Baptism in the Spirit

Friends are often surprised to find I am actively involved in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. “Surely that’s about emotions, and you are an unemotional person?”

Many testimonies of those now involved in charismatic renewal will tell of how that person invited God’s Holy Spirit into their life, and they received an overwhelming sense of God’s loving presence, after which they lost their inhibitions about raising their hands and expressing themselves freely during public prayer. Some call this experience of release a “baptism in the Holy Spirit“, though the same terminology might also be applied to the moment a person gets the Gift of Tongues for the first time, or to the act of laying on hands and praying for a person in the hope that such an experience will follow.

As an Aspie, I was already free of those “What will other people think?” inhibitions. I was always quite comfortable singing loudly and lifting my hands during prayer. I received the Gift of Tongues on a day when I handed over a personal obsession* to the Lord – but I did not receive, and to this day have never experienced, the overwhelming sense of God’s loving presence which so many charismatics speak about.

It seems to me quite fitting and proper that we make a joyful noise to the Lord (as Scripture tells us to) and we use the kind of music that may stir in many people strong positive emotions. Doesn’t God deserve that? Pope Francis does not want us to leave church with a vinegar face!

* For some months, the only topic of my prayers had been pleading with God to call back to faith a certain friend who was going through severe doubts about God’s existence. I had recently fallen in love with this friend, and although the discovery she already had a boyfriend was painful, her loss of faith was even more devastating. But one night I reached the point of saying to God “This is too much for me – my whole prayer life cannot be about pleading for her faith to be restored – I am just going to place her in your hands, Lord.” That’s when my burden was lifted, and I prayed in tongues for the first time.


Aspie Becoming Catholic

I read my way in to the Catholic Church.

When I was in my pre-teens, I encountered Jesus through a moment of deep prayer. This set me on a journey of reading both the New Testament, and a bunch of literature about the different kinds of Christian Church.

The Catholic Faith had a coherent body of teaching. That appealed to my Aspie tidy-mindedness.

The Catholic Faith said that Jesus really meant what he said at the Last Supper – “This is My Body”. This appealed to my Aspie literalism.

The Catholic Faith held that the Virgin Mary had appeared at certain places in recent history. As an Aspie, I am quite willing to trust authoritative assertions even when they aren’t borne out by my lived experience of how the world around me usually works. (I haven’t seen an apparition – but I’ve never seen a black hole, either.)

The Catholic Faith included a charismatic renewal wing. The Bible says that speaking in tongues and other charismatic gifts will be manifested by believers. This appealed to my Aspie sense that what the Bible says should come to pass in the world around us.

Of course, I didn’t know I was an Aspie at the time I decided to become a Catholic. But with hindsight I can see that many things about the Catholic way of being Christian will appeal to Aspies – or at least to Aspies like me. I wonder if there are proportionally more of us in the Catholic Church than among Episcopalians or liberal Evangelicals? (For similar reasons, might disproportionately many Aspies become Muslims?)

Once I became a Catholic, I discovered (to my horror) that the majority of Catholics didn’t seem to be living out the values the textbooks said they should hold. Perhaps a typical human being would have allowed themselves to be reconfigured to conform to the behaviour of surrounding Catholics. Not me! I trust the official teaching of the Church way beyond the watered-down examples around me. After all, the Old Testament gives ample evidence that God’s first set of Chosen People were pretty poor at obeying the commandments they were covenanted into, and human nature hasn’t changed much.

However, there’s one important caveat. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis warns us to put human reality before theoretical abstractions. I am not wrong to trust the Magisterium to define principles, but I must have regard to the lived experience of Catholics to show me realistic ways of putting those principles into practice.

From Catholic Charismatic Renewal, I have read many stories of people whose behaviour is so attractive that others have become Catholics because of them. No-one has told me personally that they have become a Catholic because of me. Does that mean I am so literally obedient that my way of being Catholic is offputting to others? It’s implicit in what Pope Francis is warning us about. Yet I put my trust in the words of St Catherine of Siena: Be what you are called to be and you will set the world on fire!


The Language of the Law

In my last post, I began to explore the tension between the absolute nature of English Law and the suggestive format of Latin Law. Canon Lawyers say the law of the church is exhortative. How does that work?

An Italian friend invited me to go and stay in Italy with her husband and her sister. The two sisters generally spoke English together for my sake (and the husband’s). It sounded like they were arguing most of the time, “You should never have done so-and-so” – but it seems that rather than having a series of major disagreements, this was the normal way in that culture to express mild differences of opinion.

Wittgenstein, a philosopher of language, advised us to “Look for the use, not for the meaning“. As an Aspie, I find it hard to see beyond the literal meaning. Every professional field develops its own use of language, and jurisprudence includes case law teasing out the exact weight of what a law really means. But I do find it objectionable that a law might be drafted in words which are not literally intended. How, then can we know what it is supposed to mean? Scripture says: “Let your NO be NO and your YES be YES – anything else comes from the evil one.” And how can we understand God’s commands in the Bible, if they do not mean what they say? “Did God really say not to eat the fruit?” – that was the very first Temptation.

The whole Old Testament is a history of generations of God’s chosen people failing to live up to the Law they were covenanted into. There doesn’t seem to be much wiggle-room there for saying God wasn’t serious about avoiding the cult of Baal, paying tithes to the Jewish temple and seeking justice for the widow, orphan and honest trader. The Catholic interpretation of the New Testament holds that ‘This is My Body’ means just that in the context of the Eucharist. Yet God’s Word, like Christ, is fully human and fully divine. I cannot deny that there are human languages which thrive on exaggeration, as I have seen in Italian. To interpret that literally might be as alien to my Italian friend’s culture as to be non-literal would be to my own. When language itself carries such double meanings, have we any hope about pinning down what God wishes to communicate? And if so, can we express this in language which is itself unambiguous?

I once received an invitation to a wedding and said “I’ll come if I can”. I wasn’t going to know until a week before whether there would be room between other committment. In the event, I did go to the wedding. I didn’t let the couple know in advance because I couldn’t stay for the reception anyway, so there was no impact on catering. They were amazed that I had turned up. But I said “I’ll come if I can,” and in the event I could, so I came!  What should I have said?

And if “shall I come for coffee” means “let’s have sex”, how do I invite a person to spend an evening sharing a caffeinated beverage?

The Spirit of the Law

Last year, I visited a major pilgrim centre where a notice in the sacristy caught me eye. The text at the top was in Latin – an extract from the rules for Mass, stating that no priest may join a concelebration once the Mass had begun. It was repeated below in all the major European languages, including English. Yet ten minutes into the Mass, as the First Reading was being proclaimed, a side door opened and two vested priests walked into the sanctuary and took their seats.

If I were late for a concelebration, I would not dream of vesting and joining in – at least once the opening hymn has given way to the formal Sign of the Cross and Greeting. (I have once or twice scurried in during the hymn to tag on to a procession!) But as soon as the Sign of the Cross has been said, that’s it. I would, in such circumstances, take my place on the people’s pews.

I have often heard it said, especially by Canon Lawyers, that Latin Law is not like English Law. English Law is imperative. In England, cars wait at red lights even if all the roads are clear. Latin Law, by contrast, is exhortative. “It would be most fitting if you didn’t join a concelebration once it has begun, so please do your level best to get the the sanctuary in time.” Does that mean I am being too legalistic in excluding myself from doing what I have seen other priests do, when they slip into the sanctuary later than that?

In the Gospels, we see that Jesus was no stickler for the letter of the law. When his disciples plucked corn on the sabbath day, he defended them. He did not carry out the sentence of stoning due to an adulteress. He was accused of not observing precepts about ritual washing. Yet in these cases we can see the spirit of the law which was being honoured. The Sabbath Laws are about creating a day for rest and worship where scheduled work is to be avoided, not creating a day when it is forbidden to help a person in need, or indeed to help oneself to the fruits of the land. The adulteress was left in no doubt that she was a sinner who had experienced an act of mercy. The ritual washings were cultural baggage which tradition had added to the Law given by God.

Is it so serious to slip onto a sanctuary during a First Reading? Perhaps it depends on the reason you are late. If you were unavoidably delayed by an act of mercy (you had to hear a confession) or circumstances beyond your control (a traffic jam where there wouldn’t normally be one) then it is probably within the spirit of the law to join a Mass you would reasonably have expected to be on time for. But it would always be fitting to refrain from doing so out of respect for obedience to the law and the dignity of the celebration. Perhaps it is less a matter of sin, and more a counsel of perfection – as scripture says in a rather different context (whether to marry or not!), the one who takes part does well, but the one who sits out does better.

AspiePriest’s Three Laws of Humanics: (cf. Asmimov’s Three Laws of Robotics)

  1. A human being shall obey every commandment given by God (as proposed in Scripture or the formal teaching of the Catholic Church), following the Spirit of the Law where this can be clearly grasped, but the Letter of the Law otherwise.
  2. A human being shall seek the well-being of all human beings (especially their neighbour, themself, their enemy), but never in such a way as to contradict the First Law.
  3. A human being shall seek personal happiness and fulfilment, as long as this does not contradict the First Law or Second Law.

Ambushed by Affection

The British media have recently made a great stir about Pope (St) John Paul II having a close female friend to whom he gave his precious Brown Scapular and with whom he enjoyed a deeply emotional relationship – without any hint that he broke his vows of celibacy. Traditional Catholic wisdom is that one should avoid the “occasions of sin” – but very often, an occasion of sin is also an occasion of great good. If you cut yourself off from close relationships, you also cut off the possibility of experiencing affectionate friendships, and since God is love, God lives in such friendships. Nor can any absolute distinction be made – Pope Benedict XVI has acknowledged that there will always be a blurred line between the self-giving Christian love called agape and the base sexual instinct which is eros. There are two choices – avoid the possibility of close relationships at all; or walk the tightrope which seeks to give and receive affection without straying too far into arousal.

Last month, I wrote about how my way of being an Aspie means I can’t read the emotions in people’s eyes, and since facial expression conveys more than half the emotional content of a human interaction, that’s a pretty significant handicap. Another Aspie has said this:

Neurotypicals faces shine with “looks of love.” They show it with their eyes and tone of voice primarily. Neurotypicals are constantly saying nasty things to each other while at the same time shooting each other looks of love. It’s like saying, “You’re hair looks crazy today,” while their eyes and voice are saying “but I love you for it.” Talk about mixed messages! The same way that Aspies love to figure out riddles and solve puzzles, these are “social” puzzles for neurotypicals that they love playing with and figuring out. It’s considered “sophisticated” social interaction. Plus, the looks of love are very rewarding for them and make them feel warm and fuzzy inside.

Because I can’t sense these “looks of love”, they aren’t going to make me warm and fuzzy inside. But I do have close friends, and it is possible for my friends to communicate something that makes me feel warm and fuzzy. This only happens when someone unmistakeably and directly communicates to me that I am loved. It might be some words whose meaning is crystal clear. It might be an action that helps me with a project, when someone clearly understands what I am trying to achieve. But most commonly it will be because a friend has actually, physically, touched me.

A hand on my shoulder, a kiss on my cheek, an embrace that lingers longer than a perfunctory hug – all of these things can and do tell me that I am loved. But for me, they are not the crescendo in a symphony of love smouldering away in someone’s eyes – if one of my close and trusted friends does this, I find myself ambushed by affection, taking me from no awareness to strong awareness in a moment. This is a bittersweet experience, because it means for me there is only a very narrow gap between the kind of interaction which won’t communicate affection at all, and the kind I want to avoid as a celibate because it would move into sexual arousal.

It also means that I am not very good at using touch to show affection to others. Because what I experience in my life is being ambushed by affection at seemingly random moments, this is what I naturally reproduce in the way I have tried, in the past, to tell my most trusted friends that they are loved. When it is physically possible to offer a backrub or casually touch someone’s arm, I have done so – and until the last year or so, have been puzzled by feedback from friends who have asked me not to try so hard. Surely human beings want to be told that their friends love them, using the appropriate love languages?

I’m only just beginning to understand that the love languages are the icing on the cake, where the sponge-base is the visual communication. That must be why some of my trusted friends have counselled me to “stop trying”, and why I can never seem to join in with “teasing” or adult “play fighting”. What I am trying to do only works when it’s orchestrated as part of the symphony of non-verbal communication, and I can’t hear the basic melody. My friend Chelsea does assure me, though, that my eyes do communicate – she knows that I feel comfortable in her home because she can see it in there.

Not understanding the underlying melody, until now I thought that touch was all about how comfortable am I with you as a person, and you with me. If you put a hand on my shoulder and I’m comfortable with that, I thought that meant “OK, now we are close enough we can put a hand on each other’s shoulder at random moments”. But obviously not – there are much more subtle indicators for context. The meta-golden-rule strikes again!

It’s not easy, learning this as a Catholic priest. There are very few safe relationships in which I can practice. In my professional relationships, I will always err on the side of not touching unless I am absolutely sure it’s OK (holding the hand of a dying person is generally OK). I will never have a wife or experience a dating relationship (I never had a girlfriend before becoming a priest). I’m aware that there are such things as cuddle parties where non-sexual cuddles are available, but I find the idea of being touched affectionately by someone who’s not already a trusted friend quite repellent. In my professional relationships, my constant awareness that I have a duty to keep appropriate boundaries means that unexpected touch from others is always slightly uncomfortable. And that leaves only a small handful of trusted friends who, though they aware of my Aspie diagnosis, do not go out of their way to communicate affection in direct ways which they themselves might find uncomfortable – nor can I talk to them about this often, because I get the impression that conversing about “how do we show love to each other” is uncomfortable in the context of anyone other than a current or future spouse.

Sadly, this means that every time I visit such a friend, I never know whether or not I am going to be ambushed by affection. On a good visit, if I spend 1-2 nights staying in the home of one of my closest friends, there is a 50:50 chance they will do something that effectively communicates affection. There are few things more lonely than driving home from a visit where I experienced no ambush, knowing that one of the few trusted people in my life who could communicate love has failed to do so (through no deliberate fault of their own) and it might now be several months before I next visit a friend by whom I might be ambushed. If I feel warm and fuzzy six times in a year because someone has effectively communicated love, it’s been a good year. That’s not much love to live on, but it looks like it’s all I’m ever going to experience.

Three Kinds of Priest

In the part of the world where I minister, most of the priests around me were trained in the 1960s or 1970s. The majority of these priests are what I call ‘humanitarians’ (some would call then liberals). Their emphasis is the Second Great Commandment. They are concerned first and foremost for the material and emotional wellbeing of people, and often seem keen to set aside those church rules which make life ‘difficult’ (about such things as remarriage, contraception and priestly celibacy). When a group of them get together, they often say rude things about other priests who seem excessively concerned about such things as good liturgy.

At the start of 2015, I attended the conference of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy in Rome. The key speakers, as advertised, were key Vatican figures with interesting things to say. But the vast majority of priests I networked with at this conference seemed preoccupied with the restoration of the extraordinary form of the liturgy (a.k.a. Tridentine Mass) and how to save the Church from the terrible liberal errors Pope Francis was ‘likely’ to inflict on it around the forthcoming Synod on the Family. This group of clergy (‘conservatives’ or ‘traditionalists’) were just as rude about the liberals as my experience of vice versa. I got a definite sense that this group of priests first and foremost were seeking security of identity, expressed in terms of continuity with the lived experience of the church of the recent past. Any change was a threat not only to practice but to identity.

Some years ago a friend commented that it was easier to get liberals to build a consensus than to get conservatives to do so, because liberals would readily compromise on any solution which was generally good for human beings, while conservatives each had their own highly prized yet subtly different standard for what best expressions of liturgy and doctrine should be.

More recently, I realised there is a third kind of priest – the evangelical, or disciple. This kind of priest is most focussed on what Jesus commanded us to do. Such a priest is not afraid to innovate in those areas where the contemporary church is not currently doing some of the things Jesus commanded – such as evangelising or ministering the healing and prophetic gifts of the Holy Spirit. This is the rarest kind of priest, and I think you will find that they will speak sadly, but not rudely, about their colleagues who have allowed care for other human beings or their own security of identity to come before the First Great Commandment, to love God with all one’s heart, mind and strength.

Of course, anyone who truly loves God must necessarily love their neighbour; but if we are confident that God has said, through the church, that artificial contraception, abortion, euthanasia and direct co-operation with weapons of mass destruction are wrong in all circumstances, we cannot invoke the ‘public good’ defence implicit in the Second Great Commandment, to justify them. Any priest who was sworn the ordination oath of fidelity to celebrate liturgy and teach doctrine according to the norms of the Church is duty bound not to innovate – but that still leaves room to explore the spirit of the law, and does not bind the senior officials of the church from adjusting liturgies and developing doctrines, for they have the authority to do so.

There are not only three kinds of priests, of course. There are three kinds of lay Catholics, three kinds of deacons and three kinds of bishops. I doubt we can have more than one kind of Pope at any one time, though!

The Incredible Truth

Allow me to introduce one of my friends, whom I will call ‘Chelsea’. She is a family doctor and we have known each other since we were university students.

One day I was trying to explain to her the principle of Quantum Physics which says empty space is filled with ‘virtual particles’. This means that a pair of particles can appear ‘out of nowhere’ as long as they vanish again within a split-second interval related to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. There would be no cause for this to happen in a particular place; it takes place randomly simply because it’s statistically possible for it to do so.

Chelsea found this idea simply impossible to believe. I don’t think her problem was with the words; she could probably picture the concept of something emerging out of nothing. What she couldn’t accept was that the physical universe could possibly behave that way; her brain was conditioned by many years of seeing effect follow cause. I think they call that cognitive dissonance. It was clear that although she trusted my science qualifications, she could not bring herself to believe what I was asserting.

Chelsea is one of those trusted friends well aware of my Asperger’s diagnosis who serve as sounding boards to help me explore the neurotypical world. A few days later, I asked her a question. Was it true that when I visited her house, that even before I said any word or performed any action deliberately intended to communicate affection, she would be consciously aware of being in the presence of someone who loved her very much? She affirmed that she would, and when I pressed her on how she would know, she said she could see it in my eyes.

Not long after this conversation, another friend, a deacon, made a passing remark – “You could really see God in that person.” It’s a common phrase, but one I’ve never understood, so I took the opportunity to ask what my deacon-friend really meant by seeing God in someone. Ultimately he decided: “I can see it in their eyes.”

I also recently took part in a psychology experiment. I was asked to look at pictures showing human expressions – just a ‘letterbox’ image of the two eyes without the rest of the face – and choose from multiple-choice lists to say what emotion I felt the eyes were expressing. I found it almost impossible! Coupled with what the deacon and Chelsea told me, it was good confirmation that while most humans can read emotions in the eyes, I cannot.

 I have great trouble accepting this, just as Chelsea has great trouble grasping the counter-intuitive truths of Quantum Physics. It is so alien to my experience that you can ‘just pick up’ on how someone else feels about you, that although I can just write what I have written, it is very difficult to live my life feeling confident that my friends don’t need me to tell them how much I care about them because they can already sense it!

When  it comes to the counter-intuitive proposals of the Special Theory of Relativity (if you try to accelerate close to the speed of light you get heavier rather than going faster) and of Quantum Mechanics, I am very ready to accept that I have no direct experience of these realms, and if the mathematics predicts it, and experiment verifies it, then it must be so. But when it comes to the question of being human, it’s harder for me. I have to learn that my own experience of being human is not a good guide to the experience of the typical human beings around me.

There’s an oft-repeated statistic that says that 93% of all communication is non-verbal. This is true, but only for a very specific kind of communication – knowing what emotion is meant to be communicated by the saying of a single word. Imagine trying to say the word ‘thanks’, or ‘maybe’, or ‘terrible’ while deliberately trying to convey a positive, neutral or negative emotion. Mehrabian’s studies showed that the emotion behind a single word spoken in this contrived situation was conveyed 7% by the word itself, 38% by the tone of voice, and 55% by the facial expression.

I know from experience that I can read tone of voice pretty well, and if I can see someone’s whole face I can get a general sense from what I see – but if the eyes are so important then, hard though it is for me to believe, I am missing out on a very significant channel of communication. For you, if you are a typical human being, you are probably shrugging your shoulders at the banality of what I have just said, but for me, I am fighting cognitive dissonance to embrace this incredible truth!

A useful resource in this regard may be the Mind Reading DVD tool.

The Golden Metarule

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

The Golden Rule of morality is both a teaching of Jesus and a tenet of many other world faiths. But for Aspies, it’s a poisoned chalice. You see, other people aren’t like you. They might not want done to them what you would want done to you.

Do you want people to tell you the honest truth at all times? If you are an Aspie, probably yes.

Do you want people to tell you directly how they are feeling about you? If you are an Aspie, probably yes.

Do you want people to say “Yes please” immediately when you offer them food, rather than go through the charade of “No thanks”, “But you really must,”, “Oh, go on then?” If you are an Aspie, probably yes.

Do you want other people to follow principles which disadvantage you rather than bending the rules to accommodate you? If you are an Aspie, probably yes.

Are you beginning to see the problem?

But what does it mean to “do as you would be done by”? This rule is capable of being extended. What would I like others to do unto me? I can answer this at the literal level of concrete actions, or at the ‘meta’ level of asking what kind of responses that person would like to have. My Golden Metarule says: “Assess whether the other person is an Aspie or a typical human being, and choose my behaviour accordingly.” Therefore, I must assess whether the other person wants an honest or a coded response, a direct or indirect indication of mood, a blunt response or a feigned polite refusal.

Aspies who have learned to function well in society are applying it all the time. But what about typical human beings who have Aspie friends or colleagues? Can it work both ways? Can typical humans apply this Golden Metarule and choose to deal with me bluntly and by the book because I am an Aspie and prefer to live my life this way? They have yet to prove it!

The Whole Truth

Christian author Corrie Ten Boom tells a story of the time her family, in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, took in Jews and hid them in their cellar. When the Gestapo came a-calling, the kitchen table was pulled over the trapdoor. An office asked Corrie’s sister, Betsie, a direct question: “Are you hiding Jews in this house?”

Betsie’s Christian convictions forbade her from speaking a deliberate lie, even for a purpose as noble as saving the Jews. So she affected the most ironic tone possible and sighed: “Yes of course we are! Can’t you see they are under the table?”

“Don’t play silly games with us, woman!” snapped the officer, and moved on.

The Catholic moral tradition has always held ambiguous views about whether one must answer truthfully in all circumstances. The relevant commandment forbids “false witness”, which points to high-stakes situations such as courtrooms and oaths. The wider moral tradition considers questions of lying to ‘those who have a right to know the truth’.

When penitents come to me pained that they have lied to spare a friend’s feelings, I never tell them that doing so is permissible.  Nor do I state that it is clearly sinful – but they have identified it as sin and they are the one who has mentioned it in confession. I counsel them to find creative answers which are not direct responses to the questions asked, or perhaps to respond with, “Do you want my honest opinion?” before proceeding.

I have to recognise that the English language is used in certain conventional but non-literal ways. “How are you?” is an invitation to give a stock response to establish conversation, not to offer a comment on my actual state of well-being. As for “How do I look in this dress?”, I won’t begin to analyse what that might actually mean! As an Aspie, it grieves me that language is used so cavalierly in non-literal ways. As a scientist, I note that sociolinguists such as Erving Goffman have documented how language is used in different contexts. As a Christian, I wonder if we are acting outside the Lord’s injunctions to be straightforward (Mt 5:37). The Lord is Truth Himself; surely Jesus would not speak thus! (Yet in some contexts, such as ‘cut off your sinful hand’ Mt 5:29-30, I recognise that he must surely be exaggerating for effect. The behaviour, not the hand itself, must be amputated.)

There will also be contexts where I haven’t realised that there’s a non-literal convention going on in the way others use language. And how does the fact I am a priest influence things? If a terminal patient asks “Am I going to die?” is it my duty to provide false hope, or to prepare a soul to meet its Maker quite imminently?

And then there was the time I appeared in court as a character witness. I swore to tell the ‘whole truth’. How did I know the accused? “I was his spiritual adviser, but I asked his permission to waive confidentiality when his lawyer asked me to appear.” For this 100% honest response the jury was sent out and I was lectured by the judge about proper speech in court; I had breached some rule about indicating that a witness had been in contact with the accused. Clearly the Court did NOT want the whole of the truth which I had just sworn on the Bible to provide!


“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”

These words, article 1776 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, briefly summarise paragraph 16 of Gaudium et Spes.  They loftily declare that conscience is heard as God’s voice echoing within the depths of a person.

Really? I’ve never heard it within me.

The official Catholic definition of conscience and morality is a bit muddy and complex, but seems to go like this: There are God-given principles of morality. Insofar as we understand what these principles are, we must apply them to each and every moral decision we must make. Having reached a decision about whether a particular course of action is moral or not, we are duty-bound to avoid choosing any wrong course. Choosing to carry out an action we know to be wrong is, by definition, sin.

The ‘resounding voice’ of conscience apparently might do one of two things. It might tell me what one of the principles of morality is. Or it might shout Don’t do that!” when I contemplate a particular course of action.

What must I do if the teaching of the Church conflicts with one or more of the principles which I think my inner voice is telling me? I have a duty to form my conscience. If such a conflict occurs, I should doubt that the inner voice is speaking accurately, and trust that the Church’s teaching is more reliable. The inner voice is to be held sovereign when applying established principles, but not when establishing them in the first place.

The Church’s teaching is always about principles, not specifics. In the case of intrinsic evils, the distinction is semantic. For example: Should I procure an abortion? The Church intervenes, not to say directly “Don’t do it” but to say “Abortion is wrong in all circumstances”. I apply the principle to my life’s circumstances. Here of course, there is only one possible outcome. Nevertheless, it is an important point of principle that the Church only teaches the moral principle, and I remain morally responsible for applying it.

When the main thing going on in your head is a busy ‘reasoning centre’ equipped with a moral rulebook (written by your parents, the Church, the Bible and your lived experience), moral decisions are pretty straightforward. You apply the rules and get on with it. I seldom do a lengthy examination of conscience at bedtime, because to do so would only be to repeat the same moral calculus applied earlier in the day. If an action had turned out badly because of information unknown at the time, I would shrug and rationally conclude that I couldn’t have done differently there and then. More rarely, if my ‘feeling centre’ had exerted an unusual warning tug, or I might have allowed a thought, word or deed to be directed by a passing wave of sexual arousal, feeling of irritation, or gluttonous appetite, then there would indeed be cause to review an action which might not have been the best course.

I can’t say I have ever heard the resounding voice of conscience. Perhaps at times I have had a dull awareness of ‘this doesn’t feel like a good idea’ when pushing through some course of action. But as a preacher and teacher, it is hugely significant that my lived experience of conscience doesn’t match with what the Catechism says.

It strikes me as I write this post that despite my wide scientific reading, I have never come across discussions of the nature of conscience, or whether it works in the same way for everyone. A little Googling gives some quick results:

  • A reductionist biological view, of course, pre-supposes that the conscience, as an aspect of brain function, can treated like any other trait which evolved in modern humans. Darwin himself pondered the conscience in Descent of Man.
  • One Oxford psychologist was acknowledging that conscience might develop differently in different people back in 1961, in a journal intriguingly titled The Modern Churchman.
  • Some research papers have considered how we become more or less lenient in making moral judgments when our state of mind is coloured by a sense of disgust or awareness of physical purity.

The question of how human beings experience the workings of conscience is an empirical one, and therefore the proper domain of science, not theology. Do we know whether there are qualitatively different kinds of conscience, or only a single spectrum of one kind of conscience working more or less strongly?

Only once we can clearly state what human faculty we are speaking of, can we properly theologise about how that faculty may or may not mediate God’s will, either because God speaks supernaturally into that faculty, or the natural workings of that faculty are an aspect of humans being “made in the image of God”.

Wikipedia reminds me that scholastic authors spoke of the ‘spark of synderesis’ – but is their starting point an assumption that we all experience conscience in the same way?

Documenting how conscience works in the typical human will be a necessary chapter in the Aspie’s Humanity 101 Manual! But for moral philosophers, there is a wider question to ponder about the diverse nature of conscience itself.

I’ll finish this post by quoting paragraph 16 of Gaudium et Spes. Apparently I am supposed to experience conscience as something unlearned within me, as intrinsic to a human being as the Three Laws of Robotics are to Isaac Asimov’s positronic brains. Perhaps my experience of being human is rather like the story of the robot Caliban, who chooses to behave morally despite lacking an intrinsic set of laws.

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

A Catholic Priest with Asperger's Syndrome ponders the Catholic Faith and human nature