Before all else, we have to be aware that we are approaching this topic with a presupposition and a challenge: that the reader is educated and capable of research. Having said this, we proceed.
First, return to the primary source. Information usually reaches us from ‘secondary’ sources. They can come from gossip, opinion, sensational reporting, biased and prejudiced articles that agitate us. Many times we find studies about the topic at hand but not the source document itself.
A primary source is original and uninterrupted information before it is interpreted or analyzed. In making decisions, it is important to actually read the article that is the source of controversies. This is the very root of all decisions. If we do not begin with this step, our opinions on matters will be less credible and decisions will be colored and lopsided. That is why in the academic field, all research puts primary importance on the root source itself. In Philosophy, we read Plato’s The Republic, Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, David Hume’s A Treatise on Human Nature, or Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. In Christianity, the primary source is the bible; In Islam, the Koran.
I remember there were a lot of university students who approached me about Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code. Their parents and pastors said that one sins reading it. I disagreed. In high school, we were taught to critique books; why can’t it be applied now? Because honestly, I read and enjoyed both Angels and Demons and Da Vinci Code. I gain credibility because I read the primary source. So my advice: read and see for yourself. Make your own judgment.
Second, gather data from secondary sources. Secondary sources interpret, analyze or summarize primary sources. In many researches, this is called data-gathering. In making an informed choice, we consult others after knowing the primary source extensively. In data-gathering and discernment, we draw from credible sources so that our decisions will not be colored by our own feelings, likes and dislikes. We are often dissuaded by our emotions and thus we can be easily fooled by others.
There is a hierarchy of sources in data-gathering. The opinion of our teenagers is not at the same level with the opinion of our parents.
In secondary sources, Catholics put primary consideration to the teachings of the Magisterium. Catholic religious orders will have the way and charisms of their founders. For Jesuits, St. Ignatius’ autobiography, the Spiritual Exercises, and the Constitutions are important for our way of life. Other faith traditions as Protestants and evangelicals will return to the teachings of their founders or prominent writers as well. It is important to remember that there is a wide spectrum in the Catholic Christian world as political affiliations are categorized as belonging to the left or the right or somewhere in between. Wherever you belong within that spectrum, you remain a member.
Secondary sources will also include reflections on our life in general, so that we can situate what we are deciding on concretely. We consider how we were shaped and inspired by the values of our parents, our community and the people we admire. How did our favorite saints, heroes, family members, and significant persons tackle our present dilemma? Did they have an approximate experience of what we are undergoing?
We can also dialogue with people who are different from us, so that we can view the issues from other people’s perspectives. We know that the truth lies in all people; no one monopolizes the truth.
Why is this “thorough” research important? Because, we should be constantly aware of our human capacity to make rationalizations for our actions. Therefore, we constantly need to sincerely and honestly challenge ourselves: Have I done everything that is within my power to know the issue at hand, and at the same time, resolve to do what is good? We also come to realize that we need the help of others in discerning what right action to choose.
Third, bring it to prayer. This is the most important thing. The objective is always to follow God’s will. In prayer, these might help.
1. Pray for enlightenment from the Holy Spirit. Look into your heart so that it desires only what God wants.
2. Imagine you are now consulting God. You put everything you know on the table. You explain to God your situation. You tell Him about the various things you now know. You can do a “pros and cons” in prayer and think about possible consequences should you decide on the matter.
3. Weigh each side and imagine yourself deciding on it. Let God touch your life.
4. Choose that side which makes you more at peace. The evil spirit can give us happiness and pleasure, but not peace. Peace is not Satan’s nature.
Finally, choose and act on it. Be sure that you can live with it; die for it; and face God with it.
The Church acknowledges the primacy of our conscience. The Church document, Dignitatis Humanae 16 says:
“In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience.”
Dignitatis Humanae, therefore says that when we say “I am free to follow my conscience,” it does not mean that we can ignore our obligation to properly form our conscience and just allow our whims and emotions to dictate our actions. It means that our human dignity demands that we should be allowed to follow the decision of our formed conscience.
It also entails a warning to the self-righteous, the “Pharisee” in our midst. We need to be careful in judging the conscience decision of others; we need to acknowledge the complexity and uniqueness of each person’s journey in the formation of his/her conscience leading to a particular act.
To end, we remember that one must always follow one’s formed and informed conscience. Some moral theologians would even include, our ‘responsible’ conscience. The Church respects a person’s decision to follow his/her conscience even if that conscience is erroneous because of invincible ignorance.
Thomas Aquinas maintains that one sins if one does not follow one’s conscience; it is better to risk excommunication rather than violate it.