Truth, conscience and conversations

For many years, Archbishop George Pell has expressed reservations about the appeal many Catholics make to the primacy of conscience. In a recent speech, he has said forthrightly that, while individual conscience is important, the ‘misleading doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be publicly rejected’. He argues that ‘conscience has no primacy; truth has primacy’.

Although these claims are made in the terms of a long standing debate among Roman Catholics, they are of wider interest. For they touch the relations between individual and society, between personal freedom and law, between allegiance and dissent, that are being renegotiated in a world shadowed by September 11.

The primacy of conscience is a slogan that can decorate the flags of quite different philosophies. To bring it into useful conversation we need to specify what we mean by conscience, what conscience has primacy over, and under what conditions it has primacy.

Within Catholic conversation, conscience is usually identified with the process by which we make decisions about right and wrong. When we follow our conscience, we weigh the arguments and do what we recognise to be right. Conscience is important because in it we engage the hunger for truth and goodness that are the core of our humanity. For that reason both Archbishop Pell and his Catholic critics insist on its centrality.

When we speak of the primacy of conscience we assume that conscience must take precedence over at least some other things. In spelling out where conscience has precedence, Archbishop Pell and his critics have much in common. They agree, for example, that conscience has primacy over the claim of the state to dictate the religious faith and practice of its citizens. Archbishop Pell explicitly acknowledges this in endorsing the Declaration of Vatican II on Religious Freedom, which insists that the search for religious truth is central to human beings, and that assent to it must be freely given.

They agree also that conscience has primacy over our convenience or our comfort. The stories of martyrs are remembered in order to show that human dignity never shines more brightly than when people brave threats to their life and security in following their conscience.

This common insistence by Catholics on the importance of conscience is significant, because in Australian national life today the claims of religious freedom and of the lonely conscientious voice need all the support they can find. Where so many people find government policies and their execution morally repugnant, we need a moral framework that can expect and honour conscientious dissent. In a climate of anxiety, too, the religious freedom of minorities is precarious.

If conscience has primacy over religious coercion and over comfort, the aphorism ‘conscience has no primacy; truth has primacy’ needs to be qualified. For the commitment to religious freedom implies that the claims of a true faith must yield to the claim of a conscience inspired by false beliefs. And when the archbishop praises the integrity of a man who withdraws from the Catholic Church because he cannot accept Christ’s divinity, he also appears to give conscience primacy over truth in this instance.

These examples suggest that it is not helpful to imagine truth and conscience as rivals pleading for precedence. Truth is better placed within the play of conscience; there it indeed does have primacy. When we ask what we should do, we affirm the value of truth. When forming our conscience, we enquire about the truth. After we recognise the truth, we choose to follow it. And we remain open to changing our way of acting if what we believed to be true turns out to be false. So although truth does not have primacy over conscience, it does have primacy within conscience over self-interest and arbitrary choice. To speak of the primacy of truth within conscience is to say that our decisions are well made when they follow our recognition of truth. They are not well made simply because we have chosen them.

This framework is helpful for addressing Archbishop Pell’s major concern: the relation between the conscience of Catholics and the church to which they give allegiance. The archbishop claims that in committing themselves to the Catholic Church, Catholics accept that God’s authoritative guidance about life and belief are given through the church. It is therefore unreasonable to accept that God’s guidance is given through church teaching and simultaneously to appeal to the primacy of conscience to dismiss that teaching.

He offers as protagonists of this appeal to the primacy of conscience those who dismiss the teaching of the Catholic Church about doctrines like the divinity of Christ, about moral issues like contraception, and about pastoral regulations that forbid offering the Eucharist to non-Catholics or to the divorced. He also instances those who, on the basis of conscience, justify remaining in the church while working to overturn such authoritative church teaching as the prohibition of homosexual practice or euthanasia. This kind of appeal to conscience leads him to argue that the principle of the primacy of conscience should be publicly rejected. He claims that because Catholics recognise that truth is to be found within the teaching of the church, they should give precedence to that truth in forming their conscience.

The archbishop’s argument depicts a church in which disregard for church teaching is widespread both in the number of people and the number of issues that are touched by it. It is a church where faith has been corrupted by a culture hostile to faith. I respect his judgment, but do not recognise in it the Australian church with which I am familiar. Although there is a crisis of authority within the Catholic
Church, as indeed there is in society, I believe that it touches a relatively small area of faith and life, and has more to do with the style of formal teaching than with its content.

At the core of the difference between the archbishop and his critics is the understanding of how Catholics find God’s authoritative guidance for their conscience within the church. To explore this difference takes us into the language and structure of Catholic theology, but the debate illuminates national issues, particularly the relationship between the government and its citizens. Archbishop Pell uses the image of God revealing knowledge that was previously unknown. ‘Christ is the son of God who came to redeem and save us and explain to us the secrets of this life and the next. His teaching has a unique authority. We regard it as divinely revealed rather than simply the work of human intelligence.’

This image of revelation naturally leads to explanation of how God’s revelation is communicated and preserved intact. The apostles and teachers of the church are entrusted with these tasks, and so to them Catholics should look first for guidance about how they are to live their lives. In this image of revelation, the part played by human beings is relatively passive.

I believe that in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the image of relationship offers a more seminal account of God’s dealings with human beings than does the image of revelation. It suggests that God invites human beings into a loving relationship that shapes them into a community. For Christians, Christ is present within the community, and his guidance for their lives is found through a variety of conversations, including prayer, worship, shared reflection, engagement with their world and culture, and formal teaching. In accepting the authority of God and of Jesus Christ, therefore, Christians commit themselves to this varied conversation.

In the conversations that shape the Catholic Church, there are many authorities. Among them are the assurance of prayer, the lives of good Christians, the consensus among committed companions, good theological reflection, and informal and formal teaching. The overarching authorities, of course, are the teachers of the church, the bishops with the Bishop of Rome at their head, who guide this varied conversation and declare authoritatively on occasion what faith and church life demand.

The complex and delicate structure of Catholic conversation is protected by many slogans. The authoritative character of teaching is enshrined in such phrases as the church is not a democracy, and Rome has spoken. The participatory nature of conversation is protected by axioms that stress the importance of the sense of the faithful, of the reception of doctrine, and of the connection between prayer and teaching.

To be a Catholic, then, entails seeking Christ’s authoritative guidance in the structured conversation that shapes the life of the church. It would be inconsistent to appeal to the primacy of conscience in order to dismiss in principle the claims made within that conversation whenever they conflicted with our interests or prejudices. That would be to accept a claim with one breath while denying it with the next. Where the appeal to the primacy of conscience entails that self-contradiction, Archbishop Pell is right to reject it.
But I know of few Catholics who dismiss in principle the claims entailed in their membership of the church. Many, however, find it hard to accept all the claims made in conversation, particularly the conversation involved in teaching at its different levels.

Catholics, for example, who have a practical decision to make about methods of family planning or about receiving the Eucharist in a Reformed church, often have some idea of the church position and of the reasons supporting it. But many, reflecting on the circumstances of their own lives, do not find church teaching compelling enough to outweigh other reasons. In terms of my previous analysis, they do not recognise church teaching as true when they make their decision. But they do not withdraw from the various forms of conversation, including that involved in teaching, and remain open to persuasion.

In cases of this kind, any implicit pressure to choose between truth and conscience is too brutal. Each case needs to be judged on its merits, and for this task subtle and close tools of analysis have been developed within Catholic discussion. They touch such questions as the centrality of particular teaching in Christian faith, the different levels of authority of church statements, how the teaching has been received, and the conditions under which teaching becomes authoritative and under which its authority may be known with certainty.

The complexity of these questions suggests that to take due account of Catholic teaching in the formation of conscience is not always a simple matter. It suggests, also, that unanimity and
harmony flourish when the various conversations that shape Catholic life are aligned, with the result that there is a clear and transparent relationship between the conclusions drawn in prayer, shared reflection, and informal and formal teaching. Historically, in periods when these conversations have not been aligned, there has been conflict and uncertainty. So the conflict today should not be surprising, particularly given that the methods by which the teaching authority tries to align the conversations within the church are themselves at issue. This discord does not weaken the claims to truth, but it does argue the need for time, patience and mutual respect—the conditions under which truth is refined and recognised.

Slogans and pressure to conform narrow that necessary space.

Where truth is in dispute, open conversation is needed. Truth requires freedom both to be recognised and to be credible. It is as counter-productive to withdraw topics like women’s ordination and contraception from public conversation as it was for communist regimes to ban advocacy of political systems different from their own. In any conversation where only one side may be argued, we instinctively assume that those who publicly defend the official position are motivated by ideology and not by an interest in truth. The outlawed position is then assumed to be true, and wins by default.
The debate about conscience plays out in Roman Catholic terms issues that face Australia as a nation, and particularly the relationship between the government and citizens in the conduct of national policy.

he common insistence among Catholics that truth has primacy is important, for after Tampa and Iraq it needs to be said that decisions about war and refugees are moral decisions in which truth and reality matter. Truth is not to be manufactured as expedient. The debate also asks how authorities should relate to their people in times of uncertainty. It is natural for governments to assume that they and their chosen know the secret truth about war and public affairs, and so to impose their view by abuse, ridicule, the stacking of committees with like-minded people, and the suppression of informed conversation. The necessary space for conversation shrinks and the citizens become alienated. Against that construction of government stands the importance of a varied national conversation that is motivated by a desire to establish the truth and to act upon it.

To enable that kind of conversation, it is important to defend the primacy of conscience over coercion, to defend within conscience the primacy of truth over will, and within the search for truth, the primacy of freedom over closure. 

Andrew Hamilton sj teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.



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