September 12, 2021 – On Conscience

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Readings || Lecturas


Previous Years: 2018

Preached at Assumption Parish in Bellingham, WA


I have had to do a lot of discussion around conscience in the last couple weeks and it has become clear that I need to teach about this concept more broadly, so that is what we are going to discuss today. I am sorry if this is dense or uninspiring, but it is necessary.

There is always a tension between the objective world, the world outside of ourselves, and the subjective world, the world inside of ourselves. On the one hand, we all agree that there is a world outside of ourselves and that it has certain characteristics – facts, we might call them – which are just true, regardless of our opinion. On the other hand, we can only access these facts through our own, subjective experience of them. Whatever fact I may consider, I always consider it internally.

Objective information is objective because it is shared. We can all directly observe the sky, so the more of us who look at the sky and say that it is blue, the more we can trust that it is, in fact, blue. Subjective experiences, however, cannot be shared. If I am sad, I am the only one experiencing that sadness directly. Other people might trust me when I say I am sad, but they cannot feel my feeling for themselves.

Note that the “sky is blue” and “I am sad” can both be regarded as truestatements, we just know that they are true in different ways. I know the sky is blue because everyone agrees that the sky is blue. I know that I am sad because I experience my own sadness. One is not truer than the other.

If I can go on a brief tangent, this is the tension between faith and works explored in our second reading. We are, in fact, saved by faith, which is the internal alignment of our entire being with the truth of the Lord. But because faith is, necessarily, internal, it is subjective and can never be proven. Only I can observe my faith directly. Works, however, are objective because they can be observed by all.

Hence the challenge of St. James at the end of the reading: “Demonstrate your faith to me without works.” This is impossible, because faith is subjective and can never be externally demonstrated. “And I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.” Faith is only demonstrated when it flowers and becomes observable in the external movement of works. It is the same, unified movement, with faith on the inside and works on the outside.

Conscience, then, is the subjective source of morality.

Objectively, we can know what is good and what is evil by looking to four sources. The first source is the Natural Law, that is, our inferences about good and evil from studying the plan of our Creator built into Creation itself. The second source is the self-revelation of God given to us in the Scriptures. The third source is the teachings of the Church guided by the Holy Spirit. And the fourth source is the examples and writings of the saints.

Subjectively, however, we can also learn about good and evil by looking inside ourselves to our consciences, our internal voices of moral authority. The Church is actually very optimistic about our consciences, teaching that, at their best, they are an accurate reflection of the voice of God speaking to our hearts. And because God cannot contradict himself, the Church generally assumes that the objective truth from the Natural Law, the Scriptures, the Church, and the saints is by default in accord with the subjective truth that we find in our consciences.

We should note, of course, that the stakes are higher than just knowledge here. Unlike general knowledge, which does not require action, the knowledge of good and evil compels us to act in specific ways. Once we know what is good and what is evil, we are obliged to do the good and avoid the evil, which is why this conversation is so important.

So why do we need two sources of truth? One answer is that the objective sources of truth can generally only deal with broad, universal ideas. The Scriptural admonition that we must serve the poor, for example, is very broad and rarely goes into the specifics of societal structures or economic policies. The subjective realm of conscience is where we take these broad, universal truths, we internalize them, and then we apply them to specific situations. In both cases we are, hopefully, listening to the voice of God, sometimes as he speaks to all of humanity objectively and sometimes as he speaks to our own hearts subjectively. Our conscience, however, is specifically what compels us to act, once it has been properly informed by objective sources of moral teachings.

Unfortunately, there are situations in which objective and subjective moral truths seem to conflict. We all know Catholics, or we might even be Catholics, who believe that they, personally, must act in a way contrary to the truths of the Natural Law, the Scriptures, the Church, and the saints. How do we deal with such situations?

First, we have to remember that Scripture and Church teaching are infallible that is, protected by the Holy Spirit from error. If a person finds themselves in conflict with infallible teaching, then it is their conscience that must be wrong, not the Church. Such a person’s first obligation would be to try to reform their conscience to be in accord with objective truth.

However, sometimes someone is completely unable to reform their conscience. Most of the time this is due to a personal choice, like the fundamental choice to trust the teachings of a political party more than the teachings of the Church. Occasionally the inability to reform happens through no fault of the person, like victims of clergy abuse who are emotionally unable to trust the Church. In either case, if someone cannot reform their subjective truth to be in accord with objective truth, things get a little weird, because two conflicting obligations emerge.

Both obligations begin with the starting point that we all must do good and avoid evil. Subjectively, this means that if a person is absolutely convinced that something is evil, they must avoid it, even if the thing itself is not evil. If a person is absolutely convinced that serving the poor is evil, then they cannot serve the poor, because then they will be voluntarily choosing to do something that they believe is evil. We cannot ever choose evil, even if we are completely mistaken about the nature of evil. We cannot ever avoid good, even if we are completely mistaken about what is good. In this sense, the Church is always on the side of conscience rights, because we can never force someone to do something that they themselves consider to be evil.

That said, conscience is not a get-out-of-jail-free card that allows us to do whatever we want. Even if the person themself is obligated to follow their conscience, this does not change the nature of objective truth. Those responsible for that person, like their families, friends, or pastors, are still obligated to try to reform their malformed conscience. If a person believes serving the poor is evil, the rest of us are obligated to try to convince them otherwise, that is, to convert them back to the teachings of the Natural Law, the Scriptures, the Church, and the saints.

This is why Church teaching is so often misrepresented on the subject of conscience. The Church recognizes, understands, and even teaches the personal obligation to follow one’s own conscience, even while the Church herself may simultaneously punish or even excommunicate someone in an attempt to reform a malformed conscience. Conscience rights must be respected, because we can never force someone to do something that they consider to be evil, but those rights do not mean that conscience will be without consequence, inside or outside of the Church.

I will not be exploring the practical implications of these teachings in this homily, though I am sure some of you can extrapolate them. Instead, I want to finish by emphasizing, once again, that they default Catholic assumption is that the objective and subjective are working together for the good. The teachings of the faith and the individual conscience are both assumed, until proven otherwise, to be accurate reflections of the voice of God in a person’s life because that is how God created them to be. We are made for harmony, and when our internal truths match our external truths, when our works reflect our faith, and when our consciences match the teachings of the Church, that harmony flowers and fulfills us. That harmony sets us free to live a truly beautiful human life, inside and out.


Me han dicho que la gente apreció mi homilía la semana pasada sobre por qué apago mi micrófono a veces, por qué cantamos las partes de la Misa y lo importante que creo que es para nosotros estar en unidad cuando celebramos la Misa juntos.

Así que he decidido continuar enseñando sobre la Misa. Esto significa que dejaré las Escrituras por algunas semanas, así que por favor oren por ellas en casa durante toda la semana.

Quiero enseñarte en qué pensar durante cada parte de la Misa, para que sepas cómo rezar en la Misa.

La primera parte de la Misa es la reunión del pueblo. Ciertamente esto es práctico, porque necesitamos que todos ingresen a la Iglesia, pero también es profundamente teológico. Antes de Jesús, Dios habló a la humanidad a través de los judíos. Dios eligió a un pueblo muy específico, que eventualmente se aisló étnica y religiosamente. Pero después de que Jesús ascendió al cielo, la salvación de Dios se extendió a todas las personas a través de la nueva religión cristiana. San Pablo es muy claro en que todas las personas son salvas por medio de Cristo, personas de todas las culturas, razas y condiciones económicas.

Entonces, ¿cómo rezamos cuando nos reunimos para la Misa? Debemos ofrecer oraciones de acción de gracias a Dios, gracias porque ahora estamos incluidos entre su pueblo elegido. Deberíamos ver a toda la gente – jóvenes y viejos, ricos y pobres, de muchos países diferentes – y deberíamos sorprendernos de que el Cuerpo de Cristo contenga a toda la humanidad, no solo a una raza o clase de personas.

Una vez que ingresamos a la iglesia, comenzamos a prepararnos para la celebración de la Misa. Querremos reconocer el tabernáculo de alguna manera, ya sea persignándonos al pasar o haciendo una genuflexión. Algunas personas incluso llegan lo suficientemente temprano para pasar un minuto con el tabernáculo antes de ir a su banco. Después de llegar a nuestro banco, queremos empezar a calmarnos, interna y externamente, para estar listos para orar. No deberíamos tener conversaciones largas o ruidosas en los bancos. En cambio, debemos aclarar nuestras mentes y nuestros corazones para que Jesús pueda llenarlos con su presencia durante la Misa. Por eso es tan importante llegar temprano a la Misa, porque sin ese momento de silencio antes de la Misa, es muy difícil. rezar durante la misa.

Personalmente, cuando iba a mi banco antes de la Misa, intentaba poner todas mis cargas sobre Jesús. Le llevaría todos los pensamientos y oraciones en mi corazón, y se los daría, para no tener que llevar ese equipaje durante la misa.

Luego vienen los anuncios de la parroquia. Seré honesto contigo, no hay buen momento para los anuncios. Creo que son mejores antes de la Misa que después de la comunión, pero aun así arruinan el espíritu de oración justo antes de comenzar la Misa. En la Misa en español, comenzamos a hacer muchos de los anuncios después de la comunión porque la gente llega tan tarde que Preocuparse de que no se enteren de lo que está sucediendo en la parroquia si lo hacemos antes de la misa.

Si desea orar por algo durante los anuncios, ore por el éxito de nuestra parroquia y la fuerza de nuestra comunidad parroquial.

Después de esto, finalmente llegamos a la misa misma. La Misa siempre comienza con algo que se canta, generalmente llamado antífona. Si estuviéramos celebrando la Misa como lo hacen en Roma, la antífona sería lo único que cantamos, y sonaría mucho como un Salmo Responsorial, con la gente cantando el estribillo y el cantor cantando los versos. Esta antífona nos da un tema teológico sobre el que reflexionar antes de que comience la misa. En los Estados Unidos a menudo agregamos un himno, ya sea como reemplazo de la antífona o para ser cantado antes de la antífona. El propósito del himno es entusiasmar a la gente acerca de la Misa y ayudar a las personas a sentirse unidas entre sí a través del canto común.

Rezamos esta parte de la Misa cantando junto con el himno (excepto ahora con COVID) o escuchando, reflexionando y orando sobre la antífona.

Mientras toda esta música continúa, el sacerdote avanza por el pasillo principal, a veces acompañado por un servidor y un diácono. El sacerdote es especial porque proviene del Cuerpo de Cristo, es un católico bautizado normal como todos los demás, pero también está a la cabeza del Cuerpo de Cristo en el lugar de Jesús. El hecho de que comience con la gente antes de ir al altar es un símbolo teológico importante. Su procesión por el altar es su transformación de ser un católico normal a estar en el lugar de Jesús.

Una vez que el sacerdote llega a la silla, hacemos la señal de la Cruz, porque siempre nos recordamos a nuestro Dios que es Padre, Hijo y Espíritu Santo, y nos recordamos que solo somos salvos a través de la Cruz.

Luego el sacerdote nos saluda con el “El Señor este con ustedes”. Una de las formas de pensar en la Misa es como un banquete elegante. Cuando el sacerdote saluda así a la gente, es Jesús el anfitrión, dando la bienvenida a todo su pueblo a este banquete del cordero.

Pasamos de aquí al Rito Penitencial. Es como lavarnos las manos en la cena. Hemos estado fuera de la iglesia toda la semana, ensuciándonos con pecados y fallas. Antes de que podamos comer, debemos limpiarnos las manos disculpándonos con Dios y pidiéndole perdón.

Una vez que nos hemos lavado el alma, cantamos el Gloria (o, durante COVID, decimos el Gloria). Este es un himno antiguo, y el propósito de cantar el Gloria es como cantar el himno nacional antes de los juegos deportivos. Queremos recordarnos a nosotros mismos lo que creemos y a quién estamos honrando, y queremos hacerlo en una canción. Solo cantamos la Gloria los domingos y días festivos porque estos son nuestros días más elegantes.

Finalmente, rezamos una oración llamada “Colecta”. Se supone que esta oración reúne todos nuestros pensamientos, sentimientos y oraciones y todo lo demás que hemos traído a la Misa con nosotros, y ofrece estas cosas a Dios. Cuando digo “Oremos”, se supone que debes ofrecer tu propia oración a Dios primero durante el breve período de silencio. Intentaré dejar más tiempo para esto. Luego, la oración del sacerdote reúne todas nuestras oraciones individuales y se las ofrece a Dios juntas. Continuaré esta serie en las próximas semanas con una discusión sobre la Liturgia de la Palabra.

Español (Original English Text)

I am told that people appreciated my homily last week about why I turn off my microphone sometimes, why we chant the Mass parts, and how important I think it is for us to be in unity when we celebrate the Mass together.

So I have decided to continue teaching about the Mass. This means that I will be leaving behind the Scriptures for a few weeks, so please do pray over them at home throughout the week.

I want to teach you what to think about during each part of the Mass, so that you know how to pray at Mass.

The first part of the Mass is the gathering of the people. Certainly this is practical, because we need to get everyone into the Church, but it is also deeply theological. Before Jesus, God spoke to humanity through the Jews. God chose a very specific people, who eventually became ethnically and religiously isolated. But after Jesus Ascended into Heaven, the salvation of God was extended to all people through the brand-new Christian religion. St. Paul is very clear that all people are saved through Christ, people of every culture and race and economic status.

So how do we pray when we gather for Mass? We should offer prayers of thanksgiving to God, thanks that we are now included amongst his chosen people. We should see all the people – young and old, rich and poor, from many different countries – and we should be amazed that the Body of Christ contains all of humanity, not just one race or class of people.

Once we enter the church, we start to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Mass. We will want to acknowledge the tabernacle somehow, either by crossing ourselves when we pass, or by genuflecting. Some people even arrive early enough to spend a minute with the tabernacle before going to their pew. After we get to our pew, we want to start to quiet ourselves down, internally and externally, so that we are ready to pray. We should not be having long or loud conversations in the pews. Instead, we should be clearing our minds and clearing our hearts so that Jesus can fill them with his presence during Mass. This is why it is so important to show up to Mass early, because without that quiet time before Mass, it is very hard to pray during Mass.

Personally, when I would go to my pew before Mass, I would try to lay all of my burdens on Jesus. I would bring him all of the thoughts and prayers on my heart, and I would give them to him, so that I would not have to carry that baggage during Mass.

Next come the announcements from the parish. I will be honest with you, there are no good time for announcements. I think they are better before the Mass than after communion, but they still mess up the spirit of prayer right before we start Mass. At the Spanish Mass, we have started doing many of the announcements after communion because people are arriving so late that we worry they will not hear what is happening at the parish if we do them before Mass.

If you want to pray about anything during the announcements, pray for the success of our parish and the strength of our parish community.

After this, we finally arrive at the Mass itself. The Mass always starts with something being sung, usually called an antiphon. If we were celebrating the Mass like they do in Rome, the antiphon would be the only thing that we sing, and it would sound a lot like a Responsorial Psalm, with the people singing the refrain and the cantor singing the verses. This antiphon gives us a theological theme to reflect on before Mass begins. In the United States we often add a hymn, either as a replacement to the antiphon, or to be sung before the antiphon. The purpose of the hymn is to excite people about the Mass and to help people feel united to each other through common song.

We pray this part of the Mass by singing along with the hymn (except for right now with COVID) or by listening to, reflecting on, and praying about the antiphon.

While all of this music is going on, the priest is processing down the main aisle, sometimes accompanied by a server and a deacon. The priest is special because he comes from the Body of Christ – he is a normal, baptized Catholic like everyone else – but he also stands at the head of the Body of Christ in the place of Jesus. The fact that he starts with the people before going to the altar is an important theological symbol. His procession down the altar is his transformation from being a normal Catholic to standing in the place of Jesus.

Once the priest arrives at the chair, we make the sign of the Cross, because we always remind ourselves of our God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and we remind ourselves that we are only saved through the Cross.

Then the priest greets us with the “El Senor este con ustedes”. One of the ways to think of the Mass is like a fancy banquet. When the priest greets the people in this way, he is Jesus the host, welcoming all of his people to this banquet of the lamb.

We go from here to the Penitential Rite. This is like washing our hands at the dinner. We have been outside of the church all week, getting dirty with sins and failings. Before we can eat, we must cleans our hands by apologizing to God and asking his forgiveness.

Once we have washed our souls, we sing the Gloria (or, during COVID, we say the Gloria). This is an ancient hymn, and the purpose of singing the Gloria is like singing the national anthem before sports games. We want to remind ourselves what we believe and who we are honoring, and we want to do so in song. We only sing the Gloria on Sundays and feast days because these are our fanciest days.

Finally, we pray a prayer called the “Collect”. This prayer is supposed to collect all of our thoughts and feelings and prayers and everything else we have brought to the Mass with us, and to offer these things up to God. When I say “Let us pray” you are actually supposed to offer your own prayer to God first during the brief period of silence. I will try to leave more time for this. Then the priest’s prayer gathers all of our individual prayers up and offers them to God together. I will continue this series in future weeks with a discussion of the Liturgy of the Word.

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