In September 1953, a group of 20-somethings and their young parish priest embarked on the first of what would be 26 annual kayaking trips into the wilderness near where they all lived and worked, taking time away from normal life to enjoy the water, the wilderness, and, most of all, a prayerful retreat with each other.
This group—Środowisko, as it was called—was the experiment of Karol Wojtyla, the Polish priest most of us know better as Pope St. John Paul II. Beginning out of his parish assignment as a student chaplain, John Paul built the group of young people slowly out of a common desire for community, growth, and free discussion (such opportunities were rare at the time in Communist-ruled Poland).
Two characteristics of the group that particularly stood out were the group’s interest in prayer—especially liturgical prayer—and John Paul’s emphasis on accompanying his friends as they navigated their young lives. The two desires collided in the sacrament of confession, where John Paul “didn’t impose,” one member recalled, “but he did demand” that decisions be made as wisely as possible.
John Paul’s emphasis on accompaniment as a pastoral practice, in order to enrich and form the consciences of his parishioners was because, as George Weigel wrote in his biography Witness to Hope, “this was the way a priest lived out his vocation to be an alter Christus, ‘another Christ.'” Weigel went on:
God himself had accompanied human beings into the most extreme situation resulting from bad human choices—death—through his own divine choice to be redeemer as well as creator. That is what happened on the cross of Christ.
Fast forward 62 years, where a group of the world’s bishops are gathering in Rome as we speak, discussing and deciding upon recommendations for on how the Church moves forward in its handling of all things related to marriage and the family. Where a bishop from Chicago broached the topic of accompaniment in a recent press conference. And where, as a result, a whole bunch of people have worked themselves into a frenzy.
Archbishop Blase Cupich was primarily answering questions about how the Church ought to handle cases of the divorced and civilly remarried, as well as those of Catholics identifying as gay and lesbian, with regard to receiving the Eucharist worthily. Some of what he said was very good, while other things were more muddled, and still others were (mostly as a result of the muddledness) not-so-good.
One of the better things he said had mostly to do with the fact that we must accompany people, no matter their situation, and to first “get to know what their life is like” if we are to help them at all in their journey. This concept, hearkening back to accounts like the Road to Emmaus, is utterly Christian, and ought to be non-negotiable for any Christian worth his salt.
Related to that, and regrettably one of the things Archbishop Cupich failed to clarify further, was the issue of human conscience, its inviolable nature, and the role it plays in tough issues, especially like the ones being discussed at the Synod.
Conscience, as we all know, is the apparatus we humans use (I hope) to make our decisions, and it therefore carries a certain responsibility—an obligation, even—to which we must pay attention. Because what are we if we make no decisions?
Daily choices like how many times one hits snooze, what one eats for lunch, and when one goes to bed are small, yet significant, uses of conscience that—should one’s conscience be badly formed or ignored entirely—can wreak havoc on one’s life. Expand the use of conscience to the more weighty things in the moral life and the responsibility we have to form a good conscience is enhanced in the same measure.
But what is a well-formed conscience in the first place? To quote Dwight Schrute, “there are basically two schools of thought”: More modern thinkers see it simply as a subjective matter of feeling or contentment—that if a good feeling is present, then that decision is done in good conscience, and vice versa. The more traditional understanding affirms the presence of objective good and evil, whereby a person with a well-formed conscience makes a decision according to laws originating outside himself.
Human nature, irrespective of religion, lends itself to the latter being true (despite what those namby-pamby moderns want us to believe). But parsing out the details here is not as important as considering the ramifications of an objective moral obligation being present in the world.
With an objective obligation to do good and avoid evil comes a twofold duty necessarily imposed on us, first as agents of our own consciences, and second as potential influencers of the consciences of our neighbors. And because that objective moral obligation comes from God, it is our relationship with him of which we must take ownership.
Both St. John Paul and Archbishop Cupich got it right in teaching us that accompaniment is the way to effect conversion in the human heart. It’s also correct that, at the end of the day, the conscience must be respected, left free, and never coerced in its choices. But there exists a still-higher Truth that even our conscience must respect, and it seems to be where the saint and the archbishop part ways.
As St. John Paul wrote in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor:
Although each individual has a right to be respected in his own journey in search of the truth, there exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known.
At the end of our lives, we will be held accountable to what we have known, and also to what we knowingly ignored, both in forming our own consciences and in how we helped others to form theirs.
And so, I think Archbishop Cupich is asking the right questions, but his answers need clarification at best, and much work at worst. St. Paul didn’t just advise that “a person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup” for nothing. Instead, he did so that we might use our consciences to be honest with ourselves in our imperfection, to determine whether we remain in God’s friendship, or we’ve severed ourselves from God in objective grave sin.
If it sounds harsh, until we die there remains an upshot to keeping a well-formed conscience. If we can be honest with ourselves about our own sin, then we can be humble enough to ask God for the forgiveness and mercy which he is always waiting to grant.
So let us be ever more honest with ourselves, praying that God grants us the grace and the wisdom to witness our own pride, that we might become better people and better stewards of his love to those around us.