27 February 2022

Start shaking your sieve!

8th Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


Lent approaches! Now is as good a time as any to ask ourselves: am I bearing good fruit, or am I bearing bad fruit? Am I producing love, mercy, justice, and faith? Or, am I producing hatred, vengeance, injustice, and infidelity? If you are anything like me, your fruit basket is a little bit of both. There's some impatience along with some wisdom; a bit of anger and some mercy; maybe a few instances of injustice and a moment or two of faith. Living in the world while not being of the world has never been and will never be as simple and easy as we might like. As my mother used to say while we worked in the butter bean patch, “That's a tough row to hoe.” But why is it a tough row to hoe? Why do we have to struggle to do the Good and avoid Evil? Well, we are rational animals. We eat, sleep, reproduce, work, play, and then we die...like any other animal. We differ from every other animals in that we are rational; that is, we have been given the gift of moral deliberation, the ability to make moral choices. And therein lies the problem. Thanks be to God that he has given each of us a conscience – the ability to discover and recognize moral truths when we see them. Jesus says, “A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good. . .”

Far be from me to accuse our Lord of begging the question! But what is a “good person”? A good person is one who produces good fruit. OK. But what is “good fruit”? Hitler thought murdering the Jews was a good thing. Mao thought destroying 4,000 years of Chinese history and culture was a good idea. Putin thinks invading Ukraine is a good idea. Is genocide, cultural suicide, and war all good b/c someone believes they are good? Obviously not. But that is exactly what most modern people believe – if I believe it's good, it's good. We may even hear Catholics say things like, “My conscience tells me that what you are calling a sin is actually a good thing.” These days the sin in question is almost always something to do with sex: abortion, same-sex behavior, premarital sex/cohabitation, etc. It's this era's obsession. NB the use of “conscience” here. It's used like a voodoo spell. Just add “my conscience tells me” to any sentence and whatever follows is magically good! That's not how conscience works. That's not how any of this works. Conscience discovers and recognizes moral truth. Conscience does not invent moral truth. So, we can ask: how does conscience work?

Conscience is easy to define and hard to explain. Conscience “bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn”(CCC 1777). As Christians, we are gifted with a supernatural desire: to return to God, the Supreme Good. To return to God means knowing and acting upon the truth, making moral decisions that produce good fruit. As human persons we are both rational and passionate. We can rationally deliberate, and we can react emotionally. In our reason, we are most like God. So, our reason must rule our passions; our rational nature must rule our animal instincts and appetites. When passion rules reason, we are less like God and drawn away from Him. Hitler, Mao, and Putin allowed passion to rule them. Greed for riches, lust for power, anger with their enemies, envy at success, pride in their own strength. And millions died in war, disease, and starvation. Our own failures in choosing Evil will not produce death, disease, and destruction on the scale of a world war. But they will nonetheless lead to death, disease, and destruction. For ourselves and our loved ones. God gifted each of us with conscience so that we always know the Good to choose.

Like any God-given gift, conscience must be received, refined, and put to use. God gives you a gift, so you are responsible for cultivating and using it. Conscience is the gift of discovering and recognizing the truth. It's not magic. It's reason and revelation; that is, our rational minds and God's revealed truth. A well-formed conscience is one that has been shaped and is guided by right reason and Scripture. A moral judgment that defies reason and denies the truth of Scripture is not a well-formed conscience. If you firmly believe that one race of humans is lesser than another race of humans, adding “in good conscience” to your false belief does not make it true. If you firmly believe that killing a child in the womb can be morally good, adding “in good conscience” to your false belief does not make it true. If you firmly believe that sex outside of marriage is morally fine, adding “in good conscience” to your false belief does not make it true. Adding “in good conscience” to an Evil choice does not magically transform Evil into Good. We have chosen Evil and added lying to the charges. We have failed to cultivate a God-given gift and allowed ourselves to be duped by the Enemy.

So, how do we listen to conscience? Jesus tells us, “Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly...” IOW, sin makes us stupid, that is, irrational. We cannot see Evil as Evil when we are participating in Evil. Aquinas teaches us that when we consistently choose Evil and call it Good we become fools. And fools never see their own folly. The first step then is confession, penance, and absolution. Be free of sin so that your well-formed conscience may shine. Then study what the Church teaches about moral issues. Not only what She teaches but why She teaches what She does. Our tradition is deeply rooted in reason, Scripture, science, and the natural law. Rely on the wisdom of the saints. When confronted with a hard moral question, I remind myself: “I am not as smart as 2,000 years of Church teaching.” Ask a friend who is advanced in holiness. Talk to your pastor. Next, practice, practice, practice; that is, practice making good moral choices. Yes, you will get it wrong on occasion. Go back to confession. It takes time and patience to acquire wisdom. Sirach says, “When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear.” But if you never shake the sieve, the wheat and husks remain together. Lent is coming. Start shaking your sieve! 

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