Before George Pell became Archbishop of Sydney, he delivered two talks on a similar theme, one in Hamilton, Victoria, and another at the University of Chicago. They had to do with conscience. At the former gathering he acknowledged the importance of the individual conscience, but went on to say that the “misleading doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be publicly rejected” and “conscience has no primacy; truth has primacy”. A big call. Then, in Chicago he said,
A debased notion of conscience, a barely concealed enthusiasm for autonomy disguised as an appeal to the primacy of conscience, weakens our sense of obligation, damages our purity of heart, and makes it harder and harder to see God.
Of course we have come to appreciate that Cardinal Pell’s theology is very orthodox and that he expects every good Catholic “to toe the Church line”. As Archbishop of Sydney he opined,
To be a disciple of Christ means accepting discipline because the Catholic church has never followed today’s fashionable notion of the primacy of conscience, which is, of course secular relativism with a religious face.
Recently, before the Synod on the Family reconvened in Rome, he was one of thirteen cardinals to address a letter to Pope Francis, expressing anxieties as to the way the Synod was proceeding. (Curiously, four of those cardinals later said they did not sign the letter, then another two said the letter they signed was not the one that was leaked!)
In the two longer quotes above, the Cardinal was challenging the status of a deliberately ‘unformed conscience’, that is, a person who has made a decision in conscience without taking time to gather all the data and prayerfully consider the matter. Freedom of conscience, of course, does not mean “do what you will”. To have a properly informed conscience, one must seek out the Church’s tradition and teaching, pray and seriously reflect over it, then try to bridge any gaps if such exist between that teaching and your own considered beliefs. Such matters are not to be treated lightly. Then one can act in good faith and good conscience. This is in contradistinction to culpable ignorance, a deliberately ill-informed conscience for which the person is to blame. That person’s starting point is something like “I don’t care what the Church teaches …” and they are in error.
The principal of the primacy of conscience – that is, one’s personal conscience as the ultimate guide in all our moral activity – was clearly taught as far back as the 13th century by one of the Church’ greatest theologians, St Thomas Aquinas. He even proposed that an erroneous conscience was morally binding, provided one had made every possible effort to inform one’s conscience.
The Second Vatican Council beautifully defined conscience some fifty years ago:
“Conscience is man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”
A sanctuary. And, significantly, “alone with God” – no props, no bible, no parish priest leaning over one’s shoulder or a canon lawyer over the other. Just you with your integrity and with God.
This week the Synod of Bishops concluded. It was encouraging to note that after the preliminary (and not extremely accommodating) discussions about the place of divorced and remarried Catholics in the Church, the Synod document seems more softened. Pope Francis closed the gathering with a characteristically warm statement, “The Church’s first duty is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God’s mercy.” The Synod encouraged people in the difficult position of being divorced and remarried, and who wished to continue full participation in the life of the church, to use the internal forum. The external forum, which determines one’s standing in regard to marriage issues, is the Marriage Tribunal. But sometimes the Tribunal is not in a position to make the best judgement (eg, if a key witness, like the former partner, refuses to take part). In cases like this, a person may make a sincere, considered and prayerful decision in the internal forum, that is, in their conscience (in that “most secret core and sanctuary”) as to where they stand before God. For this to happen, the document asks that there should be “humility, discretion, and love of the Church and its teachings in the sincere seeking of the will of God”. Many people have already made such discernment in their lives. This document will give them heart.
There was yet another take on the place of conscience this week when former Prime Minister, Tony Abbottt, addressed the Margaret Thatcher Lecture in London. Citing his government’s strategy and success in turning back the boats, he warned European leaders against “the imperative to ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’” which would lead “much of Europe into catastrophic error”. To resist the asylum seekers “will require some force”, he said, and “it will gnaw at our consciences – yet it is the only way to prevent a tide of humanity surging through Europe and quite possibly changing it forever”.
There are two key words here: conscience and humanity. What we can never forget is that we are dealing with human persons – not dengue-bearing mosquitoes crossing the Torres Strait, or mice plagues ravaging our cereal crops. These are people with dignity, persons afforded rights, human beings whose ultimate value comes from their being loved by God. That is their inalienable worth. “Love thy neighbour”, that so-called Golden Rule cited by Mr Abbott, is not only a Christian principle. It is a core value of belief shared by Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and six other faith traditions stretching to the Far East. It may lead us into dislocation, into struggles, into a nation’s need for adjustment and accommodation, into financial cost. But it will not lead us into error, as Mr Abbott would have us believe.
The former Prime Minister’s assessment stands in sharp contradistinction to the words of Pope Francis, who, in his first overseas visit as Pope in 2013, chose to visit Lampedusa, that tiny island off Italy housing thousands of African asylum-seekers. There, the Pope echoed the words of God to Cain from the book of Genesis, “Where is your brother?” Francis asked that question of all of us. Speaking of the refugee crisis, he went on,
Today no one in the world feels responsible for this; we have lost the sense of fraternal responsibility; we have fallen into the hypocritical attitude … that Jesus speaks about in the parable of the Good Samaritan … Perhaps we think … it’s none of our business; and we feel fine with this. We feel at peace with this, we feel fine! The culture of well-being, that makes us think of ourselves, that makes us insensitive to the cries of others.
But Mr Abbott was right about one thing. When he suggests that a self-interested stance “will gnaw at our consciences” he is spot on. That is because an informed conscience will always appeal to what is noble, to what is good and true and just. Well might it gnaw. Well might it trouble us.