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A Conscience erring vincibly or culpably is an unavoidable
Cause of Sin, whether it be resisted or complied with.
When the error proceeds of malice or negligence, the man is guilty according to the venom of the ingredient; there is a sin in the principle, and this leads to an action materially evil. He that makes assemblies against his prelate, and thinks he may lawfully do it, does an action for which, by the laws, he is punishable; but to God he is to answer besides the action, for the sin that led him to that error.
Quest. But if it be inquired, whether that also be a sin which is an obedience to his conscience, that is, whether the instance of the action be a sin, beside the malice of the principle, and so every such action become a double sin,--I answer, that it is according as the instance is.
1. If it be against a prime principle, in which we are naturally, or any way greatly instructed, then the error is culpable in that manner that it remains voluntary all the way; and then not only the introduction or first principle, but the effect also is a sin. The man hath only put a blind before his eyes, and in every reflex action it is discovered, and he knows it habitually all the way. And therefore, in this case, the conscience ought not to be obeyeda. For the conscience is but imperfect and equivocal, violent and artificial. It is persuaded in the act, and convinced of the evil in the habit or reflex act, and is no otherwise deceived than a man is blind that wears a hood upon
eye. 2. If the conscience be possessed with a damnable error, and in a great matter, and this possession is a dereliction and a punishment from God for other crimes,-it is no matter whether we call the consequent action a sin or no; for the man is in a state of reprobation, and the whole order of things and actions in that state are criminal, formally or equivalently. His prayers are abomination; and if so, then the actions that are materially evil, are much worse, and in estimation are prosecutions of the state of sin. Of this sort are they that are
given over to believe a lie; all the consequent actions are sins, just as the envies and blasphemies of damned people are sins, or as the acts of devils are imputed: they are consigned to death, and all the consequent actions are symbolical; and it will be always so, unless they can return to a state of repentance.
3. If the conscience be abused in a deduction, consequence, or less certain proposition, by evil arts and prejudice, by interest and partiality, there is so much evil in the whole determination, as there was in the introducing cause of the error, and no more. For if the action consequent to the persuasion were also a sin, then it ought not to be done; but because in this case the conscience ought to be obeyed, though in the whole affair there is a sin, and it is unavoidable,-yet the sin is antecedent to the action and determination, but no proper appendage or qualification of it. And since the object in the present case transmits honesty and equity into the action, not according to what it is in the thing, but according to what it is in reason, it must needs be that we are obliged according to what we find it to be in conscience. For in this case we know not what it is in itself, and therefore by it we cannot be guided to choose or to refuse; but, because we must be guided by something, it must be wholly by opinion and conscience.
4. If the conscience be weakly and innocently misguided, there is no sin either in the error, or in the consequent action. Because no man is bound to do better than his best; and if he hath no sin in the principle of his error, it is certain he did his best, that is, he did all his duty; and then to proceed by the best light he hath, is agreeable to right reason and to religion.
Upon the ground of these conclusions we may easily infer, that though an erring conscience is to be followed (as it is above explained), and yet that God also is entirely to be followed, and that therefore a man, by accident and by his own fault, may be entangled “ in nervis testiculorum leviathan” (as St. Gregory's expression is, out of Job), in the infoldings of sin and Satan, and cannot escape innocently so long as he remains in that condition; yet, because he need not remain in that condition, but either by suspecting himself, or being admonished by another, by inquiry and by prayer he may lay
his error down,-it follows, that to obey God never hath an unavoidable dilemma, and never is impossible, so long as the man is in a state and possibility of repentance. Because every error that infers an action, that is formally as well as materially sinful, not only ought, but may also be deposed or laid down; because, in such cases, no man is invincibly abused. No man can ever be in that condition, that to love God shall become a sin to him; because no man can really be ignorant, or properly entertain this opinion, that it is a sin to love God; that rebellion is lawful; that adultery is no sin; that it can be lawful to strike a prince for justice, or to break a commandment to preserve the interest of a sect; that a man may
rob God in zeal against idolatry and images. These things are so plainly taught, that an error in these cannot choose but be malicious.
But when the error is in such cases where either it is invincible and irremediable, or where weakness pleads excuse, the action is in that degree innocent in which the error is unavoidable; and if it could be otherwise, then a case might happen, in which, by the laws of God, a man could be bound to that which is intrinsically evil, and then God, and not man, were the author of the sin.
The sum is this. God is supreme, and conscience is his vicegerent and subordinate. Now it is certain, that the law of an inferior cannot bind against the command of a superior when it is known. But when the superior communicates the notices of his will by that inferior, and no otherwise, the subject is to obey that inferior, and in so doing he obeys both. But the vicegerent is to answer for the misinformation, and the conscience for its error, according to the degree of its being culpable.
It is a greater Sin to do a good Action against our Conscience,
than to do an evil Action in obedience to it.
This rule concerns degrees only, but is useful in the conducting some actions of repentance; and it is to be understood to be true only in equal cases, and when there is no circumstance aggravating one part. Friar Clement, the Jacobin, thinks erroneously, that it is lawful to kill his king; the poor demoiselle Faucette thinks it unlawful to spit in the church : but it happened that, one day, she did it against her conscience; and the friar, with his conscience and a long knife, killed the king. If the question be here, who sinned most ? the disparity is next to infinite; and the poor woman was to be chidden for doing against her conscience, and the other to be hanged for doing according to his. Because the friar's error could not be invincible and inculpable, her's might; and in such questions, the effect of which is of so high concernment, because the errors in them are supreme and dangerous, the inquisition ought to be very great where there can be difficulty, and therefore the negligence is always intolerable, and it is malicious where the discovery is easy, as it is in these cases. And therefore, in so different materials, the case can no way be equal; because in one there is a greater light, a more ready grace, a perfect instruction, an evident provision, an open restraint, and a ready commandment.
But when the effect of the questions is equal, and not differenced by accidents, the rule is certain upon this reason; because a sin done against knowledge is greater than a sin done ignorantly. He that sins against his conscience, sins against all his knowledge in that particular; but if he sins against a commandment which he knows not to be such, he sins ignorantly, and therefore the more excusably. “ But I found mercy,” saith St. Paul, “ for I did it ignorantly, in unbelief.”
Upon this account, it comes to be the same kind, and the same degree of crime, to sin against an erring, and to sin against a right conscience in the same instances. He that omits to hear divine service on a festival, when he hath no reasonable impediment, and he who omits it upon a common day, which he erroneously supposes to be a festival, hath equally prevaricated the law of the church, and the analogy of the commandment of God on which this of the church is founded, they being equally against his rule by which he is to walk : and this error hath no influence upon the will or choice, but is wholly extrinsical to it. But this is to be
understood in errors of fact, and such as are inculpable, and have no effect, and make no change in the will.
And, therefore, in our penitential sorrows and expiations, we need not be curious to make a difference of them which have the same formal malice; and if we be taught to make any, it may have this evil consequence in it, that we may love our ignorance, and flatter ourselves in our irregularities, which we think will not be so severely imputed, by reason of the error. If this be a great crime to disobey our conscience, teaching us righteous and true propositions, it is on the other side also very great to suffer our conscience to be so misled, that a good action shall become criminal by such mistaking ; so that, besides the departing from our rule, which is equal in both, they have their own superadded evil to weigh against each other.
RULE V. It is not lawful to delight in an evil Action (after the Discovery
of our Error), which we did innocently in an erroneous Conscience.
The case is this:-Quintus Hortensiusa received a forged will of Minucius from some hæredipetæ or testamentary cheaters; and, because they offered to verify it, and to give him a share, he defended the forgery, and possessed his part; but when he afterwards perceived the cheat, and yet detained the purchase, he grew infamous : it was innocent till he knew it, but then it was criminal. He should not have pleased himself in it, because he should have restored it. But in this there is no question.
But when the possession or purchase may lawfully remain, there is some difference in the decision of the question. Spurinna, striking a stag, involuntarily and unwittingly kills his brother, and becomes rich by the inheritance. Here the man must separate the effect from its relation, and so proceed: the inheritance was a blessing, the accident was a misfortune; and if he may not rejoice in that, he may not give thanks for it, but as for a cross. But if he pleases himself in the way of his entrance to it, he had a mind ready to have killed
a Cicer. Off. iii. 17, 5. Heusinger, page 704.