Last Sunday’s Pentecost Mass in St. Paul, Minnesota, was not the first time that Catholics have been denied communion because they were wearing, in good conscience, a Rainbow Sash - a symbol that says that the wearer is (or knows and/or supports someone who is) accepting of their homosexuality. In fact, the first instance of this denial occurred in Australia in 1998.
Who Is Worthy?
In the late Fr. Ted Kennedy’s 2000 book, Who Is Worthy? The Role of Conscience in Restoring Hope to the Church, David McKenna, president of the Australian Rainbow Sash Movement, contributed a brief “perspective” in which he wrote:
“On Pentecost Sunday in 1998 and 1999, gay and lesbian Catholics and their friends, families and supporters, wearing rainbow sashes, presented themselves for Communion to Archbishop George Pell at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne. The proclamation of their purpose was set out in their ‘Letter to the Church’: In wearing the ‘rainbow sash’ we proclaim that we are gay and lesbian people who embrace and celebrate our sexuality as a sacred gift. In wearing it we call on the Church to honour the experience and wisdom of lesbian and gay people; to enter into open dialogue with us; and to work with us for justice and understanding. Let us seek a new appreciation of human sexuality in all of its diversity and beauty.” (1)
At both Pentecost Masses, “Dr. Pell refused the Eucharist to all those wearing the sash,” writes McKenna. “On the first occasion, he delivered a statement from the altar, notable for its harsh tone and lack of pastoral dimension. On the second occasion, Dr. Pell announced to an astonished media group that homosexuality was a greater health hazard than smoking. He also suggested that discouraging homosexuality amongst the young might reduce the number of youth suicides.” (2)
McKenna also offers his views on the current state of the wider Church in relation to the issue of homosexuality, noting that there is “an extraordinary level of fear amongst Catholics, especially those employed by or closely associated with the Church, about offering any public support for the Rainbow Sash Movement or, indeed, the cause of gay and lesbian people generally. It also shows just how constricted and apprehensive these people are. Given the claims made by the Catholic Church about itself, this is a scandal.” (3)
David McKenna concludes his contribution to Ted Kennedy’s book by observing that “the Catholic Church is in a highly authoritarian and repressive phase. Its restoration to what it should be – a genuinely open, growing and tolerant community – depends on honest discourse and critical but constructive comment.” (4)
Such qualities are reflected in Fr. Ted’s prophetic book, Who Is Worthy? The Role of Conscience in Restoring Hope to the Church. Fueled by the author’s outrage at the Australian Catholic hierarchy’s treatment of both the aboriginal and the gay communities, much of Who Is Worthy? is devoted to taking to task Archbishop (now Cardinal) George Pell’s controversial stance on the Catholic teaching of the primacy of conscience.
The Meaning of Conscience
The Latin word for conscience is conscientia, “knowing with, knowing within oneself” (Gk, syneidēsis). Theologian Christine Firer Hinze notes that within Christian tradition, conscience “denotes a multi-dimensional, uniquely human capacity for perceiving, judging, and deciding in relation to moral value. (5) Hinze also observes that “in Jewish scriptures the equivalent term (translated into Greek) is kardia, “heart.” In the New Testament, syneidēsis is used frequently by Paul, the Greek philosophical term synthesized with the Jewish idea of kardia to forge a distinctive Christian moral concept.” (6)
“Christian ethicists,” writes Hinze, “understand conscience in three senses: 1) most fundamentally, as an aspect of personhood experienced as an interior “law . . . written on [the] heart” (Rom. 2:15), a personal dynamism and response toward moral value; 2) as the process of analysis and deliberation concerning the right, or good, in particular cases, requiring honest, receptive dialogue with sources of moral wisdom (scripture, religious traditions, other funds of descriptive and normative insight); 3) as the event of moral judgment and decision in the concrete.”
In this third sense, notes Hinze, “conscience has been considered an absolute subjective guide: one must always follow it, and external authorities may not force a person to violate it.” (7)
The Primacy of Conscience: A Dangerous and Misleading Myth?
According to George Pell, however, “the doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be quietly ditched . . . because too many Catholic youngsters have concluded that values are personal inventions.” (8) Furthermore, the primacy of conscience is “a dangerous and misleading myth.” In fact, according to Pell, “in the Catholic scheme of things, there’s no such thing as primacy of conscience.” (9)
One can only wonder if Dr. Pell is familiar with how Fr. Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) expressed the Church’s understanding of the primacy of conscience – an understanding which he eloquently expressed while serving as Chair of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Tübingen in 1968.
“Above the pope as an expression of the binding claim of church authority,” writes Ratzinger, “stands one’s own conscience, which has to be obeyed first of all, if need be against the demands of church authority.” (10)
I’ve never met George Pell, but have seen him interviewed on various Australian television news and current affairs programs. The little I have seen and heard has nevertheless ensured that I concur with Ted Kennedy’s observation that “the thinking of [Cardinal] Pell is undoubtedly marked by the intransigence of Ultramontanism, which historian Eamon Duffy describes as a ‘form of absolutism revelling in what Cardinal Manning called “the beauty of inflexibility”.’ Denial of the primacy of conscience, which has become a permanent fixture in the ecclesiastical wardrobe of [Pell’s] mind, is . . . it seems, a cloak that hides insecurity and fear of loss.” (11)
“Up, Let Us Go Forward!”
In my work with the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM), I’ve often been challenged by people uncomfortable and threatened by CPCSM’s mission of creating environments of respect, acceptance, and safety for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersexual (GLBTI) persons and their families. Some critics are quick to share their view that an informed conscience can never contradict church teaching. What they’re advocating, of course, is what is known theologically as the “seated conscience” of “seated persons”.
Yet as one of Catholicism’s most respected moral theologians, Bernard Häring, CSsR, has noted: “Christ bids us rest but does not require us to become seated persons, i.e. those men and women who are forever tired, devoid of ideals and inspiration, who are unable to enlist the power of the Spirit to encourage others.” (12)
Häring goes on to observe that: “The seated person is the one who is incapable of internalizing Jesus’ invitation, ‘Up, let us go forward’. Most especially if going forward implies the risk of potential suffering, change and temporary insecurity. The seated person is static and self-satisfied, ever confident to celebrate past triumphs and achievements while ever avoiding the courageous responsibility that risk-taking involves. In a word, the seated person is cowardly.” (13)
“Ordinarily,” says Häring, “the self-satisfied are fundamentalist in their thinking, eschewing new and creative formulations of doctrine while ever clinging to the norms and imperatives of the past. They are hard-and-fast traditionalists, and, if gifted with energies, they use them strenuously to promote the restorations of a past order. Seated persons are those perched on self-made thrones, unwilling to move forward with the times because such a move would mean renouncing the glamour and privilege of clericalism in all its forms at every level.” (14)
In Who Is Worthy? The Role of Conscience in Restoring Hope to the Church, Ted Kennedy recalls how in 1989 the 77-year-old Häring wrote an article appealing for a “recognition of ‘consensus seeking’ which rests on the mystery of love and life, which is written in the heart and echoes in the core of conscience.” (15) In the same article, Häring, notes Kennedy, “appealed for a recognition of the concept of ‘creative conscience’ . . . that exists for all who have understood what Paul said in the Baptismal lesson: ‘You are not subjects of a rule of law, but rather are of grace’(Romans 6:14).” (16)
Kennedy goes on to describe an understanding of human conscience in light of this grace: “Creative conscience,” he writes, involves the discovery of an authentic, open ecumenical base which gathers in the consciences of many who have grown through struggle to embrace the non-violence of the Beatitudes, including the best representatives of Protestantism, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam. Such people are Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Nugget Coombs, Simon Weil (none of them Catholic) and so many Aborigines who hold depths of Aboriginal spirituality. Each of these has been able to provide a releasing of spiritual insight, which the Church so sorely needs. And of course, such a reservoir can hold the voice of women unconstricted by the multi-shaped forms of gender bias with which the Church is loaded.” (17)
“Father Häring,” continues Kennedy, “tried patiently to explain to his bureaucratic, clerical detractors that his notion of creative conscience . . . is not the entering into an academic dispute over fine points of methodology in ethics, but rather has to do with basic attitudes towards the world and the very meaning of human life. Such a comprehensive notion of creative conscience has the enormous advantage of relying on the initiative and insights of both men and women, regardless of gender, denomination or non-denomination.” (18)
Creative conscience also has the “advantage of relying on the initiative and insights of both men and women” regardless of their sexual orientation. Such initiative and insights can be discerned through the words and actions of a range of Catholic organizations and individuals working to reveal the presence of God in the lives and relationships of GLBTI people.
The Hallmark of Our Living Faith
In light of this discussion on the primacy of conscience, what can we say is the hallmark of our living faith as Catholic Christians?
Is it unquestioning obedience to the Pope and the Magisterium? Is it openness to God present solely in the Church as Institution?
Or is it a trusting openness and response to the presence and action of God within the Church as People of God and thus the vast and diverse arena of human life and relationships?
Which of these “hallmarks” is most catholic, most universal?
One of the goals of CPCSM is to build and celebrate an understanding of Church that is open and responsive to the presence and action of God in the lives and relationships of all.
We see this as a profoundly catholic endeavor. We work toward recognizing and celebrating a catholicity of life, by which is meant the discovery and celebration of God as creator and lover of all humanity, a God who desires all people to experience both personal and communal flourishing.
Other Catholic organizations share similar aims in relation to ministering with and for GLBTI persons and their families, and educating the wider Church and society about their unique gifts and challenges. Such organizations include the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries, Dignity, Catholic Rainbow Parents, Fortunate Families, numerous parish-based ministries, and, of course, both the Rainbow Sash Movement and the Rainbow Sash Alliance USA.
1-4. McKenna, D., in Kennedy, T. Who Is Worthy? The Role of Conscience in Restoring Hope to the Church (Pluto Press, Annandale, 2000), pp.23-26.
5-7. Hinze, Christine Firer, in Russell, L.M. & Clarkson, J.S. Dictionary of Feminist Theologies (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 1994), p. 54.
8. Pell, George. Seminar on the Sociology of Culture, La Trobe University, May 12, 1988.
9. Pell, George. The Bulletin, April 27, 1999, p.29.
10. From a commentary on Gaudium et Spes (“The Church in the Modern World”) in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, Vorgrimler, Herbert (Ed.), Burns and Oats, 1969, p. 134.
11. Haring, Bernard. Priesthood Imperilled (Triumph Books, Missouri, 1995), p.56.
12-15. Haring, Bernard. “Building a Creative Conscience: Resisting Moral Rigor Mortis”, Commonweal, August 11, 1989.
16-18. Kennedy, T. Who Is Worthy? The Role of Conscience in Restoring Hope to the Church (Pluto Press, Annandale, 2000), pp. 84-85.
See also the related Wild Reed posts:
The Question of an “Informed” Catholic Conscience
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
“Receive What You Are, the Body of Christ”
My Rainbow Sash Experience
“Take, All of You, And Eat” - Communion and the Rainbow Sash (Part I)
“Take, All of You, And Eat” - Communion and the Rainbow Sash (Part II)
“Take, All of You, And Eat” - Communion and the Rainbow Sash (Part III)
A Catholic’s Prayer for His Fellow Pilgrim, Benedict XVI
Recommended Off-Site Links:
Understanding Conscience: Making the Right Choice by Richard Benson, C.M.
Bishop Misses Mark in Assault on Understanding Conscience by Max Charlesworth.
The Primacy of Conscience by Brian Lewis.