Should a person keep their word? Are oaths or promises binding? Of course would be the answer most of us would give, I hope. In the gospel today King Herod not only made a promise, he swore an oath. His sense of honor, duty, morality compelled him to keep it. Otherwise, the people could say of him, his oaths are lies. His promises are no good. His word means nothing. He did the honorable thing. But he was wrong! He murdered John the Baptist. Why? "for the sake of his oath and them". (Mk 6:26)
Today's gospel reminds us of the complexity of morality. In a textbook or classroom it can all seem very black and white. Once you introduce the infinite variables we call life, it becomes much less simple.
The only constant in our system is the compass which God has placed in each of us called the conscience. It is not perfect. It requires formation. But in the end we must obey it. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says,
1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.
The same verse 26 of Mark's gospel tells us that Herod was "very sad." This was the voice of his conscience speaking to him, telling him that in this situation it would be wrong to keep his promise, to fulfill his oath. For whatever reason (misguided sense of duty, social pressure, etc.) he acted contrary to his conscience. How deliberate the choice was only he and God know.
It appears that he chose saving himself embarrassment over doing what was truly right.
It is not always easy to reach a morally certain judgement, and the formation of our conscience is a never ending task. The conscience is not perfect and it may be in ignorance or error. The temptation to avoid pain and embarrassment is ever-present. But in the end we must obey our conscience.
There is one thing of which we can be certain. If we strive to form our conscience, and if we obey that conscience, God will not condemn us. The world may condemn us. But God will not, even if it turns out that the morally certain judgment of our conscience was in error.
Would that Herod had listened to his conscience.