Thursday, September 11, 2014

Does Conscience Trump Moral Authority?

For so many Catholics, the question of why don't bishops speak up on certain issues and why don't they correct those Catholics in public office when they stray from Catholic teaching, is a constant irritant. Some of us are left puzzled by our bishops' actions, such as the recent action of Cardinal Dolan with regards to the St. Patrick's Day parade (

In other cases, we wonder why our shepherds don't refuse Communion to pro-abortion politicians when this is specifically called for in canon law. The list goes on and the conclusion is that our pastors and bishops are weak and afraid to say things that are politically incorrect.

But an interesting analysis of this problem is offered by Father Mark Pilon in yesterday's The Catholic Thing. He tackles the question of following one's conscience as opposed to following church teaching and it certainly explains a lot about the ambivalence one finds in the bishops towards speaking out publicly when faced with a moral problem.

I suppose the bishops could be suffering from political correctness. Or they have a misunderstanding of the relationship between church and state. But it is likely that most bishops have effectively adopted a subjective notion of conscience, that conscience in the end trumps the moral authority of the Church. This is what seems to be behind their failure to deny Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion. They assume that they can never judge the responsibility of these politicians for their actions. Canon Law doesn’t require any such final moral judgment to deny Holy Communion, but only when there’s been a judgment that certain Catholics are guilty of an objectively scandalous and public action contrary to the moral law in a serious matter.
But I think the problem goes even deeper than this obvious misreading of Canon Law. Many bishops, following the lead of numerous theologians rather than the bishops leading them, think that a person can have a morally good and upright conscience even when it is objectively in error – and where they are well aware that the Church’s teaching authority has consistently judged a particular moral action to be gravely evil. In other words, one’s subjective formation and judgment of conscience will always trump moral authority in determining moral responsibility when there is a conflict between the two.

This approach to moral conscience has been the theoretical basis for the “pastoral solution” to the massive rejection of the Church’s teaching on contraception for the past fifty years. Ultimately, of course, such a position will totally subjectivize the moral law, as Protestant Churches have learned. And that’s why we are where we are today when it comes to the responsibilities of the Joe Bidens and Nancy Pelosis. They seem to be continuing blindly on their path to Hell, while bishops continue to keep their silence and refuse publicly to admonish their flock. Can this really be pastoral charity?

Perhaps we need to remember the advice of the catechism about developing an informed conscience. This means a conscience that is informed according to the teachings of the Church, not a conscience that is a reflection of one's own moral leaning.

Fr. Mark A. Pilon, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Santa Croce University in Rome. He is a former Chair of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary Seminary, a former contributing editor of Triumph magazine, and a retired and visiting professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. He writes regularly at 

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