But thanks be to God that, although you were once slaves of sin, you have become obedient from the heart to the pattern of teaching to which you were entrusted.Romans 6:17
Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.Luke 12:48
Pope Francis sparked much controversy within the boundaries of the Church when, in Amoris Laetitia, he reasserted the core orthodox teaching of the primacy of human conscience. Later in a teleconference with Italian Bishops he reinforced this teaching by telling them the role of the priest is to inform the consciences of the faithful but not to replace them. He then, however, qualified a common misunderstanding about the primacy of conscience: “The contemporary world risks confusing the primacy of conscience, which must always be respected, with the exclusive autonomy of an individual with respect to his or her relations.”
Sometimes in the realm of moral theology such discussions can become somewhat abstract. This is the level at which such strong and sometimes vicious disagreements arise, as occurred in this case. Some church leaders have gone so far as to declare the Pope a heretic. If we remain close to and reflective on both the actual teachings of the gospel and our actual human experience, however, we know the truth and the orthodoxy of Pope Francis’ stance.
Perhaps there is no more significant a document, after the gospels themselves, in our understanding of the teaching of Jesus than the Letter to the Romans. Paul here is attempting to describe, based on his own experience of conversion, the “freedom and liberation never before imagined” that is the gift of faith in Jesus and the power of his resurrection. To truly receive that gift and so to enter into the life of Jesus is to be free from the law. Yet, in today’s reading from Romans, Paul tells us that we are to be “slaves of obedience,” slaves of the One we obey who is Jesus. As if he realizes, as he writes, that to be free yet a slave can seem contradictory, he offers a brilliant insight into how obedience becomes freedom. It is by becoming “obedient from the heart to the pattern of teaching to which you were entrusted.”
Long before we developed a conscience, we knew that if we did things we were told not to do we would suffer the consequences. We obeyed because not to would create unpleasant and painful circumstances for us. This remains the level of moral development that at times the church has fostered in its members. We are to behave if we desire the reward of heaven, and we are to refuse the attractions of sin if we want to avoid hell. As Pope Francis might say, this is the replacing of our own conscience by the authority of the Church.
What Paul describes is what Pope Francis calls the informing of our conscience, not only by the church but also by respect to all of our relations. We know freedom from the law to the degree that we become “obedient from the heart to the pattern of teaching” with which we have been entrusted. That teaching is the teaching of our faith and formation tradition, which is constituted by the Church and by all the ways we learn of what it means to become truly human and humane. In the gospels, there is no deeper description of the truly moral and humane than the Beatitudes. Note, however, that the Beatitudes are seldom the grist for doctrinal and theological argument. The reason is that the Beatitudes describe dispositions of heart. They cannot be legislated or imposed through threat of punishment. They are descriptions of a person who has become “obedient from the heart to the pattern of teaching.”
Paul fully understands that the true disciple of Jesus and the one who has been transformed by the renewal of his or her mind is not merely a keeper of the law, but one whose very heart has become the living sense and meaning of the law.
We often hear it said that faith is a gift. And so when we hear Jesus say that “much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more,” we realize that to know Jesus and the life that God has given us in him demands a response of us. As today’s gospel reminds us, to know what we should do and fail to do it is far more blameworthy than not to know and fail to do it. So, what is the primary responsibility that faith demands of us? It is to give form to our lives and to the world by forming our hearts in accordance with the “teaching we have received.” It is to become poor in spirit, merciful, meek, courageous in suffering, hungry and thirsty for holiness, pure of heart and instruments of peace. It is to realize that we are first of all to be in the world the instrument of God’s grace that is our unique call.
When Jesus says to the Samaritan Woman that God is spirit and true worshippers are to worship in spirit and in truth, he is telling her and us that we are to live our lives as worship by being true to the spirit that is the source and life of the world and that resides “in the innermost recesses of our being and its field of presence.” The “freedom and liberation” promised by the Fundamental Principles is experienced to the degree that we forego the illusion of our “self” as autonomous and separate and rather understand that to live is to be in dialogue with the Mystery that “keeps naming us uniquely” and with the whole of the field of formation that we are.
That field of formation, all that we read, learn, and study, all those whom we meet and to whom we relate, the “common, ordinary and unspectacular” situations in which we live our daily lives, and the global realities of our time are constantly inter-forming with that secret name that has been given to us from all eternity by God. As we continually are formed into a deeper recognition and incarnation of that name, we live in and form the world increasingly in spirit and in truth, as our conscience becomes ever more attuned to God’s truth.
Every great wisdom tradition is a way to the fulfillment of our human possibility as a unique image of God’s love for the world. It is a path to the obedient realization of God’s will for our lives in every common and ordinary aspect of them. Finally, to have really lived our lives is to sound with the name and call that is our true spiritual identity. Our great task is to form our hearts so that they may form our entire life and world with those dispositions that are consonant, that sound with, that identity. God is continually, in every moment, situation, and encounter “naming us uniquely.” To hear that call, however, requires that we must remain in contact with “the still point of our soul.” This is why what we term contemplation must be inseparable from every action, if we are not to be strangers to ourselves, if we are to act and worship in spirit and in truth.
When I was young much of what I took to be worship or prayer was an attempt to realize my own idealized self. There was a lot of performance in my worship, and in my life. I wanted to express and to be seen as the person I wanted to be. When this is our motivation, whatever good we do, we are only, as Paul says, “noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.” My own discontent, fear, and shame made it very difficult for me to do the one thing necessary, to be still enough to draw near and to be in the still point of my soul. It is only there that we can hear God calling us by name, calling us uniquely. It is only from there that we learn how we are to develop and live in our unique way the dispositions of poverty of spirit, mercy, meekness, peace, purity of heart, courage in suffering, hunger and thirst for holiness.
The basic disposition of the heart is to find and foster consonance that is both nourished by awe and in turn fosters this same awe disposition. Consonance is obedience to the mystery as it reveals itself in the innermost recesses of our being and its field of presence. It calls us by name; it invites us to form our life and its field in harmony with that name. This is not merely the categorical name that identifies us functionally in government records or on our driver’s license or credit card. It is a secret name, one that points to our transcendent destiny, a name known fully only to the mystery of formation.Adrian van Kaam, Formation of the Human Heart, p. 3
In spontaneous natural contemplation, we may be graced with the awareness that we cannot live consonant lives if we remain aloof from the still point of our soul. There the transcendent keeps naming us uniquely. To miss that name would mean the miscarriage of our life. We would remain nameless strangers to ourselves, numbed refugees with an unknown destiny, dissonant players in the mighty concert of consonance that orchestrates the universe.