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Carrying the cross
Lenten pilgrimage brings sacrifices,
but never sacrifice or ignore conscience

Dear brother and sisters in Christ,

As our Lenten pilgrimage continues, we turn again to our Lord Jesus Christ, longing for His grace to fill our hearts. We are approaching the days of the Passion. Jesus asks each one of us to carry a share of His Cross. We cannot expect to be His disciples otherwise. The Cross defines our faith.

Yet Jesus does not ask us to carry it alone. He, still and always, is the one who bears the greatest share of that burden. His strength in us allows us to bear our part of the Cross, until, as we are united with Him in this life through the Church, we may be fully and eternally united with Him in the next life, in Heaven. I pray that these last days of Lent give us many opportunities to continue to grow in holiness.

One part of our carrying of the Cross is sacrifice. We may give up something good during Lent, for example, for the sake of something better. Whatever our call is in life, we are often required to make real sacrifices. Thus, for example, our priests sacrifice the opportunity of married life, to save souls and to be signs of Christ’s love and mercy. Married couples give up much in order to remain faithful to each other and, often, sacrifice their own pleasures for the sake of their children’s needs. Sacrifice is a key part of our lives as disciples, by which we carry part of our Lord’s Cross.

But one thing which we never sacrifice or ignore is our conscience. Ever since the temptation of our first parents in the garden, the devil tells people the same lie: God’s love is a burden, and to be free, we must take from Him as a right, not receive from Him as a gift. It is a sign of how loud the devil’s voice is in our culture today, that we regularly think of freedom in these terms, rather than in the Scriptural terms of obedience to God and to His covenant. Only if our conscience is well-formed by the Holy Spirit through Scripture and the Church will we rightly recognize this lie.

This is why our religious liberty is at risk. The devil’s lie is nothing other than a sacrifice of conscience. When we try to take truth, freedom, or goodness from God, we assert, as it were, our rights against his. The purpose of our conscience is to guide us to truth, goodness, and freedom, all received from God as gifts, like the effortless food and comfort Adam and Eve enjoyed before the Fall. To take from God rather than receive, then, is to ignore the true voice of conscience for a false good. We thus sacrifice our conscience for nothing, for an empty promise.

When conscience is sacrificed culturally, not just individually, the foundation of culture is in danger of being destroyed. Our Founding Fathers rightly recognized that liberty is always held precariously, and that its defense requires freedom from coercion in all aspects of religion – not just in worship, but also in public morals and in private conscience. No government, on its own, is competent to teach morality. Governments must learn morality from its fundamental sources: natural law, the Scriptures, the Church, and the lives of individuals of good conscience who can lead and teach by example.

Over the last century, our culture has repeatedly sacrificed our collective conscience, for example, in accepting contraception and sterilization, no-fault divorce, abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, and same-sex so-called marriage. The Health and Human Services’ mandate is yet another wound of this kind. Several times, I have encouraged you to learn about the consequences of this law, and to work and pray for its overturning or correction.

Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in two HHS mandate cases, Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, and Conestoga v. Sebelius. In both cases, the current administration tried to argue that it is not only acceptable but necessary for economic actors in the public square to set aside “private” moral convictions about contraception, sterilization, and chemical abortifacients. By this argument, the mandate does not burden conscience because conscience has no place in public life.

The “reduction to the absurd” of this line of argument is clear. If conscience has no place in public life, then all sorts of evils are tolerable. Moreover, without private morality, only the government is moral, and whatever the government wants to do is by definition right and good. As citizens, we are clearly threatened in our persons by such logic. As brothers and sisters in solidarity with each other, we know that governments that believe they are the arbiters of “right” and “good” will not hesitate to do away with or marginalize those who try to convince people otherwise. And as disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, we know that conscience and freedom are worth far more than this and must be preserved.

Every one of us has the power to do just that, by the example of our life lived totally for our Lord Jesus Christ. Our fidelity to the Gospel exposes the devil’s lie. Our Lenten observances, by joining us the Cross, form us for this spiritual battle, and prepare us to share also in the Easter victory of Christ. We can only live with him if we die with Him – which is the precisely the program of Lent. And our faithful, hopeful, and joyful example of Christ alive in us can bring hearts and minds to accept his light and grace.

I know my words today are heavy and somewhat difficult to hear. Yet, it is so important to hear the truth and lead others to it. I have confidence that you can do this.

May these days of Lent increase your love for our Savior and your devotion. Please pray for our judges, and for the defense of religious freedom and individual conscience, and the liberty of our holy mother, the Church. I pray fervently for all of you.

Your brother in Christ,

Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City

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