On The False Peace of a Sinful Conscience
by Rev. Franz Hunolt, 1691-1746
Subject: How and by what means people are wont to falsify and pervert their own judgment and conscience, so that, although the conscience is in a bad state, yet it remains in peace and quiet.
Oh, certainly sweet is the yoke, and light the burden, that he hears who, desirous of his eternal salvation, earnestly seeks to keep his conscience free from sin in the service of Jesus Christ, and to remain always in the friendship of God! Such a man finds out by experience the truth of the promise of Jesus Christ, "Take up My yoke upon you and you shall find rest to your souls." And in reality he enjoys a sweet peace of soul, than which there can be no greater in this life, and in which he may confidently rejoice in the Lord at all times, with his whole heart. Pious and just Christian; I congratulate you a thousand times! Continue with confidence to enjoy that consolation which is a mystery to the blind world and its infatuated children! Sinners! deplorable indeed is your condition, for you cannot have the least share in that consolation, as long as you are enemies of God, and in the state of sin. The intolerable torment of remorse, of which I have spoken elsewhere, is the miserable portion that sin has left you! Ah, should not even this fact be enough to induce you to leave at once the wretched state in which you are, that you may again participate in the peace and consolation of the children of God?
Yet, as long as you feel the sting of remorse, you are, so to speak, the best amongst sinners; for there is still hope that your uneasy conscience will, as it were, compel you to repent and amend your lives. The worst and most wretched amongst you I can justly call those who, like you, are under the yoke of the devil and yet imagine that they are living in peace and contentment. They imagine, I say; for there are Christians who are in a bad state as to their souls, since they have sinned grievously against certain commandments of God, and who, in order to preserve their peace of mind, have recourse to many false arguments and pretexts to deceive their conscience, to falsify and pervert their judgment, and thus to persuade themselves that evil is good and lawful. These people do not act honestly towards God and their own souls; they have deliberately falsified and deceived their own conscience, and consequently their peace of mind is only a false and deceitful one, with which they are hurrying on blindly to eternal ruin. The heartfelt pity I have for such souls impels me to give this exhortation, in which I shall explain:
Plan of Discourse
How and by what means people are wont to falsify and pervert their own judgment and conscience, so that, although the conscience is in a bad state, yet it remains in peace and quiet. Such is the whole subject, to the end that they who act honestly with God, if they see that they do not belong to this class of sinners, may be all the more confirmed in true peace of conscience; and that the others, having acknowledged the deceit they are guilty of, may enter on a better and a safe road to heaven, and take on themselves the sweet yoke of Jesus Christ.
Grant both those ends, O Jesus Christ, by Thy powerful grace, which we beg of Thee through the intercession of Mary Thy Mother, and the holy guardian angels.
But what am I saying? How is it possible to enjoy peace of mind by deceiving one's own conscience? Is it really possible for a man by any effort of lying craft so to deceive his conscience, that it can no longer tell him the truth, and looks on evil as good, and sin as lawful? Is not the conscience, as St. John Chrysostom says, an impartial, just, and truthful judge, that cannot be deceived by bribes or flattery, nor terrified by contradictions or threats? A judge who cannot be reduced to silence, as I have explained already when speaking of the torments of remorse; who cries out continually to the sinner, against the sinner's own will, what have you done? you have offended God and made Him your enemy; you are a child of the devil, and are doomed to eternal ruin, etc.; who, when one is on the point of doing something unlawful, cries out, as St. John the Baptist did to Herod, "It is not lawful (Matt. xiv. 4);" what you are intending to do is wrong! The way in which you make money is unlawful; you incur eternal punishment by your acts of injustice! It is unlawful for you not to pay your debts when you can, and to turn away from your door your laborers, your tradesmen, and the shopkeepers with whom you deal, and to refuse them what is due to them! It is unlawful for you to spend so much on unnecessary luxuries, entertainments, and dress, so that you have nothing left to give the poor! Woman, that irregular, useless, idle life you are leading will never bring you to heaven; you are walking on the broad road that leads to hell! That perpetual visiting, these gambling habits of yours, for the sake of which you neglect your domestic cares, that carelessness in training your children, which is the occasion of their learning worldly vanity and being introduced to all sorts of dangerous company; all that is unlawful! you are damning yourself as well as your children! Son! daughter! you are making too free with that person; you are doing wrong! The occasion of sin must be cut off; it is not lawful for you to dress in that scandalous fashion; if you do not amend in that particular you cannot enter the narrow gate of heaven, etc.
It is true, my dear brethren, that at first conscience cries out in that way to every one who is guilty of sin; but what can one do to silence this voice of conscience, and to free himself from the tortures of remorse? Self-love supplies all kinds of pretexts and false arguments to pervert a man's judgment and to persuade him that there is nothing wrong in what he is going to do, that it is even good and praiseworthy. It refers him to the example of others, who do the same thing without being ashamed of it; it encourages him to follow the advice of those who are ready to approve of everything that pleases him; it consoles him by reminding him of the devotions he is in the habit of practicing, and that are generally performed for the glory of God and the salvation of one's soul; it allows him to be blinded by his own passions and evil inclinations; it distracts him by temporal cares and worldly business, and prevents him from watching over himself and attending to the all-important affairs of his soul; and thus it brings him at last to such a state that he imagines he is on the sure way to heaven, and that he can continue in the mode of life to which he has grown accustomed. In this Way one may lead a thoroughly un-Christian life, and yet find peace of mind. But since the conscience is deceived and betrayed, that peace is only a false one, that will surely bring with it, if not in this life, at least in the next, the gnawing worm of remorse.
The first pretext, then, is the example of others, or the general custom. We see others doing wrong things without scruple or shame, and as we are inclined to do the same things, we allow our judgment to be perverted, look upon sin as lawful, and thus enjoy peace by deceiving our consciences. Long ago Our Lord reproaehed the Scribes and Pharisees with this gross error, when He accused them of appealing to the example of their forefathers by way of excuse for the grievous sins of injustice and uncharity of which they were guilty: "But He, answering, said to them: why do you also transgress the commandment of God for your tradition? (Matt. xv. 3.)" You, hypocrites that you are, say that what your fathers have done you also must observe. But woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, that try to deceive yourselves in that way! And, my dear brethren, do we not find nowadays amongst ourselves similar pretexts and excuses, that people try to make available by a sort of prescriptive right almost, against the most important commandments of God? Who is there now who makes the least scruple of anything, if he can say of it, it is the fashion; it is the common custom; it is what people do nowadays in the world; others like me do it, and he who acts otherwise is looked down upon, and cannot get on in the world; there can be no harm in that which is done by every one? This, says St. Augustine, is what most people appeal to, when they think, "will God send every one to hell for that?" And thus they flatter themselves that they are not doing wrong, and their consciences remain undisturbed.
But, my dear brethren, what a grievous mistake we make in this matter, to the eternal ruin of our souls! Answer me this question: Does the law of God, that prescribes humility, modesty, Christian charity, temperance and abstemiousness, purity, self-denial, mortification of the senses; the law of God that forbids all pride, vanity, scandal-giving, revenge, hatred and enmity, gluttony and drunkenness, usury and unjust gains, impure love and all incontinence, etc.; does this law hold good only for a time, and in certain circumstances? or does it apply to all times and all circumstances? The good that this law commands, the evil it forbids, is it not always good or evil in itself? There is not a doubt of it, because the law of God that forbids us to do evil is founded on the law of nature. It is evident, then, that neither fashion, nor custom, nor the example of others, can make good and lawful that which is condemned by the law of God as bad and unlawful. No, no custom in the world can excuse me from grievous sin if, as many do, I were deliberately to deprive myself of the use of reason by excessive drinking. No custom can justify me if, as many do, I try to make unjust gains, or to keep unjustly what belongs to others by usury, or cheating in my business, trade, or profession, or in lawsuits in which I am engaged. No custom on earth can make me to dress, as many do, in such a vain and luxurious style as to be to innocent souls an occasion of sin. No custom can make it lawful for me to return evil for evil, as many do, and to seek revenge for insults offered me. No custom can permit me to go into the proximate occasion of sin, or to keep up a sinful intercourse with a person of the opposite sex. No custom can excuse me if, like many parents, I train up my children to every worldly vanity; and the same is to be said of everything that is forbidden by the law of God.
If I do or omit anything against that law, then I, and all who do or omit the same, are guilty of sin; and if I do not repent and amend my life, I and all who act like me, even if the whole world did it, will be lost eternally. There is not the least doubt of that. For if it were not so, most vices would cease to be vices and would become quite lawful; since, alas, many vices have become so common, that they are looked on as fashionable and as matters of course. But some may perhaps think, at least, there is some excuse for me, and a merciful God will not look on my sins as so grievous, since I only conform to the custom and example of others. No, Christians! you are quite wrong. The contrary is the case; your sin is all the greater and more inexcusable, the more common and fashionable it is; it offers a greater insult to God, since you disregard him for the sake of following the general custom, and it cries out more piercing to heaven for vengeance, and compels a just God to punish the world.
"The cry of Sodom and Gomorrha is multiplied," says the Holy Scripture, "and their sin is become exceedingly grievous (Gen. xviii. 20.)." If there had been in those wicked cities even a few, twenty, fifty, or a hundred, who were free from the abominable vice of impurity, God in His mercy would have spared the cities, as He Himself said to Abraham: "I will not destroy it for the sake of ten. (Ibld. 32.)" But because the sin was general, all the inhabitants were destroyed by fire from heaven. To say, therefore, others like me do this or that: it is the fashion or custom; I must do as others do; is the same as saying, others offend the great God; it is the fashion and custom to despise Him, and to trample His law under foot, and I, too, will despise and offend Him. Is not that increasing the malice of the sin, and making the vice more grievous?
Far different is the conclusion you should draw, according to the words of St. Paul to the Ephesians: "Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. (Ephes. v. 11.)" Redeeming the time, because the days are evil, wherefore become not unwise, but understanding what is the will of God; (Ibld. 16, 17.)" that is to say, since there are so many in the world who lead wicked lives, you, at least, ought to live piously, and do the will of God in all things as far as you can. If the air is full of pestilence, so that numbers of people die, you have to be all the more careful if you wish to escape the same fate. Now the whole world is full of vices, and most men are addicted to one vice or another, in accordance with the prevailing fashion, and therefore you have to be all the more careful, so as not to be, like them, unfaithful to God, that you may escape the eternal damnation that they incure, and may save your soul with the chosen few. It is useless, then, to appeal to the custom and example of others in order to excuse your sin and to set your conscience at rest; for by so doing you falsify your conscience, and gain only a deceitful peace of mind.
The next pretext by which the conscience is deceived, is grounded on the advice of certain individuals whom one consults, when in doubt, to find out whether it is lawful to make a profit by doing business in such or such a way, or whether one is bound to restitution in a certain case or not, whether one ought to leave that house, that companion, or to abandon that person, whether one is bound under pain of sin to avoid that worldly fashion, and so on. Very often in cases of this kind the troubled conscience cries out, it is not lawful! If you do so, you commit sin! And how can one manage to get rid of all uneasiness, and at the same time to retain his former habit of injustice, impurity, or worldliness? He looks out for a confessor, or some one else, who apparently is experienced in matters of conscience; but what kind of one does he look for? For one whom he knows to be truthful and outspoken, and who will tell him plainly what the law of God and the claim of conscience require? Not at all! He does not want an advice of that kind. But he seeks for one whom he will be able to persuade by flimsy arguments to give him advice that will be pleasing to him; one who, as he knows by experience, will let him off easily, and will approve of the mode of action that he is inclined to follow. But if the first adviser is not satisfactory, if he is somewhat too severe, then another is sought, who will deal with the matter more leniently, and say, O yes, you are allowed to do that; there is no grievous obligation in the case; you need not be uneasy, etc. And thus the troubled conscience is set at rest, the former custom or habit is persevered in, and there is no danger of the torments of remorse.
Alas, God help you! you have thoroughly deceived and betrayed your own conscience. "Thy prophets," as Jeremias says, "have seen false and foolish things for thee, and they have not laid open thy iniquity, to excite thee to penance; but they have seen for thee false revelations; (Lament- ii. 14.)" they have told you nothing but lies, or rather you wished to hear nothing else from them; you have deliberately looked for a prophet who would not tell you the plain truth, but would help you to excuse your sins and vices, so that you should not be obliged to repent of them. Do you think that you will be able in that way to excuse your sins at the judgment-seat of God, who searches the reins and the heart? you will find out later on, and you will see that you have not dealt honestly with your conscience. For if that pretext were available, we should again have to erase most vices from the list of sins, because there is hardly one of them that will not find a patron and protector to excuse it, and approve of it, either through ignorance, or thoughtlessness, or not understanding the thing properly, or flattery, or cowardice, or human respect, that prevents him from answering according to the truth. Alas, how often consciences are deceived in this way, even in the confessional! And hence it is that frequently no restitution is made of ill-gotten goods, nor atonement for injustice, nor the injured fame of another made good, nor the proximate occasion of sin avoided, nor sinful and scandalous abuses laid aside, and men continue in their sinful habits until the end of their lives, without scruple or uneasiness, and with peace of conscience; but it is a false and deceitful peace.
The third pretext for falsifying the conscience comes from our own evil inclinations and passions, which pervert the judgment and blind the understanding, so that we refuse to acknowledge our obligation, or at least to look on it as serious, in many matters of duty, either because we find a difficulty in them, or because they are opposed to our natural inclinations. In this way we act like a drunken man who is unable to discern good from evil, and who runs open-eyed into danger without seeing where he is going; and if any one beats or strikes him, he is incapable of feeling the pain of the blows until the next morning. This is always the case with those who allow themselves to be led astray by their unmortified passions and evil inclinations; and the Prophet Joel says to such people: "Awake, ye that are drunk; (Joel i. 5.)" while St. Augustine, speaking in their person says: "Everything is good as long as it suits our inclination."
A passionate, vindictive man can hardly bear the sight of one who has injured or insulted him; a thousand schemes of revenge run through his head every day; wherever he goes he has not a good word for his enemy, but heaps curses and maledictions on him, and slanders him in every possible manner; and what does his conscience say to him about all those sins? Sins? He never thinks of them as sinful; he imagines he has a perfect right to act in that way, and that his own honor and good name require him to do so. An avaricious man will hardly see any sin in being very stingy towards the poor in trying to gain a law-suit unjustly by bribery, in allowing himself to be bribed to hold his tongue when he ought to speak, or to speak when he ought to hold his tongue; in a word, every contract or matter of business that offers him a chance of making a profit is sure to be good and lawful in his sight; while he claims credit from God for his avarice, which he looks upon as a praiseworthy and necessary economy, as a proof of his fatherly prudence in providing for his children.
What does an impure man think of undue familiarity with the opposite sex, of the evil thoughts and desires that fill his heart, of the double-meaning expressions and impure conversation he indulges in, of the signs and gestures he makes, contrary to Christian modesty? He makes very light of those things; they are only ordinary acts of courtesy or friendliness, such as are in common use amongst men; there is no sin in them, unless they are carried to extravagant lengths, and even then they look on the sin as the result of human weakness, that deserves the pity rather than the anger of God. The woman whose mind and manners are in thorough conformity with the vanity of the world thinks it no sin to appear in church and at the Table of the Lord, dressed in luxurious and extravagant style; nor to have her hair dressed by a person of the opposite sex; nor to bring up her daughters to the same vanities, and allow them to go into dangerous company: nor to waste part of the day in sleep, and the rest in dressing, while the evenings are devoted to visiting and gambling, and household cares are neglected, as well as the Christian training of her children.
All these things are utterly opposed to the duties of a Christian life, and to the obligations of her state; but what does she care for that? She does not even think it worth her while to mention them in confession, much less to repent of and avoid them. In fact, she is so blinded by passion, that she looks upon that incessant visiting and the habit of gambling as virtues, inasmuch as she pretends that thereby she can avoid idleness and uncharitable talk, as well as other sins, while mutual friendship, love, and charity are fostered, etc.; her extravagance in dress she considers a matter of necessity, in order to please her husband, etc. Once we have a desire for a thing, it must be good, and people in this state go frequently to confession and Holy Communion without scruple or shame; they imagine even that they are very pious and good if they are constant in the performance of certain outward works of devotion, and their consciences are at rest. But, O deplorable blindness! "woe to you that call evil good; (Isa. v. 20.)" and are so blinded by your passions, that you try to turn vices into lawful customs! It is a false conscience that causes a false peace of mind, and it will not be able to deceive God; for, as St. Jerome says: "that calm is a storm."
The fourth pretext for falsifying and betraying the conscience comes from carelessness and sloth in what concerns our eternal salvation. Thus there are people who hardly think of examining their actions once a week, to see whether they are good or evil; they take no trouble to learn the duties and obligations of their state; they seldom or never come to sermons or instructions in which those duties might be explained to them; from morning till night they are distracted with all sorts of worldly occupations, and they hardly ever think of the presence of God; they gratify their senses to the full in all things, and thus commit hundreds of sins that they take no notice of; and withal, if they hear holy Mass on Sundays and holydays, observe the usual fasts, commit no murder, adultery, or manifest injustice, confess their sins four times a year, say a part of the Resary, or the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, or some confraternity prayers every day, they imagine that they are in a very good state, and so they live on, with their consciences at rest, and without remorse or anxiety. Nor is there any reason to be surprised at that. They commit sins enough; but since they take no notice of them through carelessness, wilful and culpable ignorance, and deliberate avoidance of the light and the encouragement they might receive by hearing the word of God, which is so necessary for them, they cannot arouse or disturb their slumbering consciences, and they remain in that way of which the Wise Man says, "There is a way which seemeth just to a man; but the ends thereof lead to death. (Prov xiv. 12)"
O holy servants of God, whose relics are publicly venerated on our altars, how differently you lived when on earth! How recollected you always were in the presence of God; how attentive to all your thoughts, words, and actions; how careful in following even the least inspirations of God; how diligent in avoiding every dangerous occasion of sin! you feared even the very name and shadow of sin, and yet most of you acknowledged with holy Job: "I feared all my works, (Job ix. 28)" I was always anxious lest I should have done something displeasing to the divine Majesty. And why? "Knowing that Thou didst not spare the offender; (Ibid)" and that Thou, O most just God, wouldst not allow the least sin to go unpunished. "My ignorances do not remember, (Ps. xxiv. 7.)" you have often cried out with the penitent David; that is, do not remember the faults and sins I have ommitted through culpable ignorance and forgetfulness! So anxious were you, although your lives were so holy and perfect! But they who are daily immersed in all kinds of worldly business, who are, constantly in dangerous occasions of sin, who hardly think seriously once in the day of God and their souls, who hear nothing good and do little good, who do much evil that is contrary to the obligations of a Christian, and take not the least notice of it; they live in undisturbed repose and tranquillity of conscience! Ah, believe me, "that calm is a tempest!"
Finally, there are people who live in the vices to which they have accustomed themselves from year to year, and never leave the occasions of sin, so that they commit the same sins over and over again. And they are well aware, too, that they are doing wrong, but they do not let that disturb them; they feel no remorse, and most of the time their consciences are at rest. How do they manage that? They depend on their frequent confessions. and imagine that, when they have told their sins candidly, they have done enough and have wiped out all old scores. Thus they continue in their bad habits and in the occasion of sin without any uneasiness, trusting to the confession they intend making during the week, so that they are continually alternating between sin and confession; confession and sin. Now this pretext for quieting one's conscience, so as to enjoy a false peace of mind, is the clumsiest of all, for, as I shall prove more in detail hereafter, the confessions of those people, since they are made without true sorrow and purpose of amendment, are so many new mortal sins, and of course the absolution received in them is null and void. To these people, and to all who make use of the pretexts of which I have spoken, might be addressed the words of St. John to the Bishop of Sardis, "I know thy works, that thou hast the name of being alive, and thou art dead. (Apoc. iii. 1)"
Alas, unhappy mortals! you flatter yourselves that you are in a good state, and that you have nothing to fear, because you are in the enjoyment of peace of mind; but your consciences are deceived, and your peace is only a false one. "There is a way, which seemeth just to a man; but the ends thereof lead to death."
But if those people are made to hear the truth, if their consciences are disturbed and their attention called to the falsity of the pretexts on which their peace of mind is founded, they are full of complaints and lamentations. They are like that foolish man in Greece, who imagined that he was always looking at a most entertaining comedy, in which there was everything to delight both ears and eyes; and while his delusion lasted, he was quite happy and contented; but when his friends, pitying the state in which he was, gave him medicine that brought him back to his sound senses, he cried out: Alas, my friends, what have you done? You have taken away my life in restoring me to reason! You have deprived me of all pleasure; I wish I were still a fool, that I might enjoy myself as before!
It is just the same with those Christians who in any way try to falsify their consciences that they may quiet the pangs of remorse. If they happen to read a spiritual book, or to hear through curiosity a sermon in which their pet vices are spoken of, and the truth is plainly told them; instead of thanking God for the light and knowledge He has sent them, they cry out, full of trouble and anguish; alas, what have I done? Would that I had not touched that wretched book! that I had not remained to hear that sermon! I might still be enjoying my former peace of mind. That book, that sermon has filled me with scruples and anxieties; I must not tamper with such things any more. And, my dear brethren, there are even some who, although they are otherwise very diligent in hearing sermons, if some truth is proposed to them that does not suit their fancies, because it disturbs their consciences and fills them, not with scruples but with a well-founded anxiety, give up going to sermons altogether, and even advise others to do the same, telling them that sermons are not good for anything, except to fill the mind with useless fears. Then they who were not at the sermon are glad they remained away, so as not to be disturbed.
How strangely those people act! Suppose that a traveller is on his way to Treves; he loses his way, and meets a peasant who asks him where he is going to. To Treves, answers the traveller. Oh, says the other, you are altogether out of your way, my friend! You must turn back and go by that other road, or you will never reach your journey's end. The traveller is very sorry to hear that he has gone astray; but he nevertheless thanks the peasant for his timely warning, and is glad to be put on the right road. But if instead of that, he were to grumble and say all sorts of hard things of the peasant, because he had shown him his mistake and put him right, would you not look on him as a madman? True, if he were not warned, he would go on contentedly on the wrong way; but where would he come to at last?
O foolish mortals that we are! Woe to us, if we put down as scruples the well-grounded anxieties and warnings of conscience with which God in His mercy enlightens our culpable ignorance, and exhorts us to amend our lives, that He may bring us back on the right road to heaven, from which we have wandered so far astray! Woe to us, if we hate and shun those lights and admonitions, and love and seek our own blindness and darkness! We have reason to pity the wretched state of those sinners who knowingly and wilfully continue in sin year after year, without doing penance, for they are blindly hurrying straight to hell; and in truth, their condition is sad enough to make one shed tears of blood. But after all, do you not think that they who try to lull their consciences to sleep, that they may enjoy a false peace, are in a still more deplorable state? The former know their misery; the latter do not; the former feel the gnawing of remorse; the latter are free from it; and therefore it is much easier for the grace of God to move the former to repent of the sins they know they have committed, than the latter, who do not know their sins, and do not wish to know them.
Ah Christians, either we are in earnest about going to heaven, or we are not! Do we not wish to go there? Then we can live as we please; but our damnation will be all the deeper hereafter, in proportion to the greater number of sins we commit. Are we determined to gain the eternal joys of heaven? Then, why do we try to hide the truth from ourselves, and to avoid the light? We are false to ourselves, but shall we be able to deceive the all-knowing God, who sees the heart, and who has already assured us that He will search Jerusalem with a lantern, that is, that He will subject to a most rigorous scrutiny even the holiest works of the just? What better shall we be for having enjoyed a few years of false peace of conscience, as a result of our efforts at self-deception, if at the end of our lives, as will really be the case, our consciences will fling off the cloak of deceit, and show us how guilty we are, and will accuse and condemn us before our impartial Judge?
No, my dear brethren, what we wish for, let us wish for it honestly before God and our own consciences. As Our Lord says, "whilst you have the light, believe in the light, that you may be the children of the light. (John xii. 36)" While we have and can have the light, we must receive it, and believe in it, and love and seek the truth; but if we are in doubt or anxiety we must ask advice from one who will tell us the truth, nor must we think, say, or do anything against the command of God, the Christian law; so that our consciences may truly give us testimony "that we are the sons of God,"' and that we may thus enjoy real peace of heart which will be followed by eternal peace in the kingdom of heaven. Amen.