We have, from time to time, reviewed the question of conscience, but I wonder whether we have fully taken in a momentous change ushered in by Vatican II.
We are all aware of the words of Gaudium et Spes: “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God …Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity.“ Thinking of myself, I felt that I was always aware of that. But further consideration leads me to suspect that I had underestimated its force.
Look at the words of Pope Benedict (as Cardinal Ratzinger) “’The pre-conciliar’ model which subjects Christian existence to authority, regulating life even into its most intimate preserves, and thereby attempts to maintain control over people’s lives …is superseded. “
Superseded? Yes, this is a change – not a development but a realisation that the idea that morality lies in obedience to the Church’s moral teaching, and that immorality lies in disobedience, was simply wrong. It would be a reversal of a position which has been maintained at least since Trent – when the pressures of the Reformation induced the Church to strong arm the Catholic body. He goes on to tell us that the new position refers to an older tradition of freedom.
For that, we need to go back to Aquinas. He teaches that reason is the instrument of conscience. In that regard, he is loyal to Aristotle, who taught that the predominant characteristic of our species is reason, and that it is through reason that we recognise our moral duties.
He then faces up to the question: What if a man, using his reason, arrives at an objectively wrong answer? His verdict is clear: the conclusion remains wrong, but the man is still obliged to obey his reason. And Aquinas uses a test case – quite remarkable in view of the culture of the time — if a man’s reason guides him to reject faith in Christ then he is obliged to reject him.
Thus a Catholic who divorces his spouse, and remarries, may be objectively wrong, but he is bound to do so if his reason concludes that that is the right course. This is why confessors are instructed not to probe the conscience of penitents on matters such as contraception unless the issue is raised by the penitent. A question to consider here is what right we have to use any pressure on someone whose reason leads her to bring about abortion.
Freedom is always welcome – but be careful what you wish for. No longer can we use the excuse “the Church told me to” on the Day of Judgment. The best we can do is to say “I listened to the Church and I endorsed its teaching with my reason (or not, as the case may be)” Or perhaps to follow the Church because you judge it more likely to be true than you are – just as you might prefer a doctor’s expert opinion over your own, uncertain, opinion. And of course reason instructs a Catholic in matters of doubt to refer to the Church’s moral teaching and to try to see how it may be true, and thus receive endorsement or otherwise. Freedom is not a free pass, it is extended responsibility.
The voice of conscience is imperative – we are bound to obey it – it is not permissive, allowing us to do or not do something on grounds of convenience. Am I being negative when I think that more often than not conscience is inconvenient? I think of the examples of King Henry VIII and St Thomas More. Both claimed to act according to conscience but, whereas Henry’s led him to a conclusion convenient to his political ambitions, More’s led him to the scaffold!
The rise of authority throughout history is one of inchoate development; too much here, too little there. Absolute monarchy, trial by ordeal, habeas corpus, the judicial bench as a delegation of authority from the monarch of the day, and the rise of the rule of law, etc. are all examples of the rise of legal authority.
Peasants always had problems asserting their dignity and importance in days of yore. One can easily imagine smelly individuals in their rags going to mass and confronted with impressive stone buildings that always had the suggestion of threat and power over the individual. Massive stone cathedrals with their mighty spires were another subtle way of seeking conformity to the Church as a power structure.
Once inside, they were witnesses to ornate liturgies, gold and silver chalices, and clergy dressed in their finery. It isn’t any wonder that since the Reformation and the Council of Trent, that the Catholic Church’s authority has become unbalanced, and gone too far by the insistence of obedience to the church.
Since the dawn of the twentieth century and the horrors of two world wars, there has been an urge among ordinary people everywhere to push authority back. The urge to push back authority by ordinary people, have their antecedents such as the political revolutions of the late sixteenth century, the rise of the scientific age, the industrial revolution, etc.
Culture and its sociology are important. They are the glasses that we view reality and live our lives. This is as true as it was back in days long gone, as it is today. The hopeful result of having someone like Francis as Pope could be a renewal of the idea of the inviolacy of the human conscience, as well as the full implantation of Vatican II. One thinks here of ‘Gaudium et spes’.
‘He who acts against his conscience loses his soul.’ (Fourth Lateran council, 1215).
Aquinas’s breathtaking notion that if reason leads any person to reject Christ, then that person is obliged to reject him, points to one important function of the Church to its adherents. It is an advisor, not a ruler. People are not robots. Authority is there to serve us, not dominate us.
‘If Newman (Cardinal John Henry Newman) places conscience above authority, he is not proclaiming anything new with respect to the constant teaching of the Church.’ (Pope John Paul II).
Considering the subtle change of emphasis by the Church since Vatican II, Morality lies in obedience to the Church, and that immorality lies in disobedience, was simply wrong. Again, this reemphasises the solitary dignity of the human conscience. It also underpins the important notion, (which is a part of moral theology) and that is objective morality or teaching, and subjective morality or the circumstances of individuals and families.
As a peritus (scholar) of the Second Vatican Council, Fr. Joseph Ratzinger skilfully summarised the relationship between ecclesiastical authority and an adherent. Writing in 1967,
‘Over the pope as expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there stands one’s own conscience which must be obeyed before all else, even if necessary against the requirements of ecclesiastical authority. This emphasis on the individual, whose conscience confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which is the last resort, is beyond the claims of external social groups, even the official church, and also establishes a principle in opposition to totalitarianism.’
(‘Gaudium et Spes’, Volume 5, Part 1, chapter 1, p. 134, in ‘Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II’, Edited by Herbert Vorgrimler, 1968, New York, Published by Herder & Herder).
John, Thanks for that remarkable quote, must go through Gaudium et Spes again. Hope you are well.
I wonder if much of the emphasis on absolute obedience has come from the influence of religious orders, especially in educating the young? The three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, which are required, would be considered very important to promote.
I would say definitely so. Principles of formation pretty much demand obedience as absolutely as possible. This is the fly in the ointment I suspect. You will not heard it said in seminary that you must obey the dictates of your conscience regardless _ I can only speak for Oscott I guess -possibly Ampleforth too.
“Principles of formation pretty much demand obedience…” That’s the heart of the matter; and ‘formation’ is the key word. He who would command must first learn to obey.
And yet more wickedness has resulted from obedience to authority than any other cause.
Obedience has a role to play, if one’s conscience is uncertain a reference to authority does not go amiss. Petty thieving is still theft but there are many who might think it OK to “borrow” somebody else’s property on an indefinite basis.
While queueing on the street for access to my doctor’s surgery (NHS 2014) I got into conversation with a mid-70’s Muslim. He talked about the breakdown of society and especially loss of respect for the elderly; I thought of the 4th commandment, “honour thy father and they mother”. There has been a catastrophic decline in basic obedience to legitimate authority. It is one thing to have an active, reasoning conscience but surely entirely another to reject all authority without “proof”.
I do hope St. Joseph is well as we have not had a post for some time. I’m sure by now she would have talked about the general rejection of NFP in favour of artificial contraception as one of the worst examples of loss of obedience to the teaching authority of the church. Despite the “primacy of conscience” this rejection is, I think, what John de Waal called a convenient conscience. I’ve just been watching a Fulton Sheen video where he talks of “the rejection of the cross”, perhaps, when our conscience prefers the easy option, we are rejecting the cross.
Milliganp, thank you for this. Yes, I very much miss St Joseph’s comments. Unfortunately I do not have her permission to explain her absence. And I do not know her exact situation at present because it is some time since I have heard from her.
But I can safely say that she needs our prayers, and that they will benefit her wherever she may be. Like you, I often wonder how she would react to my remarks. Always in a deep spirit of faith, I think.
I would guess that ‘rejecting the cross’ is pretty normal behaviour, as is masochistically strapping it on ones back. I am told that conscience, desire and will should show congruence if all is well, but I doubt they always do.
I should think that Our Lady is the only person, apart fro Christ Himself, where this happens, and some great saints.
Sometimes conscience seems more insistent about choices between a reasonably good, and a better course of action, than in matters where sin is involved.
I am in happy agreement with every point that Quentin makes in ‘The Sovereign Conscience’ & ‘Obedience? Forget it’, which was about the important issues of loyal dissent, the human conscience and a balanced understanding of obedience to the Roman Catholic Church’s magisterium. They are two very well written introductions to the topics of loyal dissent and the conscience. I have copied them both into one of my SecondSight folders, with due attention to their source. Thank you Quentin de la Bedoyere that was outstanding writing.
Thank you John. Your praise is not given lightly.
“And Aquinas uses a test case – quite remarkable in view of the culture of the time — if a man’s reason guides him to reject faith in Christ then he is obliged to reject him.”
Quentin, can you provide the reference to the relevant text by Aquinas?
It’s at ST 2a, q19.9 Or, more quickly, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/2019.htm#article9.
His answer to Objection 3 takes a bit of disentangling. Enjoy yourself.
It takes an enormous shift in belief and attitude to jettison fortress Catholicism from one’s system, and probably impossible for most people. One may wear fortress Catholicism as a point of pride and may never convert from it. Much like an invisible suit of armour, it helps the wearer to discriminate between the wheat and the chaff.
Let’s take the virtue of obedience and the concept of loyal dissent. Obedience is a virtue, but so is an informed conscience that both dissents and is loyal to the Church. Can one be in contravention of the Church’s moral law, but be left alone by other Catholics to the privacy of one’s conscience? Yes, absolutely.
I wholeheartedly agree with President Thomas Jefferson when he said, ‘Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.’ This could equally apply to a religious context. Or what American President Dwight Eisenhower mentioned about dissent in democratic societies.
‘Here in America we are descended in blood and in spirit from revolutionists and rebels – men and women who dare to dissent from accepted doctrine. As their heirs, may we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.’
Or of Fr. John Courtney Murray SJ, who admonished,
‘Every man has a right to religious freedom’, and ‘so great is this dignity that not even God can take it away.’
In contrast, a noted speech in 1952 that opposed Fr. John Courtney Murray’s position on conscience, Cardinal Alberto Ottaviani, who was the head of the Congregation of the Holy Office (CDF), declared that freedom of conscience is an illusion.
Fr. Walter Burghardt SJ, who was a friend of Fr. Murray’s thought that,
‘The right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the church, not in society or state, not even in objective truth, but in the dignity of the human person.’
Galileo Galilei was accused of heresy by the Holy Office and was threatened with torture and imprisonment. Galileo recanted his position in 1633. Urban VIII was Pope at the time. In 1992 Pope John Paul II apologized.
‘Thanks to his intuition as a brilliant physicist and by relying on different arguments, Galileo, who practically invented the experimental method, understood why only the sun could function as the centre of the world, as it was then known, that is to say, as a planetary system. The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the Earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world’s structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture…’
Pope John Paul II, L’Osservatore Romano N. 44 (1264) – November 4, 1992.
It was a common belief that the Earth was the centre of the universe, let alone the solar system, and that every celestial body revolved around it. The Fathers of the Church were as of one in this belief. It became an article of faith and given due gravitas. Nobody supports such a notion today.
Based on an understanding of scripture when Jesus said, ‘give, asking nothing in return’, for 1600 years it was considered a grave sin to charge interest on a loan, which is called usury. Usury was forbidden until it became impractical during the birth of capitalism, somewhere in the middle of the 16th century.
The Code of Canon Law (1983) states that all heads of religious institutions are obliged to place any surplus money into an interest bearing account, as a prudent method of financial management. Therefore, what was once thought of as immoral has now become an important moral obligation for the management of ecclesiastical finances. These instructions are found in Canon: 1284, Section 2, Points 5 & 6.
St. Thomas Aquinas was writing in the thirteenth century, but for at least another 300 years, it was considered right to torture and kill heretics and dissenters, belief in freedom of conscience has been very slow to develop.
Excessive strictness about wrongdoing has also been thought of as necessary until relatively recently, and now the floodgates are open, and the western world is in mortal contact with those who have not caught up.
Was a very strong belief in punishment for sin in the next life, the reason for this harsh attitude, a belief that it is better to suffer in this life than in the next?
It does seem a feature of past times that people could only improve, or even learn, by means of it being ‘beaten’ (often literally) into them. The idea that a person might make better progress by inspiration and encouragement does not seem to have been widely accepted.
By the way, I understand that Aquinas justified his harsh approach to heretics by the fact that they had broken their promise of fidelity – unlike those who had never chosen Christianity.
In a similar way I have heard Muslims claim that the command to execute apostates applied at the time when they were a small community surrounded by enemies. It was seen primarily as treachery to the group rather than simply treachery to the faith. Thus it no longer applies. (I must say that this has overtones of the Church defending the abandonment of a teaching by claiming that it’s ‘development’)
It does seem to apply with some Muslims still, doesn`t it? Meriam Ibrahim was condemned for apostasy in the Sudan, as are others, but thankfully, the news is just out, that her appeal has succeeded.
Where on earth is John Nolan and St.Joseph? I should have been delated to the Holy Office, excoriated, mutilated, burnt at the stake, given trial by ordeal, poisoned and possibly drowned for good measure, after my first post in this thread. I want to make it absolutely clear that anything that is written by anybody, contributes to the discussion. Even if it means that I will choke on my cornflakes. Two or more opponents who sincerely and respectfully argue over any theological point, is committing a true and genuine service to each person’s enlightenment. Even if at the end of the day we don’t agree with each other it would still serve a useful purpose of human engagement.
Of course I agree with your sentiments. I can’t tell you anything further about St Joseph than I have put in the comments here. I will write to JN. He has been an invaluable contributor.
ST JOSEPH. I have now, thankfully, received an email from St. Joseph. She continues to undergo some complex tests, and has nothing but good words for the care she is receiving.
She is asking for our prayers, and so I would suggest that as well as our immediate response to this, as many as possible of us should remember her at Mass this coming Sunday. “Where two or three are gathered in your name…” — and we are more than two or three.
Thank you for that update, Quentin, and I will certainly follow your suggestion and pray for St. Joseph especially at Mass on Sunday, and can I suggest in my turn that Friday, the feast of the Sacred Heart, would be another extra good opportunity. We will be having Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament that day to pray for Life, so even more appropriate for her.
Get well soon St.Joseph. We will all pray for your quick recovery.
Quentin, you write in ‘The Sovereign Conscience’ on the 20th March 2014, that,
‘If I take the vexed question of artificial contraception as an example, it is important to note that dissent in no way affects the status of the individual as a member of the Church. It is clear from different episcopal documents that this most serious outcome is compatible with the continued use of the sacraments.’
While I agree with these sentiments completely, I think it would be both important and educative if you were to supply us with a list of ecclesiastical documents that supported the notion that, ‘It is clear from different episcopal documents that this most serious outcome is compatible with the continued use of the sacraments.’ Thanks.
Sir Henry Wotton (1568-1639), the diplomat and parliamentarian, wrote an epitaph for Charles I which would later be inscribed on the king’s tomb, although Wotton himself did not live to see the start of the Civil War: ‘Disputandi pruritus ecclesiarum scabies’ which can be translated as ‘an itch for disputation is a scab on the Church’. Come to think of it, it would make a good epitaph for the Second Vatican Council. So rather than have you choke on your cornflakes, I read again what the Doctor Conscientiae, John Henry Newman, had to say on the subject of conscience. It would seem that what most people referred to as conscience in Newman’s century and still do in ours is not what defined conscience for Blessed John Henry. ‘Conscience’ he wrote ‘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 grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the Aboriginal Vicar of Christ.’ His representatives are of course the Pope and the bishops in communion with him.
Everyone knows the line from Hamlet: ‘This above all, to thine own self be true’, and most people quote it approvingly. But Shakespeare puts it into the mouth of Polonius, one of the biggest fools in literature, and does not expect us to regard it as a moral precept, quite the opposite in fact. Conscience is indeed a ‘stern monitor’ and its very nature as the voice of God means that it is impossible for it to come into direct conflict with the doctrinal and moral teaching of the Church. Conscience has no authority in questions of revealed Truth, but Catholics believe that the Church does have that authority and it is God-given.
Newman’s ideas on conscience, which develop those of earlier theologians are in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which actually quotes him directly. A hermeneutic of ‘loyal dissent’ which effectively allows all Church teaching to be evaluated and even discarded according to individual private judgement or contemporary fashion would have been anathema to him.
This is an excellent comment from John Nolan. Authoritative, learned and restrained. It is among some of his best efforts. Although I beg to respectfully differ, ‘Disputandi pruritus ecclesiarum scabies’ (meaning ‘an itch for disputation is a scab on the Church’) isn’t something that I would treat as a serious point. I do see where John Nolan is coming from but I think that respectful debate, regardless of whether or not it is theological, is what distinguishes us from animals.
I saw a documentary recently where a psychologist was trying to demonstrate the essential difference between primates and humans. He trotted out an observational experiment where various monkeys where taught to place a small object on a table so that it would stand on its own in a particular way. Each time the monkey succeeded, she or he was given a reward i.e. a piece of fruit. The same task was given to a child, who was rewarded if he or she succeeded to balance the piece of wood on a table.
To make it interesting, the piece of wood was altered in a way to make it impossible to position it similarly in order to balance it on a table. When the monkey was given the task, it found it impossible to balance the object and retired frustrated to another room to lick his wounds. The child experienced some stress due to it not knowing how to balance the piece of wood. The interesting difference between the child and the monkey is that the child lifted the object and asked himself why it would not balance on the table. He or she lifted the piece of wood and looked at the bottom surface to see if it could find the reason why it did not perform as expected.
Humans have an insatiable appetite for knowledge through their natural curiosity. We never stop asking why. It is not much of a leap from this to question why we believe this or that doctrine, why we support this or that philosophy, and why do we have a universe at all?
Newman may have had a different meaning towards conscience than we do today, but times change. Lots of good, bad and indifferent events have happened since Newman’s day and the cumulative effects on our humanity of all of these events define us differently. Much like the slavery issue; there were definite periods in history where slavery was legal, and a period where it was illegal. These events would have distinctly changed humanity’s consciousness.
The history of the Church’s teaching on slavery has been unclear. The Church has always opposed the mistreatment of slaves, while leaving up in the air its legal and moral status. The Church took about 1900 years to settle the morality or otherwise of slavery, with exceptions by various Popes throughout history.
Papal Bulls such as ‘Dum Diversas’ issued on 18th June, 1452 by Pope Nicholas V, & his follow up Papal Bull ‘Romanus Pontifex’ on the 8th January, 1455, were both addressed to the King of Portugal, Alfonso V. They are considered justifications for the theft of land by colonialists, the enslavement of people and the destruction of their cultures.
One year after the end of the American Civil War, Pope Pius IX on the 20th June 1866 taught,
‘Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons…. It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given.’
Two years after this, Pope Leo XIII declared that slavery is and always was morally reprehensible, and was to be strictly forbidden.
The Second Vatican Council called slavery infamous and poisonous in paragraph 27.
For an extensive history of slavery,
I must make an addendum to my previous comment regarding what Pope Pius IX taught about slavery. It was the Holy Office that gave the instruction about slavery in 1866.
‘In spite of a stronger condemnation of unjust types of slavery by Pope Gregory XVI (Pius IX’s predecessor) in his bull In ‘Supremo Apostolatus’ issued in 1839, some American bishops continued to support slave-holding interests until the abolition of slavery. In 1866 The Holy Office of Pope Pius IX affirmed that, subject to conditions, it was not against divine law for a slave to be sold, bought or exchanged.’
The above quote was taken from the following link.
If anyone is interested in quickly locating the above quote, click on ‘Edit’ & ‘Find’, if you use ‘Internet Explorer’, and enter ‘1866’ without the quotation marks. Five examples appear. The quote is the very first example of 1866.
The Instruction by the Holy Office in 1866 was signed by Pope Pius IX nonetheless. The Instruction was offered ‘in reply to questions from a vicar apostolic of the Galla tribe in Ethiopia.’
The above and below quote are taken from the same Wikipedia article on slavery and the Roman Catholic Church, and is from the aforementioned Instruction.
‘…slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons. For the sort of ownership which a slave-owner has over a slave is understood as nothing other than the perpetual right of disposing of the work of a slave for one’s own benefit – services which it is right for one human being to provide for another.’
‘From this it follows that it is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or donated, provided that in this sale, purchase, exchange or gift, the due conditions are strictly observed which the approved authors likewise describe and explain. Among these conditions the most important ones are that the purchaser should carefully examine whether the slave who is put up for sale has been justly or unjustly deprived of his liberty, and that the vendor should do nothing which might endanger the life, virtue or Catholic faith of the slave who is to be transferred to another’s possession.’
The Church, which was founded in the ancient world where chattel slavery was a given, did not make too much about it since she insisted on the inherent dignity of all human beings. The notion that since then the Church has changed her position on this (and it is far more nuanced than most commentators are prepared to accept) and in fact has a history in central and south America of opposing the European powers who wanted to enslave the natives – do you remember the film ‘The Mission’? – is something of a red herring.
The argument that ‘ Pope A seems to have contradicted Pope B and so I can believe what I want’ is hardly a Catholic argument.
‘The Church, which was founded in the ancient world where chattel slavery was a given, did not make too much about it since she insisted on the inherent dignity of all human beings.’ (John Nolan)
According to this quote, the Church ‘insisted on the inherent dignity of all human beings’ regarding slavery. It is now clear to me how the Church did not make ‘too much about it’ (slavery) because it was ‘a given’ in times of yore.
These attitudes to blacks, indians and natives can partly be explained by what I said about culture and its sociology in a previous post. Culture and its sociology are the glasses or values through which we view the world. It is how we perceive reality, how we make sense of our surroundings and how we operate intelligently in our time and place in history. Blacks, indians and natives were simply viewed at that point in history as ‘Untermensch’, which is German for subhuman. There is no other way of understanding the casual toleration or acceptance of slavery by the Roman Catholic Church, as no more than commercial chattel. Shame!
The Roman Catholic Church has changed its mind on many matters throughout history. ‘Ecclesia semper reformanda est’ (the Church is always to be reformed) & the Church’s changing understanding of ‘Extra Ecclesiam nulla Salus’ (outside the Church there is no salvation), both attest to the force of change. Matters can come to a head due to external social forces or to theological developments. These are facts of history and cannot be conceptualised as ‘a red herring’.
‘The argument that ‘Pope A seems to have contradicted Pope B and so I can believe what I want’ is hardly a Catholic argument.’ (John Nolan)
This is a shallow representation of the inviolacy of the human conscience, and can similarly be dismissed by informed Catholics.
Just a note. “‘Ecclesia semper reformanda est’ is an entirely Protestant concept that has never been a part of Catholic thinking (except amongst those who talk, some would say erroneously, of “the spirit of Vatican II”).
“Christ summons the Church to continual reformation as she sojourns here on earth. The Church is always in need of this, in so far as she is an institution of men here on earth. Thus if, in various times and circumstances, there have been deficiencies in moral conduct or in church discipline, or even in the way that church teaching has been formulated – to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself – these can and should be set right at the opportune moment.”
Decree on Ecumenism
You are right if you take the view that “as beliefs have changed therefore all beliefs must change” is not a natural sequitur of some beliefs changing; however it does justify some circumspection of a tendency to say “beliefs can’t change” or “all beliefs have equal weight”. We no longer believe in the divine right of kings or the temporal power of the Pope or bishops, opposition to which would have easily consigned one to the stake as a heretic half a millennia ago.
The early church was attractive to slaves precisely because the Gospel gave them a sense of hope for universal dignity as children of God and a spiritual salvation to offset their physical enslavement. Christianity was at first a spiritual rather than social or political movement, however early Christians, expecting that the second coming would occur in the near term saw that event as a hoped for liberation from slavery.