Thursday, November 15, 2007


Every four years (those preceding American presidential elections), the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has adopts a statement on "faithful citizenship." This year's is "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship." These appear to be something of a theological voter's guide, designed to inform the faithful of which issues that church feels are important. This is not, it seems, a trivial thing. Backing candidates that are at odds with the Vatican on such issues as abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research and torture is construed as "formal cooperation in grave evil." The choices people make, both as the electorate and the elected "also may affect individual salvation." This is serious stuff.

One of the points raised that I found to be interesting was the rejection of what is called "autonomy of conscience," which is referred to as a "mistaken notion." As I understand it, autonomy of conscience is the concept that we are each capable of forming a workable understanding of right and wrong as individuals, relying on our individual consciences to construct a moral framework. As each of us has our own conscience, two people could then follow their consciences to vastly different conclusions from the same starting point. And while each might disagree with the other's final decision, each should accept the validity of the other's conscientiousness. Church doctrine rejects this understanding of things, in effect saying that there is a single, objective standard of right and wrong, and if one's conscience differs from the accepted standard (in this case, as defined by church teaching) then it is malformed, and following it will lead them into error (a.k.a. sin). In the face of this, one wonders what use anyone has for a conscience - a comprehensive guide to church doctrine would be more useful - if less portable. In all, this strikes me as the official Roman Catholic version of the Socratic idea that while people do not intentionally do evil, ignorance of the true nature of good and evil may lead them to do the wrong thing, even while thinking that they're on the right path. This simply takes that a step further, in offering an authority (their own, natch) to turn to.

But it seems that's going to be hard row for the bishops to hoe these days. The church has admitted to a few errors of its own over the past several years, not the least of which being the never-ending clergy sexual abuse scandal. Convincing the notoriously willful American Catholic laity that it should always surrender its judgment of moral issues to a priesthood that seems to have gone out of its way to damage people's faith in it will be something that really qualifies as a miracle.


JohnMcG said...

I don't think it's as black and white as all that. I think the stress of the Church's teaching is on "autonomous" rather than "conscience."

All Christians need to follow a well-formed conscience, if for no other reason than the practicial one that the Church can't offer a definitive teaching on every moral question a Christian may confront. The Church may not have had a definitive teaching on internet pornography before the internet became widespread, but someone's whose conscience was formed with the Church would have a pretty good idea what the morals involved are.

The point the bishops are trying to make is that our consciences must be built on rock rather than sand, and that the rock is Church teachings. If our consceinces lead us to think abortion or torture are OK, then that's a good sign that we've wandered off the path.

And Church teaching isn't just whatever a priest or bishop wakes up today and decides it is. It is a Tradition informed by generations of saints and thinkers.

Aaron said...

"If our consceinces lead us to think abortion or torture are OK, then that's a good sign that we've wandered off the path."

But at one point, your conscience could have told you that torturing heretics into recanting was acceptable, that the threat of death was a valid tool for spreading the faith, or that slavery could be considered humane, and the Church would have agreed with you. That's also part of the tradition.

So I think that the Church pushes its luck in teaching against the autonomy of individuals on matters of conscience. I understand that the bishops sincerely believe that they're doing the right thing, and that people who follow their teaching will be better off spiritually that those who go their own way. But personally, I suspect their faith may be somewhat misguided in this regard, and down that path stand sanctimony and self-righteousness.