Here's a "lost & found" essay--I wrote it for Beliefnet about a year ago, but 
at the time they were swamped with material and put it on the back burner. (I 
had just finished reading Alison Weir's wonderful book, "The Six Wives of 
Henry VIII," which depicts the evolution of a convenient conscience in 
sobering detail.) So this was on the waiting list at Bnet and then, sometime 
last summer, they published it--but didn't tell me. Anyway, here it is, a 
piece I am fond of, so I'm glad to know it finally saw the light. 

Everything for the MG's is cooking along well. Fr Gregory and I are delighted 
to announce that Grandbaby # 4 (Megan's second baby) is due in July. Our own 
baby, Stephen, will be 20 in a couple of weeks, so we'll be through with the 
teenager thing entirely (for a dozen years, anyway, till all these 
grandbabies hit at once.) 

Last summer some of you were praying for Grandbaby # 3, Isaac, born last May, 
and who was diagnosed soon after birth as blind, and then as having 
intermittent vision. Then a whole lot of other scary possibilities, in the 
wake of an MRI and other tests. Now he appears to be perfectly 
fine--bright-eyed, jolly, with electrostatic hair that waves above his head 
at heights of several inches like dandelion fluff. There's certainly no sign 
that he has any problems with vision, or with anything else for that matter. 
What was that all about? Not that we're complaining! May all our troubles 
vanish like this. 


Jiminy Cricket Was Wrong

Why you shouldn't always let your conscience be your guide. 

King Henry VIII was desperate. He was swept with lust for Anne Boleyn, but 
she was holding out for a wedding ring. The problem, of course, was Queen 
Katherine, who had been his loyal, forgiving wife for twenty years. 

Henry needed an annulment, but the pope kept stalling. So Henry moved 
Katharine from one damp, drafty lodging to another, reducing her provisions, 
in hopes that illness would carry her off. To break her spirit, he replaced 
her staff with hostile spies, and refused to let her see their daughter. 

Then Henry came to a brilliant solution: he would put himself in place of the 
Pope. His own conscience was "the highest and most supreme court for 
judgement and justice," he declared. As spiritual head of the nation, he 
pronounced his first marriage invalid, and Anne was finally his bride. 
Citizens were forbidden to write or say anything critical of the new 
marriage, and those who wouldn't take an oath supporting the law were 
tortured to death. 

But in a few months Henry's ardor for Anne cooled, and soon Jane Seymour was 
the object of his desire. So Henry had Anne framed for a capital crime, and 
two weeks later she was beheaded. Jane became the third of Henry's wives, 
though three more were still to come. As historian Alison Weir writes, "with 
each passing year [Henry would] become more egotistical, more sanctimonious, 
and more sure of his own divinity."

An advisor once attempted to remonstrate with Henry about his actions. "God 
and my conscience are on very good terms," Henry replied.

When Jiminy Cricket chirped "And always let your conscience be your guide" he 
probably didn't have Henry VIII in mind. Conscience can be a good guide, but 
it can also mislead. We are each born with a rudimentary, unformed 
conscience, and in its uneducated state it's kind of like an untrained 
singing voice. Most of us can squawk along with a tune to one extent or 
another, but few have perfect pitch.

There are two ways in which conscience can mislead. The first is the Henry 
Delusion, above, summarized so deftly by Debbie Boone in the line, "It can't 
be wrong if it feels so right." What we want deep down inside feels like it 
*has* to be right. Our desires burn so strong and bright that their urgency 
feels like a command. Fulfilling them seems a duty, and restraints placed by 
family or society seem merely a test of courage. 

But what "feels so right" can be mere selfishness, greed, or lust; what 
actually *is* right can feel dry, difficult, and unrewarding. When dazzled by 
the Henry Delusion, a conscience can make the wrong choice.

The other way a conscience can falter could be called the Huck Confusion. 
Picture Huck Finn, drifting on that raft, looking at Miss Watson's slave Jim. 
Huck knows that Jim was bought fair and square, and that the right thing to 
do is to return him to Miss Watson. But he wishes instead he could help his 
friend escape to freedom. 

It's a terrible struggle for Huck, because his conscience won't leave him 
alone. His conscience–like all of ours–was formed by a specific culture. In 
his community, property rights of slave owners were more important than 
liberty rights of slaves. Huck has been taught to believe that helping Jim 
would be a dastardly thing to do. But in the end, he can't resist temptation, 
and he defies his conscience: "Then I'll *go* to hell!" he declares. 

An unformed conscience takes the shape of its container–generally, the mores 
of its surrounding culture. Most of those moral guidelines are likely to be 
good, but it's possible for some to be horribly wrong, and be obliviously 
condoning or even encouraging evil in the name of good. Unfortunately, it's 
nearly impossible for a resident of any given age to discern which values are 
good and which are bad, because we dwell inside our culture like a fish in a 
fish bowl. We can't determine how much the curve of glass and water distort 
our view; at best we can acknowledge that they must be somewhat distorted. So 
how are we to tell which values to shape our consciences by, and which to 
reject? It seems only the perspective of history will be able to determine 
that. No wonder Huck is confused. 

If we can't trust our inner feelings to direct us, and we can't trust our 
current culture, how can we develop an honest, reliable conscience? 

"The perspective of history" turns out to be part of the answer. You don't 
have to go into the future to get it; you can get it by gazing down the years 
into the past. Some moral laws keep emerging over and over again, across the 
span of centuries and all around the world: don't lie, don't steal, don't 
kill, for instance. Granted, examples can be found of communities where 
lying, stealing, and killing are excused–but these are not healthy 
communities. When you find people in all lands, in all ages, agreeing on 
rules of right and wrong, you have a pretty safe bet.

Beyond that, there are explicit moral codes like the Ten Commandments, which 
have been attested by a stunningly wide range of cultures. That consensus is 
likewise a clue to something (a clue, those cultures would say, to the 
presence of divine revelation.) 

The Henry Delusion--self-serving self-delusion--is a familiar human 
condition, but we recognize it much more easily in others than ourselves. 
Likewise, the Huck Confusion--moral confusion sewn by transitory cultural 
norms--is obvious in oppressive societies elsewhere, but harder to perceive 
in our own local customs. When you need your conscience to be your guide, 
first consider what kind of an education it's had. It's best not to ask "What 
would make me feel best?" or "What would fit current values?" Instead, take 
the long view, and let your vision be corrected by the larger, ancient 
community that spans many cultures. Where agreement emerges amidst all that 
diversity, there is wisdom worth listening to. As G. K. Chesterton said, 
"Give a vote to that most obscure of classes, our ancestors." 

Frederica Mathewes-Green
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