Conscience Forming (Part II): Charity

On the heels of last day's post about the proper formation of one's conscience, I thought a brief look at examining growth in that area would be appropriate. All of us, if we hope to truly grow closer to the Lord, need to be able to recognize some guideposts in order to tell which direction we are moving, or if we are even moving at all. If we are fortunate enough to have access to the last item I recommended, i.e. a holy and wise priest as a spiritual father for our journey, these signs will be easier to recognize and grow from. The reality is, however, that most Catholics either don't have immediate access to a priest for the amount of time it requires for spiritual direction, or just simply don't feel comfortable in approaching one for such a thing. In either case, if someone really feels prompted to follow the Lord's call more closely in his or her own life, I would urge them to fully trust the Church's wisdom in this matter and seek out a solid spiritual father. We can only do so much on our own, and the counsel and prayer of a holy director does inestimable good in augmenting our own spiritual awareness. Thus, I do not intend to substitute for such a relationship in these posts, but simply to address some fundamental points that should help any of us see the Lord's face more clearly.

One indispensable and very noticeable aspect of being formed in conscience is the degree of charity we have for our friends and neighbors. Quite obviously, charity is the groundwork of the whole Christian life, as well as its ultimate goal; after all, Deus caritas est: "God is love." If we want to gauge our progress in our own personal formation, we need look no further than our consciousness and exercise of charity. When we are being formed in conscience, we are being formed in a disposition of love, since all decisions we make in conscience should ultimately call us to self-giving and Christ-like love. Formation in conscience is not formation in virtue though, and so we cannot simply equate the two; someone who is genuinely charitable may be terribly misinformed about what is right and wrong in a certain situation. Forming one's conscience allows for a formation in virtue. When we are properly formed, and thereby disposed to better decisions in our moral life, an increase in charity naturally follows.

Oftentimes, this distinction is misunderstood in a manner that leads some to great confusion. We must not simply think that all charity is good enough; there are some ways of loving that are higher and more perfect than others. For example, if someone believes they love another person and decides to express that love in sexual activity outside the bond of marriage, there is a level of love being expressed, but certainly not the highest degree of love possible; here, the love is more self-centered than self-donating, and this selfish form of affection ultimately leads to a grave sin (wherein we love ourselves above God). Thus, love does not equal a well-formed conscience. Rather, if a Catholic is properly formed in conscience, they realize that such behavior is not intended by God and that the same sexual activity should be reserved to marriage: a formed decision resulting in a greater and more perfect exchange of love. Although this example is a rather clear one, the same principle applies in all situations. We cannot ever presume that our love is pure unless we have based that expression of love on an understanding of the situation that is formed according to the truths of the faith.

In the end, love is the true test of our lives as Christians. If our understanding of reality lessens our ability to love authentically, then we haven't understood the truth of reality authentically. All formation of conscience, all learning about our faith and the world we live in is designed to free us to love God with our whole heart, mind and soul, and to love our neighbor as ourself. If we keep this objective in mind, becoming formed in conscience will be much easier and more realistic.