Continuing with our special Countdown to Synod 2010 series . . .
Everyone agrees with the primacy of conscience. In Church: Living Communion, Paul Lakeland quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “a human being must always obey the certain judgment of his [/her] conscience.” Everyone also agrees that a person’s conscience may be in error. Sometimes the error is culpable, sometimes not. Writes Paul:
If we cannot dismiss all conscientious dissent as wrong, we also cannot canonize the individual conscience as an infallible guide. (p. 84)
While there are some fundamentals like the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, or the necessity of grace for salvation that claim common assent, many Catholics are all over the board in their acceptance of other Church teachings. Paul sees the growing phenomenon of the “cafeteria Catholic” as a challenge to Church leadership. In the cafeteria mode
the plate each of us ends up with, while it has many items in common with the next person in line, is never quite the same as that which others have selected, and the whole idea of a common tradition is threatened, or so it seems to some. But what one person might see as disastrous someone else could celebrate as healthy pluralism. p. 83
The challenge to the Church leadership as well as for the questioning Catholic is to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in dialogue and communion with the whole Church.
Once again, a hint about how to resolve this problem is offered by the remark of Cardinal Ratzinger in advance of the conclave that would elect him pope. Since the Church has sometimes chosen bad popes, it is probably wrong to imagine the protection of the Holy Spirit covering each and every decision of the Church, and better to think of the Spirit guiding us through good and bad decisions and good and bad popes toward the reign of God. And this in its turn would suggest that the process by which the Church discerns how best to express the truth it possesses may require debate and even dissension between individuals and magisterium in which the magisterium is not necessarily always in the right. The requirement for the individual is to listen and learn, to inform one’s conscience before proceeding. By the same token, the requirement of the magisterium is to be similarly humble before the possibility that it might just have gotten something wrong. It has happened before; it could happen again. (p. 85)
I would like conversation about what is meant by the word “conscience.” Ladislas Orsy in his book Receiving the Council talks about conscience as “that luminous part of the person where he or she is bound to God.” In that center of myself where I experience the presence of God, I can test the wisdom of a course of action. But in that same center of experience, I know that no human language, no propositional statement about God, expresses the mystery of God—how Jesus is both human and divine, how the inner life of God is a trinity, what salvation means for the human race. So what does conscience have to do with affirming those propositions set down in creed? What is the value of a common tradition of assent to propositional statements about God? Is this a legitimate question for a person of faith?
Next: The Fifth Challenge: The Religious Formation of the Young.
To read about and discuss the first challenge, Identity and Commitment, click here. For the second challenge, Ministry - Ordained and Lay, click here. For the third challenge, The Roles of Women in the Church, click here.
Theologian and author Paul Lakeland will be the keynote speaker at the Catholic Coalition for Church reform's September 18 Synod of the Baptized: "Claiming Our Place at the Table." For more information about this event and to register, click here.