Monday, January 23, 2012

A Well Formed Conscience: The Topic Of The Day

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.


  1. While I have only quickly skimmed the article, I find interesting that no one mentions the real problem with the Vatican/Bishops style of moral ethics: the lack of input from actual scientific facts in the ethical system of Natural Law morality. The "Facts" in the Natural Law system are what Aristotle knew (or thought he knew) 2500 years ago. And most of them are wrong. And if your Facts are wrong, so are the conclusions that flow from those facts. There are other systems of Ethics that use actual science as its foundation, namely Personalism. Start with facts, take people and the Gospel seriously. This is the framework my ethical decisions flow from.

  2. DeCrosse does mention the importance of factoring actual scientific truth in one's practical reasoning, but he writes more about the reasons the hierarchy refuses to do so. But I think you have the right of it, Natural Law without factoring in what we actually know from nature is really Unnatural Law.

  3. It is most unfortunate that Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II have not witnessed in any true sense the dark raw bloody history in which they both lived in during WWII. They have influenced broadly for a few generations now around the world the very ills they purport to decry. There is just blame and scapegoating from them both. There is no transcendence of spirituality that I can see in either of them.

    These leaders have not resolved world hunger or gone out of their way to make any significant change for the good in any of our lives. Had they spoken out against the true evils we all would have benefited. And for all intents and purposes they have been in bed with the politicians in the political sphere that have no conscience regarding bringing justice into the world they condemn. Their condemnation of those in Europe and in the US that have left the Church or are leaving the pews now is quite immoral in light of the fact they have not rejected the choice to war with mankind instead of loving mankind and becoming as Good Samaritans as Jesus taught. They are of the mind to pass the man or woman left for dead by the path they walked on.

    We keep hearing how liberals have ruined the Church with Vatican II. We keep hearing the war cry coming from right wing extremists to excommunicate those who differ in wisdom, insight, maturity, spirituality, sexuality and we continue to suffer such attacks from them which is from their lack of compassion, a distortion of wisdom and creativity as evil instead of as loving grace. They seem to see people as clumps of flesh to order about who have no history of their own that could refute and condemn their acts as failed spiritual leaders with involvement & preference for evil tyrants, dictators and priests in their own ranks who have committed horrible crimes themselves against little children.

    Both Popes, JPII and BXVI have unfortunately been shell-shocked victims of wars in their youth. They seemed to have never recovered beyond their own wounds to enable them to heal anyone, let alone the entire Church or the secular world of which their blame and scapegoating seems to still reside as in their youth. Seems there are just too many other people who are around them that influence & enable them to remain blind in their own uncreative conscience. They have no compassion for those they prefer did not exist.


  4. Butterfly, I don't think they expect to be held accountable for healing anyone. They believe that suffering in this life is good for the soul and all healing will come from the God in the afterlife. They speak out against the suffering of course; make token efforts at feeding the starving, and giving drink to the thirsty, healing to the physically ill. But they don't ever expect to do anything to ensure more people have secure access to the material goods they need to survive or even thrive. This is part of what Christ meant when He said that the poor would always be with us. They take this as license to ignore the very real plight of vast numbers of people. How else to explain that in places of desperate poverty, which could be alleviated with some form of birth control so that mothers can focus on the raising of 2 or even more children through to adulthood rather than give birth time after time to children who will die before reaching a first birthday: They still insist on birth control as an intrinsic evil? And how many more examples of this callous disregard for any sort of quality of life on this side of the divide can we find? It is as if the only creativity that men are allowed to engage in is that of begetting more children. Well, it takes creativity to bring about a decent quality of life for all those children in my view. The raising of those children should take equal precedence at the very least.

    In my more charitable moments, I give them some credit for keeping their focus not on this life but the next. And I myself have said/thought from time to time that I'd prefer to do my penance now rather than after I die. Still this focus on the good that can be brought by God's Hand from suffering... Maybe it is just my selfish nature, but I certainly prefer a God of true nurture and compassion to one of the 'Tough Love' variety.

  5. Butterly I agree with a lot of what you've written here. I think when JPII and Benedict had to reflect on their experiences in WWII and after, the inbuilt guilt factor from the Catholicism they grew up in had to be pretty high. Benedict lost himself for a time in Vatican II, while JPII took to mysticism and self harming spiritual practices. I think both of them were and are very conflicted, but so are most of us who grew up in the last century and have lived through the technological explosion of the last fifty years. I have to keep reminding myself that our childhood, in which our brains get their initial training, in no way really prepared us for what we've experienced. My daughter tells me that's why I'm fixated on the Wizard of Oz and Star Trek. Very little else has actually been helpful in making sense of some of this---outside of basic math and reading. My early catechetical formation certainly has been mostly worthless if not an outright hindrance.

  6. Veronica, my post for today addresses some of your points. The point you make about token efforts but not expecting to actually do anything to alleviate the vast poverty and suffering in areas of the world was my entire bitch about Mother Theresa. She felt no obligation to help change any of the conditions which produced the humanity she and her order dealt with, especially if doing so meant disobeying Vatican teaching. I was not surprised to learn she experienced a fifty year dark night of the soul. How can light shine if you already think you have all the truth--especially if that truth perpetuates all the misery you see around you.

  7. TPel - Although I can agree with a lot of what you have related in your post, my post was more a reflection of Colleen's comment here:

    "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."

    Regarding your last paragraph, I do not have a charitable view at all of world characters and political personalities that lead many astray and help to cause wars and terrible suffering and mayhem for millions of people. Perhaps that is selfish of me.

    If the leaders and spokesmen for all Catholics believe in an unmerciful God that desires for us to suffer, then they truly have not encountered the Jesus of the Gospels.

    Perhaps the truth is that they don't expect God to be who God truly is: Love. They are expecting something else, just as those who denied Jesus when he walked this Earth. They also were expecting something other than what they got.

    I believe the post I presented here provides a view of JPII and BXVI and what still seems to be a huge issue in the conscience of many in the Catholic Church who are still reacting to the past without truly having a real overview of the past and the views of that time prior to WWII that enabled Christians and Catholics to round up political foes, gays, Jews, whoever disagreed with them. The extreme right just does not get it. Shell-shock seems to portray perhaps the psychology. I don't know. I'm not a shrink. I just thought I would present this here for the experts.

  8. Colleen, I agree also with your comment here.

    "I have to keep reminding myself that our childhood, in which our brains get their initial training, in no way really prepared us for what we've experienced."

    I so much agree with that. What I've encountered is that just being obedient will eventually lead to disobedience because the formation and initial training was insufficient to aide in making wise choices in life, and therefore making a lot of mistakes and suffering from making those mistakes.

    It is interesting you bring up guilt. I always felt guilty about everything. Especially about things like racism and people starving in the world. It just never made sense to me that with so many Christians around that these would still be issues that are never really addressed. I feel guilty about that. I don't feel good about it at all.

  9. Colleen, I very nearly tried to tie in IDIC in my last post as a more helpful theology than most of what I got from CCD classes. Back in the mid-70s it seemed the Catholic church was a far more positive and hopeful place than it has now become. At least it was in the very small slice of it that I experienced. Somehow I was taught the primacy of personal conscience before too much of the necessity of toeing somebody's 'more authoritative' line. As the hierarchy narrows down its focus to pray, pay and obey with the 'illumination' of heavy guilt as my expected role as a lay Catholic woman, it the the betrayal of that hope that I find most unsettling. IDIC still stands, perhaps because there is no line of authority to prescribe its betrayal.

    I don't describe myself as fixated on Star Trek, but it certainly has a great deal more positive influence on culture or even just pop-culture than the formal parts of the RCC. Is it the storytelling? I don't know.

    I know of at least one priest who seems to understand faith through the lens of Star Trek ideology. Although he does stay on the line the hierarchy expects of him it is also easy to see from his body language that his private beliefs cause him some struggle.

    Anyway, I could only see a way to tie it together if the post went on far too long.

    Butterfly, I am actually more in agreement with you than not. Apparently the wry tone of voice which imbued my 'more charitable moments' did not get through in my writing. And those moments are few and far between as I am rather quick to anger and take offense. But I do need those charitable moments too - they remind me that no matter how vehemently I might disagree with those whom society has placed as authorities, they too are God's children. It does me no good to think of them as akin to Satan's Spawn. I recognize in humility my own limitations and failures and inability to see the fullness of what God wants. I pray for them to do the same. I remind myself frequently to let God sort it out in Her own time. Rather than simply and personally applying St. Augustine's prescription. Of course if they strike first, my gloves are coming off. :)

  10. I hear you Veronica. I can relate to the "quick to anger and take offense" bit. It's the knee jerk reaction to a witness to ignorance and the painstaking effort of faith with compassion to get beyond that of which you speak. I don't see Benedict as a spawn of Satan, but his politics sure seems close enough as far as the rotten fruit it reveals & passes on for generations of people to suffer.


  11. And the rotten fruit is the revelation of a stifled sense of spiritual growth and maturity that crops up along the spiritual path. As a young girl in Catholic school our religious teaching was about memorization of prayers mostly and that was pre-VII. So I don't want to hear about naysayers of Vatican II. The VI Church was enough to move me away from the Church at a young age, and VII was enough to pull my parents pretty much away from the Church. And yet, there are still miracles of faith that bring even the prodigal son back home. It's a constant recurring theme through the lives of many through the ages since Jesus.

    That is why I think that Colleen and I agree on the compassion being front and center as opposed to authoritariansm. Authoritarianism, imo, does not bring one to truthful and fruitful Faith close enough to allow God entrance by our own free will. Jesus' Apostles were not automatons. The compassion of God is so much more merciful than a law of the Church that demands obedience in a wrathful way and without compassion. That is where most religions fail in my opinion, at least in the past they have mightily proven they are capable of doing. Hence, the backlash of such religious force is an equal enemy in return, sort of a karma effect in opposition to another form of authoritarianism. WWII symbolizes such a battle in my thinking. Both Stalin and Hitler had their own brand of fear and that just leads to war, not to Jesus Christ.

    Pope JPII & BVXI were in a real sense cafeteria catholics of their day as Popes who were both fighters, and not in the healthiest way of the word fighting for the well being of all people and to live the Gospels. They took a side to the politics in the world instead of working out the side of God that their politics and world view and knee jerk reactions left out.


  12. Would Jesus have any great sympathy for snide bloggers?

    I'm not convinced Jesus would sit behind a screen and complain constantly about the Church to a small coterie of yes-men.

  13. Why, Invictus... Whatever makes you think He wouldn't have that sympathy? Or are you counting on it for yourself and hoping it extends to commenters too?

    1. Invictus, Jesus would have revelled in the arguments, the debates, the discussion, just as he did when he was 12 year old Joshua. ( )

      How familiar it would be to engage in rabbinical debate on the law and ethics! Even today Jews prize intellectual discussion and education, as they did then. There was nothing mistaken or accidental about the Jewishness of Jesus, nor the fact that his followers referred to him as Rabbi.

      Oy vey

  14. Welllll uhhhh, Invictus: do you think Jesus would prefer a mitre and a teleprompter ala Cardinal elect Dolan to appeal to a small coterie of money men?