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Bishop misses mark in assault on understanding of conscience

  • 02 April 2007

Bishop 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