This examination of conscience is offered in time for Lent, the season of penitence that begins on Ash Wednesday, March 6th in the year of Our Lord 2019. The purpose of examining our consciences is to grow in our relationship with God. That is also true of everything else in Lent and in our lives as Catholics.
Understanding personal relationships can help us understand our relationship with God. There is a wide spectrum of personal relationships in our lives. Certainly we are strangers to the overwhelming majority of people, but there are others in our lives with whom our relationship has progressed from being strangers to being acquaintances—we know faces, names, characteristics. Some of our acquaintanceships have progressed to friendship, and from friendship, at times, to close relationships.
In a personal relationship, each gets to know the other. Relationships also include personal interaction, which takes place through words and deeds. Knowledge affects interaction, and interaction affects knowledge.
We need to know something about another person in order to choose how to interact with him. After becoming an acquaintance, do we want to become friends or even best friends with that person? The more we know him, the better we can interact with him. And the more we interact with him, the more we know him. Relationships grow stronger the more we communicate and share experiences.
Our Relationship with God
The same rules apply to our relationship with God. Who is God to you? Stranger? Acquaintance? Friend? One to Whom you are close? The One to Whom you are closest?
Just as two people at the same workplace, in the same neighborhood, on the same team, in the same classroom, in the same restaurant, even in the same living room can choose to ignore each other, we can choose to ignore God. God does not force us to have a relationship with Him, even though He constantly invites us to know Him. The reason we exist, the reason God has given us the gift of existence, is to have a relationship with Him. We should understand our relationship with God—our knowledge of Him and our interaction with Him—in terms of Revelation and Faith.
Revelation is God showing or communicating Himself to us. God reveals Himself through concepts and words. God also reveals Himself through actions and events. Revelation is God’s communication not only of Who He is and how He interacts with us, but also of how He wants us to interact with Him.
Faith is the intellectual acceptance of God’s Revelation. Faith is the knowledge we get from God’s Revelation. Revelation is God’s giving of that knowledge. For example, when we say “I believe in one God” when reciting the Creed, we are really saying, “I know there is one God because He has revealed it.”
Faith is not only accepting God as He wants to be known, but also interacting with Him as He wants to be interacted with. Faith is the acceptance of Revelation with one’s actions, will, and emotions so that one responds to God with one’s whole life. Revelation and Faith are interaction between God and believers. In other words, Revelation and Faith are the two sides of the whole relationship between God and us.
Where Revelation and Faith Meet
In a personal relationship, interaction does not automatically give better knowledge of the other person. Experience does not automatically provide insight. For example, a person can stay in an abusive relationship because he or she does not realize it is abusive. A person can be loved by others and not admit or appreciate it. Interaction and experience need to be interpreted according to true principles.
Our attempts to interact with God and to experience Him will not automatically provide knowledge of Him, but thankfully, God has solved this problem for us. He has given us the Magisterium of the Catholic Church (the bishops under the leadership of the pope) to issue doctrine, which is the authoritative interpretation of Revelation. Doctrine also defines the Faith that God wants in response to Revelation. These are the two places where we meet God.
To be Catholic is to be faithful to Catholic doctrine. If a person is not faithful to a particular doctrine, that person cannot accurately claim to be Catholic on the issue covered by that doctrine. The best single place to find Catholic doctrine is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. As Pope Francis has said:
Since the faith is one, it must be professed in all its purity and integrity. Precisely because all the articles of faith are interconnected, to deny one of them, even those that seem least important, is tantamount to distorting the whole (Lumen Fidei, 48).
The Catechism describes the Catholic Faith as having Four Pillars, which are the four basic ways of knowing God and interacting with God. The Four Pillars are these:
- Creed, which is doctrine about God and supernatural things.
- Morality, which is making our actions faithful to God.
- Worship, where we encounter God in sacred rituals as we are assembled with others.
- Prayer, where we encounter God in our own personal ways.
Morality, worship, and prayer are ways of interacting with God as He wants to be interacted with as long as they are in harmony with Catholic doctrine, which safeguards our relationship with Him.
Conscience is not an emotion or an intuition or a hunch about moral concerns. Conscience is a reasoning process that applies a doctrine to a specific situation in order to make a specific choice. Every human being, whether he is a believer or not, has a conscience. The non-believer reasons from “principles” rather than doctrines in order to make a moral choice.
Conscience can be correct or mistaken. It can make a right choice or an erroneous choice; it can come to a true conclusion or a false conclusion. Therefore conscience must be formed or educated by acquiring Catholic doctrine as the reasons for our conclusions. The formation of conscience also needs Reason, e.g., accurate information, the advice of competent people, etc. It can be greatly helped by a spiritual director, but good spiritual direction never contradicts Catholic doctrine.
Someone who is not aware that his conscience is in error and that his choice is bad is not guilty or at fault for his wrong conclusion and the sin he commits. However, when an action is bad, it is bad. Lack of awareness of an act’s sinfulness does change the nature of the act. We can still be growing away from God even when we are not aware that we are growing away from Him. Conscience allows us to grow closer to God and to avoid growing away from Him. (For more on conscience, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1776-1802.)
An Examination of Conscience
Each question below expresses a specific Catholic doctrine. As you conduct this examination of conscience, keep in mind three things. First, the following questions get at what a good Catholic should try his or her best to do. A good Catholic cannot be perfect, otherwise only God could be a good Catholic. Fidelity to doctrine is a life-long challenge, for which God has provided the Sacrament of Confession. Second, to one extent or another, everyone finds Catholic doctrine challenging. The problem is not the doctrine but our fallen human nature. Third, it is never too late to start becoming faithful to a doctrine.
- Do I seek the objective truth about all things?
- Do I recognize and appreciate objective truth, goodness, and beauty outside the Catholic Church as revelations or reflections of the one true God?
- Do I live to be in union with the one, true God Who is three Divine Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and to share in Their perfect love?
- Do I accept that the one, true God has most fully revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, Who is God the Son?
- Do I accept that Jesus Christ has most fully revealed Himself in His Death and Resurrection?
- Do I accept that Jesus Christ is best known or revealed in the Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church, which Christ Himself founded?
- Do I accept that only the Magisterium has the God-given authority to interpret Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition and thus to define the Catholic Faith in doctrines that are always and everywhere true?
- Do I accept the doctrine and discipline taught by the Magisterium while knowing that I do not have to agree with the Magisterium’s social analysis and prudential judgments?
- Do I respect the office of the Magisterium even when it is held by sinful men?
- Do I accept Catholic doctrine about salvation: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and Judgment?
- Do I accept that the Catholic Faith alone has the fullness of the means of salvation—the most complete creed, worship, morality, and prayer?
- Do I try to act according to Catholic moral doctrine, which is based on the Two Great Commandments of the New Testament and the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament? Do I love God more than anything else? Do I love others by treating them as I should want to be treated? Do I obey the Ten Commandments?
- Do I worship according to Catholic liturgical teachings, especially by participating in Mass every week on the Lord’s Day and on Holy Days of Obligation (or their vigils) and also by going to Confession regularly?
- Do I pray daily and try to discover the many forms of prayer in the Catholic Faith?
- Am I developing a unique personal relationship with God that never contradicts Catholic doctrine?
- Do I support the Church, especially a parish, to the degree my time, talent, and treasure allow?
- Am I Catholic twenty-four hours a day? Is my Catholic identity what most defines me—more than race/ethnicity, economic class, gender, sexual orientation, culture, family, personality, physical appearance, job, or anything else?
- Do I try to convert/invite non-Catholics to the Catholic Church, while respecting the religious freedom of others, by proposing and not imposing what can only be known by Faith?
When Does Lent End?
Two traditions in the Church give us two different conclusions for Lent:
The first tradition considers Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter as the Easter Triduum (as in CCC, 1168), which, therefore, makes the Wednesday before Holy Thursday (“Spy Wednesday”) the last day of Lent.
The second tradition considers Lent to be forty days in length (as in CCC, 540), which makes Holy Saturday the last day of Lent. It relies on the calculus of Lent as forty days in length by not counting any of the Sundays but by considering Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday as days in Lent.
These traditions are examples of tradition with a small “t” in the Church—as distinguished from the Sacred Tradition through which God reveals Himself. God has not revealed when Lent ends, so let us continue to examine our consciences even after Lent (whenever that is!)