Over a decade ago, when I was ordained to the transitional diaconate, I was a seminarian in Rome. As is the custom of my seminary, the Ordination Mass was celebrated in Saint Peter’s Basilica. My parents, other family members, friends, and several priest mentors made the trip over the Atlantic for the festivities.

You can imagine my nervousness.

And so when I arrived at the basilica for the Mass, I saw one of the priests from home. He warmly greeted me, and making small talk asked, “How did you sleep?” I smiled and, telling the truth, said to him, “Like a rock.” He laughed, then replied, “Then you either have a clear conscience or a dead one,” and we both laughed.

In reflecting on that laughter, I suspect we were both amused by his comments since we both (naively) thought that no one would present himself for sacred ordination (or by extension, live as an ordained priest) who had a dead conscience.

And yet, with this further reflection, maybe we shouldn’t have been so entertained by the concept of a dead conscience since such lifeless consciences do exist, even among those who have been consecrated for selfless service. And such cadaverous consciences have caused immense harm and damage. Such dead consciences have justified abuse, protected it, shamed and silenced those who were abused, and enabled further abuse.

In a reprehensible reboot of the scandals of 2002, the Pennsylvania attorney general has released a recent report of appalling abuse by priests and a systematic cover-up of this abuse by the hierarchy. And so, of the many pressing questions raised by this report, some of the most essential spiritual and moral questions are simply: How? How – in conscience – could anyone dedicated to the service of God and his people abuse a vulnerable person? And how – in conscience – could anyone committed to the Gospel place institutional loyalty above the protection of vulnerable people?

Honestly, how could anyone who holds a moral authority sleep at night knowing that he violated innocence and sacred authority? What lies, deception, or delusion must a person accept to believe that abuse, or its cover-up, serves any objective good?

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council summarized the Christian teaching on the conscience, when they wrote: “For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His dignity lies in observing this law, and by it he will be judged. His conscience is man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. By conscience, in a wonderful way, that law is made known which is fulfilled in the love of God and of one’s neighbor.”

A healthy, well-formed conscience, therefore, unmasks the false conflict between freedom and truth. It sees moral truth as the very means by which a human being can be truly free and grow as a person of good will and as a child of God.

As explained by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, when he served as the prefect of the doctrinal office of the Vatican, the conscience is not one’s personal wish, or some type of superego, nor is it the consensus of a group of voices and influences within the person.

The conscience is our spiritual heart. It is our interior witness to goodness, righteousness, and authentic personal flourishing. It is the witness to our Creator and the moral law. As such, a healthy – that is, a living conscience – is a directive voice within us. It admonishes us and teaches us the difference between right and wrong.

Of course, all of the above is basic moral theology. It’s taught to any neophyte in the seminary. In fact, the first few years of a seminarian’s training are centered precisely around the formation of his conscience. He is taught about the Bible and Tradition as sources of creedal and moral truth. He is instructed on philosophical speculation, the virtues, the life of prayer, basic asceticism, and the skills of moral examination and self-regulation.

In summary, among many other things, the seminarian (and future priest) is mentored on the basic ability to distinguish right from wrong and to nurture within himself a true and strong love and desire to do and persevere in what is right and good.

And so, in the midst of our current moral catastrophe, we see some of our highest churchmen – who should be models of living and protecting goodness – reject their own basic seminary formation. They betray their belief in God, whose kingdom of goodness yearns to be manifested in our world. And they ultimately kill their consciences, so as to shamelessly abuse vulnerable people for their own pleasure and power, and/or create a culture that silences victims and protects abusers.

These are the tragic consequences of the dead consciences of men who barefacedly allow themselves to be called “Father,” “Bishop,” and “Cardinal,” but who lack any moral sense of innocence, goodness, vigilance, protection, and pastoral care.

Such men, or those promoted by them, are not the shepherds and reformers we need. They are empty tombs, and it is best that they step aside, assume a life of penance, and pray for a reawakening of their own consciences, so that repentance is possible and salvation might come to them.