The Dog’s Bollocks

Truth is like a dog’s bollocks – pretty obvious if you care to look.

Primacy of conscience – Pell vs The Popes

Archbishop George Pell continues to hand down ecclesiastical edicts at odds with his Papal superiors: “To be a disciple of Christ means accepting discipline because the Catholic church has never followed today’s fashionable notion of the primacy of conscience, which is, of course secular relativism with a religious face.” Perhaps he’s still pissed off at not being appointed Australia’s first Pope?

In response to using his Easter sermon to urge his flock to stop moralising about things like the Iraq War and climate change, I came across some background material on the debate on primacy of conscience in the Catholic Church. This is something of a hobby horse for Pell. He’s been railing against it for years, and continues to do so. However, it seems that both Pope John Paul and the current Pope Benedict XVI support the ‘fashionable notion’ of the primacy of conscience. I’m happy to be corrected, but as far as I can tell it is Pell who is out of line here. Maybe he should be excommunicated – although to be fair, under primacy of conscience doctrine, Pell is entitled to follow his own conscience in not supporting it.

From my Easter post:

In Roman Catholicism there has long been a theological debate about the role of individual conscience versus adherence to authority. Cardinal Pell advocates that the Catholic Church should abandon the doctrine of “primacy of conscience” because he argues that young people (and homosexuals, one presumes) use it to justify ‘doing their own thing’ rather than following church or papal dictates.

This teaching that personal conscience is the ultimate guide in all our moral activity was clearly taught by St Thomas Aquinas, probably the greatest Catholic theologian, in the 13th century. Aquinas held that an erroneous conscience was morally binding and that one is without moral fault in following it provided one has already made every reasonable effort to form a right moral judgment.

A doctrine dear to John Howard, do doubt.

But in the matter of conscience, Cardinal Pell is at odds with his superiors. Pope John Paul II, in his message for World Peace on January 1st, 1999, stressed the primacy of conscience:

“People are obliged to follow their conscience in all circumstances and cannot be forced to act against it.”

Fr. Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) expressed the Church’s understanding of the primacy of conscience – an understanding which he eloquently expressed while serving as Chair of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Tübingen in 1968.

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

Jesuit Fr Frank Brennan renewed the debate with an address on A Catholic Social Conscience: Can it be Reclaimed in Our Time? where he argues (emphasis added):

Presently, there is a conflict in the Australian Catholic community about the primacy of conscience. It may simply be a difference of perspective, some seeing the glass half-full and warning against the limits of conscience in coming to truth, and others seeing the glass half-empty and espousing the potential of conscience in living the truth.

The Christians’ contribution to the contemporary world would be greater if there were more attention to the formation of conscience and to the injunction: inform your conscience and to that conscience be true. For most people, the questions of conscience will not be: am I to believe this church teaching? But “Am I to do this particular act or refrain from it?” That act may be one relating to personal relationships; it may be about political engagement and a commitment to make a difference in the public forum. It may even be the decision to endorse a war or to condemn it or to remain silent.

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Filed under: Big Picture, Philosophy, Politics, Religion

11 Responses

  1. Colline says:

    An interesting take on things Slim. You obviously have no idea what your talking about. It may well be that a person should follow an erroneous conscience. As St Aquinas said, and what can be implied from the statement of John Paul II.

    However, serious Catholics should be doing all they can to avoid an erroneous conscience by having it properly informed by authentic Catholic teaching. Having done that they are to (according to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) submit to the teachings of the Church.

    As far as the 1968 statement you attribute to Fr Joseph Ratzinger, that was along time ago. From my understanding he long ago changed his mind.

  2. slim says:

    The issue is called primacy of conscience because if exercised in good faith, one is not obliged to submit to the teachings of the Catholic Church – that’s the point, and Pell is not happy with it.

    Father Frank Brennan is a keen advocate of primacy of conscience. I would have thought that he is a Catholic in good standing? The linked articles are worth a read – they were the basis of my research, so I’m not sure exactly what it is you are suggesting I have no idea of in this regard.

    I’m happy to be corrected in my analysis. I appreciate that you probably don’t support the primacy of conscience, but do you have any evidence that it has been rejected by the Catholic Church or specifically that Fr Ratzinger has changed his mind? I haven’t seen any.

  3. AV says:

    However, serious Catholics should be doing all they can to avoid an erroneous conscience by having it properly informed by authentic Catholic teaching. Having done that they are to (according to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) submit to the teachings of the Church.

    If a few Catholics want to surrender their critical faculties to the blind observation of religious dogma, that’s entirely up to them, of course. But in a secular and liberal democracy, we expect more of our elected representatives.

    Pell could actually make a useful contribution to debate if actually employed reasoned arguments rather than threats and ultimatums.

  4. Julianne Wiley says:

    I just found this website as I was googling “primacy of conscience.” I am not aware that this term has been used and defined in magisterial Catholic documents, although many writers imply that it has, e.g. when they refer to “the Cstholic doctrine of the primacy of conscience.”

    Can anybody cite the document(s) where such a definition could be found?

    By the way, I had always been taught that “Conscience is a student, not a teacher.” This would emphasize the intellectual duty to acquire moral knowledge, which is logically is prior to a duty to act on such knowledge.

    May I share my e-mail address in hopes of getting a response?
    jlw509@earthlink.net

  5. Link says:

    Well if we were perfick it’d be alright then. But people such as George Pell demonstrate that we are far from it. However, having said that I think what stands in the way of people being able to be trusted entirely to primacy of conscience is an enormous power-seeking ego, which will do anything (almost) to justify its rights to life and what it thinks it needs to attain to achieve it. Not necessarily a bad thing, but usually. There is a gulf between the conscience and the ego and the church would endeavour to broach it with dogma and restrain our unwieldly minds, not necessarily a bad thing (when you think about it)_. Unfortunately since the Inquisition, we can all now see that the Church itself is run by enormous powerseeking egos and most of us have chosen for good reason not to believe them anymore. More’s the pity that we hurled the baby out too, to completely eradicate the idea that we are anything other than body and ego. Conscience? So what is that exactly?

  6. AV says:

    There is a gulf between the conscience and the ego and the church would endeavour to broach it with dogma and restrain our unwieldly minds, not necessarily a bad thing (when you think about it)_.

    This is view is based upon a false dichotomy: if one does not surrender one’s reasoning to dogma, one is simply being wilful. Where does critical thinking fit into this picture? (Or has it been wedged out?)

  7. AV says:

    Well if we were perfick it’d be alright then.

    Perfection? So what is that exactly?

  8. slim says:

    It’s been a busy weekend and I haven’t had a chance to respond to the issues raised in comments, but I appreciate the discussion. I have some thoughts that I will string together later today with some luck.

  9. […] discussion of primacy of conscience arising from his threats to Catholic politicians who support therapeutic embryonic stem cell […]

  10. […] In stating that he is a climate change skeptic, is Cardinal Pell exercising the Primacy of Conscience against Papal Infallibility and the authority of Benedict XVI’s warning that climate change […]

  11. ATT says:

    The quote by Fr Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) is totally quoted out of context. Later in the same commentary on Gaudium et Spes, Ratzinger wrote:

    “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.”

    Who can you trust these days, when so many authors are simply too lazy to do the real work of checking their sources?

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