The primacy of conscience: The only way forward for the Catholic Church

Pope FrancisThe Catholic Church has needed a change in direction for a long time now. When Church leaders convened for the Second Vatican Council in 1962 to discuss how to reinvent the Church’s image in a modern world, it was an official acknowledgement of this very fact. Yet to this day, the Vatican has remained out of whack with the moral and cultural leanings of modern, Western society.

No more is this evident than in the Church’s stubbornness on issues of sexual morality. Its hardline teachings on contraception, and naive emphasis on promoting “sexual responsibility”, stifled efforts to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa and elsewhere for years; its reluctance to accept homosexuality and transgender people has seriously dented its image as a champion of love, acceptance and compassion; and its denial of the sexual abuse perpetrated by its own members threw into question the Church’s very right to claim it was an authority on sexual morality at all.

Many people have turned away from the Church as a result. Only in poorer countries did the Church remain as influential as it once was. The problem was, the Church struggled to do anything about this situation because it was restricted by the theological grounding upon which it has based its moral authority for centuries.

The Church, and in particular the Pope, has historically portrayed itself as the mouthpiece of God. Traditionally, if the Church said something, its adherents needed to follow suit. But once people started becoming educated and more informed, it became increasingly difficult to convince people why they needed to blindly accept all of its teachings. As modern society made progress, the Church remained stuck in its ways, refusing to budge on its position as moral supreme.

Nowadays people think for themselves. They are skeptical. They value their freedom and their individuality. Authority is earned, not given. But the Church hasn’t discovered a way to reconcile this new social trend with its traditional claims to power. It is therefore losing its grip on that power.

Pope Francis is a pragmatic man and he aims to change all this. He may still personally believe in the conservative teachings of the Church, but he is challenging the role of the Church in the modern world. He is trying to reform the bad elements of the way the Vatican is run, and in doing so is admitting some of its past errors of judgement.

But hang on, isn’t this rejecting the theological basis of the Church’s moral power? Well, Pope Francis is looking at promoting another theological position, one that has previously been rejected by past Popes. That is, the idea of the primacy of conscience.

The primacy of conscience is an old Catholic principle, formally introduced into the faith’s canon by the Second Vatican Council in Paragraph 1776 of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” regarding Moral Conscience:

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . .

It teaches Catholics that they themselves can be instruments of God’s will should they choose to pray and listen to their own conscience, the God-given voices in their hearts.

Last year, Pope Francis told adherents during a Sunday mass that it is the sacred obligation of all Christians to follow their informed consciences. He pointed out that Jesus himself wasn’t a “remote-controlled” automaton who instinctively knew what was right or wrong, but someone who prayed and sought to divine God’s will from his conscience.

He went on to say,

So we also must learn to listen more to our conscience. Be careful, however: this does not mean we ought to follow our ego, do whatever interests us, whatever suits us, whatever pleases us. That is not conscience. Conscience is the interior space in which we can listen to and hear the truth, the good, the voice of God. It is the inner place of our relationship with Him, who speaks to our heart and helps us to discern, to understand the path we ought to take, and once the decision is made, to move forward, to remain faithful.

Theologically speaking, this is a really radical thing for a Pope to say. It calls on people to think for themselves on moral issues, not just to take the Church’s words for granted. Previous Popes – including John Paul and Benedict – tried to quash the views of theologians who didn’t tow the party line and promote the moral supremacy of the Church’s teachings.

What’s perhaps even more controversial, at least in theological terms, is the fact that Pope Francis refers to himself as just another “normal person“. He doesn’t label himself as the spokesperson for God. And with the general overhaul of the Vatican he is trying to perform, he is bringing to light the fact that the Catholic Church is in fact fallible. Very fallible.

If Pope Francis is indeed promoting the Catholic teaching of the primacy of conscience, it is a shrewd move indeed. It may bring people back to the fold who may have disliked the moral authoritarianism of the Vatican. It may show people that it’s OK to be both Catholic and part of, say, the LGBT community – because that is what God is instructing them to do in their hearts. Francis’s attitude change is working, and people are responding favourably.

The primacy of conscience is the idea that God’s voice lies in your soul, and it is a sin not to listen to it. It is reconcilable with the notion that the Church is a moral authority, though only if it can be fallible and challenged by human conscience, as Pope Francis himself is showing. This is a position that may help the Church stay in touch with this brave new world, where offering the democratic values of individualism and personal freedom are now prerequisite conditions for gaining our ideological allegiances.

4 responses to “The primacy of conscience: The only way forward for the Catholic Church

  1. “It is reconcilable with the notion that the Church is a moral authority, though only if it can be fallible and challenged by human conscience”

    Not exactly.

    Rather, what the Church teaches about the primacy of conscience is that while the Church’s moral law may be objectively right (and indeed she believes herself to be infallibly so)…the Church nevertheless recognizes that, sometimes through no fault of their own, people sincerely reach a different (wrong) conclusion in conscience, by a sincere process of discernment (that got derailed from the right conclusion somehow)…and that this person is obliged to follow conscience first and foremost (even though the Church believes their conscience is objectively wrong).

    No pope has ever rejected this. However, it does not mean people decide what’s right for themselves. The Church posits an objective moral truth and believes she knows it infallibly. In a perfect world, the process of conscience would lead to everyone arriving at and internalizing these same principles. However, the Church recognizes that it’s not a perfect world and that a variety of factors, a lot of “noise” in the culture, can confuse conscience and lead to it “mishearing” the voice of God or not recognizing that the Church is speaking for Him infallibly, and in such cases people need to follow what they believe He’s saying even if the Church also thinks they’re wrong.

  2. The Church cannot have it both ways. If a person can mishear the voice of God why cannot the church do the same mishearing. The Church appears to me to be arrogant. It seems to be saying you are wrong because you think something different.

  3. To the above comment, the ‘Church’ has been morally wrong in its historical position on usury, slavery, conjugal relations in marriage. We, as lay Catholics “hold” to the principle of infallibility for the Church (there are 3 ways in which the Church speaks infallibly) this does not mean we deny the existential realities of the historical record. The truths that are true are infallible. Personal truth is not necessarily not objective, a subjective agent can know objective truth.

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