Friday, April 10, 2015

Conscience, Obligation and Decisions


I came across an article, A Note from Creator Cakes | Andrew Walker | First Things from Facebook, which seems to have received popular support from Catholics whose views I ordinarily think are good. However, I personally find the article troubling because of what it seems to imply. Now maybe the article expressed a point badly and did not mean to advocate going against conscience. But I see some comments which seem to indicate that people are interpreting it this way, and so I feel like I need to speak out on what troubles me.

The Premise of the Article

The basic premise of the article is a fictional letter from what I assume is a fictional bakery. The fictional letter expresses the concern of the owners who are trying to run their business in accord with their religious beliefs. In response to the fact that business owners lose whenever they refuse to cooperate with a “same sex wedding,” they intend to set forth the following policy:

We've decided that if asked, we will provide a cake at a same-sex wedding ceremony. But we will take every dollar from that sale and donate it to an organization fighting to protect and advance religious liberty—organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom, Manhattan Declaration, or the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

No organization, company or person should be compelled to participate in events or speech that conflict with their convictions. This is a basic freedom we thought was afforded under our constitution. But our culture is beginning to turn its back on its rich legacy of protecting dissenting viewpoints. If Caesar insists that bakers must be made to bake cakes or else close up shop, we’re going to see to it that Caesar’s edicts get undermined by channeling resources designed to fight Caesar.

So, we will serve same-sex wedding services. We will do so unhappily and with a bothered conscience. But if we must do so with a bothered conscience, we reserve the right as a condition of the marketplace to bother others' consciences as well. If we are coerced into baking for events we disagree with, we will return the favor and use the funds of those we disagree with to fund the organizations they disagree with.

I have seen certain Catholics cheer this article, saying the article should be a template for Christian businesses. But when I read this, I find myself thinking, “Wait! Do you realize what are you saying?"

Conscience and Not Doing Evil

Let’s lay down some basics first, and look at the Church teaching on conscience

What troubles me about this article is this: The Catholic Church teaches that we may never do evil so good comes of it. The Catechism says:

1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it. [Emphasis added

The writer of the article creates the situation of a baker forced to act against a troubled conscience but intends to mitigate it by donating the proceeds from such sales to groups which defend marriage. That is pretty much the essence of "doing evil so that good may come of it.” The question that first needs to be asked is: Does the baker believe that participating in a “same sex wedding” is wrong? If so, then to do what one believes to be wrong cannot be justified, regardless of the circumstances and intention. Again, the Catechism:

1753 A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means. Thus the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means of saving the nation. On the other hand, an added bad intention (such as vainglory) makes an act evil that, in and of itself, can be good (such as almsgiving). (2479; 596)

1754 The circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act. They contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent’s responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil. (1735)

I find that the Youcat[*] has some good insights into conscience as well:

295 What is conscience?

Conscience is the inner voice in a man that moves him to do good under any circumstances and to avoid evil by all means. At the same time it is the ability to distinguish the one from the other. In the conscience God speaks to man. [1776–1779]

Conscience is compared with an inner voice in which God manifests himself in a man. God is the one who becomes apparent in the conscience. When we say, “I cannot reconcile that with my conscience”, this means for a Christian, “I cannot do that in the sight of my Creator!” Many people have gone to jail or been executed because they were true to their conscience.  120, 290–292, 312, 333

"Anything that is done against conscience is a sin."



"To do violence to people’s conscience means to harm them seriously, to deal an extremely painful blow to their dignity. In a certain sense it is worse than killing them."


(1881–1963, the Pope who convoked the Second Vatican Council)

I believe the witness of the Church tells us that the conscience is to be obeyed when it tells us “I must do this!” or “I must not do this.” The conscience must be formed within the Church so it may be accurate (avoiding both scrupulosity and laxity), but deliberately choosing to go against the conscience can never be justified.

The Example of the Martyrs

As Catholics we have a history of facing rulers who have said we must obey them or face the consequences. We have a collection of saints who gave witness by dying or by suffering in other ways rather than obey government edicts which go against what they believed to be morally wrong. Whether it was the Romans who demanded that the saints burn incense to the emperors or whether it was the Persians who demanded the saints worship the sun, these saints looked to their love of God and their conscience and decided they had to obey God over man when what man demanded exceeded his rightful authority (see Acts 5:29). This was even at the consequence of suffering torture and often execution. 

Now, in America, I don’t expect torture and execution to happen unless America falls much further into moral collapse. Because we pride ourselves as a nation of law, I expect the persecution to come through the law and through unjust judicial rulings that provide a fig leaf for unjust applications of the law. So instead of executions in the arena, we can look to lawsuits, fines, injunctions and prosecutions.

With this in mind, I ask people to think about what the First Things (fictional) proposal is saying. In saying, "So, we will serve same-sex wedding services. We will do so unhappily and with a bothered conscience. But if we must do so with a bothered conscience, we reserve the right as a condition of the marketplace to bother others' consciences as well,” what we are seeing is not a praiseworthy thing, but a capitulation with the intent to use the results of the capitulation to defend Christians from needing to capitulate in the future.

It’s as if the martyrs took up the promised reward for denying their faith and applied that reward to protecting Christians in the future from denying their faith. Our Lord’s question echoes through the ages:

23 Then he said to all, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?" (Luke 9:23-25)

The Ultimate Goal

We need to remember the ultimate goal of our life is to know, love and serve God. We do this by keeping His commandments (Matthew 22:37-40). We must also keep in mind that the ultimate goal is not reached in this life, but the next life. Thus we endure suffering in this life for His sake, rather than lose the next life by putting ourselves over His commands. Some may pay a harder price than others. In such cases, those who have suffered less should help those who suffered more.

However, when we have to choose between The Lord and ourselves, we cannot choose ourselves—even if we seek to do good with the gain we receive from choosing ourselves over God. Every one of us will have to make this decision in some way. Let us pray that we be given the strength to do what is right and not what is easier.


[*] I understand some Catholics look at the Youcat derisively. However, given the CDF has given it’s approval and Benedict XVI has also shown his approval (saying in the introduction, “So I invite you: Study this Catechism! That is my heartfelt desire.”), I find that the trust I have for those who approve far outweighs the trust I have of those who disapprove. Please keep this in mind. God Bless.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015


In the modern culture wars, I see two positions that I think show a failure to understand the issue. The first are the opponents of Catholic teaching who claim that the Church is on “the wrong side of history” and will either need to change or go extinct. The second is the Catholics who seem to fear that the first group is correct and, not wanting this to happen, shout for the Pope and the Bishops to do something “before we lose the culture war.” The problem with both positions is that they lose track of the timeframes. They see what is happening right now and assume that it will continue. But when we look at history, we find that threats against the Church are not handled in months and years, but often over centuries.

The first group has it wrong because the popularity of an issue has no bearing on the rightness of a position or the longevity of the position. The wrong side of history claim is basically an appeal to popularity fallacy. It ignores the fact that things like Fascism were once considered the wave of the future and those who refused to embrace it would ultimately be swept aside into irrelevance. I don’t invoke fascism for mere rhetorical effect. During the Great Depression, many saw it as the way to solve the economic crisis and predicted that democracy was an outmoded form of government doomed to die out. The mindset focuses on the immediate popularity and influence of a movement and assumes that these will continue indefinitely. It overlooks the fact that as people learn the downside of things, they can begin to dislike the cause. Once that happens, it can only be maintained by the use of force (People grew disillusioned by fascism, but by then it was in place and could maintain itself through violence). 

The second group has it wrong because they assume that the immediate success of those attacking the Church is a sign of how the whole of society thinks. Their response is one of panic. They want the Pope and bishops to start excommunicating people, assuming that the existence of this attack means the magisterium is too soft. Sometimes it is assumed that in the "golden age" of the Church, the Pope gave a decree and the faithful jumped in line, putting an end to error or dissent. But in reality, this never happened.

Historically, we know that the Catholic Church has had to fight battles over the course of centuries. The Arians should have been defeated after the First Nicene Council in AD 325, but as St. Jerome pointed out (Dialogue with the Luciferians #19), that shortly afterwards “the Nicene Faith stood condemned by acclamation. The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian." St. Augustine expressed his frustration at the fact that the heresy of Pelagianism was continuing to be obstinate in spite of the fact that the Pope had ruled against them more than once:

For already have two councils on this question been sent to the Apostolic see; and rescripts also have come from thence. The question has been brought to an issue; would that their error may sometime be brought to an issue too! Therefore do we advise that they may take heed, we teach that they may be instructed, we pray that they may be changed. (Sermon LXXXI)


[Augustine of Hippo, “Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament,” in Saint Augustine: Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. R. G. MacMullen, vol. 6, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 504.]

(This is where the paraphrase “Rome has spoken, the cause is finished” came from).

The point is, the Pope does not simply make heresy vanish by a decree. It takes years, decades, even centuries of faithful Catholics defending the true Church teaching before the error is given up. For the Catholic to assume failure because the dissent does not immediately stop shows that they don’t understand what really happened in times past.

Contrary to what seems to believed today, the Culture War is not being lost—it is being fought. The devil deceives and those deceived proclaim their victory over the Church, while at the same time, the devil seeks to discourage those who remain faithful by undermining their trust in those God has given the authority to lead and teach. We need to avoid being deceived. We need to avoid despair. We need to remember that the battle against the demons and the people misled by them is not one to be fought in a day or a week. It is to be fought as long as we live until Christ comes again.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Contradiction and Hypocrisy

Remember the old and oft refuted argument of “If you’re against X, don’t do X” that was so often invoked to attack opposition to things like abortion and same sex marriage? (For example, “If you’re against abortion, don’t have one!”)

It was easily refuted by plugging in things that most people recognize as wrong:

  • If you’re against slavery, don’t own a slave!
  • If you’re against rape, don’t rape anyone!
  • If you’re against murder, don’t murder anyone!

The fatal flaw in the argument is that some things can never be done, so to argue that a person who opposes something as wrong, simply shouldn’t do it while everybody else does is to make a mockery against any person who ever stood up against evil in a society (“If Martin Luther King Jr. was against racial discrimination, he shouldn’t discriminate against a person of another race!”)

But now, in addition, we’re seeing that people who make these arguments of “just don’t do it" conveniently ignore them when someone tries to apply it against them:

"If you’re against participating in a same sex ‘wedding' then just don’t… Oh, wait—you have to do that anyway, you bigot!"

Once again, those who try to work against religious freedom contradict themselves:

  1. If the “If you’re against X, don’t do X” argument is true, then you can’t force Christians who oppose same sex “marriage” to participate in it because, hey, they’re just doing what you said!
  2. But if the “If you’re against X, don’t do X” argument is false, then you have to recognize that people have the right to morally object to something they believe is wrong.

Christianity recognizes that the “If you’re against X, don’t do X” is flawed, so it does not contradict itself nor practice hypocrisy in making a stand against things it calls “evil.” However, the person who preaches “tolerance” have caught themselves in a dilemma—if they apply their own argument universally, they can’t coerce Christian business owners to do what they believe is morally wrong. But if they recognize the argument forces them to accept something that they think is morally wrong, then they have to start asking what determines moral right and wrong, and follow that search to the end.

The Christian can and does stand up for what is right, whether or not society approves. There are no moral contradictions in their stand. But there are huge contradictions in the whole approach opponents of religious freedom are taking, and these contradictions are arbitrary infringements aimed at forcing people who disagree with them to comply against what they think is morally right.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

God, Sin, Mercy, and Justice

Jesus has some interesting things to say about His relationship with the world and what it means to follow Him:

17 *“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.* 20 I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)


21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,* but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you.* Depart from me, you evildoers.’ (Matthew 7:21-23)


14 After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: 15 “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15)


The world cannot hate you, but it hates me, because I testify to it that its works are evil. (John 7:7)


11 She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.” (John 8:11)


40 Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains. (John 9:40-41)


15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15)


18 “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you. 20 Remember the word I spoke to you, ‘No slave is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 And they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would have no sin; but as it is they have no excuse for their sin. (John 15:18-22)


21 [Jesus] said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. 23 Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:21-23)

These passages are interesting because they testify to the fact that Jesus came to save people from their sins, calling them to turn away from the evil they did. Jesus, out of love for us died so that we might be saved. But the fact that Jesus came to save us from our sins demonstrates that we have sins we need to be saved from, and love of Him requires us to act in a way that is in keeping with how God has called us to live. The Greek word μετανοια (metanoia) means having a change of mind and heart, and metanoia is what Jesus is calling every one of us to have—to turn away from sin and to turn back to God. He also chose His Church built on Peter and the Apostles to go forth with the mission of preaching the Gospel and forgiving sins, saying that rejection of the Church was rejection of Him (Luke 10:16).

The problem is many people who are enthusiastic about Jesus’ message of love and not judging completely overlook the entire message of metanoia. Instead, they prefer a form of Christianity that H. Richard Niebuhr warned about: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross."

Under such a view, saying that certain behaviors can damn a person to hell is seen as an insult, not a warning. The worldly Christian thinks that their own actions are not anything to worry about. Others may do bad things (such as Nazis and murderers), but it is believed that God doesn’t care about the things the Church calls sin.

That’s a curious idea. If we believe that Jesus is God, and the Father is God (John 10:30), then we cannot separate God’s commands from Jesus’ saying that we must keep His commandments. But that is exactly what people are trying to argue. They try to argue that because Jesus did not specifically mention a moral issue by name (homosexual acts are frequently mentioned) that Jesus did not condemn them. Of course, you can show how ridiculous that argument is by pointing out that Jesus said nothing about rape, incest, bestiality or necrophilia—does anybody really think Jesus thought those acts were morally acceptable? (Logically, this argument is an argument from silence fallacy).

In fact, Jesus spoke about marriage specifically as an institution between one man and one woman in a lifelong union—things which people are trying to claim the Church must change. When you think about it, it appears that people attacking the teaching of the Church are not being zealous to defend the teachings of Jesus—they are being zealous only to deny that they need to change their behavior.

So, it’s not the Church that people have problems with, but the teachings of God. But people find it easier to blame the Church for promoting the teachings of Jesus while explaining away or denying that Jesus taught any such thing. That way they can pretend to be obedient when their actual behavior is rebellion. The Church is called “legalistic” and contrary to love when she insists on saying that God’s commands are binding. But since Jesus did link loving Him with keeping His commandments, we have a huge contradiction between Jesus as He was and the counterfeit version that people insist the Church is ignoring.

It is true that Jesus came to save the world, not to condemn it (John 3:17), but that is often taken out of context when people assume it means Jesus won’t punish anyone for refusing to change their ways. But when read in content, God’s action is actually conditional on responding to His call:

17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn* the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. 21 But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God. (John 3:17-21)

We can see that believing in God means turning to the light and that means turning away from sin and towards truth. But those who do wicked things hate the light and prefer darkness to light. God is merciful, but His mercy is not “cheap grace.” He gives us the grace and the means to be reconciled to Himself. But He does not force one to receive it against His will and it is possible to refuse the gifts of grace and mercy—whether by outright refusal to believe in Him or by refusal to keep His commandments. If we spurn His mercy, what is left but His justice?

I suspect many people don’t give sufficient thought to these things and what the lack of judgment would mean:

Imagine it is the end of the world. God has brought all before Him to face judgment. There in the back we see a group of people scowling. It’s the infamous dictators and mass murderers who have inflicted suffering on the world. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, the Kims of North Korea, the Roman Emperors who persecuted Christians (like Nero, Domitian, Diocletian etc.). They’re unrepentant of their sins and proud of what they did.

Now imagine that Our Lord turns to this group and says, “Because I love everyone, I won’t send anyone to hell. So welcome to Heaven.” How do you think the victims of these dictators would feel? For example, the Christians who died rather than renounce their faith—would they not be justified in wondering why they bothered in knowing, loving and serving Jesus when it clearly did not matter whether they did or not? In fact, such people could not say Our Lord was loving because in letting everyone into Heaven, regardless of what they did and whether they repented—even at the moment of their death—would that not make God into somebody who was indifferent to the wrongs done in the world?

It would make God unjust. When we think about it, we don’t want a God who is unjust and does not hold the unrepentant wicked accountable for their sins. Rather we just want a God who doesn’t hold us responsible for the sins we refuse to repent. But when we think about it, such thinking makes us into monstrous hypocrites. We demand mercy without justice for ourselves, but justice without mercy for those we dislike.

Ultimately, we need to recognize that God approaches each of us calling us to turn back to Him and accept His mercy. This turning back means rejecting our sins and keeping His commandments out of love for Him. We should be grieved by our sins and want to turn back to Him just as a man who loves his wife should be sorry for causing her pain and want to reconcile with her. God’s call of mercy is available as long as we live. But if we die unrepentant, we have to face His justice without the mercy that we refused. In such a case, we cannot blame God for being unfair. We have only ourselves to blame.

None of us know how much time we have on Earth. You might live another 50 years. You might die tomorrow. So, we need to accept the grace God offers when we become aware of it, and not treat it as something to do “down the road.” We need to listen to those God has tasked in teaching us right and wrong, and not reject their teaching as hateful or partisan.

Because if we reject them, we reject Christ. And if we reject Christ, we reject God.

April Fools!

I really don’t see the point of doing an April Fools post.

I mean when you have Catholics who think that defying the Pope is being faithful to the Church and radicals who think that defense of religious freedom is intolerance, pretty much anything I could make up as a prank would not sound as strange as what is actually happening today.