Conscience & Change

Mary Hunt makes some fantastic points in her reflection on the resignation announcement of Pope Benedict XVI.

First, conscience is important for all Catholics:

Conscience, Benedict reminds us today, is still primary for Catholics. Examination of conscience: that is just the formula millions of us use to explain why we use birth control, enjoy our sexuality in a variety of ways, and see enormous good in other religious traditions. Conscience is the ultimate arbiter, and the Pope relied on his. Good on him, and good on the rest of us.

There has been a lot of fudging on the matter of conscience in recent decades. The post-Vatican II hierarchy has claimed that conscience is primary if, and only if, it is informed as they see fit. But Pope Benedict XVI is giving conscience a new lease on life. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander—the appeal to conscience cannot be denied now that the Pope himself has had recourse to it.

Second, change and does can happen in Catholicism:

Another takeaway: Just because a pope has not resigned since Gregory XII in 1415 does not mean it cannot be done. Nothing is forever. Much of what passes as “the way it is” in Rome is really just custom—like not ordaining women, claiming birth control to be a sin, regarding same-sex love as morally disordered, and the like. Customs change. Roman PR people say, “in the fullness of revelation such and such is now the case.” Then the new thing emerges as “the way it is” and life goes on. I fully expect the next pope to be cut out of the same cloth as this man, but there is no stopping the feeling that the pressure to change customs is simply overwhelming.

Unexpected lessons from an unexpected papal move.

I wonder if the church is paying attention.


About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.