Earlier I wrote about the importance of having a rightly formed conscience (here). As I said then, too frequently Christians neglect the formation of our consciences choosing instead to embrace what Justice Anton Scalia describes as “a platitude” that “comes in many flavors.”
Speaking at a 2010 high school graduation (you can find a transcript and a recording of the talk here), Scalia observed that this platitude takes various forms familiar to anyone who has sat through more than one commencement address. “It can be variously delivered as, ‘Follow your star,’ or ‘Never compromise your principles.’ Or, quoting Polonius in ‘Hamlet’ — who people forget was supposed to be an idiot — ‘To thine ownself be true.’” Practically as well as morally “this can be very good or very bad advice.” For example “follow your star if you want to head north and it’s the North Star. But if you want to head north and it’s Mars, you had better follow somebody else’s star.”
A rightly formed conscience requires that my guiding principles actually guide me to a place worth going and a life worth living. If my principles “are Adolf Hitler’s” I “would be well advised to compromise” my principles as much, and as quickly, as I am able to do so.
The Christian notion of a rightly formed conscience, that is a life lived not simply according to the ideals of the Gospel but to the Gospel ordering of those ideals. This is pointed at odds with the popular sentiment “that believing deeply in something, and following that belief, is the most important thing a person” can do. As important as it is to be committed, it is by far much more important to be committed to the right things in the right measure and for the right the right reasons. Better, Scalia told the graduates, “the lazy person who knows what’s right, than the zealot in the cause of error. He may move slower, but he’s headed in the right direction.”
We cannot limit the moral demands of the Christian life to an abstract admiration of what Peter Kreeft in Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion calls the “soft virtues.” However sincere our admiration of say compassion or tolerance, the soft virtues are an insufficient foundation upon which to build a life or a society. Any such attempt will fail because, as Chesterton argues, it obscures the connection between the Christian virtues and the pagan vices for which they are the corrective.
Take forgiveness. It has become a rather weak thing; an excuse to avoid looking at the harm that we so habitually inflict upon each other. In a culture however that values the vendetta—as did the cultures in which both the Old and New Testaments arose—forgiveness is anything but weak. To forgive in these cultures is only possible for those who have mastered the desire for revenge. Forgiveness here is only possible for the courageous, that is for those who are willing to suffer injury to break the cycle of retribution.
Above all turning away from the vendetta requires faith, hope and love. Faith that God’s command to forgive is in fact the right thing to do; hope that whatever the cost (and it is likely to be a costly cost) that God will bring goodness and happiness out of the horror of human sinfulness; and above all love that makes it possible for me to see you no longer as my enemy but as my neighbor and to wish for you the same good things I would have for myself.
All of this (and more) is lost to person with an ill-formed conscience. Notice I didn’t say the deformed but the ill-formed conscience. So often what is lacking, as I said above, is not the right ideals but a right understanding of those ideals, how they relate to each other and how they apply to the concrete circumstances of my life. In a word what is typically lacking is the virtue of discernment or prudence.
In place of a discerning heart we have substituted “movement” for movement’s own sake. We do so under the rubric of “progress.” But as Justice Scalia points out “Movement is not necessarily progress.” Why? Because
Nobody — remember this — neither Hitler, nor Lenin, nor any despot you could name, ever came forward with a proposal that read, ‘Now, let’s create a really oppressive and evil society.’ Hitler said, ‘Let’s take the means necessary to restore our national pride and civic order.’ And Lenin said, ‘Let’s take the means necessary to assure a fair distribution of the goods of the world.’
Toward the end of Back to Virtue (p. 194), Kreeft contrasts the cultural world in which the Gospel is first proclaimed with the world in which we now live. The former, “Paganism was like a virgin,” the latter “modernity is a divorcee.”
The practical consequences are important, even if often overlooked:
Pagans are eminently convertible; modernity has already been deconverted. Pagans prize natural piety; modernity scorns it. The pagan exclaims, “Many are the wonders of this world, but none so wonderful as Man!” But the modern is more likely to say, with Oliver Wendell Holmes, “I see no reason for attributing to man a significance different in kind from that which belongs to a baboon or a grain of sand.” He is therefore also likely to conclude, with Holmes, that “truth is simply the majority vote of the nation that could like all the others.”
While a rightly formed conscience admits us to a world of almost infinite personal and cultural pluriformity—what Emmanuel Levinas calls “alterity”—the ill-formed conscience (to say nothing of the deformed conscience) allows for only one possibility—the dreary terror of a life without compassion, mercy or forgiveness; a life without faith, hope or love (see 1 Corinthians 13).
It is not enough Scalia told the “men and women of the class of 2010… to be zealous in the pursuit of your ideals.” Rather they, and we, must “be sure that [these] ideals are the right ones.” Like forgiveness, a rightly formed conscience requires courage and humility because it requires from me that I embrace willing “the hardest part of being a good human being” the realization that “Good intentions are not enough. Being a good person begins with being a wise person.”
Kreeft, Peter (1992). Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.