Friday, September 10, 2010

The Fourth Challenge: Church Teaching and the Individual Conscience

by Paula Ruddy

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.


  1. While I agree with the substance of your remarks, to say that we all agree that primacy of conscience is required is certainly not true. I can point to a number of right wing Catholics who insist there is no such thing. Or as they describe it: to be out of synch in any way with church dogma means by DEFINITION that your conscience is not properly formed. Circular reasoning, but they ignore the CCC on this completely.

  2. Hi, Witshadows. I'll grant you that point. I shouldn't have said "everyone." I meant that between the people who consider the Catechism final answers and those of us who would like continuing discussion to be the norm rather than final certainties, primacy of conscience is not a lively subject of debate. Wouldn't we all say that moral actions are made with reflection and consent of the will? An individual person is accountable for moral decision-making? As you point out there is lots of disagreement about how one forms one's conscience, however.

  3. In my opinion, progressives and traditionalists alike agree in principle on the primacy of conscience. What happens with the more conservative types is that the call for the conscience to be (a) informed and (b) in dialogue with the Church--both of which are correct--is often interpreted, as witshadows said, as meaning that if you are not in agreement with the Church then your conscience is at fault. But even conservatives will recognize that even an objectively faulty conscience is something we must follow. Now, that might mean to some that if, in conscience, we cannot accept Church teachings, well, we should "go and find another religion." And again, even progressives would agree with that at some point in the spectrum of teachings. The conservative draws the line sooner, including much more in the category of "non-negotiables" (one of the favorite words of traditionalists) than liberals might.
    If you can't in some way or other accept the idea of the Trinity or of the divinity of Christ then, speaking as a liberal, I would say that your future is probably with the Unitarians who, in my view, are on the whole much better people than we Catholics. But if you can't accept the teaching on birth control or stem cell research or pre-marital cohabitation, well, does that REALLY put you beyond the pale?

  4. Thanks for your comment, Paul. The current way of trying to fathom the internal life of God as relational and dynamic--trinitarian--is meaningful to me and it seems that it is an understanding that may not have been possible in a much earlier age. Would you say that we have to reconstruct our dogmatic understandings in the categories and language of our time? For me the question is not "Can I assent to this formulation?" It is more like "What does this formulation mean?" For example, What does it mean that Mary was assumed into heaven? I find myself needing to hear what people of faith mean by that.

  5. Excellent writing here. Another point that I might add, is that something I experienced in my years as a Roman Catholic was that when one makes a decision to live or think in a way that is contrary to the Catechism or something, a response that comes from Traditionalists is: "You just do not understand what the teaching of the Church is" and they yield to becoming a catechist.

    Knowing when to be a catechist and when to be a compassionate listener and Spiritual adviser, is a challenge. But if one is to retain people, understanding that each person must come to terms with God and what they believe on their own and allowing them to pray and receive the Sacraments on their own terms, is important if we are to retain people's interests. Cutting them off only serves to suggest that their only alternative is to exit stage left.

  6. Can't resist a follow-up on conscience from the soon-to-be-beatified John Henry Cardinal Newman. Newman wrote that conscience must always be the final arbiter. If he were to make an after-dinner toast, he wrote, “I shall drink … to conscience first and to the Pope afterwards.” A person who fails to follow conscience, he wrote, “loses his soul”

  7. I would say that one thing to consider is the notion that if your individual conscience is saying something contrary to the Pope, to Catholic moral teaching by numerous Bishops and over centuries of time then you might consider that your are being ruled by individual pride. I also note that many in our present culture have lost the ability to seek out facts and form consciencr by facts not just opinions. Opinion and fact are being blurred causing them to not know how to logically draw conclusions. I find this in the classroom as a teacher and with adults who react with emotional statements not fact based statements and can see no difference3. The freeedom of consience is tied to a responsibility to seek clarity and also to the virtue of humility, to realize your own opinion when it is contrary to numerous other authorieties is probably the flawed one. Every Truth taught by the Church is backed up by facts which can be pointed to. The truth of Humanae Vitae for example is profound and obvious. Pope Paul VI did communicate with clarity the effects of contraception on marriage anf family. The evidence surround us---all of that should confirm thst if your have a contrary opinion you have formed that opinion separate from fact and probably based more on emotion. Pride would be a culprit to warn all of us. I admit that hierarchy has been wrong--take Joan of arc, burned at the stake by Church hierachy. But in that case she had formed her own conscience based on the direct Word of God to her. Most cannot say they have had that event occur in such a dramatic fashion. Obedience to God does come before Church authority because he is the ultimate Judge.

  8. And I would say this about individual conscience. Using the example of Pope Paul VI re contraception effect on marriage and family, is a weak one. It wasn't nor is it "the evidence surrounding us." I agree that morality is at a low, but it isn't because of the use of contraceptives (bad example). Contraceptives have always been used by many Catholics. It is unconscionable to me that the catholic church still wholes this up as a sin against God, when many poor nations that have turned to the catholic church to be comforted are made feel that they are against God if they use contraception. If we follow the message of Jesus he taught compassion. Compassion is the heart of Jesus's Ministry. In the time of Jesus the Romans created an unsettling mix of religious, political, and economic conflict affecting the every aspect of life of the Jewish people and so they in turn committed themselves to the Torah's holiness code and submit to God's mandate to" holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" Unfortunately the concept of holiness carried with it the notion of achievable perfection. As a result, this particular group of Jews emphasized the portions of the Law that stressed separateness. Jewish life was polarized into clean and unclean, pure and defiling, sacred and profane, People, too, were divided into categories of clean or unclean, righteous or sinner. Jesus identified with the Pharisees more than with the Sadducee, who were literalistic so bound by law they lost compassion for others outside their own and for anyone breaking their crippling laws. Jesus modus operandi was healing and compassion. These are the very words Pope Francis has used in addressing the church's too much emphasis on the act of abortion rather than looking past the result, abortion, to have compassion for the suffering of the woman choosing to have an abortion. Like Jesus the Pope far from ignoring the law or possessing a lack of moral standards, such behavior includes giving up things like oppression, exploitation, coercion, and greed.__ not to mention the tyranny of having to believe what is correct. By putting behavior ahead of belief in a hierarchy of values, Jesus's disciples are held to a standard that transcends the rules. Followers of Jesus are duty bound to treat their fellow human beings with kindness, respect, and mercy no matter the circumstance. Our actions of love are more important than the expression of our beliefs or keeping of the law. "Compassion was at the center of Jesus's ministry and life," "In the Gospels you get the sense that Jesus looked into people's eyes, into their hearts, and he saw who they were. He saw what they needed. And no matter what law he had to break, if he had to break a law in order to make that person whole or to make their lives better, Jesus did it." The church has lost it's compassion and had become a church of laws (one only need look at the catechism to see how legalistic they have become) just like what Jesus came to undue with the Sadducees.