Sunday, March 04, 2007

Bishop Anthony Fisher on Conscience and Authority

Zenit (Code: ZE07030301: Date: 2007-03-03) has published a paper given by Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia, delivered at the conference sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Life and held in the Vatican last Friday and Saturday. The theme of the conference was "The Christian Conscience in Support of the Right to Life."

Bishop Fisher`s paper was entitled "Struggling to Recover a Catholic Sense" and dealt with the question of Conscience and Authority.

The meaning of "Conscience" and how it has developed

First, he discusses what conscience is, and how the idea of "conscience" has developed throughout the ages, especially in the period after the Second Vatican Council.

"Conscience featured especially often in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. The Council declared that:

-- all are bound to seek, embrace and live the truth faithfully;

-- conscience is experienced as an inner sanctuary or tribunal, rather than something external, yet it mediates a universal and objective moral law which is given rather than invented;

-- conscience summons us to seek good and avoid evil by loving God and neighbor, by keeping the commandments and all universal norms of morality;

-- conscience is common to all human beings, not just Christians, and it is the very dignity of man, a dignity the Gospel protects;

-- we will be judged according to how we formed and followed our conscience;

-- the moral law and the particular judgments of conscience bind the human person;

-- agents may experience anxiety, contradictions and imbalances in conscience; and conscience may err out of "invincible ignorance" or by being blamefully corrupted;

-- claims of personal freedom or of obedience to civil laws or superiors do not excuse a failure to abide by the universal principles of good conscience;

-- conscience must be properly formed and educated by ensuring it is "dutifully conformed to the divine law and submissive toward the Church's teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel"; and

-- freedom of conscience, especially in religious matters, must be respected by civil authorities and people not be coerced into any religious practice. "

Three ideas of "Conscience"

He distinguishes the three main meanings of the word or concept "conscience" as set out in the Cathechism. In doing so, he also sets out what "Conscience" is not.

"The first act of the conscience identified in the Catechism with synderesis is what I call Conscience-1. In my written paper I identify texts from Paul, Aquinas, Newman and Vatican II which propose a very high -- even romanticized -- doctrine of Conscience-1 as a voice or vicar or sanctuary of God. These authors presume a long tradition of reflection on "the first principles of the natural law": basic principles of practical reason accessible to all people of good will and right reason. Because of their "givenness" these principles provide us with bases both for self-criticism and for social criticism. Far from being a cause for the subjectivism of those who think conscience means "doing my own thing" or the relativism of those who think it means "doing what the group does," Conscience-1 is actually the beginning of an antidote to these.

Conscience-2 is the application of principles to given circumstances "by practical discernment of reasons and goods." This requires certain habits of mind and will, especially prudence in deliberation. In the process of deliberation the mind often faces temptations, dilemmas, confusion and apparent conflicts with the teachings of the magisterium. Conscience must therefore be both well-formed and well-informed.

Conscience-3 is our best judgment of what to do or refrain from doing in the here and now (or in the past). St. Thomas mostly used the word in this sense. Conscience-3 is only worthy of respect when it can bite, that is when it can tell us to do what we might otherwise be disinclined to do, or vice versa, or give us cause for remorse. Once again, there is plenty of ground for error here. Thus while insisting that we must follow our last, best judgment of conscience as the proximate norm of action, St. Thomas wrote a great deal about how we might ensure such a judgment is reliable. He would, I think, have been bewildered by contemporary talk of the 'primacy' of conscience or of any intellective operation. Just as the value of memory is in remembering accurately, so the value of conscience, for Thomas, is in yielding the right choice. Truth always had primacy for him. "

He states that nowhere in the documents of Vatican II is there any reference to the "primacy of conscience". Rather:

" the word conscience is always qualified with adjectives such as "right," "upright," "correct," "well-formed," or "Christian" -- allowing, by implication, that not a few consciences are confused, deformed or otherwise misleading. So some other standard (by which conscience is judged) has "primacy.' The Council pointed out that conscience often goes wrong, sometimes "invincibly" (i.e. by no fault of the agent and so without losing its dignity), but at other times "voluntarily" (i.e. due to negligence or vice, in which case conscience is degraded). Conscience, like any intellectual ability, can err because the human mind can be more or less mature, experienced, trained, healthy, sophisticated, imaginative, prudent, integrated with passion, etc. Conscience is only right conscience when it accurately mediates and applies that natural law which participates in the divine law; it is erroneous when it does not."

He then discusses what is the meant by the "magisterium": "the teaching authority of the Church, restating or unfolding the implications of Christ's teaching ", and discusses at length the question of Conscience versus the magisterium after Vatican II.

Before doing so, interestingly, he argues that the three moral "dogmas" to be found in John Paul II's encyclical on bioethics, "Evangelium vitæ." are to be regarded as infallible moral teaching:

"The clearest exercise of the highest level of papal magisterium was with respect to direct killing of the innocent. John Paul then applied this teaching to abortion and euthanasia, both of which he confirmed were grave moral disorders. Though there are some differences, in each case he claimed the authority of the natural law, the Scriptures and the Tradition, the ordinary and universal magisterium, the disciplinary tradition of the Church, the unanimous agreement of the bishops -- and, now, "the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his successors". "

Conscience and the Magisterium: the problem of Conflict

In relation to the question of conscience against the magisterium, he discusses the problem seen from the perspective of the Sixties and Seventies:

"The "crisis of '68" was a crisis at least in part over the meaning of conscience, its implications for decision-making and its relationship to the magisterium. In the 1970s a number of theologians proceeded to deny that the Scriptures, the Tradition and the hierarchy have any "strong" magisterium in moral matters. The "situationists" echoed the contemporary exaltation of human freedom and rejection of appeals to nature, reason, authority or any static, universal or objectivist standards; what mattered, in the end, was whether the person's "heart was in the right place." The "proportionalists" asserted that the role of conscience was to identify and balance upsides and downsides of options and that the Church could propose some "rules of thumb" for this balancing act, but no moral absolutes. Some argued that it was impossible for the Church to teach infallibly in morals; others said that while it could in principle, it never had done so; and both agreed that the ordinary teaching of the Church is "susceptible to error and therefore fallible."

The Response of the Vatican to the Confusion

He then discusses the two responses to the confusion: John Paul II`s groundbreaking encyclical "Veritatis splendor."; and Cardinal Ratzinger`s 1991 lecture on "Conscience and Truth".

`In "Veritatis Splendor", conscience is indeed the proximate norm of personal morality, but its dignity and authority "derive from the truth about moral good and evil, which it is called to listen to and to express." Sincerity cannot establish the truth of a judgment of conscience and freedom is never freedom from the truth but always and only freedom in the truth. The magisterium does not bring to the conscience truths which are extraneous to it, but serves the Christian conscience by highlighting and clarifying those truths which a well-formed conscience ought already to possess. `

In the 1991 lecture, the then Cardinal Ratzinger dealt with the question of conscience and relativism.

"When a fellow academic posited that the Nazis were saints because they followed their conscience, Ratzinger was convinced "that there is something wrong with the theory of the justifying power of the subjective conscience." His exploration of ancient Scripture and modern psychology, Socrates and Newman, confirmed that the notion needed to be thoroughly purified. Why does the Psalmist beg pardon for hidden or unknown faults? Because "the loss of the ability to see one's guilt, the falling silent of conscience in so many areas, is a more dangerous illness of the soul than guilt that is recognized." Thus Ratzinger argued that the reduction of conscience to subjective certainty does not liberate but enslaves or abandons us, making us totally dependent on personal taste or prevailing opinion. Though a person's last, best judgment binds him at the moment of acting, this cannot mean "a canonization of subjectivity." While it is never wrong to follow such a judgment, "guilt may very well consist in arriving at such perverse convictions." "


In the last part of his paper, the Bishop considers whether the best of contemporary philosophy might offer any ways forward in the question of the primacy of the magisterium and of conscience.

His conclusion ?

"The Church post-"Veritatis splendor" is still struggling to recover a Catholic sense of conscience and authority. The task is essentially an evangelical and catechetical one, and one especially urgent in the West where misconceptions about conscience have been commonplace, leading to many disastrous personal decisions. That there could still be Catholic institutions in some places performing or collaborating in abortion, IVF, sterilization or euthanasia beggars belief. That there are still Catholic theologians and pastors supporting these or similar practices means we are yet to recover a sense of the ecclesial vocations of theologian and pastor. That there are still Catholic politicians and voters willing to cooperate in those evils means there are faulty connections between conscience, truth and authority whether ecclesial or civil. Wrong views of conscience have also been pastorally ruinous, resulting in diffidence about evangelization and catechesis, a decline of the practice of Confession and the abuse of Holy Communion.

Without an accurate understanding of Christian conscience it can never be reliably at the service of the culture of life and love or of the growth of individuals in holiness. But even when we get this right, there will still be much to do in properly forming and informing our own and others' consciences and in drawing conclusions in the face of the complex contemporary dilemmas -- in bioethics as elsewhere. Further, thoroughgoing philosophical and theological analysis is required, for instance, on questions such as biolawmaking, cooperation in evil and conscientious objection -- questions to which our present conference will now turn. "