The Dog’s Bollocks

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

Of Pell and Popes and the Primacy of Conscience

What is primacy of conscience and its role in Catholic theology and why does Cardinal George Pell want the so-called doctrine abandoned by the Catholic Church? The principle of the primacy of conscience is deeply embedded in our western moral tradition. According to this principle, one must follow the sure judgment of conscience even when through no fault of one’s own it is mistaken.

Recent discussion of primacy of conscience arising from his threats to Catholic politicians who support therapeutic embryonic stem cell research inspired me to explore the issue some more to better understand why Pell’s forays into politics continue to highlight his attacks on the primacy of conscience. In a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald his stance is unequivocal.

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.

Julianne commented:

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 Catholic 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.

An excellent question and as concise a summary of Catholic conscience as any I have found.

Indeed there is no specific Doctrine of the Primacy of Conscience, but I would conclude it is implicitly a quintessential characteristic of Catholicism and has been at the heart of Catholic theology from St Paul, St Thomas Aqinas through to Vatican II. There is no more practical manifestation of this principle than the Jesuits and their fierce theological independence from the papacy. The literature does however have many useful references and discussion of the meaning of conscience and its primacy in moral life.

The most erudite analysis comes from Brian Lewis in the Australian EJournal of Theology.

The principle of the primacy of conscience is deeply embedded in our western moral tradition. According to this principle, one must follow the sure judgment of conscience even when through no fault of one’s own it is mistaken.

The primacy of conscience does not mean and has never meant liberation from objective truth. However, no formulation of truth or moral law coming from outside can take the place of conscience, because it is through the mediation of conscience that one ‘perceives and acknowledges the imperative of divine law. In all one’s activity one is bound to follow one’s conscience faithfully’, in order to ‘come to God, for whom we were created’

Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes speaks of conscience at its deepest level as the ‘inner core and sanctuary’ of the human person, where one is alone with God, whose voice echoes in one’s depths’, and where ‘in a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by the love of God and neighbour’. This law, which the person discovers in the depths of conscience, is ‘always summoning us to love and do good and avoid evil’

‘The gospel has a sacred reverence for the dignity of conscience and its freedom of choice’ and this is so even if its judgment may be wrong. Its dignity is not first and foremost the dignity of conformity with law or external reality, but that dignity proper to the human person, namely to engage freely in a sincere search for what is right and good. Only when this personal dignity is lost does conscience lose its dignity. ‘The same cannot be said of one who cares but little for the search for truth and goodness, or of a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of a habit of sin’.

AV wonders where critical thinking fits in with all this, and echoes Beezlebub’s concern of what is perfection? It would seem to me critical thinking is the method by which we determine our individual morality of right and proper action, our conscience, so as to not only minimise harm to others, but to help others as well, especially those who are less fortunate, and by so acting become a better, happier and more enlightened human being.

Bezzlebub is no fan of George Pell.

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.

I wonder if it was a primacy of conscience vote when the Catholic Church decide to stop burning witches, or even to start burning them in the first place? Which brings us to Cardinal George Pell.

Like all conservatives he has an interest in preserving things the way they are, especially power and privilege, to assert papal authority in a secular world of relative humanist morality, and even the Australian Parliament it would seem. The MSM spruiked him as a long-odds outsider during the last papal election. Perhaps he fancies that he may one day be called to that office? Although I think he his too close to politicians to be considered lofty enough.

He gave Howard’s decision to invade Iraq credibility by talking of the theology of just wars. In his Easter 2007 message he urged his flock not to concern themselves with large issues such as the War on Terror and global warming, but to mind their own business, err… take care of their own affairs. It would seem that primacy of conscience is being exercised less with those issues than with same sex marriages or embryonic stem cell research!

Pell explains his stance thus:

In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”) in 1993 Pope John Paul II claimed that the Church was facing a genuine crisis which touched the very foundations of moral theology. He explained that this crisis was no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent but of an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine.

Naturally I accept the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and Veritatis Splendor on the crucial role of conscience for us all. However for some years I have spoken and written against the so-called “doctrine of the primacy of conscience”, arguing that this is incompatible with traditional Catholic teaching.

My thesis, about the centrality, power and limitations of personal conscience in no way implies that the directives or teachings of individual bishops must always be obeyed or accepted automatically. As you know these are sometimes, perhaps often contradictory. Wider considerations must be invoked.

Therein lies the flaw to his argument. Surely those ‘wider considerations’ fall under the purview of primacy of conscience? It’s not as though Pell is arguing against misuse of the primacy of conscience, he is saying it is incompatible with Catholic teaching. Pretty much an own goal I would think.

In other words, Pell attributes what he sees as a decline in moral standards arising from secular humanists misunderstanding the real meaning of conscience and its sacred primacy in individual dignity. Therefore the best way to remedy this is to abandon the doctrine and just settle for what the Church establishment decrees. After all, they don’t burn witches or abuse small children anymore.

Popes 1. George Pell 0.

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Filed under: Philosophy, Religion

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