No post-Freudian insights in Bishop Fisher's conscience paper


Conscience more than a GPS: Bishop FisherOn Saturday last, March 3rd in Rome, Bishop Anthony Fisher, an Auxiliary Bishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney presented a paper on conscience that is being circulated widely. Because of the relevance of the topic for all people of good will, and lest the venue along with the flourishes of learning within which the address is couched might lead some to presume the presence of great wisdom I, a simple priest, dare to add a dissonant voice. My intention is not to contradict Bishop Anthony but to claim that the issue is worthy of a much wider and more nuanced treatment than he has given. What he has to say is far from the last word, and far from the best words, on this all important topic.

He decries the late scholastic position that likens conscience to the navigating device he has in his car which connects him to some external satellite navigator which is to be listened to and obeyed. After many studious readings I find it hard to see how his vision of conscience differs significantly from that position.

I am not happy with the cavalier way he seems to oppose the world to God with statements such as “if in our sinful world God’s law seems unrealistic, the trouble is not with God’s law but with the world”. This is especially noxious when he describes those who provide problems for his position as zeitgeists and implies a rather naïve identification between the Magisterium and God’s law. What on earth is he trying to say when he writes “the Magisterium informs conscience from within”?

The disturbing dichotomy he places between Church and world is nowhere more present than in the way he fails to evidence any real appreciation of the post-Freudian insights into the human person and condition. It is hard to escape the impression that for him the human personal subject is inferior to some nebulous objective reality.

I also see him implicitly treating the relationships between affectivity and rationality and the masculine and feminine in a dichotomous, even a patriarchal way. With a few superficial nods here and there towards modernity put aside, the essence of what Fisher has to offer could have been written in the thirteenth century.

I’m sure that Bishop Fisher would not want to be excluded from the ongoing challenge provided for all of us who dare to teach by his statement that misconceptions about conscience are commonplace and lead to many disastrous decisions.

Fr John Ryan lives in Canberra. He has spent most of his 44 years of ministry in the Catholic Church working in renewal projects, especially with priests. This article has its basis in a book he is completing for publication.



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Existing comments

It is obvious that Bishop Fisher is in the same mold as his superior, Cardinal Pell, and I applaud John Ryan for his excellent critique.

We have here in Perth a kindred critic in Fr. Joe Parkinson at the LJ Goody Bio-ethics Centre. He and I say let us remember that Cardinal John Henry Newman argued that conscience is paramount over popes and bishops. On this note, when will the Vatican respectfully reply to the letter, written over a year ago, from 42 concerned prominent Australian Catholics about Pell's apparent deviation from traditional Catholic moral doctrine?
Gerard Tonks | 13 March 2007

An excellent response. My late devout Anglican mother imbued me from childhood, two values. 1.Conscience as one's guide to right and wrong, and 2.Freedom, "where there is no freedom, there is no happiness" she used to say. How right she was. I joined the Catholic Church at age 18, left it at age 60.Primarily for the above reasons.
Trevor Green | 13 March 2007

It is misrepresenting Cardinal Newman to assert that conscience for him is paramount over popes and bishops. Look at these words of his:

“When men advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all.”

“Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives."

"The sense of right and wrong, which is the first element in religion, is so delicate, so fitful, so easily puzzled, obscured, perverted, so subtle in its argumentative methods, so impressible by education, so biased by pride and passion, so unsteady in its course, that, in the struggle for existence amid the various exercises and triumphs of the human intellect, this sense is at once the highest of all teachers, yet the least luminous; and the Church, the Pope, the hierarchy are, in the divine purpose, the supply of an urgent demand."

Newman rejected neither universal principles nor the teaching of the magisterium. For him conscience was the internal witness of the law of God rather than the creation of man. He was mistrustful of the ‘free choice’ of the individual moral agent: “Dare not to think that you have got to the bottom of your hearts, you do not know what evil lies there”.

Peter Dolan | 13 March 2007

I also applaud Fr Ryan's critique - I just wish it was longer!

My problem with the viewpoint expressed by Bishop Fisher is that they seem to misunderstand what the debate is all about. For a start, no-one is arguing that primacy of conscience is about "doing your own thing" or "following the group".

However, I think the Bishop is also missing the mark in his assumption that it's all about people making serious, but private, judgments on the basis of their subjective experiences and insights.

I agree that we need communal standards and values, but the issue is whether subjective experiences and insights should be part of the basis from which the communal beliefs develop.

As it is - I'm talkig here particularly about issues around sexuality, marriage, etc. - the Church's teaching has been developed over the centuries by people who have not lived these experiences themselves, nor does it seem they have been open to input from those who have.

Likewise, as John Ryan also points out, can we always equate Church teachings with God's will? The Church hierarchy seems sure that their teaching (on sexuality etc.) is firmly based on the Gospel - apart from anything else, they have developed the sort of rigid legalism which Jesus so strongly criticised!

In fact, the Church hierarchs seem to think that their teaching in this area would be universally accepted if only they explained them in a better way, and/or if we would all develop a "properly formed conscience".

Doesn't it occur to them that those of us who actual live the experience might know something they don't?

Cathy Taggart | 13 March 2007

The arguement is not about the supremacy of conscience, but the supremacy of WHOSE'S conscience ... the magisterium or the informed person. I believe that history would point out that the conscience of the magisterium is often severely flawed
Bill Dunkley | 13 March 2007

Strewth! How precious can you get? I always thought that 'decries' was a verb with pejorative connotations.Is Anthony condemning the 'late scholastic position',or is he supporting it? Should that have read '..the late scholastic position HE (Anthony) ays..etc'? As Frank is writing a book, am I am being insolent in asking those sorts of questions?
Claude Rigney | 13 March 2007

The pressures of life and living a life of moral striving somewhere need to be measured.

We need a relevance in conscience not simply in given truth, but also in the, often tempory, interaction with Christ as Saviour. This is not in conflict with Christ the Creating Word of the Father. It is in harness.

Human weakness needs acknowledgment.
Theodore Gillian ofm | 14 March 2007

It is perfectly understandable that Bishop Fisher demonstrates the same limited concept of conscience as his mentor George Pell. Men (and women) who think as do the above mentioned, are always afraid of losing control, and the only law they can rely on to do this is Church law.
I.Goor | 14 March 2007

A few weeks ago an earnest young man approached me with an ethical dilemma that had been the cause of quite some spiritual disquiet.

He had come to the conclusion that, in conscience, he was obliged to maim abortionists’ hands so that it would be impossible for them to carry out surgery.

I set forth the Church’s teachings on the dignity of every human being – abortionists included – and the devastating effect such action would have on the pro-life cause. He was aware of the Church’s teaching but couldn’t see why it wouldn’t be better to maim a few in order to save the many.

I told him that he was thinking ad mentem Singer rather than with the Church. He replied that he was just a simple Catholic and couldn’t see what was wrong with his logic. I told him not to be an idiot and his friend smiled in agreement with me and that was the end of the matter.

Is objective reality really so “nebulous” that I must simply leave someone to “follow his conscience” when he or she doesn’t understand Church teaching?
Fr Richard Umbers | 14 March 2007

Pass this on to John Ryan will you??
"Happy Birthday Johnno"

Lilyan Staniforth | 23 May 2007

Any details on when Fr Ryan's book will be published?
Eleonora | 27 May 2007

It is extremely demeaning to describe Bishop Fisher as having Cardinal Pell as Mentor. Bishop Fisher's Mentor is the One,Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Also John Ryan will have to placate many women scholars who have relegated Sigmund Freud to deserved obscurity. Time to update Fr Ryan!
Alex Reichel | 15 March 2009


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