A Pastoral Letter on Morality and Conscience

Author: Bishop John Keating


Bishop John Keating

September 17, 1994 Feast of St. Robert Bellarmine, Bishop and Doctor

My brothers and sisters in the Lord:

Beginning with Adam and Eve, spanning the centuries, reaching into the editorial page of this morning's newspaper, there is no topic that has so dominated human conversation as the issue of morality, of good and evil, of right and wrong. Thus it shall be until the end of time, for we humans by nature are daily capable of behavior both grand and gross, divinely unselfish and devilishly self-centered. And somehow we sense that, whether in the flow of world events, or in the sanctuary of our family, or in the privacy of our own soul, much is at stake in the perennial battle between good and evil.

Pope John Paul II recently addressed the issue of morality in his monumental encyclical <Veritatis Splendor> (<The Splendor of Truth>), August 6, 1993. The overriding theme of morality is also elucidated in remarkable fashion in the <Catechism of the Catholic Church> (English version published June 22, 1994). In the light of these two great documents I wish to share with you some personal reflections on human morality and personal conscience.

"The Church knows that the issue of morality is one which deeply touches every person; it involves all people, even those who do not know Christ and his Gospel or God himself. She knows that it is precisely on the path of the moral life that the way of salvation is open to all." (VS, n.3)

I. Morality

The Catholic position on morality is quite simple: It is God who sets the norms for good and evil, who decides what is right and what is wrongful human behavior. Our task as human persons is to discover what those norms are and to live our lives accordingly.

Our work of discovery can proceed in only two ways: (1) by looking at God's creation; and (2) by listening to God's revelation. The first is an act of reason; the second is an act of religion. The first way is open to all mankind; the second, only to believers. What we discover by the first way is called the law of nature or the natural law; what we discover by the second way is the law of Christ, the law of the Gospel.

The Law Of Nature

The <Catechism of the Catholic Church> (n. 1776) quotes a basic text from Vatican Council II:

"Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid on himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment." (GS, n. 16)

Man is endowed with a basic moral sense that exists in him regardless of any religious training or belief:

"The natural law is nothing other than the light of understanding placed in us by God; through it we know what we must do and what we must avoid. God has given this light or law at the creation. (St. Thomas Aquinas, <Collationes in decem praeceptis,> I)

You don't have to be a person of faith or religious background to be able to tell the difference between good and evil, between right and wrong. Even in countries that are officially atheistic, their laws will reflect norms of fundamental ethics, for example, that murder, rape, and larceny are wrong, that patriotism, honesty under oath, and philanthropy are good.

"Man participates in the wisdom and goodness of the Creator who gives him a mastery over his acts and the ability to govern himself with a view to the true and the good. The natural law expresses the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie." (CCC, n. 1954)

The fundamental norms of the natural law are discoverable by, and equally applicable to, all persons of all cultures, times, and places on earth. Genocide was wrong in the Americas of the sixteenth century; it is wrong in twentieth-century Rwanda. Slavery was wrong in the Roman empire; it was wrong in these United States. Child molestation, adultery, and abortion are wrong always and everywhere, by the law of nature, even if in some places and at some times the civil laws of a country do not underscore that fact. Yes, the process of discovering, or recovering, the norms of the natural law is a gradual one. Vatican Council II's decree on religious freedom has a marvelous phrase: "...man is able under the gentle guidance of God's providence increasingly to recognize the unchanging truth." (<Dignitatis humanae,> Dec. 7, 1965, n. 3)

The natural law is permanent throughout the variations of history. Even the debilitating power of iniquity, St. Augustine stated in his <Confessions,> cannot efface the law that is written in the human heart:

"Even when it is rejected in its very principles, it cannot be destroyed or removed from the heart of man. It always rises again in the life of individuals and societies." (CCC, n. 1958)

The <Catechism> affirms that "...no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man" (CCC, n. 1860). Yet it can be difficult at times to discover with confidence those norms of the natural law that are derivative from its basic principles.

"Oh yes, I concede that the enterprise can at times be difficult, faltering, or even touched with error. All the same, I insist with Aristotle and Aquinas, not to mention the author of the Book of Wisdom and Paul of Tarsus, that the Divinity has carved into our hearts the essentials of His will for us and that we cannot long be ignorant of them unless we choose to be." (Bishop Edward M. Egan, homily at the Red Mass in St. Matthew's Cathedral, Washington, D.C., October 6, 1985)

The Ten Commandments are in fact a formulation of several norms of the natural law. The <Catechism points out that, if man's mind were not so clouded by original sin, they are knowable by reason alone (n.2071). And the Holy Father, in <Veritatis Splendor,> states that the fourth through the tenth Commandments "constitute the indispensable rules of all social life." (n.97)

The "Pro-Choice" Conscience

The usual argument of some Catholics in political life to justify a "pro-choice" position on the abortion issue is: I am personally opposed to abortion, but I cannot impose my religious beliefs on others.

For them, the argument to resist returning abortion to illegality in the United States runs like this:

A: The first amendment prohibits the imposition of a religious belief upon the citizenry;

B: However, the rightness or wrongness of abortion is a religious belief;

C: Therefore, it is against the first amendment to criminalize abortion.

The fallacy in this reasoning is simply that the morality of abortion is not a religious belief, any more than the morality of slavery, apartheid, rape, larceny, murder, or arson is a religious belief. These are norms of the natural law of mankind and can be legislated even in a completely religionless society.

In no way is the legislator who votes to return abortion to illegality "imposing" his religious belief on the citizenry. On the other hand, with Pope John Paul II you might say that the legislator who votes for the legality of abortion and abortion rights is actually "imposing" something else:

"To claim that one has a right to act according to conscience, but without at the same time acknowledging the duty to conform one's conscience to the truth and to the law which God himself has written on our hearts, in the end, means nothing more than imposing one's limited personal opinion." (John Paul II, <Respect for Conscience: Foundation for Peace—1991 World Day of Peace Message>)

I think it is interesting to note that for all the time that abortion was illegal in the United States, no one suggested that this was a violation of the first amendment. Even <Roe v. Wade> did not resort to that argument.

No one needs the revelation of God or an act of faith in his word to know that abortion is ethically and morally wrong. People of all faiths and of no faith at all can reason to that fact. Witnessing an abortion certainly accelerates the process.

Another item of confusion on the political agenda these days deals with a so-called "pro-choice" approach to the legality and acceptability of homosexual rights and life style. Some would have us believe that the traditional unacceptability of homosexual marriage is a matter of religious belief, and hence is unconstitutionally prohibited by civil law. The Church is bitterly attacked for teaching that this is not a matter of sectarian belief, but of the law of nature itself known by reason and applicable to all mankind. In his Sunday <Angelus> of June 19, 1994, the Holy Father said:

"Indeed, the Church's insistence on the ethics of marriage and the family is frequently misunderstood, <as though the Christian community wished to impose on all society a faith perspective valid only for believers.> It was apparent, for example, in several reactions to the disapproval I openly expressed when the European Parliament proposed to legitimize a new type of family based on the union of homosexuals."

In speaking of politicians, a word too should be said about polls and pollsters. The results of opinion polls, which are so popular in the American media, are sometimes presented as though they reflect the norms of morality. Polls, it should be pointed out, do not make morality; they simply indicate what degree of immorality exists in a given area.

The state has an obligation to sustain, safeguard, and enforce the overriding norms of behavior known as "human rights" or "civil rights", those norms that universally should be recognized and should regulate the behavior of all citizens as fundamental principles of the human family.

The fact that the Church reaffirms a human right or a civil right of mankind does not make that human right or civil right a "religious belief." When the Church teaches that rape is wrong, the immorality of rape does not thereby become a "religious belief." When the Catholic Church continues to affirm—century after century, in every country the world over—that abortion is a gross distortion of human rights, a horrible crime against humanity, it is simply stating what civilized society, in its dispassionate and nobler moments, can figure out for itself, without the help of revealed religion.

In this the Church performs a service for humanity, above the fickleness of the "political correctness" of local fashion.

The Law Of Christ

When the gift of religious faith intervenes, one's knowledge of the natural law, one's commitment to live in accord with basic natural ethics, is bolstered and broadened immeasurably. Religious faith, if based soundly on the word of God, clarifies, reinforces, and vastly builds upon the natural moral sense of the human family.

Religious faith can have a profound effect on the human soul, permeating one's personality and elevating one's behavior to the motive power of love.

"Faith is a decision involving one's whole existence. It is an encounter, a dialogue, a communion of love and of life between the believer and Jesus Christ, the Way, and the Truth, and the Life (cf. Jn. 14:6). It entails an act of trusting abandonment to Christ, which enables us to live as he lived (cf. Gal. 2:20), in profound love of God and of our brothers and sisters." (VS, n. 88)

When one believes, on the word of God, that there is life after death and that the quality of our future life will depend on God's judgment of our conduct here on earth, then God's judgments of good and evil human behavior become extremely meaningful and important to the individual believer. That "meaningfulness" and "importance" were everywhere evident among first-generation Christians of the first century when the gospel was so new and so captivating.

Those early believers developed a sense of priority and perspective. They acquired the ability to perceive the world and its finite history in light of the immortality of the human soul. They knew clearly the answer to the Lord's question: "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?" (Mk. 8:36)

He Shall Come To Judge The Living And The Dead

In our profession of faith each Sunday we affirm that Jesus "shall come to judge the living and the dead." What we rather routinely declare, the early Christians profoundly seared into their hearts. God's message could not be more stunning or specific: After death each individual will be confronted with the record of the good and the evil he or she did in life:

"It is appointed for men once to die, and after death comes judgment." (Heb. 9:27)

"We shall all stand before the judgment seat of God...everyone will render an account of himself to God." (Rom. 14:10,12)

"Before the judgment seat of God an account of his own life will be rendered to each according as he has done either good or evil." (GS, n.17)

"Christ is Lord of eternal life. Full right to pass definitive judgment on the works and hearts of men belongs to him as redeemer of the world. He 'acquired' this right by his cross. The Father has given 'all judgment to the Son.'" (CCC, n. 679)

It is Christ himself who shall personally judge us. Such was the constant teaching of the apostles after the Lord's resurrection. Peter put it this way while preaching at Caesarea:

"Jesus also charged us to preach to the people and to bear witness that it is he who has been appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead." (Acts 10:42)

His judgment will be based not only on our external acts of behavior, but also on our interior life of thoughts and desires, on how we accepted or rejected His grace:

"When he comes at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, the glorious Christ will reveal the secret disposition of hearts and will render to each man according to his works and according to his acceptance or refusal of grace." (CCC, n. 682)

The "New Way" Of Jesus

Jesus, of course, preached and promoted the moral norms of the Ten Commandments, but he also set many higher moral standards for his followers:

"I tell you, unless your holiness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees you shall not enter the kingdom of God." (Mt. 5:20)

"You have heard the commandment imposed on your forefathers, 'You shall not commit murder; every murderer shall be liable to judgment.' What I say to you is: Everyone who grows angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment." (Mt. 5:21-22)

"You have heard the commandment: 'You shall not commit adultery.' What I say to you is: Anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his thoughts." (Mt. 5:27)

"To you who hear me, I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you and pray for those who maltreat you. When someone slaps you on one cheek, turn and give him the other; when someone takes your coat, let him have your shirt as well." (Lk. 6:27-29)

"If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what merit is there in it for you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full...Lend without expecting repayment." (Lk. 6:34-35)

"Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him two miles." (Mt. 5:41)

"You have heard the commandment: 'You shall love your countryman and hate your enemy.' My command to you is: Love your enemies; pray for your persecutors." (Mt. 5:43-44)

It is gracious, of course, to show hospitality to friends and neighbors who might return the favor some day. Jesus, however, set a higher standard: Show hospitality to the poor and the crippled and the blind who cannot reciprocate. "You should be pleased that they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid in the resurrection of the just." (Lk. 14:14)

"Peter came up to Jesus and asked him, 'Lord, when my brother wrongs me, how often must I forgive him? Seven times?' 'No,' Jesus replied, 'not seven times; I say, seventy times seven times.'" (Mt. 18:21-22)

The <Catechism of the Catholic Church> has a beautiful section on the "new way" of Jesus (CCC, n. 1965-1974). If you prayerfully ponder this part of the <Catechism,> and follow with a meditation on the words of Paul to the Romans (12:9-21), I am sure that you will come away with a powerful, inspiring conviction: The entire Law of the Gospel is contained in the "<new commandment>" of Jesus, to love one another as he has loved us.

II. Conscience

The <Catechism of the Catholic Church> gives a clear and succinct definition of conscience:

"Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed." (CCC, n. 1778)

"Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil...When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking." (CCC, n. 1777)

In <Veritatis Splendor> the Holy Father shares a powerful insight when he states that conscience is what motivates a person to take responsibility for the good and the evil he has done. Taking responsibility for one's acts and behavior, he emphasizes, means spiritual growth and maturity; failing to take responsibility for one's actions is a major liability for eternal life. (cf. VS, n. 61)

What is conscience? I still think that the idea my parents gave me is the simplest to understand and the best to hang on to when the world's fashionable arbiters of right and wrong, of acceptable and unacceptable behavior, seem to have center stage.

My parents taught me that conscience is simply my ability to judge my behavior as closely as possible to the way God's judges it. To form my conscience meant to pattern my judgments of right and wrong on God's judgments of right and wrong. [The popular slogan: "Follow your own conscience" is often interpreted to mean just the opposite: Judge you own behavior as right or wrong; then God will pattern his judgments accordingly.]

Spiritual development and maturity in an individual are best measured by one's honest ability to judge human behavior, not by the standards of the media and entertainment industries, nor by the standards of American criminal law or Supreme Court decisions, but by God's standards. I can still remember my mother impressing that fact upon me when she told me the story of Jesus reprimanding Peter: "Get out of my sight, you Satan...You are not judging by God's standards, but by man's." (Mt. 16:23)

God's Standards

St. Bonaventure wrote that "conscience is like God's herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God's authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king. This is why conscience has binding force." (Quoted by the Holy Father in VS, n. 58)

St. Paul put it so plainly and eloquently:

"Do not conform yourselves to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you may judge what is God's will, what is good, pleasing and perfect." (Rom. 12:2)

In a widely de-Christianized culture, as the Holy Father pointed out sadly, the criteria employed even by some Catholics in making moral judgments and decisions are often contrary to those of the Gospel (VS, n.88). What is unacceptable, he affirms, is the attitude of one who makes his own weakness the criterion of truth (VS, n. 104). Nowadays, he states, this attitude is expressed particularly in the attempt to adapt the moral norm to one's own capacities and personal interests, and even in the rejection of the very idea of a norm (VS, n.105).

"But in this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and 'being at peace with oneself', so much so that some have come to adopt a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgment...there is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly. Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others." (VS, n. 32)

Vatican Council II makes the point:

"Hence, the more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by objective standards of moral conduct." (GS, n. 16)

The Formation Of Conscience

If the ideal of conscience is to pattern one's judgments of right and wrong on God's judgments of right and wrong, how do we learn God's judgments?

Generally the process begins at home. My parents used to give us children many examples from the gospels of God's judgments of good and evil...the widow's mite, the prodigal son, the hypocritical Pharisees, the grateful leper, and so many more. But beyond the revelations God has made in scripture and apostolic tradition, there is the Church, which Jesus commissioned to do precisely that, to teach morality in his name and by his authority. "He who hears you, hears me." (Lk. 10:16)

Our age is beneficiary of a truly outstanding instrument of conveying God's moral judgments of human behavior, the <Catechism of the Catholic Church.> Among other things, the <Catechism> succinctly names the various elements that together form and develop right conscience:

"In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path; we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord's cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church." (CCC, n. 1785)

1) <The word of God>: In his wisdom God has made known many of his judgments of good and evil, especially through his son, Jesus Christ, as recorded and handed on in scripture and apostolic tradition.

2) <Examination of conscience>: One of the traditional ways to reform one's life—along with seeking forgiveness, helping the poor, working for justice, confession of faults, accepting fraternal correction, spiritual direction—is the examination of conscience (CCC, n. 1435). It has a special place before going to confession (CCC, n. 1454); furthermore, regular confession of venial sins helps to form conscience (CCC, n. 1458).

3) <Gifts of the Holy Spirit>: The seven perduring gifts we receive in the sacrament of Confirmation help in forming conscience (CCC, n.1785) and in decision- making (CCC, n. 1788).

"And this is what takes place through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, of freedom and of love: in him we are enabled to interiorize the law, to receive it and to live it as the motivating force of true personal freedom." (VS, n.83)

"By the light of the Holy Spirit, the living essence of Christian morality can be understood by everyone, even the least learned, but particularly those who are able to preserve an 'undivided heart' [Ps. 86:11]." (VS, n. 119)

4) <Witness and advice>: We need the good example and the sound advice of others both to form and to sustain conscience. The great Cardinal Newman, speaking of conscience, wrote:

"Left to itself, though it tells truly at first, it soon becomes wavering, ambiguous, and false; it needs good teachers and good examples to keep it up to the mark and the line of duty; and the misery is that these external helps, teachers, and examples are in many instances wanting." (<Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations>)

5) <The teaching of the Church>: Pope John Paul II has spoken of it so beautifully:

"The Church puts herself always and only at the <service of conscience>, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph. 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it." (VS, n. 64)

"In a positive way, the Church seeks, with great love, to help all the faithful to form a moral conscience which will make judgments and lead to decisions in accordance with the truth, following the exhortation of the Apostle Paul: 'Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect' [Rom. 12:2]." (VS, n. 85)

Just as these elements are available to us to help us form conscience in the truth, we are often surrounded by contrary elements that serve to deform conscience and "toss us to and fro." Especially vulnerable are young people, who can be mightily influenced by a cultural atmosphere which supplies norms of good and evil that are in conflict with gospel norms.

"Thus, if, for example, the daily soap operas portray divorce as the way normal people solve their marriage difficulties; if they depict fornication and adultery not as lust but as the natural and expected expression of emotional attraction; if contraception is virtually presupposed in any sexual relationship and if abortion is presumed to be the only alternative if contraception fails in an extramarital relationship; if lying is shown as acceptable in the service of what is seen as a good purpose, such as to deceive one's spouse or parents, who are presumed to lack understanding, then is it any wonder that what is said on Sunday from the pulpit—if indeed it is said on Sunday from the pulpit—seems restrictive and almost irrelevant." (Archbishop John P. Foley, in his talk to American bishops [1991] entitled "A View from the Vatican")

No wonder that parents worry about where their children go to school, about the friends they make, the television shows they watch, the books and magazines they read. They know full well that the inner spirit and soul of their children are shaped by the company they keep.

Pope John Paul II, however, has never been pessimistic about young people:

"Young people today are buffeted in every direction by loud and competing claims upon their attention and allegiance. From around the world they hear daily messages of conflict and hostility, of greed and turmoil, of poverty and despair. Amid this social turmoil, young people are eager to find solid and enduring values which can give meaning and purpose to their lives." (Newfoundland, Sept. 12, 1984)

Not only for youngsters but for all of us of any age and all conditions, the education of conscience is a lifelong task that is certainly worth the effort. As the <Catechism> puts it, the education of conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart (CCC, n. 1784). Best of all, it prepares us for the ultimate joy and rewards of eternal life.

Conversion From Sin

One of the most profound and thrilling experiences of life is the interior, spiritual process of conversion from sin. Conversion is the uplifting and rewarding result of a marvelous collaboration of God and man.

Our modern era that rushes to anesthetize the sense of guilt, that recommends a "not guilty" plea no matter the truth, makes conversion an unneeded and unwanted phenomenon.

I still remember vividly how perplexed I was upon hearing the opening lines of Bishop Fulton Sheen's radio talk many decades ago. "Thank God for pain! Thank God for guilt!" Then in his most eloquent manner he explained: Man, of course, is composed of body and soul; we are an amalgam of material and spiritual components. God has wisely designed into our nature an alert system in each component. Were it not for the sense of pain, we would die of illness undetected, uncorrected. And were it not for the sense of guilt, we would die in our sins, unrecognized, unrepentant.

The feeling of guilt, the capacity to recognize guilt, belongs essentially to our spiritual make-up and to the process of conversion from sin. The person who is numb to guilt, who is without remorse, is spiritually ill. This sad condition is often the result of sinful habits. In a way, sin does to one's soul what AIDS does to one's body: It attacks the built-in recovery system itself. Conscience and guilt are debilitated or suppressed:

"Sin creates a proclivity to sin; it engenders vice by repetition of the same acts. This results in perverse inclinations which cloud conscience and corrupt the concrete judgment of good and evil. Thus sin tends to reproduce itself and reinforce itself, but it cannot destroy the moral sense at its root." (CCC, n. 1865)

So often in his public life, Jesus, the divine master, taught us about sin and recovery, good conscience and bad, virtue and its rewards. He did this both by his story-telling in parables, and by his appraisal of real persons He encountered.

A. <The prodigal son>: One of the greatest stories ever told, Jesus' parable of the prodigal son portrays the spiritual journey of millions...the young person's liberation from parental authority and the standards of conduct learned at home, the fascination with possessions, and the pursuit of pleasure. The father grieved for his son, perhaps thinking himself a failure as a parent; yet he never lost hope in his son.

Then one day, as Jesus described it, the young man "came to his senses" and returned home to the absolute delight of his father. "This son of mine was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and is found." The process of sin, conscience, guilt, conversion, and celebration has never been described more beautifully. (Lk. 15:11-32)

B. <The Pharisee>: In parable and in person, the Pharisee was the epitome of the hypocrite, the holier-than-thou critic of others, the self-appointed paragon of virtue who was incapable of personal guilt, blaming others for sin, laying guilt upon them as often as he liked. The Pharisee was not apt for conversion since he could not bring himself to admit sin in himself in the first place...a far cry from the prodigal son.

No doubt you have encountered the modern-day Pharisee who habitually blames others for his own failings, who cannot rise above his pride ever to apologize, who has absolutely no sin to confess. It is a spiritual illness that can infect anyone to some degree or other.

C. <The good thief>: St. Luke's account of the dialogue between the two thieves crucified with Jesus, and of the exchange between Jesus and the good thief, named Dismas by tradition, gives a good insight into the workings of conscience, guilt, and conversion:

"One of the criminals hanging in crucifixion blasphemed him, 'Aren't you the Messiah? Then save yourself and us.' But the other one rebuked him: 'Have you no fear of God, seeing you are under the same sentence? We deserve it, after all. We are only paying the price for what we've done, but this man has done nothing wrong.' He then said, 'Jesus, remember me when you enter upon your reign.' And Jesus replied: 'I assure you, this day you will be with me in paradise.'" (Lk. 23:39-43)

The gospel account shows that Dismas:

1) judged himself guilty of misconduct;
2) confessed it openly to others;
3) did not blame God for his misfortune on Calvary;
4) judged Jesus to be good while judging himself guilty;
5) begged Jesus to grant him eternal life;
6) was assured by Jesus of life after death.

These are basically the elements of the process of right conscience and conversion in the believer.

Patience And Penance

Faithful to the message and manner of Jesus, the Church will continue to preach God's standards while dealing compassionately with sinners:

"The Church can never renounce the 'principle of truth and consistency, whereby she does not agree to call good evil and evil good;' she must always be careful not to break the bruised reed or to quench the dimly burning wick (cf. Is. 42:3). As Paul VI wrote: 'While it is an outstanding manifestation of charity towards souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ, this must always be joined with tolerance and charity, as Christ himself showed by his conversations and dealings with men. Having come not to judge the world but to save it, he was uncompromisingly stern towards sin, but patient and rich in mercy towards sinners.'" (VS, n.95)

While He walked this earth, Jesus not only exhorted all people to repentance so that they should abandon their sins and turn wholeheartedly to the Lord (cf. Lk. 15), but He also welcomed sinners and reconciled them to the Father (Lk. 5:20, 5:32; 7:48). His patience and mercy toward sinners were perpetuated for all time when He instituted for us the sacrament of Penance. After his resurrection He entrusted the power to forgive sins to the apostles and their successors (Jn. 20:19-23). He sent them forth in all directions to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins in his name (Lk. 24:47).

Since that time the Church continues to call people from sin to conversion; she continues to promote and expand the channels of God's saving grace through the merciful, marvelous, and healing sacrament of Penance. Not only is going to confession one of the strongest acts of the spiritual life, but receiving God's forgiveness, certified by the priest's words of absolution, is one of the purest joys of our faith.


In recent times Pope John Paul II has repeatedly called our attention to the onset of the third millennium of the Christian era. He sees the coming century as an historic opportunity for the gospel to make a tremendous impact through what he calls "the new evangelization," which will "unleash all its missionary force" by a combination of two essential elements—the energetic proclamation of the "good news" and the powerful witness of personal holiness among the faithful.

"In particular, the <life of holiness> which is resplendent in so many members of the People of God, humble and often unseen, constitutes the simplest and most attractive way to perceive at once the beauty of truth, the liberating force of God's love, and the value of unconditional fidelity to all the demands of the Lord's law, even in the most difficult situations." (VS, n. 107)

With special affection and admiration the Holy Father speaks of martyrs, who "light up every period of history by reawakening its moral sense" and who providentially ward off "the most dangerous crisis which can afflict man: the confusion of good and evil."

My brothers and sisters of the Arlington Diocese, while we may not receive the gift of martyrdom, you and I have been called to lives of holiness, to live the Lord's standards of morality and conscience. With the words of St. Paul to Timothy I urge you: "Hold fast to the faith and a good conscience." (1 Tim. 1:19)

Devotedly yours in the Lord,

Bishop of Arlington