After the recitation of the Our Father at every Mass, the priest prays to the Lord: "In your mercy keep us free from sin…"
When people pray for freedom, perhaps they pray first for freedom from illness or violence or misfortune; but at each Mass we pray for freedom from sin, because sin is the basic form of slavery. During Lent, we undertake an examination of our lives in the light of God's mercy. We discover again our own sinfulness and taste again the forgiveness won for us by Christ on the cross. To examine ourselves, we search our conscience; to obtain forgiveness, we confess our sins and receive absolution.
What is conscience? For some, it seems to be another name for moral autonomy, a little box inside that carries our willful convictions about right and wrong. For Catholics, conscience is an exercise in judgment, and right judgment on our part reflects God's judgments about right and wrong. Since we are made in God's image and likeness, if we listen carefully to how our nature itself basically orients us, our actions will conform to God's will. What gets in the way between our actions and God's will is our own sinfulness, our own willfulness. Conscience is not a matter of will; it's a work of well-ordered reason.
To help us order our actions rightly, God not only creates us in his image and likeness, he also informs us in history about his intentions for us. The Church carries the truth about God's intentions for us. When our lives are well ordered, what we judge to be right and wrong, what the Church teaches to be right and wrong, and how God wants us to act at any particular moment are all lined up and in harmony. I believe that a great deal of the private and public animosity toward the Church's teaching, especially about sexual morality and bioethics, stems from an uneasiness, a lurking suspicion that comes from our nature itself that the teaching is true and that we violate not just God's law but our own nature in willfully acting contrary to Church teaching. Rage and hatred are signs of an uneasy conscience. The inner voice of God, who uses our very nature to instruct us, is not easily stilled, even by a lifetime of bad personal and societal habits.
When, aggravated by reminders of how we should be acting, people or groups turn on the messenger, they not only work to weaken or destroy the Church; they eventually weaken and destroy their own nature, their very selves. Too many "successful" people today live in private depression and despair, covered sometimes by public braggadocio. That's a "sign of the times" that deserves better analysis. Pope Benedict XVI, speaking recently about the foundational value of human life, asked for lay people's help in forming people's consciences. A good conscience is able "to distinguish good from evil, even where the social environment, cultural pluralism and the overlay of interests do not help to this end." What is at stake is freedom: personal freedom from sin and public freedom to tell the truth about human nature and human actions.
To free us from personal sin, the Lord has given his Church the gift of the sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation. During Lent, Catholics are urged to confess their sins and receive absolution. The priest in the confessional is an active minister of God's infinite mercy. A good confessor is also a frequent penitent, knowing personally both the reality of sin and the limitless, renovating power of God's love, which constantly restores life. God uses the confessor to restore friendship broken by sin. Only as new creatures, freed from sin's slavery, can we recognize and celebrate the Lord's resurrection from the dead.
Our private freedom is incomplete without public freedom to live as God's creatures and brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. Last week, at the Library of Congress, I gave a talk on the erosion of the legal protections for religious freedom in the past fifty years. Much of this erosion is due to the Supreme Court's interpreting the First Amendment to the Constitution as a means to protect individuals from public and institutional expressions of faith rather than to protect religious institutions themselves as expressions of faith. Disdain for religion as such is relatively new as a social movement in American experience, although specifically anti- Catholic bigotry is older than the country itself. Today, some of the most vociferous bigots are disaffected Catholics themselves.
Freedom is a precious gift. Sometimes we destroy it ourselves, by our sinfulness; sometimes it's taken from us, both legally and illegally. During Lent, we read Exodus, the second book of Moses, the story of God's delivering the Israelites from slavery in Egypt by giving them public and social freedom in a land of his choosing. We read this story in the light of our own faith in Christ's resurrection, his breaking the shackles of our sinfulness so that he and we can live freely and in perfect conformity with his Father's will.
We might start our personal examination of conscience this Lent by asking how we have, individually and as a people, betrayed the freedom God gives us in creation and Christ won for us through his passion, death and resurrection. With a well-formed and well-examined conscience, use Lent to confess your sins and experience anew the freedom of the sons and daughters of God. Then work to protect religious liberty and the freedom of the Church in our country. God bless you.