|This photo has always bugged me and now I know why. Anyway, it doesn't have much to do with the post, but it is a great papal guilt trip.|
The NCR has just posted an article by Santa Clara University ethics professor David DeCrosse. It's probably the best explanation I have read delineating where the USCCB is coming from in their definition of conscience as opposed to where I am coming from--except for one thing. Catholic reasoning on conscience has always placed a huge emphasis on authoritative teaching and personal practical reasoning. I've always felt this was incomplete no matter which aspect a given Catholic gave pre-eminence. Jesus added practical compassion to the reasoning part, and most certainly gave place of primacy to the spirit behind a given law rather than the words or the speaker of the law. Laws promulgated and/or acted on without compassion are a form of tyranny, not justice. Just think back to the nine year old girl in Recife, Brazil, or Sister Margaret McBride in Phoenix.
Later on in this essay--I have only extracted a number of paragraphs which explain the reasoning of our bishops--David DeCrosse quotes one of my favorite lines from A Man For All Seasons. It's the one in which Sir Thomas More speaks about man's role as serving God in the tangle of one's mind. When I was much younger that really spoke to me, but as I've matured I would change it. The real service comes from serving God in the tangle of one's heart. Now to David DeCrosse:
......With this emphasis on law, the distinctiveness of the bishops' model of conscience comes into view. Where a theologian like Thomas Aquinas speaks of conscience combining obedience to moral law and the exercise of practical reason, the bishops heavily favor the former over the latter. On the one hand, this means that conscience is best understood as the way by which we adhere to the moral laws requiring respect always and everywhere -- in the bishops’ eyes especially meaning turning from what they call the “intrinsic evils” at stake in the use of the artificial means of birth control; in gay marriage; and in taking innocent human life from conception onward. On the other hand, the bishops’ emphasis on law as the pre-eminent category of conscience means that they leave little room for practical reasoning to help the conscience figure out what to do in the face of complexity. Practical reasoning, in this view, is wishy-washy, feckless, diluting the clear demands of the moral law. Or, as Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., said when explaining why Illinois bishops did not seek an exemption from a state law legalizing civil unions for same-sex couples that could have required Catholic Charities to place foster children with such couples: “It would have been seen as, ‘We’re going to compromise on the principle as long as we get our exception.’ We didn’t want it to be seen as buying our support.” (God forbid the USCCB be seen as selling out to both the left and the right.)
What has led to the diminished role for practical reason in the way the bishops understand conscience? Two key conceptual matters come to mind, both taken from concerns laid down by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. One is the sharp opposition to the “creative conscience” outlined by John Paul II in the 1993 papal encyclical called “Veritatis Splendor.” In that document, John Paul criticized any number of developments in Catholic moral theology including one that argued that conscience’s use of practical reason in the face of a host of particulars could lay the basis for claiming occasional exceptions to the otherwise universal mandate of the moral law. But the pope said that this view of the “creative” possibilities of conscience had things precisely backwards. It’s not the creative use of practical reason that should determine what is morally required in a particular situation. Rather, it’s the moral law -- “requiring meticulous observance,” as John Paul put it -- that determines what reason should conclude that a particular situation demands. In “Veritatis Splendor,” John Paul was taking aim at theologians working in the area of interpersonal and, especially, sexual morality. But, I believe, his powerful views have shaped the position of the bishops on the current matters of conscience, which pertain primarily to issues of sexual morality in a political, not interpersonal, context. (For JPII obedience trumped reason each and every time in each and every situation. All hail the Catholic Borg.)
Along with the “creative conscience,” John Paul also condemned what he called the belief that complex situations could yield a “double status of moral truth.” In fact, the issue of “double status” is another way of articulating what is at stake with the use of the “creative conscience.” The notion of “double status” holds that while there may be one truth at a doctrinal or abstract level, there may be another truth -- even one proclaiming an exception to a doctrinal truth -- that emerges in the face of the complexity of concrete conditions. As with the “creative conscience,” John Paul dismissed this notion outright. Moral truth is not divisible and, anyhow, the clarifying truth of the moral law holding always and everywhere tells us pretty much everything we need to know about what any concrete situation requires. (Had Jesus subscribed to JPII's thinking, the woman caught in adultery most certainly would have been stoned with Him throwing the first stone.)
But the issue of the “double status of truth” is not only an intra-Catholic matter of moral theology. Instead it also must be considered in light of the overwhelming emphasis of John Paul and Benedict on the threat to truth spawned by what they regard as the runaway relativism of Western democracies. And this brings us to the second conceptual factor behind the bishops’ reduced emphasis on practical reason in the exercise of conscience: The fear that human reason in a democracy like the United States is so damaged by relativism and sin that it is all but incapable of attaining moral truth on its own via an exercise of practical reason. John Paul argued that this dismal tendency of human reason was at the heart of the contemporary “culture of death” at work in a place like the United States. Benedict has similarly decried what he has called the way that human reason all too often does not accept truth because it does not really want to know it. Faced with such a negative judgment about the capacities of human reason, what is the Catholic conscience to do? Among other things, not assume it has the rightful freedom to exercise too much practical reason in the face of the complex circumstances of democratic life. In the eyes of the Catholic right, this was the downfall of those Catholic Democrats in Congress in 2009 who invoked their own prudential judgment to cast the decisive votes in favor of federal health care reform -- and who, in doing so, defied the official opposition of the American Catholic bishops to the bill on the grounds that it would violate the moral law against abortion.
It is important to note that the close link of conscience and the moral law speaks poignantly to the transcendence of the human spirit. The Arab Spring in 2011; Poland in the 1980s; Selma and Birmingham in the American South in the 1950s and ‘60s: The people in the streets in these times and places moved the conscience of the world because they witnessed to a demand for justice that always and everywhere surpasses the claim of oppressive power. By contrast, the problems of conscience now facing American Catholic bishops have nowhere near such stark dimensions. And this is true no matter how often some bishops and their allies on the religious right liken contemporary gay activists to the Ku Klux Klan (as did Cardinal Francis George of Chicago) or see in President Obama the alien spearhead of a war against Catholics (as did columnist Michael Gerson writing in the Washington Post).............
DeCrosse's article is well worth reading in it's entirety, as are the comments which follow. Whether or not the USCCB intended to do so, the topic of conscience is well and truly on the minds of a lot of Catholics. I personally think this is excellent as the spiritual path is all about serving God through the choices we make in the tangle of our minds and hearts. Spirituality is not about obedience to authority. Religion is about obedience to authority. Spirituality is about going with in and forming an integrated self in union with the Divinity in one's eternal soul.
DeCrosse also touches on another of my pet peeves with this line:
The fear that human reason in a democracy like the United States is so damaged by relativism and sin that it is all but incapable of attaining moral truth on its own via an exercise of practical reason." This irritates me because the Church in which both Popes Benedict and John Paul II matured failed humanity miserably for the just the opposite reasons. It blindly supported fascist autocrats which resulted in the utter devastation of Europe and the deaths of millions during WWII, and that Church did so without uttering anywhere near the condemnation of dictatorial fascism the last two popes have uttered about secular democracies. To describe the current Western democracies as 'cultures of death' is laughable given what happened under fascism. As one commenter mentions after this article, it is no wonder that the Church in Europe is more or less an empty shell. The Church lost any claim to any kind of moral authority during WWII, and it's rapidly losing any claim for moral authority in rest of the world because of it's criminal handling of it's own morally depraved priests and it's continuing support for autocratic right wing ideologues in Africa and Latin America. Of course this is the kind of thing that happens when obedience to authority is given a higher place of importance than compassion towards one's fellow man.
For me the battle for the soul of Catholicism revolves around personal conscience and what will be the driving value in the formation of that conscience. The past two Popes have emphatically demanded that value be obedience, but I firmly believe Jesus demanded that value be compassion. My own personal experience has shown me time and again that compassion bears more positive life changing fruit than reflexive reliance on authoritarian control. Unfortunately, the current clerical system isn't set up to demonstrate the value of compassion to it's members. Obedience, well that's a different story. That virtue is the reason the individual members of the USCCB are where they are and get to tell us what they do.