Monday, November 06, 2006

The Question of an “Informed” Catholic Conscience

The National Coalition of American Nuns (NCAN) recently issued an “open letter to Catholic voters”, which provides an alternative to the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s voter education efforts throughout the U.S.

Writing in the Denver Post, Eric Gorski notes that the letter urges Catholic voters “to challenge church teachings against abortion and gay marriage while weighing a broad range of social issues on Election Day.”

“Opposing war and treating immigrants with compassion are included in a list of seven issues outlined by the group”, writes Gorski. “The letter also states, ‘We encourage respect for the moral adulthood of women and will choose legislators who will recognize the right of women to make reproductive decisions and receive medical treatment according to the rights of privacy and conscience.’ [Sister Mary Ann Cunningham of Denver, an NCAN board member] said many Catholics disagree with the church’s opposition to legalized abortion for ‘compassionate, faithful reason’. [. . .] The nuns’ letter also says citizens ‘in committed relationships – whether marriages or civil unions’ – should have adoption, inheritance and other rights.”

According to Gorski, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver has urged Catholics to “act Catholic” when they vote or run for office and called opposition to abortion and gay marriage “foundational.”

The archbishop’s comments remind me of the Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics published by
Catholic Answers, an “evangelical Catholic” publishing house, in the lead-up to the 2004 U.S. elections. This “guide” lists a number of “non-negotiable issues” – including abortion, fetal stem cell research, and same-sex marriage – that Catholics must “never support through their votes.” The “guide” also attempts to discuss the role of conscience and erroneously concludes that “a well-formed conscience will never contradict Catholic moral teaching.”

In response to such a contention, the
Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM), as part of the Twin Cities-based Inclusive Catholics network, organized and hosted in 2004 a three-part series, “In Good Conscience,” which explored the Catholic understanding of conscience, its formation, and its connection to both personal morality and social justice.

Informing the Catholic conscience

“It is the responsibility of a Catholic to vote their conscience, but [it must be] their rightly formed conscience, their educated conscience,” declares Jeanette DeMelo, spokeswoman for Archbishop Chaput of Denver, in response to the NCAN's open letter.

I actually agree with this statement. Our moral choices should be the result of an informed or “educated” conscience.

Yet some within the church insist that it is only the “official” church which can properly “educate” and “inform” the Catholic conscience.

Such Catholics are adamant that one knows if one’s conscience is rightly formed if it conforms with what the Magisterium, the official teaching office of the church, says about various moral matters.

Yet if this was really the case, why have a conscience? What’s the point of it when we have the Magisterium?

Also, if we relinquish our personal conscience in favor of the Magisterium , what do we do with statements like the following:

Above the pope as an expression of the binding claim of church authority, stands one’s own conscience, which has to be obeyed first of all, if need be against the demands of church authority.

Such a statement explicitly differentiates between one’s “own conscience” and “church authority.” Yet is this statement simply the ramblings of a dissident theologian, a “militant secularist” in Catholic disguise?

Actually, no, it’s not.

They are, in fact, the words of Fr. Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), and he is talking about the Catholic teaching on the primacy of conscience. The pope’s explanation is excepted from a commentary on “Gaudium et Spes” (“The Church in the Modern World”) published in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II (Vorgrimler, Herbert (Ed.), Burns and Oats, 1969, p. 134.)

So, one can, in good conscience, dissent from the church’s official moral teaching. But, of course, one can only do so as a result of an “informed” conscience. Which brings us back to the crucial question: How does one go about properly informing one’s conscience?

Believe it or not, I think we should allow the church to inform our consciences, but I don’t limit “the church” to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. In it’s broadest and, I believe, most catholic sense, the church is the entire people of God; the whole Body of Christ, in other words.

For instance, in forming my conscience on how I am to live I am compelled to be open to the experiences and insights of the entire people of God, not just the teachings of the Magisterium. These experiences and insights are just as important as the doctrines of the church when it comes to informing my conscience. The tragedy is that the Magisterium itself, as the teaching office of the church, should be similarly engaged in such a universal, i.e. catholic, process of discernment.

A growing gap

Unfortunately, the official church is not engaged in such a catholic endeavor. The church as people of God, however, most certainly is. Hence the growing gap between Catholic teaching and Catholic practice; the hierarchy and the laity.

Why has the hierarchical church retreated from such compassionate engagement and discernment with the wider church, the Body of Christ, when it comes to matters of human sexuality?

There are a number of reasons for this. One is to do with the fact that the majority of Western church leadeship bodies (including the Vatican and its various departments and offices) maintain a view of God that emphasizes the transcendent at the expense of the immanent reality of the sacred. Their ecclesiastical structures, methods of defining and maintaining authority, and their emphasis on a “high” Christology, all reflect this overt emphasis on transcendence. If a more balanced, and thus more authentic approach is to be embraced, all such structures and methods must be transformed by taking into consideration the theological and pastoral concerns, experiences, and insights of contemporay Christians.

Another reason for the hierarchical church’s failure to develop a sexual theology aligned with the Spirit of God present in the lives and relationships of the people of God, was articulated by Dr. Simon Rosser in 2004 when I interviewed him for CPCSM’s Rainbow Spirit journal.

Rosser is an internationally renowned researcher on sexuality and sexual health, and a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist. On the issue of the church’s current sexual theology, Rosser, himself a Catholic gay man, observed that, “The theology of human sexuality that the church is teaching is seriously disturbed. [. . .] Part of the problem is that as the scientific world advanced, the church first didn’t keep pace with change, and then became a refuge for those frightened of change, including the psychosexually underdeveloped. I don’t think it’s fair to expect the church to be ahead of science, but when it lags so far behind, it loses credibility and starts becoming extremist.”

Rosser also made the interesting point that from his observations and experience, “fundamentalists of various varieties – Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Christian – appear to percieve science and medicine as a threat, and seem to confuse their particular brand of God’s Revelation with ultra-conservatism. They all interpret their special brand of ‘truth’ to condemn homosexuality. Curiously, all of them are simultaneously displaying the scandals you get when ultra-orthodoxy runs amok – scandals of power, pedophilia, and abuse.”

It seems rather hopeless, but folks like Simon Rosser and others do provide roadmaps to a more healthy and hopeful theology on human sexuality.

“I think the first step,” says Rosser, “is for the scientists and the bishops to sit down at the same table and talk. [. . .] Signs of real reform, as opposed to cosmetic cover-up, include reform of the Vatican level – holding the [Vatican’s] Congregation of the Faith responsible for overseeing both the sexual abuse by clergy and the promotion of pedophilic theology, ‘mainstreaming’of Catholicism from ultra-conservative positions to more moderate ones, and the establishment of genuine dialogue between scientists and bishops on this issue.

“I have a lot of hope because I think the situation is so bad that American Catholics will be forced to think for themselves. And that’s a good thing. Whether it’s homosexuality, contraception, premarital sex, divorce, masturbation, or HIV prevention, the official church position is now so extreme, so negative, so ultra-conservative, and so ill-informed, that I’m confident that less than five percent of Catholics actually believe or follow Catholic sexual teaching”.

“In this situation, either the church reforms, or it dies”, insists Rosser. “Given the ability of the Catholic Church to survive, I’m confident it will reform.”

A hopeful and prophetic movement

And I too am confident – especially when we have such prophetic and courageous Catholic groups such as the National Coalition of American Nuns, CPCSM, Catholic Rainbow Parents, DignityUSA, New Ways Ministries, and Fortunate Families, all of which are open to having their views and their consciences informed by prayer, dialogue, and an openness to the presence of God throughout the entire church – an entirety which includes the church’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender members.

It’s appropriate that the laity (which in Catholicism includes nuns and brothers) is at the forefront of this hopeful and prophetic movement. As Catholic theologian Joan Timmerman notes in her book, The Mardi Gras Syndrome: Rethinking Christian Sexuality: “Fortunately [within our male-dominated church, there are] women and sympathetic men [. . .] searching the Scriptures and the tradition to ask questions about sexuality that go far beyond the issues of marital intercourse and unborn life to the issues of human development. The mandate for this basic research and recasting comes directly from the church through the words of Pope Paul VI: ‘It belongs to the laity, without waiting passively for orders and directives, to take the initiative freely and to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which they live.’”

Members of the laity, says Timmerman, “call for communal structures that provide for development of their active side as well as their receptive side [. . .] as persons whole in themselves. Recognizing the Gospel promise of redemption as wholeness, men and women can do something effective about the contradictory and irrelevant proposals that the church still offers as ethical solutions” to problems of life, sexuality, and marriage.

The National Catholic Coalition of American Nuns’
open letter to Catholic voters is but one example of “persons whole within themselves” embarking on a faith-filled and informed endeavor to counter the official church’s “contradictory and irrelevant proposals” on issues of human sexuality.

That such endeavors continually surface from the informed consciences of Catholics and, as a result, bring hope and empowerment to individuals, couples, families, and groups within the church (despite the efforts of ultra-conservatives to dismiss and malign them) gives me hope that the church is indeed a living body of faithful seekers. And one which continues to be guided by the Spirit in its pilgrim journey of renewal and reform.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Reflections on the Primacy of Conscience
“Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality is Complex and Nuanced” Says Theologian

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.

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