An Archbishop and the Catholic Conscience
Conscience is one of those subjects about which numerous Catholics today are, alas, sadly misinformed. Despite great Catholic minds such as Thomas Aquinas, Thomas More, and John Henry Newman discoursing at length on the question, some Catholics speak of it in ways that have little in common with the Church’s understanding of conscience.
The latest Catholic to be embroiled in controversy about conscience is Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago. While recently discussing the question of whether those who have (1) not repented of sin and/or (2) not resolved to go and sin no more may receive communion, Archbishop Cupich stated: “If people come to a decision in good conscience then our job is to help them move forward and to respect that. The conscience is inviolable and we have to respect that when they make decisions, and I’ve always done that.” Referring specifically to people with same-sex attraction, he noted that “my role as a pastor is to help them to discern what the will of God is by looking at the objective moral teaching of the Church and yet, at the same time, helping them through a period of discernment to understand what God is calling them to at that point.”
This isn’t the first time that Archbishop Cupich has raised eyebrows. Many will recall what some regard as the effective equivalence he made between Planned Parenthood’s selling of body-parts and problems like homelessness and hunger.
Then there was his more recent speech to the Chicago Federation of Labor. Alongside a defense of religious liberty, most of the Archbishop’s address simply reiterated Catholic social teaching about unions. Perhaps it wasn’t the occasion to say such things, but absent from Archbishop Cupich’s remarks was any reference to the numerous caveats stated by popes—such as those detailed by Blessed Paul VI (who no-one would describe as a gung-ho anti-union capitalist) in his 1971 apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens(no.14) and Saint John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens (no.20)—concerning the very real limits upon what unions may do. Unfortunately, modern America is awash with examples of what happens when unions (in collusion with business executives who go along to get along) ignore those limits, as broken cities such as Detroit know all too well.
Aspects of Archbishop Cupich’s comments about conscience, however, will remind some of arguments made by various theologians in the 1970s and ’80s as part of their effort to legitimize dissent from Catholic moral teaching. Certainly, Archbishop Cupich stressed the importance of priests conveying the Church’s objective moral teaching to people who consider themselves marginalized by that teaching (presumably because it does not and cannot affirm some of their free choices). [NB] But a significant omission in the archbishop’s statements concerned why conscience is inviolable. As Vatican II stated in Gaudium et Spes, conscience draws its inviolability from its “obedience” to the truth, or what the Council called the “law written by God” (GS 16).
So where is this truth and law to be found? On one level, we discover it in the natural law. Saint Paul famously stated (Rm 2: 14-16) that this is knowable by everyone who possesses reason, including those who don’t know the Word of God revealed in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. For people, however, who also believe in Christ and accept that the fullest account of Christ’s life and teaching is to be found in the witness of the Catholic Church, the very same truths about morality are also expressed, confirmed, and enriched by that same Church’s moral teaching.
These simple points lead to profound conclusions. One is that conscience doesn’t create its own truth. Nor is it above truth. The oft-used phrase “primacy of conscience” makes no sense in Catholicism unless we accept that conscience’s authority is derived from every person’s responsibility to know and live in the truth encapsulated in the divine and natural law. In Newman’s words, “Conscience has rights because it has duties.”
It follows that conscience cannot be construed as a mandate for us to depart from the truth whenever it clashes with our desires. Catholicism has never held that conscience is somehow superior to the divine and natural law. To claim, therefore, that our conscience somehow authorizes us to act in ways that we know contradict what Christ’s Church teaches to be the truth about good and evil is, at a minimum, illogical from the Catholic standpoint.
Please do read the rest over there.