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 try 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 that of 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 the 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), John Henry Cardinal 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!
Eureka Street 20 March 2007
Max Charlesworth is an emeritus professor of philosophy. He has written on conscience and related issues in Church, State and Conscience and Religious Inventions.
The full text of Bishop Anthony Fisher’s address to the February conference of the Pontifical Academy for Life can be found at http://www.zenit.org/english/visualizza.phtml?sid=103903