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True Freedom of Conscience -- Sermon for Sunday, Sept. 4

Why doesn’t St. Paul condemn slavery? Today’s epistle – from the Letter to Philemon – tells us about a slave, Onesimus, who has escaped from his master after bungling an important task, has come to Rome, and has been serving St. Paul during his imprisonment. Onesimus has become a Christian, and now Paul is sending him back to his home with the exhortation to his former master to treat him not as a slave, but as a brother.

This epistle has been seen for centuries as a beautiful hymn to freedom, a rejection of the notion that one human being can enslave another, and of the fraternal charity that ought to exist between Christians. But in recent years, other voices have questioned, “Why doesn’t Paul outright condemn slavery? Why did it take the Church so long to condemn the most abominable practice known to man, and America’s original sin?”

These critiques, though, ignore the extraordinary nature of what St. Paul does. Paul regards Onesimus as a son, and encourages Philemon to accept him back forever not as a slave, but as a brother, beloved as a man and in the Lord. What Paul is asking Philemon to do is actually much more than to free a slave – he is asking him to love.

Paul knows that he is confronting a grave injustice. And remember, St. Paul was a man of very strong character, with a hot temper, who did not flinch from using strong words. In another letter, he does not restrain himself from admonishing, “You senseless Galatians!” (Gal 3:1). Surely if there was any time to call someone “senseless” (other translations read, “foolish,” or even “stupid”), one human being attempting to own another ought to be it!

Paul, though, is illuminated by a higher wisdom than simplistic human logic. He knows that the greater the injustice, the greater the need not so much for indignation, but for charity, for love. Paul is inviting Philemon to voluntarily love Onesimus as a brother, because after all, that is the only way to love – love that is forced is no love at all. Paul’s insight is important for us as we confront the grave ills of our own day – whether they be racism, abortion, or any others – always in freedom, and always in love.

While Paul respects Philemon’s freedom, and invites him to make a free choice to accept and love Onesimus not as a slave, but as a brother, he nevertheless regards Philemon as a son just as he regards Onesimus as his spiritual son. Philemon too is a convert to the faith won through the ministry of St. Paul. In Paul’s careful actions, we can see the correct attitude of the Church to the freedom of conscience possessed by the faithful.

The conscience is an essential part of what it means to be human. Awareness of right and wrong, and the freedom to follow the deeply held dictates of one’s own conscience, are an essential component of a life lived authentically in freedom. However, there are also many misunderstandings of conscience – chiefly, that it is some kind of “good angel” voice in your head. We also frequently talk about conscience as an absolute – “Well, my conscience just tells me …” Both of these are erroneous notions of the conscience.

“Conscience,” properly understood, “is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed.” (CCC 1778) That is, conscience is when you use your reason – not feelings – to determine, based on the moral formation you have received, whether an action you are performing, are considering performing, or have performed, is just or not. Again, conscience is not in the feeling, but in the judgement of reason. We can feel inclined one way, and still, based on what we know through reason to be right or wrong, judge our feelings to be wrong, or to be misaligned with reality.

This means that while the judgment of conscience should be followed if it is a certain judgement (that is, if I can judge this way without doubts as to the quality of my judgement), the judgement of the conscience is not absolute, and it is most certainly not the voice of God speaking to you. The conscience is the judgement of the person; Revelation is the judgement of God.

For this reason, it is an extremely important duty of the Church, pastors of souls, and parents to form the consciences of the faithful. Look again at what St. Paul does in writing to Philemon: He could have told him, “Well, I think it would be better for you not to have Onesimus as a slave, but I know it’s really hard to live without slaves, so pray about that for a while, and follow what your conscience tells you.” While he doesn’t force Philemon (he could have written – “You senseless slaveholder! I have set Onesimus free and told him never to go back to you!”), he also makes it very clear that his obligation as a Christian is to accept this man as a brother and not a slave.

It often happens that we think that we are more free by rejecting the moral law, and even that our conscience justifies us in doing so. “I know that the Church condemns the use of artificial birth control, but my conscience tells me I’m okay.” Or, “I know it’s wrong to run a business that forces people to work on Sundays, but my conscience tells me I’m just doing my best to stay afloat in a difficult world.” But we should keep in mind the words of the book of Wisdom today: “For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans. … And scarce do we guess the things on earth, and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty.” It is when we tune our hearts to the loving voice of Christ, spoken through His Bride, the Church, that our paths can be made straight and our conscience can become a more reliable guide leading us to authentic freedom.

While there is a danger to overvaluing the conscience, there is a great danger to undervaluing it as well. We see this especially today in the medical field, with professional medical organizations and especially the federal government rushing to force medical professionals to perform gravely wrong procedures such as abortion, sterilization, provision of artificial contraception, so-called “gender reassignment” surgeries, providing cross-sex hormones to pre-pubescent children, and criminalizing any kind of psychotherapy that questions the permanence of what are usually temporary difficulties of identifying with one’s own sex. Conscience rights, we are now told, are a critical component of an oppressive, cis-normative plot to expunge a persecuted class of persons and must be eliminated.

In these actions, we see a great and perennial irony: When freedom is poorly conceived, other people must be deprived of their freedom in order for me to live mine. In order for the sexual revolution to reach its final summit, it must abolish sex. In order for the tragically confused child to achieve full freedom, doctors, nurses, counselors, parents, and pastors must be deprived of theirs. (Less you think I’m being hysterical, this year, the second-largest state in Australia has criminalized praying – yes explicitly praying – for freedom from unwanted same-sex attractions or gender-identity confusion.) We see here fulfilled the prophetic words of St. John Paul the Second: “When people think they possess the secret of a perfect social organization which makes evil impossible, they also think that they can use any means, including violence and deceit, in order to bring that organization into being. Politics then becomes a ‘secular religion’ which operates under the illusion of creating paradise in this world.” (Centessimus annus, 25)

The actions of the Australian State of Victoria (which is not a land of loonies, but a true secular bellwether) are only possible when government has become too all-encompassing to promote real freedom. “The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern.” And this, after all, is what pre-pubescent adolescents struggling with their personal identity really need, rather than being the victims of a psychopathic science experiment.

Contrast this with the actions of St. Paul towards Philemon and Onesimus. Does Philemon have to surrender his freedom in order to treat Onesimus as a brother? No, not at all. In fact, Paul even makes a rather amusing pun on Onesimus’s name to prove the point. “Onesimus” means “useful.” In verse 11, inexplicably omitted by the modern lectionary, Paul says that while Onesimus has not been very useful in the past – bungling an important task and then running away – he will be much more useful now. Paul is not instrumentalizing Onesimus, but pointing out that freedom is good not only for the one who is free, but for the one who previously kept the man in bondage. The “useful” Onesimus becomes more useful – more fully himself – through freedom, and so will Philemon and all of us who strive for true freedom in Christ. To have a brother is so much better than to have a slave, because only a brother can provide what Benedict observes that every person truly needs: “loving, personal concern.”

True freedom, freedom given and accepted with a rightly-formed conscience, is the gift that Christ wants all of us to give to one another and to receive from Him today. By rising from the dead, he abolished slavery to sin. Through His Holy Spirit, he teaches us what we must to do achieve true freedom, continuing to instruct us through His Bride, the Church. He invites us today to imitate St. Paul in being prophets of freedom, inviting others voluntarily to let go the slaveries held out by the world as freedom, and to receive all those formerly held in slavery’s bonds as true brothers and sisters – welcoming them as we would Him.

The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson

Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen

XXIII Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXII


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