A reader writes…

A reader writes… July 2, 2012

Many people are having a field day justifying disobedient behavior with the following remark of Ratzinger in the late 60’s

“Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed above all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. This emphasis on the individual, whose conscience confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church, also establishes a principle in opposition to increasing totalitarianism”.

Any thoughts?

He’s right, of course. The problem for the Progressive Dissenter’s cheap and easy transformation of these words into an imprimatur for blowing off the Church is that the Dissenter far too easily congratulates himself on his status of “conscientious” when in fact he is listening, not to his heart, but to an organ roughly two feet below it. Wisely has it been said that the “conscience-driven” dissenter from Catholic teaching who says, “The modern critical intellect can no longer accept the primitive dogmas of transubstantiation, papal, infallibility, or the Trinity” typically means “I’m sleeping with my neighbor’s wife.”

Actual principled rejections of the Church’s doctrines are as rare as hen’s teeth. Virtually always, a rejection of the Church’s doctrinal teaching comes from some fear or desire, triggering some rash, immoral act which then arranges the artillery of the intellect an effort to rationalize itself into moral legitimacy. The main factors at work in almost all postmodern “conscientious” objection to the Church’s teaching–whether from the “conservative” apologists for torture and war crimes, or from the “progressive” apologist for pelvic adventurism–is not serious consideration of the Church’s teaching, but serious consideration of how to lawyer, game, mickey, and euphemize in order to twist oneself into a pretzel and pretend one takes the Tradition seriously while extending the middle finger to the clear and obvious teaching of the Church. “Conservatives” who simply blow off the Church are much rarer, because they know they have to keep up the appearance of fidelity as they blow off the Church. So conservative rationalizations tend to be more complex while lefty claims of “conscience” are simple–and simply wrong–like the moronic protestations of Nancy Pelosi. The reality is conscience does not consist merely of “how can it be wrong when it feels so right?” and progressives know this when they are addressing a racist who felt really good about the lynching. But they forget it completely when it comes to the pelvis because nobody has ever told them, and they were certainly in no hurry to find out, that a Church teaching is not rendered moot by the fact that it is uncomfortable or inconvenient. On an extremely rare occasion, you will find yourself in a position where you must challenge, say, the bishop of Rouen when he wants to burn St. Joan, or the bishop of Boston when he wants to hide the deeds of a perverted child abuser. But the reality is that, on almost any given occasion, the teaching of the Church is common sense and the right thing to do and the real reason you don’t want to do it is not that you are a bold saint standing up to a corrupt tradition of men, but because you want to do something you shouldn’t or you want to chicken out on doing something you should. That’s the reality behind almost every bold posture from a dissenter, whether progressive or reactionary.

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  • Tim in Cleveland

    I think I remember reading that quote from a book of lectures by Ratzinger called “On Conscience” from Ignatius Press. In that book, he is talking about John Henry Newman’s remarks about toasting the Pope but conscience first. Ratzinger goes on to say that the while one must listen to his conscience above all, the Magisterium informs this conscience and one should not disregard its teachings.

    It can hardly be said that Ratzinger was advocating some kind of subjectivism.

    • Tim in Cleveland

      Maybe that quote Mark mentions isn’t from that lecture, but the lecture gives a better picture of Ratzinger’s views on conscience. Here is a good quote from that book of lectures:

      “Newman embraced an interpretation of the papacy which is only then correctly conceived when it is viewed together with the primacy of conscience, a papacy not put in opposition to the primacy of conscience but based on it and guaranteeing it. Modern man, who presupposes the opposition of authority to subjectivity, has difficulty understanding this. For him, conscience stands on the side of subjectivity and is the expression of the freedom of the subject. Authority, on the other hand, appears to him as the constraint on, threat to and even the negation of, freedom. So then we must go deeper to recover a vision in which this kind of opposition does not obtain.”


  • It seems to me that the kind of conscientious objection to dogma Mark is talking about has not ever existed. Examples such as objecting to a bishop either burning Joan of Arc at the stake or protecting a pedophile as a matter of policy are not dogmatic objections. If anything, they’re pointing out that the bishop in question has failed in his adherence to the Church. In other words, we’re right back where we started. So, if we’re going to allow for a licit objection to dogma, based on conscience, what would it look like? Perhaps some of the objections raised against the Magisterium during the 16th century? Maybe some of the current Protestant objections to Marian dogmas?

  • Thinkling

    In my experience, when someone cites “primacy of conscience”, what they really mean is “primacy of opinion“. The difficulty is they don’t recognize that distinction.

  • math_geek

    Well, whether my “conscience” is fake or wrong, it remains the case that I can’t tell either way. When I say I can neither understand nor accept Church teaching on homosexuality, I say this knowing that I can easily follow that teaching, never having been tempted to break it. At some point it really did stop being about me.

    I think we place far to much emphasis on the phony sin of being philospohically “wrong.” We know that there is a Truth and we know that everyone seems to find disagreement with each other on what it is, so it becomes apparent that we are all going to turn out wrong in some way or another. It seems dangerous to assume that the wrongness that other people appear to have is due to some great moral failing rather than the simpler and more readily available explanation that they, like myself, are trying to grasp the mystery of God with imperfect information, imperfect minds, and imperfect hearts.

    • Ted Seeber

      And that’s what purgatory is for. In our theology, you have to be Catholic to be in Heaven, but you don’t have to be Catholic to get to purgatory; you only have to be open to philosophical truth enough not to reject God when faced, like we will all be faced, with the fact of our own mortality.

      Heaven is accessible only to Catholics- but Purgatory is accessible to everybody. And EVERYBODY who makes it into Purgatory, WILL go to Heaven- eventually.

  • Sal

    What about bishops who are not dealing in good faith with the people? I’m thinking specifically here of statements on immigration that lump everyone together, regardless of status. We know there’s a distinction to be made and when the bishops ignore that we have to conclude that they think we’re too stupid to notice, or they’re too stupid to make the distinction or they’re being deliberately dishonest for some reason that seems good to them.
    It does make it hard to take them seriously on the subject.

    • Ted Seeber

      I recently came to the Bishop’s way of thinking on this, due to a revelation I had one morning:

      Illegals are largely economic refugees, whose homes have been destroyed by greed. They’re human beings too. As such, we need a better way of dealing with them than mere deportation allows- and that raises their status in my eyes to all the rights of an unborn infant, with similar moral culpability.

      NEITHER group does our law in the United States recognize as having a moral claim to personhood, which is why it is currently perfectly legal to pay an illegal immigrant less than the minimum wage.

  • Ted Seeber

    And if they’re not thinking with an organ located two feet below, they’re thinking with their wallet instead. I find as many people rejecting the Pope’s moral authority on the right as well as the left- but at least the fiscal libertines are a little more honest about telling the Pope where to go and leaving the church (thus leaving Sunday morning open for more time for making money) .

    • ds

      I generally think with an organ about three feet below.

  • Patrick

    That’s a great response, Mr. Shea.

  • Lot of good comments. I especially appreciate those who pointed out how we must humbly be aware of our limitations and not ascribe to some sort of malice what may just be normal human bumbling.

    One tell-tale sign that something other than mere loyalty to conscience is going on: if I were unable to accept some magisterial teaching on faith or morals, that would be a cross for me to bear – I’d always allow for the very real possibility that my conscience is flawed in regard to this issue, and pray. When, instead, people assert that their conscience demands that they *teach* their position and defend it *against* the teaching of the Church – what is going on? Only talking about faith and morals here – of course, if some bishop were abusing his authority in any other realm, one is free to take whatever steps prudence dictates.

    • Ted Seeber

      I resemble that remark. Whenever I am in conflict with the Church- and having asperger’s, I actually find my thinking not matching church teaching quite often- I am not the final authority. I am flawed. I am wrong. I only need now to figure out WHY I am wrong, to come back into full communion.

  • Deacon Nathan Allen

    A priest I know uses the analogy, “A sinner’s conscience is like a drunk’s liver”: repeated misuse has led to it not working so well. What is important, and what is so often lost in all the ‘primacy of conscience’ talk, is that we are referring to a well-formed conscience. If your conscience does not convict you that something objectively sinful is wrong, that’s evidence not that the contemplated course of action is OK, but that there’s something wrong with your conscience.

  • Maiki

    Primacy of conscience doesn’t mean you can do whatever if your conscience says it is ok. No. It means that you *can’t* do something that your conscience says is wrong, or you *must* do something conscience says is your duty, even if X says otherwise. With that, comes the duty to form your conscience well. To deliberately not form your conscience so you can follow its incorrect promptings does not excuse the sin.

    Primacy of conscience is not moral relativism — things that are right and wrong are still right or wrong. However, it is a sin to deliberately do something you believe is evil.

    From the CCC

    “1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

    1791 This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.”59 In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.

    1792 Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.

    1793 If – on the contrary – the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him. It remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder. One must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience. “

    • Sadie

      Very well said. Thanks for stating the distinction in such a clear manner.

  • Progs keep using that word, “conscience.” I do not think it means what they think it means.

    Conscience is a dictate of reason; it’s knowledge applied to action. If my badly formed conscience tells me it’s evil to pick up that quarter I see on the ground, then I should not pick it up. Willing something I judge to be evil is never permissible and always wrong. Believing in Christ is good and necessary for salvation. But if my conscience proposes it as something evil, then I ought not do it because then I would be willing something I judge to be evil. This is usually where dissenters like to stop.

    But here’s the thing: lower authority cannot legitimately contradict higher authority. If I know that my conscience is proposing something that contradicts the law of God, then my conscience is in error and I should not follow it. If I don’t know that my conscience is contradicting the law of God, then to disobey my conscience in that case would be to disobey (what I think to be) the law of God.

    So if Joe Parishioner says that it’s perfectly fine for him to use contraception because his conscience says it’s okay, it could mean that he doesn’t believe the Church is teaching the law of God on that matter (nobody in the Western world can plead ignorance about what the Church teaches about contraception.) If you don’t believe the Church teaches us the laws of God, then you don’t believe it. But you can’t also claim to be a good Catholic.

    • Ted Seeber

      I have met plenty of people who claimed they knew the church teachings on contraception, that when questioned further didn’t have any clue at all.

  • Observer

    As for conscience, culpability due to one’s soul varies. If for example the soul is eclipsed from morality, faith, and reason from outside agents as the sun would be by clouds or the moon, culpabilty of conscience would be greatly lessened with the same regard in saying “adding fuel to the fire”. If a house, taking a side example, were actually set on fire, who would be more culpable? The people adding fuel or the person who started it? Quite literally, people who add fuel to the fire are much more culpable than the person who started it.

    In society, when one’s soul is being pressed between difficulties of survival and morality, culpabilty becomes quite twisted and complex. The people who present such a difficulty as well as handing out both punishment and responsibility seem to be, at one hand, serving out what is essentially justice, and on the other, serving out what is quite unjust. In the circumstance of serving one’s own conscience as well as having an informed one, society has truly become quite lost and complacent. When society delivers out its’ just punishments according conscience of being executed by its’ rules and laws, Christ stands at the door of the soul ever ready and informing “he who is without sin, cast the first stone.”

    Society, which believes it has no wrongs accept for the criminal, has essentially compromised this process (having one’s soul right and properly informed.) Society, especially a protestant one, has already, quite literaly, attacked the soul when it said a man (a recurrent theme in protestant history) no longer needs to confess his sins to a priest since God alone forgives (thus leaving out, quite much the history of Salvation as well, the entire ordaining purpose of God’s love and fidelity with and to the Church through His Son’s meritorous work of salvation.) And so, quite literaly, the soul has been attacked, compromised, and its’ will ruined to being incapable of taking responsibilty for its’ own actions, because of a society which does away with the capability of the soul to the meritourous acts of Christ to commiting to justice in first place saying, “Mia culpa, mia culpa.” When grace is disturbed, the soul is attacked, and the supernatural edified institution of the Church is put at odds, then society has done more wrong upon the soul than any wrong exhibited by the soul (the wrong or offense which might otherwise had never existed, had been dealt with in time, and handled properly in the exact order of justice and mercy through the Church – a Divine institute of justce both in Law and Order.)

    When men try to mitigate culpabilty, saying, in a sense one’s conscience isn’t really as guilty for stealing a penny out of someone’s purse versus someone who injurs his wife, daughter, or son. Here, difference of culpabilty are measured by type and kind. Where as the Church does not use the sense of Venial and Mortal sin by type and kind, but by will and reason. The kind or type of sin does not equate to venial or mortal. Rather, the knowledge of, will to commit, and type (kind) of sin all are regarded to whether or not the act was venially or mortally sinful in nature. Stealing a penny, for instance, might be a venial form of culpability before Mammon. Whereas, the knowledge, will, and kind (even stilling a penny) are still measured by God in the Divine Order and Institution of the Church as whether the act was venial or mortally sinful. In other words, type and kind are not the only measures of how culpable someone is for commiting crime (and a sin.)

    Arguments which flare up for LA’s actions towards a PP worker, for example, and giving the exemption of justice and guilt for those who execute the laws to use torture to excise findings and evidence of a potential danger, are not actions with regard to a properly informed conscience. As well, not all people who are mortally wounded both in their conscience and soul to reject the teachings of the Church, are not necessarily following the dictates of a properly informed conscience, but an extremely ruined one as a result of conflict, disorder observed, and contradiction clrealy seen brought on by the obvious wrongs of torturing another human being (made in the image and likeness of their Creator – God.) Thus, as you have it, adding fuel to the fire. The people who order executions or tortures are no more helping the Church (and society for that matter) to uphold a properly informed conscience for fear of the expense of it (when an exemption is given to those who execute justice but hold full extent of justice and the law upon the individual who does not carry nor behold an exemption of conscience in society.)

  • This bit from Mark’s interlocutor, Eric, is classic:

    “we should be better theologians than those of the past because we have more tools, training and experience than those of the past. We have things available to us that they never had. The sad thing is so many do not take advantage of it.”

    I say “classic” because I have been on too many Protestant threads where a bit of reasoning or exegesis by St. Augustine has been brushed-off as if it were per se nonsense. I had one person tell me that he was as good a theologian as Augustine because he had the internet.

    My response was, “well, if that’s the case what are you doing here on Facebook.”

    My question is, it seems that there is a difference between Protestants – internet division and Catholics with respect to docility and humility. I’m pretty sure – shoot, I know – that I am not worthy to carry Augustine’s sandals. So, I am willing to learn from Augustine and the many others who are my intellectual and moral betters.
    Is it the case that Protestantism – which is certainly intertwined with all the virtues of robust democracy – really does not inculcate the virtues of humility and docility?

    • Mark Shea

      I had one person tell me that he was as good a theologian as Augustine because he had the internet.

      ! Wow.

  • BobRN

    In my mind, it would be very difficult for an individual to claim “certain judgment of conscience” on a matter of defined Catholic faith or morals, given the role of the Church as instrument of God’s revelation and “pillar and foundation of truth.” To claim “certain judgment of conscience” on a matter of defined faith or morals would be to claim with certainty that the Church has been wrong for all of her twenty centuries.
    It is possible, however, to claim “certain judgment of conscience” on what is not a defined matter of faith or morals, such as those situations faced by St. Joan, or Franz Jagerstatter. Jagerstatter, for instance, refused to fight for the Nazis because he claimed “certain judgment of conscience” that National Socialism was evil and an enemy of the Church, even though his pastor, his bishop, and nearly everyone else in his tiny Catholic Austrian hamlet disagreed and told him he had a Catholic obligation to fight for his country. Interestingly, the only one who supported him was the only one who had anything to lose over the matter: his wife. I do understand that the parish priest did affirm his right to refuse to fight as a matter of conscience, and gave Jagerstatter his blessing.