A Truly False Conscience

The editor of Light and Peace remarks how some people with a sincere desire to serve God fear that they might have a false conscience, that they might be laboring under a deceptive self-illusion that makes them think they are following the right path but have gone astray. The editor discusses two ways in which a false conscience is formed.

“First, by choosing among our duties those for which we feel most attraction and natural tendency, and then, in order to give ourselves up to them more than is necessary, to persuade ourselves we can neglect the others. Thus a person with a preference for exterior acts of religion will spend all day praying or attending sermons and offices of the Church and considers herself very devout, although she may have been neglecting her temporal duties. Another, being differently disposed, will apply herself exclusively to the duties of her state of life, sacrificing to them without regret those of religion, quite convinced that one who is faithful in all the domestic relations, and gives to every one his due, cannot possibly be otherwise than pleasing to God.”

“The second way of making a false conscience consists in giving the preference in our esteem and practice to those among the Christian virtues which find their analogies in our natural dispositions, for there is not one of the virtues that has not its correlative amongst the various qualities of the human character. Persons of a gentle and placid disposition will affect meekness, the practice of which will be very easy for them and require no effort; and imagining they exercise a Christian virtue when in reality they only follow a natural bent, they are liable to fall into a culpable weakness. Those who, on the contrary, have an exact and rigid mind will esteem justice and order above all else, making small account of meekness and charity; and thus justifying themselves falsely by their natural temperament, they follow the tendency of the flesh whilst believing they obey the spirit, and may easily become addicted to excessive severity.”

How does one turn a false conscience into a true conscience? “Saint Francis de Sales recommends us to watch carefully over our natural tendencies and to substitute for them as much as possible the inspirations of grace, which he calls living according to the spirit: ‘To live according to the spirit,’ he writes, ‘is to think, speak and act according to the virtues that are of the spirit, and not according to the senses and feelings which are of the flesh. These latter we should make serve us, but we must hold them in subjection and not allow them to control us; whereas with the spiritual virtues it is just the reverse; we should serve them and bring everything else under subjection to them.'”

Quotations from Carlo Giuseppe Quadrupani, Light and Peace: Instructions for Devout Souls to Dispel Their Doubts and Allay Their Fears (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1898).

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