RECENTLY, inside a plane, I had a glimpse of a person’s soul. The glimpse was unintended. My seat was next to the aisle and to my left were two other seats near the window. Seated were two men who actually had just met. I closed my eyes to catch some sleep.
Before long, the two were having an animated conversation, although one did most of the talking. He was gushing unabashedly about the physical allure of the stewardesses. He then confessed to having only recently gotten married. Meanwhile, his conversation partner mentioned that he was working with an NGO. This prompted him to say how he hopes one day to reach out to the voiceless as a lawyer since he was taking up law. He also said that he gives financial help to the Missionaries of Charity, preferring them to a parish since he sees where the money goes.
The man remembered minute details of people, places, and events. I marveled at how God had delivered him from harm. “A week before the MV Princess of the Sea went down,” he said, “I was on it. I had taken the vessel so many times before that I knew many of the workers on it. I could have been on it.”
I continued closing my eyes while praying for this anonymous soul and his journey. I saw his aspirations and struggles. Both gifted and flawed, aspiring to do good yet driven by lower instincts, he had dreams that refused to die yet was coming to grips with his mortality. Baptized a Catholic, he was uncomfortable with what he judged as a lack of transparency in his parish.
For me, the ambivalent poles in the life of this unknown person represent the great challenge of formation of conscience. Conscience, which is “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man (where) he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths,” must be approached with the greatest sensitivity and even awe. We are treading, after all, on holy ground. This secret core, as one bishop puts it, is “the greatest untapped resource of the Church.”
How can we journey with such souls and strengthen the voice within commanding them to “do good and avoid evil” in a society that has all but canonized the so-called “lesser evil”? What questions and truths need to be shared so that their goodness may shine even more? How can the goodness inherent and latent in their persons be activated and channeled amidst their own doubts and brokenness? How can we form consciences that are sensitive to social issues and not just their individual relationship with God? How can we as Church become a more credible formator of conscience?
The challenges are enormous. Less than one out of every ten adult Catholics has had adult catechism. Globalization and the media are a mixed blessing. While contributing to a world without borders now described as “flat,” these often espouse relativism and permissiveness, making moral absolutes and even faith look out of touch with reality.
Yet formation of conscience is a duty and within the competence of the Church. The gospel readings of the last two Sundays of October deal with this competence and lay the groundwork for the Church’s engagement in public life.
When Jesus’ opponents seek to trap him, he tells them to “give to Caesar, the things that are Caesar’s and to God, the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). He reminds his listeners of their debt to both the Roman emperor and to God. The way the imperative is constructed in v. 21 shows that while one has obligations to the State, this obligation is relative to one’s greater obligations to God. The two authorities are unequal. Cesar is not on the same level as God. Even the syntactical arrangement of v. 21 shows this since what is usual in Jewish argumentation is to start with the lesser to the greater, the lesser being “Cesar” and the greater being “God.”
For Matthew God is the greatest reality: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” (Mat 6:33). Hence, “when those demands are not at odds (as here), obligations to both can be met (cf. Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:17). In cases of conflict, however, it is manifest which authority requires allegiance.” After all, Jesus himself says that no one can serve two masters who are at odds with each other (Mat 6:24).
The “things of God” include the primacy of conscience. Formation of correct conscience demands that the inner voice of God be obeyed vis-à-vis the Word of God and the teachings of the Church. The proposed reproductive health bill makes a mockery of conscience and imposes a secularist mindset. The “things of Caesar” seek to dominate the “things of God.”
A few verses later, in Mat 22: 34-40, there is convergence between the “things of Caesar” with the “things of God” when Jesus connects love of God with love of neighbor. The two commandments, from Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18, form a single whole. Matthew’s community has an expanded view of “neighbor” which goes beyond blood, ethnic, or even religious ties (Mat 5: 43). Anyone in need is neighbor: “Whatever you did for one of my least brothers, you did it for me” (Mat 25:40). This is echoed in 1 John 4:20: “One who has no love for the brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen.”
This constitutes a biblical basis for heroic Christian citizenship and leadership since acts of good citizenship and leadership can express one’s love of God and love of neighbor. By segregating garbage, falling and staying in line, coming on time, to give but three examples, we are actually loving God and neighbor. We are being good stewards of our God-given resources and being considerate to others.
This is a message that needs to be told more loudly. I suspect the anonymous Filipino on the plane would appreciate it.
(For comments, kindly email: firstname.lastname@example.org)