Conscience, incoherence, and “spiraling intellectual implausibility”

First, from George Weigel’s post, “Catholic Reflections on the Endgame 2012”, on the National Review site:

Whatever happens on November 6, though, the Catholic Church in America has been changed, likely in irreversible ways, by the experience of this campaign year.

A critical mass of U.S. bishops now understands the challenge of this cultural moment, and these bishops are prepared to exercise their pastoral office in the prophetic way that the challenge of the culture requires.

The utter incoherence of the Pelosi/Biden/Sebelius form of Catholicism has created a situation that those prophetic bishops will not likely fail to address. For while it is true that the Catholic Church is big enough for Paul Ryan and Joe Biden (and Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius), it is also true, and far more urgently true from a pastoral point of view, that there are different pews within Big Church Catholicism. Many of those in the more distant pews are grievously uncatechized, which causes them to lead lives of spiritual and moral incoherence. That situation will not be tolerated indefinitely.

As the Catholic Church once became the lead Christian community in intellectually formulating the pro-life position, it has now become the lead church in articulating, through the arts of public reason, the defense of America’s first freedom, religious liberty. In both of these exercises, Catholics have found common cause with evangelical Protestants; and in the religious-freedom battle (and the battle to defend marriage rightly understood), Catholics have found new allies among Mormons. And as the Catholic-Evangelical alliance in the American culture war led unexpectedly to new and rich theological exchanges, so, it may be expected, will the partnership in battle alongside Latter-day Saints. The ecumenical landscape in the 21st century will thus look nothing like the ecumenical landscape when the Second Vatican Council opened 50 years ago.

“Progressive” Catholicism in America once claimed the Church’s Vatican II defense of religious freedom as its proudest
accomplishment — as well it might. Yet that, too, has changed. The abandonment of the religious-freedom issue by far too much of the Catholic Left in 2012 was a further indicator of what Francis Cardinal George announced years ago: the death of liberal Catholicism from what had become, in the post–Vatican II decades, its spiraling intellectual implausibility.

Read the entire piece. The incoherence that Weigel mentions is front and center in a recent attack by North Dakota Senator Tim Mathern, a former seminarian, on Bishop David D. Kagan of Bismark. In an October 19th letter, Bp. Kagan wrote a letter, titled, “Catholic citizenship”, which contained the following:

I will not tell you how to vote.  However, I ask you to vote as a Catholic citizen with a properly formed Catholic conscience.  A properly formed Catholic conscience will never contradict the Church’s teachings in matters of faith and morals.  In this letter I wish to explain what this means in direct relation to the issues on which each person’s vote will have a lasting impact.
What is “a properly formed Catholic conscience?”  The Catechism says:  “A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful.  It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator.  Everyone must avail himself of the means to form his conscience.” (1798) The Catholic Church’s teachings are the means for us to properly form our consciences so that we seek always what is true and good.

At the heart of all Catholic moral and social teaching is a single fact:  the respect given to an individual human person must always be first and must govern every law and action so that the person’s life and dignity is always and everywhere protected and defended.  In other words, from the first moment of human conception to the last moment of life on earth, the person must be respected without exception.
For this reason, there are some actions that are never acceptable and should not be made so by law, they include:  abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, and not recognizing the unique and special role of marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
All of the other social, economic and political issues gain importance only from the fundamental issue of the respect for the individual person and the inviolability of each person’s life and God-given dignity.
Thus, if there is no respect for the life and dignity of each person from conception to natural death, then every other moral evil can be justified.  There are some things we must never do, as individuals or as a society, because they are always incompatible with love of God and neighbor.  Such actions are so deeply flawed that they are always opposed to the authentic good of persons.  These are called “intrinsically evil” actions.  They must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned.  A prime example is the intentional taking of innocent human life as in abortion and euthanasia.

Sen. Mathern—described as “courageous” by one national newspaper that claims to be Catholic—wrote a letter (Oct. 23rd; PDF file) which stated:

The letter engages in partisan politics and damages the bounds of personal conscience, the Church’s role in building the common good, and the non-profit status of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. I urge Bishop Kagan to withdraw or change the letter. …

The Bishop’s position is inconsistent with the principle of Primacy of Conscience, a long accepted position of Roman Catholic moral theology. The Bishop’s letter states: “A properly formed Catholic conscience will never contradict the Church’s teachings in matters of faith and morals.” As exemplified in the sentence above, Bishop Kagan short circuits conscience formation by insisting that properly formed conscience must follow his direction. He speaks as if the Church and he himself are infallible on matters of personal conscience. In a misstep of power, he colludes the complicated doctrine of papal infallibility with the positions of the Church.

(By the way, how is it “courageous” to tacitly threaten a bishop with governmental action, a bishop who has no earthly powers save that of reason, argument, and, if need be, the power to excommunicate?) Sen. Mathern’s understanding of conscience is woefully lacking; worse, his reference to the Church’s non-profit status is a thinly veiled and arrogant threat that would be lamentable coming from a non-Catholic. Coming from a Catholic, it is far worse, being a display of public insolence and shameless posturing that indicates just how far some Catholic politicians will go to ingratiate themselves to political ideology at the expense of truth.

Sen. Mathern, not surprisingly, misrepresents both the bishop’s statement and the Church’s clear teaching about conscience. First, Bp. Kagan was simply articulating perennial Church doctrine; he, as a bishop, has a right and obligation to do so. To act offended when a Catholic bishop presents Catholic doctrine is to be either clueless or disingenuous; you might as well be shocked when a football player tries to score a touchdown. Secondly, conscience does not and cannot involve the belief that everyone’s claim to a correct judgment of conscience is equally true and valid (i.e., “My conscience says stealing is good, so leave me alone.”) If so, as Cardinal Ratzinger notes in book, On Conscience, there would be no such thing as truth

It is, of course, undisputed that one must follow a certain conscience, or at least not act against it. But whether the judgment of conscience, or what one takes to be such, is always right—indeed, whether it is infallible—is another question. For if this were the case, it would mean that there is no truth—at least not in moral and religious matters, which is to say, in the areas that constitute the very pillars of our existence. Thus there could be, at best, the subject’s own truth, which would be reduced to the subject’s sincerity. No door or window would lead from the subject into the broader world of being and human solidarity. (p 12)

The very notion of a conscience presupposes there is objective truth and a moral law transcending human whim, passion, and caprice, as the Catechism states: “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment…. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God” (par 1776). In addition, a true conscience is formed and shaped by a number of things, including reason, divine revelation, and authentic moral authorities: “The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings” (par 1783). There is much more, but suffice to quote the following, which dissenting Catholics never bother to quote:

A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.”59 In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.

Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct. (par 1790-2)

The certain newspaper mentioned above is having none of this, likely because it really doesn’t care about, or understand, the underlying principles informing such matters:

As you might expect, Kagan zeroes in on social issues, with no mention of poverty, economic justice, immigration, peace in the world or human rights. He maintains, “A properly formed Catholic conscience will never contradict the Church’s teachings in matters of faith and morals.” Really? A conscience is an ecclesial tape recorder?

Uh, no, it is a gift from God that must be protected, trained, controlled, and formed by truth, with an attitude of humility and an awareness of our own weaknesses. It is a guide given by God, not a private god given so we can ignore truth. But what do you expect from a “Catholic” newspaper that shamelessly and brazenly publishes a piece titled, “I am a prochoice Catholic”?

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Carl E. Olson 1230 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.