Cardinal Pell, the “primacy of conscience”, and the ongoing state of confusion

And, who said this: "even some bishops seem to believe that any doctrinal reminder, any precise teaching stems from a narrow and restrictive mentality…"?

• Not long after posting my lengthy essay “The Four Cardinals and the Encyclical in the Room”, I saw The Catholic Herald had posted a piece on Cardinal George Pell, who was in London to give an address:

Cardinal George Pell has said that “a number of regularly worshipping Catholics” are “unnerved by the turn of events” in the Church. In a talk at St Patrick’s Church, London, Cardinal Pell said one cause for concern was false theories of conscience and the moral law. …

Cardinal Pell said that emphasising the “primacy of conscience” could have disastrous effects, if conscience did not always submit to revealed teaching and the moral law. For instance, “when a priest and penitent are trying to discern the best way forward in what is known as the internal forum”, they must refer to the moral law. Conscience is “not the last word in a number of ways”, the cardinal said. He added that it was always necessary to follow the Church’s moral teaching.

Read the entire piece. The point about the true place and rightful role of the conscience was a central point of my essay. Put another way, the essential questions about Amoris Laetitia, especially the much debated chapter 8, are not about mercy or accompaniment or discernment but moral theology and the nature of objective truth.

• Back in 2005, Cardinal Pell wrote an exceptional essay for First Things titled “The Inconvenient Conscience” (May 2005), which clarified several misunderstandings (and misrepresentations) regarding what John Henry Newman had actually written about conscience. A couple of excerpts are instructive:

… a Catholic conscience cannot accept a settled position against the Church, at least on a central moral teaching. Any difficulty with Church teaching should be not the end of the matter but the beginning of a process of conversion, education, and quite possibly repentance. Where a Catholic disagrees with the Church on some serious matter, the response should not be “that’s that—I can’t follow the Church here.” Instead we should kneel and pray that God will lead our weak steps and enlighten our fragile minds, as Newman recommends in his Sermon 17, “The Testimony of Conscience.” Of course, this view of conscience seems profoundly counterintuitive to modern readers. For Newman, conscience is a hard, objective thing—a challenge to self, a call to conversion, and a sign of humility. And this sits uncomfortably with those who see conscience as a sign of freedom, and freedom as the right to reject what is unpalatable. …

One master defender of moral truth in our lifetime has been Pope John Paul II. He is also a man learned in modern thought and passionate about freedom and the responsibility that arises from the possession of freedom. And what the pope has aimed at is a path between those who assert moral truth but ignore personal freedom, and those who assert freedom but ignore moral truth.

More, he has charted this path using coordinates established by the Scholastics, developed by Newman, and confirmed by the Second Vatican Council. The pope argues that in their consciences human persons encounter moral truth, freely embrace it, and personally commit themselves to its enactment. This account (in the pope’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, sections 54-64, for instance) builds upon John Henry Newman’s theory of conscience as man’s free adoption of God’s law. Conscience, in this view, is neither the apprehending of an alien law nor the devising of our own laws. Rather, conscience is the free acceptance of the objective moral law as the basis of all our choices. The formation of a Christian conscience is thus a dignifying and liberating experience; it does not mean a resentful submission to God’s law but a free choosing of that law as our life’s ideal.

This specifically Catholic view rejects the mistaken doctrine of the primacy of conscience and clearly asserts the primacy of truth. “It is always from the truth that the dignity of conscience derives,” the pope writes. “In the case of the correct conscience, it is a question of the objective truth received by man; in the case of the erroneous conscience, it is a question of what man, mistakenly, subjectively considers to be true. It is never acceptable to confuse a ‘subjective’ error about moral good with the ‘objective’ truth rationally proposed to man in virtue of his end, or to make the moral value of an act performed with a true and correct conscience equivalent to the moral value of an act performed by following the judgment of an erroneous conscience.”

The primacy of truth. We don’t seem to be hearing much about that these days. That’s unfortunate, to put it most mildly.

• Cardinal Pell, in his recent talk in London, also made this basic but oft-neglected point: “[Pell] added that those emphasising ‘the primacy of conscience’ only seemed to apply it to sexual morality and questions around the sanctity of life. People were rarely advised to follow their conscience if it told them to be racist, or slow in helping the poor and vulnerable, the cardinal said.”

Yes, it is rather strange, is it not, that we don’t hear about “accompaniment” and “discernment” when it comes to stealing, embezzling, lying, hating, coveting, murdering, bribing, and so forth. But sexual sins, for some reason, get a special pass. We are told that matters involving sexuality, marriage, and family are much more “complex” and “complicated” than they once were. I think that is mostly nonsense, even allowing for what modern travel, technology, and communication has done to relationships and lifestyles. After all, those same things have also removed or lessened many of the challenges and difficulties that most or all people faced some 100 or 150 years ago. In the West, especially, most people enjoy the sort of comforts, leisure, free time, disposable income, and material advantages that could hardly be imagined in the nineteenth century, or even the first half of the twentieth century.

• Picking up on Cardinal Pell’s point: what if we took the apparently ambiguous and never judgmental approach found in Amoris Laetitia 8 and applied it to, say, unjust employers? Nick Bottom did just that for CWR back in July in a piece titled “A Different Kind of Papal Press Conference”

Pope Francis: Good morning, everyone.  Thank you for coming.

I have invited you today because I have had a change of heart that I must make public. In a homily recently, I spoke rather forcefully about employers who refuse to pay their workers a just wage.

I have had a chance to reflect on that homily in the light of the principles I set forth in my Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia.  I brought a copy so I can refer to it as I take your questions.  Please be patient with me as I find the appropriate passages, eh?

I believe I was too harsh in describing exploitative employers as “slave drivers” and “true bloodsuckers.”  I too must remember that the name of God is Mercy!  Amoris Laetitia rightly criticizes those who “hid[e] behind the Church’s teachings, sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality.”  For “it is not enough simply to apply moral laws . . . as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives” (AL 305).  As paragraph 308 of AL reminds us, “the Gospel itself tells us not to judge or condemn” (AL 308).

I also regret another remark I made in that homily.  The pope must be humble, he must be honest, no?  Somewhat precipitously, I said that cheating workers is “a mortal sin! This is a mortal sin!”  I must now express that in a more nuanced way.

In Amoris Laetitia I made it clear that I was “speaking not only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves” (AL 297).  That of course includes employers who find themselves in the situation of slave-driving their workers.

For them too, we must keep in mind the distinction between objective sin and subjective guilt.  Since there can be in employers’ lives many “mitigating factors . . . it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation” – such as exploiting their employees – “are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace” (AL 301).

Read the entire piece, which is not so much satirical as it is illustrative in nature. 

• On Tuesday it was reported that an American bishop was openly encouraging divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion: 

Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, California, has asked his priests to encourage Catholics who are divorced and remarried to consider whether “God is calling them to return to the Eucharist.”

Following up on recommendations from a diocesan Synod held in October, Bishop McElroy instructed his pastors to post notices in parish bulletins, inviting divorced and remarried Catholics to “utilize the internal forum of conscience” in making their decisions whether they should receive Communion.

Citing the deliberations of the diocesan Synod, the bishop also said that parishes should welcome gay and lesbian couples, and couples cohabitating before marriage. “The Synod pointed to the need to invite young couples lovingly, non-judgmentally and energetically into Catholic marriage and to provide mentors for them,” he said.

The Diocese of San Diego’s July 2016 pastoral message titled “Embracing the Joy of Love” makes the some of the same dubious statements about conscience that have become regular fare for supporters of the “liberal” interpretation of Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation. For instance:

Pope Francis widens the focus for this internal reflection of conscience for a Catholic who is divorced and remarried by underscoring that the central question for conscience is “What is my situation before God?” In conversation with a priest, the believer with humility, discretion, and love for the Church and its teachings seeks to reflect upon their level of responsibility for the failure of the first marriage, their care and love for the children of that marriage, the moral obligations which have arisen in their new marriage, and possible harm which their returning to the sacraments might have by undermining the indissolubility of marriage. It is important to underscore that the role of the priest is one of accompaniment, meant to inform the conscience of the discerner on principles of Catholic faith. The priest is not to make decisions for the believer, for as Pope Francis emphasizes in The Joy of Love, the Church is “called to form consciences, not to replace them.”

But, as John Paul II makes clear in Veritatis Splendor (par. 54ff), the work of the conscience is to make proper judgments about what is good or evil, not to make “decisions” that are customized for every person. As John Paul II explained: 

The judgment of conscience is a practical judgment, a judgment which makes known what man must do or not do, or which assesses an act already performed by him. It is a judgment which applies to a concrete situation the rational conviction that one must love and do good and avoid evil. This first principle of practical reason is part of the natural law; indeed it constitutes the very foundation of the natural law, inasmuch as it expresses that primordial insight about good and evil, that reflection of God’s creative wisdom which, like an imperishable spark (scintilla animae), shines in the heart of every man. But whereas the natural law discloses the objective and universal demands of the moral good, conscience is the application of the law to a particular case; this application of the law thus becomes an inner dictate for the individual, a summons to do what is good in this particular situation. Conscience thus formulates moral obligation in the light of the natural law: it is the obligation to do what the individual, through the workings of his conscience, knows to be a good he is called to do here and now. The universality of the law and its obligation are acknowledged, not suppressed, once reason has established the law’s application in concrete present circumstances. The judgment of conscience states “in an ultimate way” whether a certain particular kind of behaviour is in conformity with the law; it formulates the proximate norm of the morality of a voluntary act, “applying the objective law to a particular case”. (par 59)

The approach of Bishop McElroy, as well as that of Cardinal Cupich and Cardinal Farrell, seems clearly to be based on the faulty notion of the “primacy of the conscience,” which in reality means the teaching of Christ and the Church about moral truth and moral obligations take a back seat to the decisions made by this or that person about their unique and complicated situation. That is simply upside down; it is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. Yes, it is true that the priest does not “make the decision” for people in the sense of forcing them to accept the Church’s teaching. But the priest most certainly must articulate and explain the Church’s teaching on morality and truth, and insist that a properly formed conscience is formed by conforming in faith and humility to the truth, as John Paul II states:

It is the “heart” converted to the Lord and to the love of what is good which is really the source of true judgments of conscience. Indeed, in order to “prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2), knowledge of God’s law in general is certainly necessary, but it is not sufficient: what is essential is a sort of “connaturality” between man and the true good. …

It follows that the authority of the Church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians. This is so not only because freedom of conscience is never freedom “from” the truth but always and only freedom “in” the truth, but also because the Magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith. (par 64)

• This sort of confusion has been around for quite some time. Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ, recently pointed out to me an entry made by then-Fr Henri de Lubac, SJ (he was later made a cardinal by John Paul II) in his notebook during (and at) the Second Vatican Council:

I tried to explain to a bishop from Verdun that, on marriage, the definition of a spiritual ideal and a beautiful loftiness about human love are not enough; it is very necessary to specify a few moral rules and to recall that it is a question of an institution. – To several others, who seemed very little informed about current theories and more or less clear instances of abandonment, I expressed the timeliness of the last encyclical; even some bishops seem to believe that any doctrinal reminder, any precise teaching stems from a narrow and restrictive mentality; the opening of the spirit seems confused in their eyes with an amorphous understanding they would willingly idealize. [Entry for Sept 23rd, 1965; during last session of the Council]

The more things change…

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About Carl E. Olson 1207 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.