Friday, March 23, 2007

Our consciences can err, the Church cannot

Michael J. Bayly, Executive Coordinator of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities, has posted recently some of his Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity. Near the end, Mr. Bayly proclaims the "good news" that "the loving and transforming presence of God is not limited to the impoverished teachings and rules of the Vatican". The thoughts he shared follow closely his earlier post concerning the primacy of conscience. I excerpt from his earlier entry:

Our moral choices should be the result of an informed or “educated” conscience.

Yet some within the church insist that it is only the “official” church which can properly “educate” and “inform” the Catholic conscience.

Such Catholics are adamant that one knows if one’s conscience is rightly formed if it conforms with what the Magisterium, the official teaching office of the church, says about various moral matters.

Yet if this was really the case, why have a conscience? What’s the point of it when we have the Magisterium?

Also, if we relinquish our personal conscience in favour of the Magisterium , what do we do with statements like the following:

“Above the pope as an expression of the binding claim of church authority, stands one’s own conscience, which has to be obeyed first of all, if need be against the demands of church authority.”

Such a statement explicitly differentiates between one’s “own conscience” and “church authority”. Yet is this statement simply the ramblings of a dissident theologian, a “militant secularist” in a Catholic disguise?

Actually, no, it’s not.

They are, in fact, the words of Fr. Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), and he is explaining the authentic Catholic understanding of the primacy of conscience. The pope’s explanation is excepted from a commentary on “Gaudium et Spes” (“The Church in the Modern World”) published in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II (Vorgrimler, Herbert (Ed.), Burns and Oats, 1969, p. 134.)

So, one can, in good conscience, dissent from the church’s official moral teaching. But, of course, one can only do so as a result of an “informed” conscience. Which brings us back to the crucial question: How does one go about properly informing one’s conscience?

Believe it or not, I think we should allow the church to inform our consciences, but I don’t limit “the church” to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. In it’s broadest and, I believe, most catholic sense, the church is the entire people of God; the whole Body of Christ, in other words.

For instance, in forming my conscience on how I am to live as a gay man – a living that includes the expression of my sexuality – I am compelled to be open to the experiences and insights of the entire people of God, not just the teachings of the Magisterium. These experiences and insights are just as important as the doctrines of the church when it comes to informing my conscience. The tragedy is that the Magisterium itself, as the teaching office of the church, should be similarly engaged in such a universal, i.e. catholic, process of discernment.

Notice the quote from Ratzinger. He dropped the exact same text as a footnote of his recent post. Bayly uses the quote to justify his assertion that "one can, in good conscience, dissent from the church's official moral teaching." But is this Ratzinger's intention? Of course not! Let's look at some more context from the Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II where Ratzinger comments on Gaudium et Spes 16:

Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one's own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. This emphasis on the individual, whose conscience confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official Church, also establishes a principle in opposition to increasing totalitarianism. Genuine ecclesiastical obedience is distinguished from any totalitarian claim which cannot accept any ultimate obligation of this kind beyond the reach of its dominating will.


As well as the transcendence of conscience, its non-arbitrary character and objectivity are emphasized. The fathers were obviously anxious ... not to allow an ethics of conscience to to be transformed into the domination of subjectivism, and not to canonize a limitless situation ethics under the guise of conscience. On the contrary, the conciliar text implies that obedience to conscience means an end to subjectivism, a turning aside from blind arbitrariness, and produces conformity with the objective norms of moral action.


As regards the binding force of erroneous conscience, the text employs a rather evasive formula. It mere says that such a conscience does not lose its dignity. We must note here that the thesis emphatically asserted by J.B. Metz in particular, that Aquinas was the first definitely to teach to obligatory force of an erroneous conscience, is historically and objectively the case only to a certain extent and with considerable qualifications. Historically speaking, Aquinas here is following Aristotelian intellectualism, according to which only what is presented to the will by reason can be its object; and the will is always in the wrong if it deviates from reason. It cannot once again control the reason, it has to follow it; it is consequently bad if it contradicts reason, even if reason is in error. In reality, Aquinas's thesis is nullified by the fact that he is convinced that error is culpable. Consequently guilt lies not so much in the will which has to carry out the precept laid upon it by reason, but in reason itself, which must know about God's law. The doctrine of the binding force of an erroneous conscience in the form in which it is propounded nowadays, belongs entirely to the thought of modern times.

So, it is clear that Mr. Bayly has no ally in his dissent with then-Fr. Ratzinger. In general, Ratzinger affirms the necessity of obeying one's conscience taught in Gaudium et Spes 16 but is critical of the ambiguity of the text. In the end he notes how an erroneous conscience obeyed is still often culpable of guilt, since the judgement of reason can be due to one's previous neglect or prior sin. Instead of justifying us in our sin, conscience levels the playing field between man and God, for we all know the requirements of God and we all know when we do wrong:

For God shows no partiality. All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. (Romans 2:11-14)

Although Michael Bayly and others of CPCSM claim to be "Catholic, Liberal, Faithful", what they mean is "I self-identify as Catholic, but I am self-liberated from the rules of the Vatican, and I am faithful to what my own conscience tells me is right." Anybody who happens to think that "Catholic" should mean more than "I say I'm Catholic"; anybody who thinks the Catholic Church clearly teaches certain absolutes; anybody who thinks that the Pope has the authority to bind and loose the people of God, is stuck in "the ghetto of neo-scholastic thinking" which is a "narrow and abstruse way of thinking", resorts to "equating ecclesiastical fidelity with passive toadyism", and responds to reality with "distrust and fear".

I find it a bit ironic that St. Thomas with his "narrow and abstruse" scholasticism was the first one to teach definitely (with qualifications) that one's conscience should be obeyed even if in error, the very principle the Mr. Bayly holds up in justification of his dissent from the Magisterium!

In truth, while a person indeed must obey his conscience when it speaks of doing good or avoiding evil, we must acknowledge that conscience can err (CCC 1790). Christ, speaking through the Magisterium of his Church, cannot err (CCC 888-92). We are to inform our consciences with the truth of God by means of what we know is certain:

In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord's Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church. (CCC 1785, emphasis added)

Edit: Typo "Vorgrimler" changed in original, and reflected here.


Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks for alerting me to the typo in my post.

I'd be interested to hear of your understanding of the Church's teaching on the "primacy of conscience."



Dan said...

From the Catechism (1790):
"A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed."

Our freedom is double-edged. God gives us the dignity to "do good and avoid evil" and holds us accountable to obey to the reasonable judgments of our conscience. But we are also responsible for learning the true moral prinicples on which our reason may act.

But another aspect, and Ratzinger points this out, is that no matter how ill-formed one's conscience may be, deep down God has placed on the heart of each human being his true moral law.

From GS 16:
"In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. ... For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged."

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Dan,

I had to repost my "Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity" post as for some reason it wasn't allowing folks to leave comments.

It can now be found at here. You might want to change the link to it in your post.



Cathy_of_Alex said...

Mr. Bayly should read John Paul II's Fides et Ratio too.

To have a well formed conscience requires reading the whole document not just picking out one sentence and applying it to your thesis/blog post/beliefs etc..

When I was a dissenter I was pointed to certain sentences of the CCC as "proof" that your own conscience may trump everything else (the implication being that "everything else" was the Magisterium). I was astounded to discover that by reading the entire CCC that there is no justification for allowing your conscience to tell you that you can be a cafeteria Catholic. We are all given the free will to accept or reject God's teachings. However, there is no wiggle room. To reject any of it means to reject Him in His entiriety. It certainly means that you are not a Catholic, you are a Protestant because you have picked and chosen only some of the Catholic church's teaching in order, in essence, to create your own personal church. You have protested against it.