Vol 41 No 1
WHAT LIES AHEAD FOR THE CATHOLIC SCHOOL?
THE VOCATIONS PROJECT IN AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND
THE FAMILY IN AUSTRALIAN SOCIETY: Christianity's contribution to understanding the family and its role
Francine and Byron Pirola
MARRIAGE IN THE LIFE OF THE PARISH: He sent them out two by two ... Luke 10:1
FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE
Marie Farrell RSM
ECUMENICAL CONSENSUS ON MARY
Desmond O'Donnell OMI
A LENTEN MEDITATION
FREEDOM OF conscience is something we take for granted these days, but,
though it has always been at the heart of our Catholic tradition, the
notion of freedom of conscience has had a chequered history in the teaching
and practice of the Church, as a brief overview will show.
In the Jubilee Year 2000 the late Pope John Paul II called the Church
to an examination of conscience and a purification of memory
because of past failures to live authentically as followers of Christ.
In his Apologies he listed among the mistakes made by the Church over
the preceding 1000 years the many violations of conscience and other rights
of the human person perpetrated in the name of the faith in religious
wars, the courts of the Inquisition, the Crusades, anti-Semitism and other
expressions of grave intolerance. During that long period inadequate notions
of conscience, of human freedom and even of faith held sway among some,
often influential, members of the Church.
For four hundred years following the Council of Trent handbooks of moral
instruction were used in seminaries to prepare priests for the ministry,
especially the ministry of the sacrament of penance. They were practical
manuals, with a pastoral orientation and only minimally theological in
presentation. It is interesting that typically the first and fundamental
treatise was devoted in these manuals to conscience. However, although
this is a measure of the importance accorded to it, as time went on the
full meaning of freedom of conscience was lost and conscience was given
only a limited and restrictive role in the conduct of moral life. In some
quarters this was pushed to extremes.
As the second millennium of the Christian era progressed, the secular
world began to react against current restrictive understandings of conscience
and freedom. The rights of individual conscience and of its liberty in
face of any kind of despotism and unjust oppression were increasingly
elaborated during the eighteenth century and finally found expression
in the Declaration of Human Rights of 1789. Ideas of democracy,
tolerance, freedom of thought and speech and human rights were spread
in the Western World by the French Revolution and today have become an
essential part of our modern cultural heritage, although, as has in fact
not infrequently happened, the danger of turning freedom of conscience
into an absolute is always present.
Because of its heavy emphasis on the law of God, the official Church of
the time strongly opposed this promotion of the rights of individual conscience,
which it associated with bitter memories of revolutionary anticlericalism.
Liberty of conscience was condemned by Pope Gregory XVI in 1832 as a pestilential
evil and insane raving, a condemnation taken up and confirmed by
Pope Pius IXs Syllabus of Errors in 1864. This continued refusal
(at least up to Vatican II) to endorse freedom of conscience was one of
the main aspects of the burgeoning divorce between the Church and the
Older Catholics can probably remember how we tended to think of conscience
prior to Vatican II. Conscience was something that we had, that we consulted
for guidance, somewhat in the manner of the commuter consulting the rail
timetable or the forward planner looking up the calendar. It was our private
rulebook, a sort of built-in personal code of ethics, or perhaps our very
own dictionary of moral answers, all given to us by God and enforced by
our Church. Conformity and obedience to authority (of God and Church)
rather than freedom characterised conscience. Having a conscience,
for example, about snatching handbags from little old ladies or falsifying
income tax returns or missing Mass on Sundays meant being a person in
whom had been instilled the conviction of the wrongness of such actions
and who in consequence would feel guilty in doing them. Since it often
takes courage to follow your conscience (that is, in obeying
these perceived and accepted rules of conduct), particularly when it involves
inconvenience or difficulty, for many of us moral responsibility consisted,
not in being a mature and self-determining person (in this way conscience
was denied any role in personal self-expression or determination), but
rather in awareness of these rules of behaviour together with a strong
will enabling us to live by these rules.
The theological underpinning of this kind of thinking was rooted in the
kind of theology popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Theologians set out to recapture what they thought were the key elements
of the Golden Age of scholastic theology (the movement was therefore dubbed
neo-scholasticism). Adopting a particular interpretation of natural law,
they laid undue stress on an objective moral order set up by God himself
and written on our hearts, an order of conduct which is absolute and which
determines the morality of human acts. The task of conscience in this
view is to ensure that we conform ourselves to this objective and absolute
moral order and to the norms flowing from it.
Conscience is thus conceived as simply the bridge between individual persons
and this order laid down by God. Only obedience to these norms can ensure
that we have a right conscience. Freedom of conscience does not rate highly
in this approach. Consciences only role is in the application of
moral rules to particular situations. Largely because it was attributed,
wrongly, to St. Thomas Aquinas, this position became quite influential
in Roman Catholic circles and was spelled out in detail in the discussion
paper presented by the Preparatory Commission to the Second Vatican Council
in 1962. It was rejected by the Council Fathers in the treatment of conscience
in The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of 1965
(Gaudium et Spes).
In response to Pope John XXIIIs challenge to contact the vivifying
and perennial energies of the Gospel, this document shows that conscience
is not something we have; it is the very person himself or herself in
their inner depths, where they are alone with God, whose voice echoes
within (n.16). It is a meeting of persons, not in the first place a confrontation
with a law or a moral order. The sense of moral obligation experienced
in conscience concerns more than particular decisions about doing good
and avoiding evil; in the depths of conscience it is the very person who
is experienced as under obligation to be a certain kind of person, that
is, a loving, relating person. Conscience in the first instance is a decision
about being, only in the light of that a decision about particular acts.
The experience of particular decisions comes only gradually. This approach
to conscience is not centred upon a moral order in the sense proposed
by the preparatory working plan but on a law of love, on an order of persons
in communion with one another and with God. Conscience renders testimony
to our spirit whether in all our moral decisions we express our being
in Christ the children of God our Father.
Finally the document makes the point that the Gospel announces and
proclaims the freedom of the children of God, rejects all slavery which
in the last analysis derives from sin, and honours as sacred the dignity
of conscience and its free decision. All this corresponds with the fundamental
law of the Christian dispensation, by reason of which the
rightful autonomy of the creature, and especially of the human person,
far from being taken away, is rather re-established in its own dignity
and strengthened in it (n. 41).
The 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom, a document that Pope Paul VI
considered one of the major texts of the Council, confirms
and proclaims this principle of freedom. On the basis of their dignity
as persons, it states, people should not be forced to act against their
consciences, nor should they be prevented from acting in accordance with
their consciences, within due limits. The Declaration says: the
usages of society are to be usages of freedom in their full range. These
require that the freedom of human beings be respected as far as possible
and curtailed only when and insofar as necessary (n. 7. Italics
mine). According to John Courtney Murray SJ, one of the principal architects
of the document, this statement of the principle of freedom (as much freedom
as possible; as little restraint as necessary) may be seen as the most
significant sentence in the whole document. He went on to explain that,
though the Declaration deals only with the minor issue of religious
freedom in the technical secular sense, it does affirm a principle of
wider import that the dignity of man consists in his responsible
use of freedom (Religious Freedom (1966), 673-4). In his view the
Declaration, taken together with the Pastoral Constitution on the Church
in the Modern World, has ushered in a new era of reconciliation with the
modern spirit and opened the way to a new straightforwardness in the dialogue
between the Church and the world.
Some, of course, take the notion of freedom of conscience to mean open
slather, a licence to do what you want. It is true that many today, including
Catholics, believe that one is entitled to make up ones own mind
without reference to any outside authority, either of church or state,
and that one can do what one likes in matters of faith and morals, provided
the rights of others are not trampled upon. Thus the individual is made
completely autonomous in making personal decisions and truth becomes completely
relative. The late Pope John Paul II was so alarmed at this trend that
he tackled it head on. In his 1993 Encyclical Veritatis Splendor he reacted
strongly against this exaggerated exaltation of personal freedom and its
offshoot, a claim to moral autonomy which would actually amount
to an absolute sovereignty and make conscience a law unto itself
(n. 35:3). On this basis the document criticised unidentified theologians,
who, it claims, have distorted the true understanding of conscience in
relation to freedom and Gods law (nn. 55:1-56:2).
Strongly upholding the principle of freedom: as much freedom as possible;
as little restraint as necessary, the Declaration on Religious Freedom
is at pains to spell it out in some detail. It is in accordance
with their dignity as persons that all should be at once impelled by nature
and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth (n. 2:3).
Our exercise of freedom must be responsible, not driven by coercion but
motivated by a sense of duty. This means that in facing difficult decisions
we are called upon to reflect deeply on what we propose and do our best
to arrive at the right answer, taking into account all relevant aspects
of the situation. Since our actions can often have an impact on others,
we must always be careful that we do not encroach upon their human rights.
As Catholics we should listen attentively to what the Church has to say
about the issue if it has spoken on it. And sometimes we may need
to consult others wiser than ourselves for guidance. All this is implied
in the Councils explanation of the principle of freedom of conscience.
Clearly, then, there has been a development in our understanding of what
it means to live as a human person in community, and so in our perception
of the notion of freedom of conscience, understood in its full theological
meaning and afforded its proper role in authentically Christian living.
This theme of freedom of conscience is of great relevance to any dialogue
between Church and the world, because it lies at the heart of numerous
actual problems both within the Church, for example, the relationship
between the teaching authority of the Church and its exercise and the
freedom of believers (keeping in mind that there is an order or a hierarchy
of truths taught and that all are not on the same level), and in society
at large, for example, in regard to societys treatment of its gay
and lesbian members, its attitude to asylum seekers, racial intolerance
and sectarianism, or by contrast its indifference or neglect in the area
of social justice. However, the progress made in the teachings of Vatican
II regarding the primacy of conscience and its legitimate freedom must
not be seen as merely an attempt on the part of the Church to catch up
with contemporary secular thinking; it is imperative to understand this
progress in continuity with biblical revelation and our basic theological
Brian Lewis graduated from the Alphonsian Academy
of Moral Theology and the University of St Thomas in Rome. He has written
much on moral issues, and is now in retirement.
Vatican Council II:
--------(1965), The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern
World (Gaudium et Spes), n.16.
--------(1965), The Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae).
Both in Walter M. Abbott (ed) (1966), The Documents of Vatican II. (Chapman:
London), with the introduction Religious Freedom and the footnotes by
John Courtney Murray SJ.
DArcy, Eric (1961), Conscience and its Right to Freedom (Sheed and
Duncan, Bruce CSsR, The Significance of the Popes Proposed
Apologies for Errors
By the Church, Australasian Catholic Record, October 1999, 462-479.
Kelly, Kevin T. (1992), New Directions in Moral Theology. (Chapman: London),
Further reading on Conscience: Compass
vol. 37, 2003, no. 4