Ignoring One’s Conscience

Let your conscience be your guide” is a well-known expression that almost sounds biblical.  But it isn’t.

Allowing your conscience to guide your moral decision-making depends on how well-formed it is. You can have a clear conscience or a guilty one.  Your conscience can be enlightened or corrupt.  

The key to a well-formed conscience is a lifetime of soaking it in the beauty, goodness, and truth of Scripture. Failing to cultivate God’s gift of faith within one creates the conditions for an ill-formed conscience and fertile soil for the growth of bad ideas and the making of bad decisions.

Why all this discussion about the forming of a conscience?  It reminds me of a story about a man named Rudolf.

He was born into a devout German Catholic family in 1901. Rudolf grew up in a Christian family and his youthful conscience well understood right from wrong. His father hoped he would one day become a priest.  But a childhood incident sent him in a different direction, away from his faith.

As a young student, Rudolf lost trust in his local priest, who, Rudolf surmised, broke the seal of the confessional and told Rudolf’s father of an incident at school. From that day forward, Rudolf’s faith began to wane.  His trust and faith broken, he opted for a career in the military instead of attending seminary. His conscience became less influenced by faith and more by the pragmatic life in Germany in the first part of the 20th century.

He served in WWI and WWII, and following Germany’s defeat in 1945, Rudolf became a farmer.  That is until he was arrested and put on trial.

And therein lies the rest of the story.

Rudolf Höss joined Germany’s Nazi party in 1922. Fascinated with this new leader named Adolf Hitler, he turned away from his childhood faith to heed the philosophies of man.  He fully embraced the Nazi gospel as preached by Heinrich Himmler. Despite some inner doubts and concerns, most likely prompted by the lingering influence of a faith-formed conscience, Rudolf ignored the whispers of righteousness and became convinced of the rightness of the Nazi cause. 

In 1940, he was assigned the task of building a new camp in Poland.  Afterward, he became the Camp Commandant of that camp — a camp known as Auschwitz. One in six Jews killed in the Holocaust would die at the camp Rudolf built and managed.

Though Rudolf Höss was a devoted Nazi and blindly followed every order, his conscience refused to be silent.  Following his arrest, he asked to see a priest. Father Wladyslaw Lohn, a Polish Jesuit priest, who spoke fluent German, met with Höss.  

During his visits with Höss, Fr. Lohn found a contrite and repentant man. Weeping, Höss confessed to ignoring his conscience, knowing that what he was doing was not right. He accepted full responsibility for everything that happened at Auschwitz.  Rudolf Höss knew in his heart that the extermination of the Jews was wrong, yet despite those inner doubts, he chose to carry out his orders in a cold, heartless, unemotional way.

He was sentenced to death by hanging. Before he went to the gallows — ironically in the concentration camp he had built — Höss left his wife and five children some parting advice. “The biggest mistake of my life was that I believed everything faithfully which came from the top, and I didn’t dare to have the least bit of doubt about the truth of that which was presented to me.”

Höss urged his children not to ignore their conscience as he had done.

A darkened conscience leads to bad ideas.  Ideas have consequences, and, in the case of Rudolf Höss, bad ideas have victims, millions of them. 

Too late, Rudolf Höss realized the cost of ignoring one’s conscience.

Reading this story about Höss, I came away with three insights.  One, like the thief on the cross, there is hope in that it is never too late to repent.  Second, a sobering reminder that one’s conscience only functions well when it allows the pure light of God’s truth to form it. Third, when a culture loses its conscience, it is impossible to govern by anything but brute force.

How can a young man keep his way pure?  By guarding it according to thy word.  With my whole heart I seek thee; let me not wander from thy commandments!  I have laid up thy word in my heart, that I might not sin against thee.  Psalm 119:  9-11. (RSV)

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared… I Timothy 4: 1-2 (RSV)

Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things.  Hebrews 13:18 (RSV) 

Note: This story was inspired by an article at the Aleteia.org website. https://aleteia.org/2023/01/26/the-tragic-yet-hopeful-story-of-the-commandant-of-auschwitz/?utm_campaign=EM-EN-Newsletter-WeeklySunday-&utm_content=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_source=sendgrid&utm_term=20230129

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