Browsing The Northern Cross

Mary Jane O’Brien: Mother Teresa and conscience formation

Mary Jane O’Brien
Faith in the Public Arena

During election season, we hear a great deal about “following our consciences” and the need for conscience formation. The U.S. bishops offer their guide to faithful citizenship so that the principles of Catholic social teaching might inform our election day decisions, and a number of organizations similarly put out a range of voting guides.

But with the cacophony of voices that arise each election cycle, each telling us how we should be viewing things and which way to vote, it can become overwhelming to form our consciences in the midst of so much confusion.

The witness of the saints

Since conscience is the ability to make a correct moral judgment about the rightness or wrongness of a particular action, it makes sense that so much emphasis is placed on its formation. As Catholics, we know we are not able to make correct judgments without being formed — our intellects have been darkened by sin, and even our ability to discern the natural law written on our hearts has been fundamentally compromised. We need help in learning how to distinguish between good and evil actions, so that we may “follow faithfully what [we] know to be just and right” (CCC 1778).

Fortunately, the Catholic faith has not left us helpless in this matter. As our loving Mother, the Church has a rich teaching tradition by which we form our conscience. This formation includes following the light of “reason,” “the Word of God,” “the gifts of the Holy Spirit” and “the authoritative teaching of the Church” (CCC 1785).

We can also be “aided by the witness or advice of others” (CCC 1785), and we have no more beautiful witness to turn to than the saints. The witness of the saints is especially helpful when it comes to exemplifying the interconnectedness of all of Catholic social teaching, from the fundamental right to life to the preferential option for the poor.

Mother Teresa, model

The recent canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta brings to mind her powerful witness in living out the Gospel most fully. She embodied the corporal works of mercy by loving and serving the poorest of the poor and caring for lepers in the slums of Calcutta, and her entire life was a model of the “preferential option for the poor” we are called to uphold.

At the same time, St. Teresa gave witness to the fundamental right to life that every person possesses, by virtue of their God-given dignity. In numerous speeches, including the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast, St. Teresa made headlines by calling abortion “a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself.” She asked how we could be surprised “when we hear of murders, of killings, of wars, of hatred. If a mother can kill her own child, what is left but for us to kill each other?”

As she rightly noted, “any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want,” and for these reasons, the “spiritual poverty” of abortion is “the worst poverty and the most difficult to overcome,” far worse than the material poverty to which Mother Teresa daily attended.

Far from seeing a divide between helping the poor and upholding the right to life of every person, St. Teresa saw truly that the failure to defend the very right to exist of the most vulnerable among us is simultaneously an abject failure to serve the poor in any lasting way. Our moral obligation to care for the poor begins with protecting their right to live.

By forming our consciences in the light of the Church and the witnesses of Her saints, we form our ability to judge concrete situations rightly and to live out our faith, in the voting booth and beyond.

Mary Jane O’Brien is the business manager of the Minnesota Catholic Conference. She holds a master’s degree in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas.