When I consider this week’s readings, the theme I keep coming back to, for a number of reasons, is conscience.
The first reason is that one common theme across the readings is the question of how we are supposed to act as followers of Christ. The debate in the first reading from Acts of the Apostles, for instance, can be distilled as a form of the Rich Young Man’s question in Matthew 19. “What good must I do to gain eternal life?”
The answer from Paul and Barnabas is that followers of Christ do not have to concern themselves with every law of the Torah, but should instead prioritize just a few “necessities.” They want Christians to focus less on the nitty gritty and more on how they can do what is right by their fellow humans.
Jesus’s insistence in the Gospel reading that “whoever loves me will keep my word” provides a similar form of reorientation to the basics. Recall that just a few verses earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus proclaimed “I give you a new commandment: love one another.” As Augustine (in)famously stated later, “love, and do what you will,” because if Christians truly—and consistently—love all their neighbors with the love of God, the rest of the details will take care of themselves.
I see echoes of conscience here because conscience is fundamentally a practical capacity. The question of how we are supposed to act in our lives as a result of our faith is precisely the question conscience is designed to answer.
As the Catechism explains, “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 no. 1778). Or, as the Second Vatican Council put it, “In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience…the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 16).
Conscience is therefore a central part of our ability to arrive at the conclusions that Paul and Barnabas state so emphatically in the first reading. It is also the key to our ability to discern what it means to follow Jesus’s words and “keep my commandments” in the particular circumstances of our everyday lives (see Veritatis Splendor, no. 59).
And yet, as Pope Francis stresses, “conscience can do more than simply recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel.” That is, conscience is not just about applying abstract laws to concrete situations. “It can also recognize with sincerity and honest what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal” (Amoris Laetitia, no. 303).
Here, then, is the second reason I see conscience in the readings for this week. The process that Pope Francis is describing builds on the Second Vatican Council’s description of conscience as “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths” (again, Gaudium et Spes, no. 16). It envisions conscience as a place where we are in direct relationship with God, whose accompaniment helps us make the practical judgments that Paul and Barnabas (and Augustine and Jesus) were talking about.
This place of communion with God took on new meaning for me in light of this Sunday’s second reading, from the book of Revelation, which has John explaining that there is no need for a temple in the heavenly city “for its temple is the Lord God almighty.” And, likewise, he adds that “the city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light.”
Our consciences, as the most secret core and sanctuary of our person where the voice of God echoes in our depths, are a microcosm of this direct link to God in the heavenly city. They provide the light, which is the very glory of God, to guide us.
Significantly, Sunday’s Gospel reading provides the reason why this vision of conscience makes any sense at all. Jesus alludes to “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name,” and it is our faith in Jesus’s promise that allows us to claim that that Spirit is active in our lives, directly, today. It is the Advocate who allows us to be alone with God in our consciences in the first place, so that we might keep Jesus’s word.
Of course, we must always form our consciences, so let us not forget to immerse ourselves further in the Scriptures and the Sacred Tradition so that we can come to an ever deeper understanding of what it means to love God by keeping God’s commands. And then, let us focus on discerning, in conscience, what it means to love God so we can do what God would will.