Conscience, Yes. But a Common Understanding of It in the Age of Pope Francis? Not Yet.

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A bedrock principle in Catholic morality is the primacy of conscience, a teaching recovered by Vatican II and now being further advanced by Pope Francis. But disputes about what conscience means and how it should be applied have intensified after the release of the pope’s apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, this past April.

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Pope Francis

Theologians Michael G. Lawler and Todd A. Salzman offered their reflection on conscience in the National Catholic Reporter. They called the pope’s thoughts on conscience “one of the most important teachings in the apostolic exhortation.” In one paragraph they sketched the main question on conscience in Catholic thought:

“Stated succinctly, is conscience subjective and internal and truth objective and external, whereby the subjective and internal conscience must obey and conform to the objective and external truth? Or does conscience include both the objective and subjective realms, whereby conscience discerns and interprets its understanding of objective truth and exercises that understanding in the subjective judgment of conscience?”

Salzman and Lawler stated the question even more simply, citing theologian Fr. Joseph Fuchs: “Does a truth exist ‘in itself’ or ‘in myself’?” Their analysis is far longer than can be described here, but for anyone inclined to read more, which I highly recommend, you can find it here.

What I will highlight here is their commentary on Pope Francis and his teaching on conscience not only in Amoris Laetitia, but in his earlier exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Salzman and Lawler said the pope’s “model of conscience. . .provides a faithful and merciful guide for couples who are in irregular situations and empowers them to follow their inviolable conscience on this important issue.”

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Todd A. Salzman

Pope Francis, they noted, has said “realities are more important than ideas,” and that ideas cannot be separated from reality but rather the two must be dialectically related.This approach contrasts sharply with some bishops’ interpretation and implementation of Amoris Laetitia. The theologians identified specifically the restrictive pastoral guidelines of Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, which, among other sanctions, bar people in same-gender relationships from parish and liturgical ministries.

Salzman and Lawler proceeded by pointing out the “vast disconnect” between the ideas informing the Magisterium’s teaching on sexual ethics and the realities of Catholics’ lives whereby:

“[T]he majority of educated Catholics judge these norms are detached from reality, and Catholics are following their consciences to make practical judgments on these and other moral matters.”

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Michael G. Lawler

Instead of division, Pope Francis seeks a harmony between ideas and reality. Conscience, the pope says, must be listened to in making up one’s mind about how to act on moral issues and then it must be followed. To not act in accordance with one’s conscience is “a sin.” Without affirming relativism, the pope is offering an “affirmation of objective truth that recognizes plural and partial truths that must be discerned by conscience informed by, among other sources, external, objective norms.”

The theologians cite Pope Francis himself to define the limitations of Amoris Laetitia and affirm the necessary role of conscience to complete its reception. They wrote:

“There is an ‘immense variety of concrete situations’ and situations can be so vastly different that his document, the pope confesses, cannot ‘provide a new set of rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases’ (Amoris Laetitia, 300). The only moral solution to any and every situation is a path of careful discernment accompanied by a priest and a final judgment of personal conscience that commands us to do this or not to do that (Amoris Laetitia, 300-305). Only such an informed conscience can make a moral judgment about the details of any and every particular situation.”

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David Cloutier

Another theologian, David Cloutier, responded to Salzman and Lawler in a piece for Commonweal. He objected to certain points in their article, and made a larger point that he believes continuing battles about conscience and church authority d0 not help the church, nor do such battles “address the real substance of the particular issues of Amoris Laetitia or the larger challenges of Catholic morality.”

While I question much of Cloutier’s argument, which seeks to restrict understandings of conscience in moral theology, he made an interesting point about setting conscience within the context of community:

“I personally would like to read Pope Francis’s teaching in the eighth chapter of Amoris Laetitia as about a Church that practices Vatican II’s universal call to holiness, even in very difficult and conflicted situations. . .The pope rightly is pushing for a community that is serious and deep in its encounter with Christ and His call to the Kingdom [sic], but does not confuse that ‘holiness’ with a kind of individual athleticism and perfection. . .It is not about jurisdictional arguments. To the contrary, the universal call to holiness is supposed to liberate us from a legalistic account of the morality of the Catholic laity that hinged on applying and authorizing various rules and exceptions. It does so not by ignoring or pretending away difficulties under the guise of personal autonomy, but by pushing us more deeply into ecclesial community so that we can face them together, honestly.”

I think the challenge of Amoris Laetitia’s reception and the larger question of conscience is not Cloutier’s zero-sum structure where conscience recedes while practice of the virtues in community grows. Rather, it is a question of more fully and comprehensively receiving Vatican II, whose teachings include conscience, the universal call to holiness, and many other connected issues for Christian living. This process of reception today means rethinking existing paradigms, even postconciliar ones, and envisioning new possibilities. This process and its fruits are “both/and” realities.

If Cloutier is correct, then what Pope Francis is affirming in his vision of a more inclusive ecclesial community whose members are mature Christians. This kind of church is already being lived into by LGBT Catholics and other people who have been excluded. Precisely because they have been excluded and condemned, such Catholics have had no choice but to form their consciences and live according to them. this process has often been lived out by others in communities at the church’s peripheries, too. Where the institutional church under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI looked backwards, advocating regressive ideas about conscience and authority, marginalized Catholics took Vatican II’s teachings to heart and looked forward.

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Bishops gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica at Vatican II

Pope Francis is, if nothing else, very much a priest formed by the Council. His exhortations, along with his other teachings and daily witness, very much incarnate the Christian life Vatican II imagined for the entire faithful. Like all of us, Francis is imperfect and he shows a particular deficit in his knowledge of gender and sexuality. But unlike his predecessors, he is humble enough to admit he is imperfect; his teaching often poses questions rather than providing answers.

This coming week, I will offer a more thorough analysis of Pope Francis’ engagement with LGBT issues in 2016, and I would invite readers’ own thoughts then. For now, I express this hope for the church in 2017:  May the faithful, especially institutional leaders and ministers, be concerned more about questions than answers, respect for conscience than blind obedience, and unity in diversity than purity through division.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 27, 2016

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