When I first became Catholic, over twenty years ago, I focused much of my writing on apologetics and controversies with various forms Fundamentalist or Evangelical Protestantism. As I already knew, having grappled with them myself, the key points of contention were authority and the papacy, Scripture and Tradition, beliefs about Mary (I was asked more than once by Protestant friends: “How can you join a Church that worships Mary?”) and the saints, the Eucharist, and purgatory.
What I began to learn, at the same time, was that more than a few lifelong Catholics had their own points of contention; these included Church authority, sexual morality, liturgical practices, the role of women (especially conflicts over “women’s ordination”), and the relationship between the Church and the dominant secular culture. But one issue in particular jumped out at me—in part because it was obviously important; in part because it seemed almost farcical. And that was conscience, or the so-called “primacy” or “autonomy” of conscience. Repeatedly, in various contexts, I would hear or read Catholics stating that their conscience was the final and highest authority, and that if it came down to choosing between Church teaching and their conscience, they would have to go with their conscience. Oddly enough, this pseudo-magisterial claim was based on an appeal to … Church teaching.
To give a couple of quick examples drawn from past posts:
• A columnist for the National Catholic Reporter argued, at length, that she was pro-choice/pro-abortion,
because my Catholic faith tells me I can be. The Catechism reads, “[Conscience] is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” Even St. Thomas Aquinas said it would be better to be excommunicated than to neglect your individual conscience. So really, I am just following his lead. After years of research, discernment and prayer, my conscience has been well informed. Being a prochoice Catholic does not contradict my faith; rather, in following my well-informed conscience, I am adhering to the central tenet of Catholic teaching — the primacy of conscience.
As I noted, this amounts to saying that one’s conscience is “the Greatest Thing Ever, even greater than God, truth, good, and evil.” But that flies in the face of 2,000 years of Church teaching, common sense, moral logic, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the writings of St. John Paul II, remarks by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, and so forth. But her “logic” and position were not, alas, uncommon at all.
• The circular, faulty appeal to authority (“My conscience trumps Church teaching because Church teaching tells me so!”) can be seen in the regular, tired claims of women who wish to be Catholic priests. I’ve written about this many times, and so will only quote this point: “If their conscience is supreme, without qualification, it logically must have greater authority than the Church, which means 1) they have no need for the Church (so why do they seek the Church’s approval?) and/or 2) the Church’s authority is seriously flawed, even morally bankrupt, which also begs the question: why bother to be recognized and accepted by such an institution?”
Which brings me to the February 9th speech, titled “Pope Francis’ Revolution of Mercy: Amoris Laetitia as a New Paradigm of Catholicity”, given by Cardinal Blase Cupich at the Von Hügel Institute, St. Edmund College, Cambridge, England. The address has already been remarked upon at length by others. So, for example, Fr. George Rutler reflects at Crisis on the not-so-clear “clarity” of Cardinal Cupich, Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith remarks at the Catholic Herald upon “Cardinal Cupich’s significant factual error,” and Dr. Eduardo Echeverria, here at CWR, analyzed Cardinal Cupich’s view of sin and its effects on human nature. I’m sure there are others. My simple goal here is to make a couple of points about The Big Picture, and then a couple of points about Cardinal Cupich’s apparent understanding of conscience.
1) Big Picture #1: One of the more humorous, yet revealing, aspects of those defending every jot and tittle of the current pontificate as somehow directly divined from the Holy Spirit is the clumsy two-step employed in saying we are witnessing two things: a supposedly seamless and natural development of Church teaching about mercy, marriage, and related matters that is completely in line with Sacred Tradition and the thought of John Paul II—and a new and exciting revolution in the very same areas, the likes of which the Church and the world have never, ever seen before. Put bluntly, those of us who have raised concerns, however calmly and politely, about how Amoris Laetitia opens the door, ambiguously or otherwise, for divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics are routinely smacked down for failing to see how Francis builds on John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Meanwhile, as the title of Cardinal Cupich’s address readily indicates, there is a big push for “new”; in fact, the word “new” appears 44 times in his talk, with references to “new paradigm,” “new spirit,” “new approach,” “new reality,” and “new and holistic response”, among others. (The word “holistic” is used ten times, while the word “sin” is uses once—and that in a quote from the tortured, contentious paragraph 301 of AL.)
Put simply, my take is that Cardinal Cupich and others are happy to have their new cake and eat it too, while spending far more time extolling what is new than showing how it supposedly flows from what has gone before.
2) Big Picture #2: Pope Francis is, Cardinal Cupich and others assert, finally fulfilling the real promise and the true teachings of Vatican II. Sometimes this is presented in subtle fashion; sometimes it is couched in rather striking, even cocky, terms, as in this article in The Tablet—titled “The Shock of the New” (see Point #1 above!)—about Cupich’s speech:
“What the Pope is doing is rooted in the Second Vatican Council,” Cupich says. “That’s where the major paradigm shift happened. He is just mining what the Council stood for. So I don’t think it’s going to fizzle out when this papacy is over. This is a curved road. During the papacy of John Paul II, people said to me, ‘The Council is kind of dead now; we’ve got this new wave, this new concern with orthodoxy,’ and I would say, ‘There’s no turning back, the Council opened a new pathway, it was led by the Spirit, and it’s going to continue.’ I have never played the game of which papacy you pick.”
There are of course Catholics who are simply not prepared to swallow the development in teaching and practice opened up by Amoris that under some circumstances might allow someone in a second marriage to take Communion. But Cupich points to John Paul II as the Pope who instigated the really striking development in doctrine by rescuing the divorced and remarried from their state of disgrace and excommunication, and bringing them into the life of the Church. Amoris takes that development on another step.
This is quite clever: a dismissive wave at John Paul II while also claiming that Francis is merely following in John Paul II’s footsteps. Of course, that is easier to do when you ignore much or most of John Paul II’s teachings, especially Veritatis Splendor, which remains the “encyclical in the room”. Because if there is one thing that Cardinal Cupich and like-minded folks will not touch, it’s Veritatis Splendor—for the simple reason that it addressed and critiqued every single one of their “new” ideas and proposals. (Seriously. Just read it.) So much for being “new”!
3) Conscience #1: Let’s first consider this paragraph from Cupich’s speech, notably for both its rhetorical fuzziness and its brazen misdirection:
The starting point for the role of conscience in the new hermeneutic is Gaudium et Spes 16 (2), which identifies conscience as “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man…(where) he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.” When taken seriously, this definition demands a profound respect for the discernment of married couples and families. Their decisions of conscience represent God’s personal guidance for the particularities of their lives. In other words, the voice of conscience—the voice of God— or if I may be permitted to quote an Oxford man here at Cambridge, what Newman called “the aboriginal vicar of Christ”—could very well affirm the necessity of living at some distance from the Church’s understanding of the ideal, while nevertheless calling a person “to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized” (AL 303).
First, the truncated, selective quotation from Gaudium et Spes (GS) is misleading; the entire paragraph states:
In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin. (par 16)
Note that the Catechism’s entire section on conscience (1776-1802) begins with a lengthy quote from GS 16. Note also that GS describes conscience is beholden to a law that is outside himself, a law that summons him to love good and avoid evil. Note also that GS and CCC do not refer to the conscience as “the voice of God” but instead says the rightly formed conscience is where man can hear the voice of God. That is a very subtle but significant difference for the simple reason that saying one’s conscience is “the voice of God” cleverly moves the ground of moral authority from outside of man—as GS clearly presents it—and moves it to man’s interior, subjective state, as if it doesn’t need to be informed, shaped, and directed by God.
But the conscience is not the ground of moral authority; nor is it the final judge when it comes to what is actually moral and true. And this was a key point stressed by John Paul II:
Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values. This is the direction taken by doctrines which have lost the sense of the transcendent or which are explicitly atheist. The individual conscience is accorded the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment which hands down categorical and infallible decisions about good and evil. To the affirmation that one has a duty to follow one’s conscience is unduly added the affirmation that one’s moral judgment is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience. But in this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and “being at peace with oneself”, so much so that some have come to adopt a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgment.
As is immediately evident, the crisis of truth is not unconnected with this development. Once the idea of a universal truth about the good, knowable by human reason, is lost, inevitably the notion of conscience also changes. Conscience is no longer considered in its primordial reality as an act of a person’s intelligence, the function of which is to apply the universal knowledge of the good in a specific situation and thus to express a judgment about the right conduct to be chosen here and now. Instead, there is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly. Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others. Taken to its extreme consequences, this individualism leads to a denial of the very idea of human nature. (VS, 32)
Secondly, with that in mind, can it be said, as Cupich asserts, that the “voice of conscience … could very well affirm the necessity of living at some distance from the Church’s understanding of the ideal…”? The short answer is: No. A much longer and detailed treatment is given in VS; here is just one excerpt that highlights the problematic assertion made by Cupich:
The truth about moral good, as that truth is declared in the law of reason, is practically and concretely recognized by the judgment of conscience, which leads one to take responsibility for the good or the evil one has done. If man does evil, the just judgment of his conscience remains within him as a witness to the universal truth of the good, as well as to the malice of his particular choice. But the verdict of conscience remains in him also as a pledge of hope and mercy: while bearing witness to the evil he has done, it also reminds him of his need, with the help of God’s grace, to ask forgiveness, to do good and to cultivate virtue constantly.
Consequently in the practical judgment of conscience, which imposes on the person the obligation to perform a given act, the link between freedom and truth is made manifest. Precisely for this reason conscience expresses itself in acts of “judgment” which reflect the truth about the good, and not in arbitrary “decisions”. The maturity and responsibility of these judgments — and, when all is said and done, of the individual who is their subject — are not measured by the liberation of the conscience from objective truth, in favour of an alleged autonomy in personal decisions, but, on the contrary, by an insistent search for truth and by allowing oneself to be guided by that truth in one’s actions. (VS, 61)
Or, as John Paul II states earlier: “Although each individual has a right to be respected in his own journey in search of the truth, there exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known” (VS, 34). And then the late pontiff quote Cardinal John Henry Newman: “Conscience has rights because it has duties”. But to read Cardinal Cupich, one might well conclude that conscience has priority because life is, well, complicated and hard and difficult.
4) Conscience #2: At the start of his section on conscience, Cupich states:
The mutual respect in discerning the movement of the spirit in the process of accompaniment opens up a third shift, that provides a more complete understanding of the role of conscience. Rather than limiting the function of conscience to knowing moral truth about actions in the past and objective truth in the present, conscience also discerns the future, asking: What is God asking of me now?
Cardinal Cupich (and Pope Francis, apparently, if the cardinal is a faithful interpreter of the Holy Father’s ideas) would have us fixate on “the concrete complexity of one’s limits” and our “generous response” and so forth, as if there really are some situations in which one may have to sin in order to grow in grace and truth, as we simply cannot attain “the ideal”. And yet this is, in so many ways, the falsehood that John Paul II focuses on throughout VS; it is why he begins by reflecting at length on the encounter between Christ and the rich young ruler:
The conclusion of Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man is very poignant: “When the young man heard this, he went away sorrowful, for he had many possessions” (Mt 19:22). Not only the rich man but the disciples themselves are taken aback by Jesus’ call to discipleship, the demands of which transcend human aspirations and abilities: “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?’ ” (Mt 19:25). But the Master refers them to God’s power: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).
Or, in the direct words of Saint Paul: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). Not some things, or a few things now and more later, but all things. Stark? Yes. Challenging? Absolutely! Essential? Of course.
I will conclude, however, by agreeing with one statement made by Cardinal Cupich: “It is hard to overstate the significance of this hermeneutical shift.” He is correct on that count. All the more reason to understand what the Church really teaches about conscience.
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!