It’s about saying, “I will be silent about these evils so candidate X will win and stop abortion or World War III.” It’s choosing to commit a sin of omission so good might come from it—and the Church condemns doing evil so good may come of it. Even if someone thinks Candidate X is more likely to limit evil, we can’t be silent about his or her own evils. So, even if we want to vote for Candidate X, we have to make clear we will oppose that evil if he or she is elected and insist that the candidate repent of that position—and that is what American Catholics are not doing. Instead, Catholics who support one of the major parties are telling others to be silent on these evils lest they get the wrong person elected.

God tells us to be holy and keep His commandments. The Penitential Rite at Mass requires us to say,

I confess to almighty God

and to you, my brothers and sisters,

that I have greatly sinned,

in my thoughts and in my words,

in what I have done and in what I have failed to do

There’s no secret that we sin if we do wrong, if we fail to do right, and if we fail to speak against sin. If we are sorry for our sins, we must make a firm purpose of amendment, to go and sin no more. Yes, we may fall into the same sins again. But that is different from having the intention to continue in the same sin, refusing to change.

Where does that leave us? It forces each one of us to consider what the Church teaches and where a preferred candidate stands. If the candidate promotes evil, we cannot be silent about it, and we certainly can’t accept a candidate who openly says they will do intrinsic evil (which includes abortion). So, if we must vote for a candidate whose evil seems less than the other candidate, we cannot be silent about the other candidate’s evil out of fear this candidate will lose if we speak out. Is it possible this will lead to persecution? It is. But in this case, it would be a persecution we would have to accept because to be silent when we must speak is to do evil, and to do evil so good might come of it is forbidden to us.

So, let us do what our properly formed conscience tells us to do and recognize that we must do what is right before God—even if persecution comes as a result.

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