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Bishop misses mark in assault on understanding of conscience


Conscience always exists alongside moral lawBishop Anthony Fisher's recent lecture, Conscience and Authority, is based on a similar lecture in 1991 by the then Cardinal Ratzinger. (Conscience and Truth). Both lectures are attempts to diminish the importance given to the role of conscience in the moral and religious life of Catholics, that had emerged in the Declaration on Human Freedom and other documents of Vatican II.

Fisher begins by giving an excellent account of the centrality of conscience in Catholic thinking, but he then attempts to show that, by the 1960s, conscience had come to mean something like 'a strong feeling, intuition, or sincere opinion'. In other words, it meant that the person who appealed to the primacy of conscience was surreptitiously pursuing his own personal and 'subjective' preferences over against the Church's authoritative teaching on sexuality, contraception, in vitro fertilsation. remarriage etc. The bishop gives no evidence for this extraordinary claim, and no account is given of the critical way in which Catholic lay people have in fact faced up to the Church's teachings on the issues just mentioned.

Many Catholics have found that the arguments proffered by the Church about these matters simply do not make sense and are unbelievable. For example, the Commission of lay people set up by Paul VI to advise on contraception recommended that the prohibition on it be lifted because it could not be rationally justified. However, the Pope simply ignored this recommendation and maintained the ban. (see Robert McClory, Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission, Crossroad, 1995). It is clear that many Catholic women see the papal teaching on contraception as being untenable since the number of Catholic women taking the contraceptive pill is much the same as non-Catholic women.. They have, for the most part, while remaining in the Church, decided to follow their consciences as against the Church's teaching.

Much the same can be said about the Church's teaching on homosexuality where Catholic homosexual couples in long-standing relationships refuse to accept the view of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith that their sexual inclinations are 'disordered' or pathological. Once again, many Catholics follow their own consciences on this issue because they see the Church's teachings on homosexuality and same sex unions as irrational and inhumane. It is worthwhile noting that Cardinal Murphy O'Connor in the UK has recently established a regular Mass at the cathedral at Westminster for the large number of homosexual Catholics in London, the implication being that it is possible to be a Catholic and a homosexual in good conscience.

Fisher argues that what distinguishes the 'Christian conscience' is that the authoritative teachings of the Church have to be taken into consideration when one is trying to decide conscientiously what to do. When we do this we see that the dictates of conscience and the teachings of the Church cannot really be in conflict. Even if I am not fully convinced by the Church's teaching on a particular matter, I should see, so Fisher says, that I ought to give 'religious submission of will and intellect', and refuse to do what my conscience tells me to do. But this, of course. requires (paradoxically) that I must make a decision of conscience to choose to do what they Church tells me to do and , in effect, to give up following my conscience!

Although Fisher admits that the Church is sometimes wrong in its teaching, he seems to think that the main moral injunctions of the magisterium on sexuality, reproduction, death and dying etc., are luminously clear and indubitable without the need for any kind of interpretation. We realise that the scriptures cannot be taken at their face value but must be interpreted, but apparently, Fisher seems to say, we don't need to interpret the injunctions of popes, curial bodies, bishops, councils etc., and we don't need to distinguish between mistaken teachings of the magisterium and valid teachings.

But of course we do need to discriminate between mistaken and valid teachings of the magisterium. And we do need to scrutinise them conscientiously. (And our bishops need to remember that the laity they address are now much more philosophically and theologically literate then they were in the past.). After all, if my faith in the Church requires an act of conscience, so also does my reception and acceptance of the Church's teachings.

In his prophetic work, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875) Newman left no doubt about his view of the primacy of conscience: 'If I have to give an after-dinner toast, I shall drink -to the Pope if you please - still, to conscience first, and then the Pope'. Friends of Vatican II will say amen to that!



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Existing comments

So pleased to find Max Charlesworth is challenging the misleading statements by Australian Bishops on the primacy of conscience. Even Papal Infallibility properly understood requires reception by the faithful of what the Pope promulgates as head of the Church let alone encyclicals and other official teachings. Unfortunately many courses preparing priests and laity give much time to avoid fundamentalism in Biblical courses but ignore the need to apply historical critical methods in Moral Theology Courses. So to ask us to discern our moral practice by putting such dubious "truths" over above conscience is appalling.

Cath Courtney | 20 March 2007  

For many years I held the no sex before marriage view and no to contraception. This article brought home to me just how confusing this issue is and I would like to know if thee is a difference between feeling guilty and acknowledging one's conscience or is Bishop Fisher telling us that this feeling is conscinence. The issue is far more complex than the glib writing of such an issue. Hope this makes sense. Thanks. Jacqueline

jacqueline | 20 March 2007  

Whenever I read articles like that of Anthony Fisher, I am reminded of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky's telling his prisoner that 'We have corrected your great work and have based it on miracle, mystery, and authority [and that] men rejoiced that they were once more led like sheep [and that] the terrible gift [freedom of conscience] which had brought them so much suffering had at last been lifted from their hearts'.

Fisher's language is not so blunt, but it carries the same message. 'Set aside the complexity of exercising one's conscience and do what we say because we know best'. Or perhaps more simply, 'Now don't you worry about that'.

Warwick Dilley | 20 March 2007  

Max is honest enough to give us a link (regular Mass) in which Cardinal O'Connor gently refers to 'a number of homosexual Catholics with their families, parents and friends' as those who are leading heroic lives in resisting the temptations to sexual activity. Cardinal O'Connor makes no reference to partners or those joined in homosexual marriage.

Yes Max, it is 'possible to be a Catholic and a homosexual in good conscience' but does not, according to the link that you have given, extend to 'Catholic couples in long-standing relationships'. I think that it could be described as dissembling to suggest that Cardinal O'Connor's initiative encourages 'homosexual Catholic couples in long-standing relationships' to believe that they might be 'in good conscience' while ignoring his 'diktat', in the body of his statement, that characterises homosexual physical love-making as unacceptable.

Claude Rigney | 20 March 2007  

Thank God for Max Charlesworth. Special thanks to him for pointing to the particular areas of concern around the way those in authority deal with relationships, sexuality and the exercise of power. If we want to move forward as Church the hidden agenda must be addressed.

John Ryan | 20 March 2007  

What does Newman really think of the Papacy? In his 'Idea of a University' he says:

"In the midst of our difficulties I have one ground of hope, just one stay, but, as I think, a sufficient one, which serves me in the stead of all other argument whatever, which hardens me against criticism, which supports me if I begin to despond, and to which I ever come round, when the question of the possible and the expedient is brought into discussion.

It is the decision of the Holy See;
St. Peter has spoken, it is he who has enjoined that which seems to us so unpromising. He has spoken and has a claim on us to trust him. He is no recluse, no solitary student, no dreamer about the past, no doter upon the dead and gone, no projector of the visionary. He for eighteen hundred years has lived in the world; he has seen all fortunes, he has encountered all adversaries, he has shaped himself for all emergencies.

If ever there was a power on earth who had an eye for the times, who has confined himself to the practicable, and has been happy in his anticipations, whose words have been facts, and whose commands prophecies, such is he in the history of ages, who sits from generation to generation in the Chair of the Apostles, as the Vicar of Christ, and the Doctor of his Church.

These are not words of rhetoric, gentlemen, but of history. All who take part with the Apostle are on the winning side. He has long since given warrant for the confidence which he claims. From the first he has looked through the wide world of which he has the burden; and, according to the need of the day and the inspiration of his Lord, he has set himself now to one thing, now to another; but to all in season, and to nothing in vain".

Peter Dolan | 20 March 2007  

Who ministers to those reasonable thinking and faithfilled people who, to survive positively,have to make concientious decisions about the people, events, and things of their everyday lives.

Support and care of those seems, at best sporadic and dodgy - not enough for a church called to minister to all!To be authentic, ministry has to take place in the here and now, where people are at. Surely the faith of those who have struggled with real issues, who have come to faithful, concientous, peaceful, decisions have that same struggle of faith to contribute, to the overall journey of faith.

anonymous | 20 March 2007  

I echo John Ryan's sentiments: thank God for Max Charlesworth, and, I might add, for Fr Ryan himself (I presume it's the same John Ryan as the one who wrote an earlier reply to Bishop Fisher) and for journals like "Eureka Street" which allow free and open debate on these issues.

The thing that most "bugs" me about Church teachings in this area is that Church leaders claim to be speaking in Jesus' name, and that their aim is to spread the Gospel, etc., etc., yet, if that is the case, why don't they concentrate primarily on the Gospels, in order to discern how Jesus' techings and values can be interpreted for today?

Honestly, a person reading statements such as Bishop Fisher's speech could be forgiven for thinking that Catholicism is a religion based on the natural law, and only marginally influenced by Christianity!

Cathy Taggart | 20 March 2007  

You do not have to go to any fictional inquisitor as in Warwick Dilley's letter. Bishop Anthony Fisher's fellow Dominicans, the inquisitors Jean Graverent and Jean Lemaitre, were part of the established church pursuit of Joan of Arc in the 15th century when she would not betray her conscience. The return to a medieval mindset as displayed by the bishop does nothing for the millions of practicing Catholics who struggle to live out the gospel in their daily lives and furthers the trend to irrelevancy so often illustrated in the pronouncements that come from Rome.

Pamela C Lever | 21 March 2007  

Of course conscience is of first importance, the Church is being devious when inferring 'but only when it coincides with our teaching'. My position is this - I agree that homosexual acts are sinful as are other sins of 'the flesh' but why should people be then excluded from Holy Communion on these grounds? It seems to me that they need Communion more than the 'virtuous' The Lord said he came to save the sinner not the virtuous who do not need saving, so what is different here? I have never heard that someone was refused Communion for any other sin - and some are VERY heinous. It all smacks of double standards to me.

Margot Kerby | 21 March 2007  

Jacqueline’s comment raises the issue of how to distinguish the authentic voice of conscience from the other voices speaking to our consciousness – our desires, our internalized authority figures (or superego), etc.. This, it seems to me, is equally important as clarifying the relationship of conscience to Church authority. It also means undertaking the difficult (but indispensable) spiritual journey into self-knowledge.

At the risk of dating myself, I list a few brief and simple (enough) articles that served me well in the past:
1. The Pastoral Letter on the Application of “Humanae Vitae”, issued by the Australian Bishops’ Conference in September 1974;
2. Conscience and Superego: A Key Distinction, by John W. Glaser S.J. in Theological Studies, 32 (1971), pp. 30-47;
3. Don’t Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide, by C.Ellis Nelson, Paulist Press, N.Y., 1978.

Don’t be put off by the titles! Each one is full of surprises.

John McKinnon | 21 March 2007  

A meeting held recently of the Delegation of the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel's Delegation for Relations with the Catholic Church considered the question of "The Freedom of Religion and Conscience and Its Limits."

The concluding document from the meeting stated: "The human capacity to choose is a manifestation of the divine image in which all people are created and is foundational for the biblical concept of human responsibility and divine justice." It added, "The idea of moral relativism is antithetical to this religious worldview and poses a serious threat to humanity."

In its moral teaching, the magisterium of the Catholic Church serves conscience by holding up to it the truth for which it was created to embrace. In this, Catholic moral teaching is a light to conscience helping it identify the direction in which its true dignity and nobility lies. Bishop Fisher has eloquently articulated this meaning and role of conscience.

Max Charlesworth’s argument that there is something wrong with Catholic moral teaching since some Catholics dissent from it, is equivalent to holding that since some Catholics think the world is flat then this may in fact be the case.

Eamonn Keane | 21 March 2007  

It is extremely difficult for this amateur to imagine Max Charlesworth is attempting to establish a serious case of primacy of conscience over Papal or Church teaching. Depending on just two areas where the Pope and the Church have not gone to water under pressure, is a very lukewarm case.

To accuse Pope Paul V1, Vicar of Christ and visible head of God’s People, of “simply ignoring this recommendation” (to lift the ban on contraception), is to continue the painful insults inflicted on the Pope during the 1960’s. Not only did Paul consider the human wisdom; but also divine wisdom, born of God’s love. One line in Humanae Vitae stands out, “man will lose respect for woman”. No longer is sex motivated by love in the general community but is akin to recreational activity. Further, in the Western World contraception – and unbelief - have destroyed fertility to the extent we are forfeiting our way of life. Paul V1 made the correct decision, regardless of how many disagree with him.

As to homosexual practice the Church simply follows divine command of the Creator. After “creating them male and female”, He ordered “…go forth and multiply”. The love of husband and wife is an opportunity to share the creative love of God – a principle that is not undermined by any sinfulness. However lust in any form defies the overwhelming love of God and can never be justified by any volume of public opinion. The firmness of Bishop Fisher is to be admired.

Pat Healy | 22 March 2007  

Max Charlesworth mentions "the Church" some 12 times in his review. On each occasion there seems to be an assumption that "the Church" is out there, different from and apart from the writer. And, by implication, from the reader. Maybe if we sort out who and what "the Church" is, statements by the Ratzingers and Fishers of this world will be seen more clearly for what they are, and left for those outside the Catholic community to bother about.

Gabe Lomas | 22 March 2007  

Who or what forms conscience? Could it be the Holy Spirit through a genuine abandoning to its work within us as we allow ourselves to be challenged by love lived in the context of relationship within human life. Perhaps it is as we face and work through our fears and act to live our passions and dreams we find a balanced conscience forming within us.

Andrew | 24 March 2007  

Of course conscience first, but if your conscience says a war may sometimes be just, don't remain a Quaker.

John Dunkle | 25 March 2007  

It appears that Mr. Charlesworth is applying for the position of pope. Or, having failed at that, he is naming himself pope, and determining what can or cannot be "rationally justified."

That presents a problem: when Mr. Charlesworth is irrational, his conclusions will be in error. That is why we Catholics thank God for the Pope, the Successor of Peter. Without the Church, we would all be in the sorry and confused (and indignant) position of Mr. Charlesworth.

chris inwien | 25 March 2007  

If you profess to be Catholic you accept that the Church's teachings are true, on the grounds of their having been revealed by God. You are thus bound in coonscience to believe and follow them; and if you decide that they are false, you are bound in logic as well as conscience to stop professing to be a Catholic, since such profession will be dishonest.

So there is no possible case where one can be justified in being a Catholic while rejecting those teachings that the Catholic Church presents as having been divinely revealed.

It is beyond reasonable dispute that these teachings include her teachings on the immorality of homosexual activity, the impermissibility of marriage after divorce (something explicitly stated by Christ in the Gospels, and accepted as having been taught by Christ even by skeptical, liberal Protestant biblical scholas such as E. P. Sanders), and the deliberte killing of the innocent in abortion and euthanasia.

One can try to argue about whether her teaching on the immorality of contraception is included in these teachings, but the argument that it isn't is not convincing in the end (which was the main factor in Paul VI's reaffirming this teaching); even a scholar like John Noonan, who rejects the teaching, will say that the Church's view on this has always been explicit and clear (see his book 'Contraception').

It's funny that defenders of conscience always find their consciences telling them that they, or other people, are entitled to do what they want - as opposed to their consciences obliging them to take on painful obligations that most people say are not required (as e.g. refusing to accept interest on loans or investments).

John | 25 March 2007  

If you've decided the teaching magisterium is incorrect on a matter of faith and morals, wouldn't following your conscience entail leaving the Church? It really doesn't make sense to pick and choose, because you can do that without the assistance of the magisterium.

Judith M. | 26 March 2007  

In reply to those who take the view that you accept the Magisterium's teaching or you leave the Church: I would like to suggest that you read Paul Collins' book, "Between the Rock and a Hard Place: being Catholic Today" (ABC Books, 2004), especially the first chapter.

Collins explains in detail why he remains a Catholic - and why he feels he can, despite his well-publicised disageements with the Church hierarchy. And, I might add, I think there are a lot of us out here who feel that he is speaking for us!

Cathy Taggart | 26 March 2007  

It amazes me how the author of the article both attempts to appeal to what he perceives as the Church teaching on primacy of conscience, full stop (hint, the conscience must be properly formed, and that is in light of the Church's teaching), and then at the end of the article says that the same teaching authority has "mistaken and valid" teachings.

So he has appealed to an authority that is, in his own opinion, garbage.

Seems like a strange approach.


Rob Skrobola | 26 March 2007  

Thou shalt not adopt a fundamentalist mindset toward magisterial teachings.

Except, of course, for the sections on the "primacy of conscience." On that, you can read it like a six-day creationist does Genesis 1-3.

Dale Price | 26 March 2007  

It is somewhat perplexing how narrow the professor's idea of Newman and conscience is. I give three other quotes that might put Newman's idea of conscience into more perspective here.

Conscience does not repose on itself, but vaguely reaches forward to
something beyond self, and dimly discerns a sanction higher than self
for its decisions, as is evidenced in that keen sense of obligation and
responsibility that informs them. And hence it is that we are accustomed to speaking of conscience as a voice,
... imperative and constraining, like no other dictate in the whole of our experience. (Grammar of Assent)

Moreover, it must be borne in mind that, as the essence of all religion is authority and obedience, so the distinction between natural religion and revealed lies in this, that the one has a subjective authority, and the other an objective. Revelation consists
in the manifestation of the Invisible Divine Power, or in the substitution of the voice of a Lawgiver for the voice of conscience. The supremacy of conscience is the essence of natural
religion; the supremacy of Apostle, or Pope, or Church, or Bishop, is the essence of the revealed; and when such external authority is taken away, the mind falls back again of necessity upon that inward guide which it possessed even before Revelation was vouchsafed. Thus, what conscience is in the system of nature, such is voice of Scripture, or of the Church, or of the Holy See, as we may determine it, in the system of Revelation. It may be objected, indeed, that conscience is not infallible; it is true, but still it is ever to be obeyed.
(Essay on the Development of Doctrine)

What is the main guide of the soul, given to the whole race of Adam, outside the true fold of Christ as well as within it, given from the first dawn of reason ...? It is the light of conscience, "the true Light... which enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world." Whether a man be born in pagan darkness, or in some corruption of revealed religion, ... he has within his breast a certain commanding dictate, not a mere sentiment, nor a mere opinion, or impression, or view of things, but a law, and authoritative voice, bidding him do certain things and avoid others. I do not say that its particular injunctions are always clear, or that they are always consistent with each other; but what I am insisting on here is this, that it
*commands*, --- that is praises, it blames, it promises, it threatens, it implies a future, and it witnesses the unseen. It is more than a man's own self. The man himself has not power over it, or only with extreme difficulty; he did not make it, he cannot destroy it. He may silence it in particular cases or directions, he may destroy its enunciations, but he cannot, or it is quite the exception if he can, he cannot emancipate himself from it. He can disobey it, he may refuse to use it; but it remains. (Sermons Preached on Various Occasions

mark | 27 March 2007  

The Church teaches the will of Christ. We speak of a "correctly formed conscience" for a reason. Most people would shy away from giving themselves a medical diagnosis but feel perfectly competent to decide significant moral issues on purly cultural and relativistic grounds.

Max as a theologian has fallen into the trap of putting his conscience in the place of natural law and the mind of Christ.

Killian | 28 March 2007  

Suggesting that those many of us who disagree with the papal and hierarchical pronouncements should leave the Church implies that they are the Church more than we are.

I believe that the church comprises baptised believers and includes the pope and hierachy. Maybe they should leave the Church if the majority of current believers disagree with many of their clerical pronouncements!

Frank Rosenfeldt | 31 March 2007  

When a man becomes a Catholic he makes a decision in conscience, that is, a moral judgement, to accept that Christ and His Church hold authority from God to teach. Once he has made that decision he is obliged, and obliged in conscience, to follow the authoritative guidance that comes from these sources. He cannot have his cake and eat it too.

Michael Baker | 20 March 2008  

This article was written in April 2007. I wonder what those who submitted comments on the primacy of conscience think today with all the lies and deception not in Australia which has had no Royal Commission or legal condemnation as did the Murphy Report on the abuse in Ireland. I guess there would still be those to find religious rhetoric to explain it away.

L Newington | 17 January 2010  

"The bishop gives no evidence for this extraordinary claim,...."

Read your own article! You more than prove him correct with your subjectivism and emotivism.
You would do yourself and your conscience an immense service to actually read Lumen Gentium on the Magisterium and Gaudium et Spes 16 on conscience.

Burce Tereski | 23 November 2010  

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