Sunday, June 11, 2006

Reflections on the Primacy of Conscience

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)

Creative Conscience

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.


Julianne Wiley said...

I just found this website as I was googling "primacy of conscience." I am not aware that this term has been used and defined in magisterial Catholic documents, although many writers imply that it has, e.g. when they refer to "the Catholic doctrine of the primacy of conscience."

Can anybody cite the document(s) where such a definition could be found?

By the way, I had always been taught that "Conscience is a student, not a teacher." This would emphasize the intellectual duty to acquire moral knowledge, which is logically is prior to a duty to act on such knowledge.

May I share my e-mail address in hopes of getting a response?

Julianne Wiley

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Julianne,

Thanks for your comments and questions.

Brian Lewis in the February 2006 issue of the Australian E-Journal of Theology implies that the Church’s doctrine of the primacy of conscience stems from the writings of St. Paul. He, and others I’ve come across, interchange the terms “doctrine of the primacy of conscience” and “principle of the primacy of conscience.”

Lewis writes: “The principle of the primacy of conscience is deeply embedded in our western moral tradition. According to this principle, one must follow the sure judgment of conscience even when through no fault of one’s own it is mistaken. St. Paul had occasion to address this issue in regard to what Christians should do about food that had been sacrificed to idols and was therefore thought taboo (1 Cor 8 and Rom 14): ‘Consider the man fortunate who can make his decision without going against his conscience. But anybody who eats in a state of doubt is condemned, because he is not in good faith’ (Rom 22-23). The morality of what one does is thus for Paul essentially dependent on one’s clear conviction of being right or ‘in the truth’. In this he affirms the primacy of the person (and of conscience), even when he or she is objectively mistaken in good faith. The primacy of conscience is encapsulated in the traditional expression: Conscience is the immediate or proximate norm of morality.”

The full text of Lewis’ article can be found here.

I agree that we have an “intellectual duty to acquire moral knowledge.” And I believe the Church should provide this knowledge. However, I don’t restrict “the Church” to the Magisterium. Indeed, in the important task of informing one’s conscience, “the Church” must be understand in its broadest and richest possible way as the people of God – the “Mystical Body of Christ” (see the Wild Reed post, The Question of an ‘Informed’ Catholic Conscience).

And as Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day once remarked, “That the Mystical Body includes only the Roman Catholic Church is heresy. . . The Mystical Body is the inseparable oneness of the human race.”

I look forward to the day when the Magisterium, as a gathering and articulating body of the moral wisdom of the human race, allows its teachings to be informed by and reflect the wisdom and compassion contained within the “Mystical Body of Christ” as understood by Dorothy Day and others.

That would mean, of course, listening to the voice of the Spirit mediated through the lives and experiences of those whom the hierarchical, clerical, and patriarchal Catholic Church has to date marginalized and silenced, e.g., women, indigenous people, and gay people. It is clear that in many matters, particular with regards to human sexuality, members of the laity are more open to the Spirit than are members of the hierarchy.

Truly we are a pilgrim Church, and our pilgrimage is far from complete.



Anonymous said...

The primacy of conscience, for heaven's sake, was heralded by Aquinas and Newman, reiterated at Vatican II in both Gaudium et spes and Lumen gentium.

Thomist Thomas van Dyke and defender of the Church's magisterium proclaims that the "church proposes, not imposes," yet Orthodoxy Oaths, Hunthausen, Weakland, Quinn, in all their "episcopal collegiality" did not regard the papal forces as "proposing," but "imposing."

As Newman describes eloquently in his Grammar of Assent, faith is assented to, not obeyed, much less commanded or demanded. The ultramontane model of "church" was rebuked at Vatican II, collegiality restored, and faith priortized, not fealty to the Church Princes.

Newman's On Consulting the Faithful revealed just how ultramontane post-Pope Paul VI popes have reverted. Citing Gregory the Great's observation, Newman reiterates that "in controversy about a matter of faith, the consent of all the faithful has such a force in the proof of this or that side, that the Supreme Pontiff is able and ought to rest upon it, as being the judgment or sentiment of the infallible Church" (2.4).

Assent, consultation, ubiquitous agreement, consensus, the Vicentian Canon never "imposes," but "arises." The church is infallible not in the consensus fidelium, "but in that 'consensus' is an indicium or instrumentum to us [faithful] of the judgment of that Church which is infallible" (ibid.).

Papal tyranny is not credal, not assent, and would require "oaths" of fidelity and fealty to WHOM? God, or god's oracle, or god's representative, or god's princely ruler? The Bishop of Rome is "first among equals," (primus inter pares), not a Supreme Authority. That "divine spark" within Homo sapiens called "conscience" has no place in an autocratic, authortarian, ultramontane earthy institution, which denied the freedom of assent in its propositions, negating consent of the faithful, but dissent and/or obedience.

"But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority.'" (Acts 5:29). Jesus calls us to "obey God's word," not the Pope's Supremacy and Authority, which even Peter, the chief of the apostles, repudiates. Methinks the Powers have lost the way in their obsession with megalomania. The "keys" lock and unlock, not coerce!

CDE said...

Yesterday, Archbishop Flynn's final pastoral letter, on The Moral Conscience, was released. It summarizes well recent teaching on conscience and addresses some of the concepts discussed in this post.

Anonymous said...

My first reaction to Archbishop Flynn’s pastoral letter, “The Moral Conscience,” is that it is a rehash of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) Part 3, Chapter 1, Article 6: MORAL CONSCIENCE, nos. 1776 to1802. It seems to me that the CCC is more coherent. Perhaps the pastoral letter is best seen as a reflection on these five pages of the CCC.


1. The letter is gentle. Archbishop Flynn does not specifically single out either persons or actions for condemnation. Clearly, his intent is to be helpful.

2. Archbishop Flynn adopts Germain Grisez’ definition of conscience as “one’s last and best judgment concerning what one should choose.” That is not a bad definition. Flynn also accepts that conscience is "the immediate norm of our moral action” in particular cases.

3. Also, in the very first paragraph Archbishop Flynn hesitatingly quotes the CCC: "Man [sic] has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. He [sic] must not be forced to act contrary to his [sic] conscience. Nor must he [sic] be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters." (N.1782)

Flynn is rightly hesitant to accept this partial quote from the Decree on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) no. 3.2. Taken out of the wider social context of the Vatican Decree it could imply either that religion has no social implications (e.g. that it is innocuous activity like stamp collecting or bird watching - something that one enjoys but that has no effect on society) or that one must permit any conscientious exercise of religious freedom (e.g. suicide bombing).

This was a major issue in the conciliar debate on religious freedom. One group held that religious freedom was based on freedom of conscience. In the end that position did not prevail, and the Council based freedom of religion on the dignity of the human person. In other words, individual freedom had to be weighed against the common good or, as the Decree has it in no. 3.4, “the public order.” (iusto ordine publico servato)

What this means is that, although one is obliged to act in accordance with one’s conscience, others are not required to permit such an act if it goes against the common good or, more narrowly, the public order (those things are absolutely necessary for the functioning of society, e.g. personal security from violence, provision of basic necessities such as food and water, etc.).

3. At least in its abstract sense I also like Archbishop Flynn's statement that “true freedom is the possibility of always being able to choose what is truly good.” This is an Augustinian position that is very important. However, it has to be applied with care to particular moral decisions.


1. Although presented as a pastoral letter, the document is very abstract. It lacks moving images, stories, and concrete examples from the lives of ordinary people.

2. The document starts out on a negative note by criticizing an overly subjective understanding of conscience. In so doing it adopts a polemic rather than an irenic approach to moral conscience. Inevitably, this leads to a caricature of what Flynn calls moral relativism and an impugning of the motives of those who disagree with him.

With regard to these first two points, I think it would have been better to start a truly pastoral letter with stories of both heroic and ordinary acts of conscience – maybe Rosa Parks or the Dutch physicians resistance to Nazi commands to “euthanize” so-called defective people or Archbishop Oscar Romero or the ordinary person who doesn't cheat on her taxes. It would have been helpful to have counter examples as well, particularly the conscientious choice to kill in the name of religion (e.g. crusaders who slaughtered infidels or suicide bombers in our own time). Finally, it would have been helpful to have examples of people with no particular religious convictions who acted according to conscience. I'm thinking of someone like Sergio Vierra de Mello who had a long career as a human rights advocate for the United Nations and died in a car bomb attack on the U N headquarters in Baghdad in 2003.

At the beginning of the pastoral letter it would have been helpful to have some vivid images of the exercise of moral conscience to serve as a basis for the subsequent discussion of the principles for forming one's conscience.

3. Unfortunately, Archbishop Flynn seems to have been completely oblivious to his lack of inclusive language. By consistently using “man” and “men” to refer to all human beings he unnecessarily risked alienating many women and men who are concerned about the equality of women in the Church.

4. The repeated references to Adam and Eve as though they were real historical persons undercuts the effectiveness of Archbishop Flynn's argument. The best Catholic scriptural scholars see the Adam and Eve stories as just that, stories, but stories that have an important religious and spiritual message. A more sophisticated exegesis would have served his argument better.

5. Unfortunately again, Archbishop Flynn did not deal with the dynamic and dialogical aspect of conscience formation. Moral acts, even sincere and thoughtful ones, are based on limited information. We are all human and make mistakes. Our moral actions are not set in stone for all time. Hence the necessity of a dialogical approach to conscience formation. One starts by taking action, but conscience doesn't end there. One must review one’s action, make necessary corrections in the light of new information, and renew one's action accordingly the next time.

6. Finally, Archbishop Flynn’s pastoral letter lacks any sustained discussion of the appeal to conscience as a flight from argument. He touches on the subject at the beginning of his letter in his critique of moral relativism.

It is a truism that when it comes time to act one must follow one’s conscience in the sense of one’s last and best judgment of what is right. However, that in itself is no argument for what one has done. So, the fact that someone has agonized over a decision and discussed it with many reliable people beforehand (in other words, that one has gone through all the steps of the process) is laudable, but it is no argument for or against the validity of the conscientious decision. Nor is it a defense against a challenge to the morality of the decision.

To be specific, if a person asserts that his or her decision to use birth control exclusively on the basis of the fact that after long consideration he or she had come to the conclusion that it was a moral action but refused to discuss the basis for coming to that decision, it would be no argument either for or against that person’s using birth control. On the other hand, if a person had used birth control because the Vatican teaching against it was not infallible, the already large number of children in the family, the poor state of the wife’s health, and the financial difficulties facing the family - that would be an argument to which others could reply and which could serve as the basis of dialog and growth.

It should be noted that the mere assertion of authority can also be a flight from argument in moral matters of conscience. This is particularly true since without argument one cannot be sure that both parties are talking about the same moral object.

To sum up, I do not find Archbishop. Flynn's letter either very pastoral or very helpful in making conscientious moral decisions.

Anonymous said...

Is it in fact the case that conscience must always be followed? What if it is in error?
What if it is not well formed?

What if one's conscience leads to atrocities?