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Questions of Conscience

30 November, 1999

Paul Andrews SJ discusses some of the dilemmas that we have to face when deciding what is the right thing for us to do in particular circumstances.

The Eurovision song contest depends on counting votes. These days it is done electronically, but there was a time when RTE depended on people doing sums. Forty years ago I was on the same teaching staff as a musician called Stephen, who was quite a prolific composer. He wrote a song, with words in Irish, called Gleann na Smól, an easy, catchy tune. The singer was Anna McGoldrick, and Stephen entered it in the competition for Ireland’s Eurovision entry. It reached one of the semi-finals, in which three were to be selected by the votes of the nation one Friday night. The songs were identified by letters of the alphabet, and Gleann na Smól was ‘Song M’. When the votes were in, the announcer proclaimed that ‘Song M’ was one of the three selected for the final. He should have said ‘Song N’ (Pat McGeegan singing Chance of a Lifetime) – but he got it wrong.

Shortly afterwards RTE announced that a mistake had been made, without saying what they would do about it. Next morning (we had school on Saturdays) Stephen was in an agony of doubt about what he should do. If he offered to withdraw his song, he might be doing an injustice to Anna McGoldrick (in fact that record was the real start of Anna’s singing career) but if he did not withdraw, he would be doing an injustice to McGeegan.

As he went from class to class, teaching history or religion, he shared his anguish with the boys. By midday RTE had solved the dilemma by admitting both songs, M and N, to the final, which McGeegan went on to win.

What I remember vividly is the impact on the pupils. They were amazed and impressed by Stephen’s scruples. It had not occurred to them that adults (especially priests) actually faced moral doubts and dilemmas. They took for granted that big people did what suited big people. But here was a big person in agony about the claims of justice, with no thought of his own interest. It made a deeper impression than any religion class they had ever sat through.

As I remember the story, I wonder: when was the last time I really agonized over a moral decision? Non-Catholics accuse us of not paying enough attention to our conscience. As children we obey our parents; and as adult Catholics we may rely too much on detailed moral prescriptions from the Church.

In Ireland, the clerical side of the Church has sometimes been too quick to instruct and decide moral issues that are better left to individuals. Think of the agonies of families divided by civil war, or by hunger strikes, or by marriage or family problems. If you ask the Vatican to decide such questions, it will probably give an answer and a decision; in many cases the answer should be: Consult your conscience.

Since the Second Vatican Council we find it easier to say: Follow your conscience. The Council made it clear that God’s voice speaks to us, first of all, through our own conscience, i.e. through our own judgement of what is right or wrong. Following your conscience is quite different from ‘doing your own thing’. It means doing what is right and good, no matter what it costs us.

If that is true for adults, it is also true for bright and educated girls and boys. They are no longer parroting back the moral edicts of teachers, but are digging within themselves and coming up with value judgments that carry personal conviction.

Does this mean that sincerity matters most – ‘I am doing this because I feel it is right for me’? No, we are not talking about feeling but about judgments, which means you have to use your head. You are not looking for your truth but for the truth. It is objectivity that is being sought, not sincerity.

That is an advanced stage of moral development. We work through the primitive stages, where the main commandment is Thou shalt not get caught. We may linger in the authoritarian stage, where you rely on the Boss, or someone in power, to make the decisions for you. In Hitler’s Germany, the Nazis accepted that killing Jews and gypsies was OK because the Führer approved it.

A developed conscience knows that killing or stealing is wrong, no matter if the State or the media or the TV soaps say it is OK. We try to bring ourselves, and then our children, from these pre-moral stages to the morality of the Golden Rule, to love God and our neighbour as ourselves.

Forty years ago, Fr. Stephen Redmond found it difficult, in the pressure of the moment, to decide how to act without doing an injustice to one side or the other. Our photograph (Messenger January 2009) shows him still listening, still agonizing – and in fact he is still composing music, forty years after Gleann na Smól – and still trying to shape his life on the wonderful words of the prophet Micah (6:8): ‘What does the Lord require of you but to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God?’

We do not carry out those commands in a vacuum. We are always under pressure, from children or parents or neighbours, from those we love or those who have power over us; or from poverty. To act justly and love tenderly has cost some martyrs their lives. It is not a light vocation to which we are called.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (January 2009), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.