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Conscience, Discernment, Truth

Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis (now retired) issued a pastoral letter on "The Moral Conscience." In the face of widespread appeal to "conscience," he both stresses its importance and the responsibility of the subject to form his or her conscience in the light of objective truth, apprehended both by reason and faith.The entire letter is well worth pondering; but here is an excerpt:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:2)The importance of conscience cannot be underestimated. The judgment of conscience about the goodness or evil of a contemplated act is not only a judgment on the value of the act itself, but is also a judgment on the doer of the act. His choice of action is also his choice of his own moral state. His actions reveal what he is and even contribute to making him what he is. To choose to do good is to choose to be a moral person; to choose to do evil is to choose to be an immoral person. The judgment of conscience is crucial.A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself.[20] It is obvious that to act against a conscientious judgment made with certitude would really be a way of doing violence to ones own moral state. However, we must also recognize the fact that human judgment is capable of error. Even when the person making the judgment is certain that he is right, he may easily fail to grasp the question correctly or to have the full knowledge he needs or to be aware of all the facts. In such cases, the person making the judgment would be acting in good faith and would not be guilty of sin, but he would still be wrong and the evil of the act would still take place.One may be morally blameworthy for his lack of proper judgment and his own ignorance. 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. In such cases the person is culpable for the evil he commits.[21] The sources for errors in moral conduct may be varied. Ignorance of Christ and his gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to ones passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Churchs authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity; these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.[22] In either case -- whether the ignorance is or is not blameworthy -- one always has the obligation to take whatever steps are required to ensure that one removes that ignorance, since it is an obstacle to right judgment and therefore to right living. Such ignorance is always harmful.Earlier we spoke of conscience as ones last and best judgment concerning what one should choose. For that judgment to be the best judgment, one must take care to see to it that conscience (the judgment) is properly formed. Good judgment never just happens. It always demands insight and knowledge of both facts and values.


Commenting Guidelines

Didn't we recently discuss Bishop Flynn and his banning of lay preaching?There was some sense that he was preparing the way for his successor as he verged into retirement.So the question comes up in regard to this pastoral. why now? Has there been a burgeoning of a "wide spread appeal to conscience" in Minnesota.? What motivated the Bishop to think his faithful there are not working at forming their consciences?

As I understand it, there is a 'loud howl of protest' over Bishop Flynn's banning of lay preaching.Some people loved it when other laity preached because they felt the lay preachers really applied the Gospel to how life is challenging the laity today, at work, school, family life, friendships, etc. Other people are glad that the laity can't preach anymore, because they felt that only the clergy (deacons, priests, bishops) should be preaching.The question comes with the final paragraph and "one must take care to see to it that conscience is properly formed." I would assume that Bishop Flynn means that if one's conscience and actions conform to the Church's teachings in every way---than that conscience is properly formed. But if people are raising questions, demanding answers, etc., then their consciences are not properly formed. So if the sheep behave like sheep---their consciences are formed properly.

Like Little Bear above, it is difficult for me to distinguish between having a "properly formed conscience" and simply adopting the position of the Catholic Church on every moral question. And, one wonders, if "charity always demands respect for ones neighbor and his conscience," why we should respect anyone's conscience that is not "properly formed," a potentially dangerous thought, but a logical one if an improperly formed conscience causes a person to do evil.Of course, many of the really hot-button issues upon which the Church takes a moral stand that profoundly affects people's lives involve sexuality and reproduction (homosexuality, birth control, abortion, cohabitation, marriage and divorce), and these stands are largely arrived at by a power structure that excludes women, married people, and homosexuals. This has been said millions of times in different ways, but how can it not occur to married men, all women, and gay people that the people making the "rules" are all unmarried heterosexual men who have committed themselves to celibacy?As an aside, it seems to me that the story of Adam and Eve is purely mythical, is not particularly helpful in explaining the human condition to people in the 21st century, is understood in Jewish thought to mean almost the opposite of what Christians make of it, and has to be deliberately misread to mean what Bishop Flynn gets out of it. He says,

Yet, our first parents disobeyed God and introduced sin into the world, thus depriving the intellect of an easy grasp of truth and constancy of will in living the good (Gen 3).

But in the story, it appears that their eyes have been opened, and clearly they are expelled from the garden so they do not attain immortality

Then the LORD God said: "See! The man has become like one of us, knowing what is good and what is bad! Therefore, he must not be allowed to put out his hand to take fruit from the tree of life also, and thus eat of it and live forever."

If you want a source quotation for the position that having a properly formed conscience means always agreeing with the magisterium, here's a section of Veritatis Splendor 64. "[T]he authority of the Church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians. This is so not only because freedom of conscience is never freedom "from" the truth but always and only freedom "in" the truth, but also because the Magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith." The selection here pushes a Vatican II affirmation that the Church is charged with teaching the truth of Christ into an apparent assertion that whatever the Church teaches IS the will of Christ. I would suggest that the history of the Church's moral teaching, wherein we see a number of cases of outright change, would make it at least arguable whether the magisterium--which indeed is charged with teaching the faith--always adequately conveys the will of Christ in the formulation of its teachings. In fact, the Vatican II document cited just prior to the v.s. passage I quote here is Dignitatis Humanae, asserting the basic right of freedom of religion--exactly one of the examples of a notable change in magisterial teaching on a significant question.

I have no idea what prompted the issuance of the Archbishop's letter, and would certainly be interested in knowing more about its genesis.That said, I found the letter a clear and helpful sketch of a crucial issue; and I think it would be a useful document to employ in parish discussions or college classrooms. not least because, as the Letter suggests, too often "conscience" seems to be understood in an overly individualistic way.I find the scripture quotes, with which each part begins, suggestive. Thus in the first part I do not find the thrust to be the historical persons of "Adam and Eve," but the existential question: "Where are you?" (Gen 3:9) -- a question as relevant to our discernment of our spiritual situation before God today as in times past.The quotation that initiates part four (and which I transcribe above) is the perennial challenge the Gospel presents to the disciple: "be transformed by the renewing of your mind." Where we, as the body of Christ, can be of assistance to one another, is to help clarify what such transformation entails and to support one another in the face of the evident cost of discipleship.

There may some serious circuitous reasoning going on here that terribly begs the question as to who has the truth and how and who proclaims it. At the very least it shows that bishop Flynn admits that he was caught napping at the wheels of his diocese. Just suddenly the bishop cries out that he was not aware how widespread lay preaching was in his diocese and at any rate his pastors know he does disapprove. My my, Flynn sounds like he did in 2002 when the bishops were found profoundly asleep. Not to Flynn however, he assures a stunned church and world that the bishops have been on the case and need to stay on it because the objective truth is that those damned victims are just smearing everybody with their (not ours of course) money hungry lawyers trying to destroy our church. And Cardinal Law, that paragon of objective truth was humiliated by running to Rome by a Vatican comforting the wrong people. Well what do you know! The People of God got in on the case and starting to reform all those bastions of right teaching who decidedly did a lot of "personal" interpreting.But I will let Augustine prove my case. Notice how Augustine in his letter to Classicanus,partly quoted here, states that "if any believer has been wrongfully excommunicated, the sentence will do harm rather to him who pronounces it than to him who suffers this wrong." So that person exercising the magisterium needs some help, does he not" Get this. Augustine says the holy spirit trumps all the time: "For it is by the Holy Spirit dwelling in holy persons that any one is loosed or bound, and He inflicts unmerited punishment upon no one; for by Him the love which works not evil is shed abroad in our hearts." So the Spirit is the heart of the church. Not the magisterium. Here is the full quote from Augustine: "One thing I say deliberately as an unquestionable truth, that if any believer has been wrongfully excommunicated, the sentence will do harm rather to him who pronounces it than to him who suffers this wrong. For it is by the Holy Spirit dwelling in holy persons that any one is loosed or bound, and He inflicts unmerited punishment upon no one; for by Him the love which works not evil is shed abroad in our hearts." are two incidents where Flynn has some trouble being objective also as alluded to above: on the major issue of our time, the magisterium came up empty. Don't tell me that 2 or 5 or 15% of counselors abuse children etc. It was the Cover-up, remember. And who did that. The Spirit, not the magisterium brings life.

Oops"Just suddenly the bishop cries out that he was not aware how widespread lay preaching was in his diocese and at any rate his pastors know he does disapprove."Should be "does not approve.""According on the major issue of our time.,"Should be "Accordingly."

This is another attempt, similar to the one made by Cdl.l Pell in 2005 to erode the notion of the primacy of conscience in the Catholic tradition. "Conscience" had been appealed to by serious and qualified moral theologians in helping Catholics to reconcile themselves to the difficult teaching of Humane Vitae and to resolve certain pastoral issues like the reception of the Eucharist by divorced and remarried Catholics. I believe for more traditionally minded Catholics the arguments based on conscience were reduced to simple rationalization for dissent from certain Church teachings. Archbishop Flynn seems to share this thinking, as is reflected in his simplistic understanding of subjectivity and objectivity in what he has written. Indeed it is important to engage seriously the Catholic tradition on primacy of conscience. I do not think, however, that the Archbishop has done that, and I do not find his thinking to be clear on the autonomy of the individual's conscience. Perhaps no one has put it better than the current Pope:"Over the Pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there still stands one's own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, even if necessary 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." (Joseph Ratzinger in Herbert Vorgrimler, ed., Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol. V, p. 134).

Alan,Thank you for the quote from (the younger) Ratzinger. I am reminded of Newman's sonorous description of conscience as "the aboriginal vicar of Christ."What I would contribute to the discussion is to underline the "of Christ" with its deep sense of challenge and responsibility. I take this to be part of the Archbishop's purpose. I am not sure that our culture's frequent appeals to "my experience, "my preference," "my conscience" would meet Newman's (or Aquinas' or Ratzinger's) standard in the matter.With regard to Archbishop Flynn's "simplistic understanding of subjectivity and objectivity," that would be an interesting further matter for discussion. He was not, after all, writing a philosophical or theological tract.As you know, one of the people who gave sustained attention to the issue was Bernard Lonergan in Insight. Some recent pastoral encounters have led me to return (after too many years) to Lonergan's work.One of the things that most impresses me about Lonergan is his clear-eyed realism about not only "the unrestricted desire to know," but about the ways we block that natural tendency. He employs the term "scotosis" to indicate the prevalent flight from insight. (See the edition of Insight in the Collected Works, pp. 214-231). He also draws upon the psychological literature of his day to exemplify the resistances to understanding.Appeals to "conscience" that do not wrestle with our inveterate tendency to self-deception do not "engage seriously the Catholic tradition on primacy of conscience."

Fr. Imbelli,Thank you for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully to my post. Your post carried me back 38 years to when we read Insight from cover to cover in Vinnie Potter's epistemology course at Fordham. We certainly had a lot of fun with scotosis. We are in agreement on the possibility of self-deception in the formation of conscience. It is something that has to be factored into the delicate, painstaking, and time consuming process of reaching that goal, responsibly. If I remember correctly, for Lonergan, that process was dynamic and lived within the tension between limitation and transcendence -- a rather complicated tension, at that, which may take a life project to resolve, if indeed it can ever be effectively resolved. I would hope that most people who engage in serious moral discernment do not do so simply on the basis of what is their experience, or their preference, and by reducing that to the convenience of appealing unreflectively to their conscience. I actually do not believe that most people who wrestle seriously with moral questions do it that way.That was one of the problems I had with what the archbishop wrote. He does not seem to account for individuals who engage in serious moral discernment, and who may raise hard questions about what he describes simply as objective truth. I have a hard time understanding what people mean sometimes when they appeal to "relativism" or "subjectivism" to describe the source of a problem or a pervasive condition, and offset that with what I would see as and equally erroneous approach to truth, objectivism. I often wonder if this this is nothing more than a canard and a caricature. Whereas I would not have expected a philosophical treatise in a pastoral statement, I do expect that what the archbishop had written would have benefitted from a more rigorous philosophical analysis of the problems and possible solutions to the proper formation of conscience. I do not find this in what Archbishop Flynn has written. As I recall, scotosis, as widespread as it may be, is not always culpable and willful, and so it can be unreflective and unthematized, operating at a level we may not be fully aware of. Neither is it something which only afflicts the faithful; bishops and archbishops suffer from it as well. Indeed some say that it can be individual and institutional, to the extent that it involves the elimination of knowledge that does not comport with our own particular worldview. I am all for the overcoming scotosis and the serious examination of all scotomata in the process of coming to true insight in the formation of conscience. I do not think, however, that that happens overnight or after a read through a pastoral letter or an encyclical. In the meantime, I do believe as true what I was taught many years ago now, that while engaged in that process, one is obligated to follow his or her conscience, even when another may deem it to be improperly or incompletely formed. Now, if I may, I have one question for you. When you referred to the quotation I included in my post as coming from the (younger Ratzinger) did you mean to say that the older Ratzinger no longer believes what he had then written, or that the truth of what he said has changed and no longer represents the traditional teaching of the Church on the primacy of conscience?

Professor Mitchell,Many thanks for your considered reply. I'm glad "scotosis" transported you back 38 years -- we all need rejuvenation! :-)I did not mean to imply that the older Ratzinger would retract what his younger self wrote -- I suspect he would not (though like all of us he might want to add some contextual qualification).I hope to be in Washington for the Common Ground Initiative Lecture on June 27th. It would be fun to meet if you are there. You can identify me because I'll be carrying a copy of Insight.

A Church which fails to provide a forum for communal discrenment, open discussion, of moral issues, but reduces the informed conscience to a lonely dialectic between official church teachings and the individual in her own private forum is failing of make Christian life an experience of growing in the art of conscience. We badly need a new Catholic culture where we are enabled to have adult consciences and not to remain forever oscillating between conformism and indifferentism. Also we need practice of conscience on a wide range of issues, not only pelvic ones, and a wide range of political issues, not only abortion. But we cannot expect such a culture from a Church that banished Charles Curran and a host of other competent and Catholic moral theologians to the wilderness. This is part of what Cardinal Martini refers to when he says he has lost his dreams for the Church and can now only pray for it.

"Pray for it" can be taken in two senses. One sense is that the Church will reform its culture in the sense to engage adult consciences--that's probably the sense that Martini means.As an ethicist and lawyer, however, another sense comes to mind. "Pray for it" can mean for the Church's continuing capacity to be a leaven in the broader culture. People can and do exercise their own consciences--and if they do think the Church's moral teaching is inflicting harm upon third parties rather than good, they will intervene with legal means. This includes Catholics--I think of the fracas in Massachusetts over gay adoption, and the fracas in CT over emergency contraception provided to rape victims. The response is, "Fine-- you don't want to provide emergency contraception--you don't have to. But we don't have to give you a license to run a hospital. We don't have to qualify you to take public funds." And it's the response of Catholics as well as non-Catholics, who honestly don't see the point of the Church's teaching on these matters.Both sides in this battle have guns, not just the Church. And it seems both sides are drawing them. Not good-for anyone.

Three other quotes worthy of consideration:Anyone who has sought to work therapeutically with the paranoid and the guilt-ridden knows that a conscience saturated with strict prohibitions becomes sterile, the opposite of creative, and so does the life of the person thus governed. The conscience challenged by norms what are contradictory, and yet that seem not to allow flexibility (no exceptions, no "epikeia", no "oikonomia"), is literally sickened, with devastating consequences for the relationship with the lawgiver God. Overcome by this "rigorism", (they) live in constant torture and fear of wrongdoing, but lack the power to see opportunities for doing good above and beyond the law. The capacity to love dies out. Building a creative conscience means getting to know Jesus, and through him the meaning of love; it rescues us from mechanistic images of the conscience and immunizes us against fanatical legalism. Bernard Haring, CSSR, Building a Creative Conscience (article), "Commonweal", 8-11-89. The law is not a "light" for you or any man to see by; the law is not an instrument of any kind. The law is a causeway upon which, so long as he keeps to it, a citizen may walk safely ... In matters of conscience, the loyal subject is more bounden to be loyal to his conscience than to any other thing. St Thomas More, quoted by Robert Bolt in "A Man For All Seasons".If despite prolonged effort we cannot reach accord or integration of mind and heart, we cannot decide wholeheartedly. The unconvinced conscience, or an undecided and morally ambivalent state of mind, can be torturous. Some persons may seek to be rid of the anxiety that moral indecision produces and simply quit the field in flight and avoidance. Others may jump one way or another in order to end the ordeal. I do not think either flight or ungrounded leaps into decision are morally justified. If a matter is morally serious enough to struggle over, it is too serious to avoid, or to decide as one might decide some indifferent matter. Our moral freedom should not be squandered by arbitrary endorsements in order to relieve the anxious burden or indecision. Sidney Callahan, In Good Conscience: Reason and Emotion in Moral Decision Making, 1991.

Jimmy,thank you for the quotes; they are indeed, "worthy of consideration."I love the word "consideration." St. Bernard has a work, de Consideratione. I'm not sure how it is derived from the Latin "sidus" (constellation, or heavenly body, or luminary). Perhaps someone can illuminate the origin. But it always suggests careful contemplation to me.

I thought Alan's comments were quite excellent for their depth, but also Fr. O'Leary's notion of communal growth in moral thinking is quite valuable as well.So I think the question I tried to raise "why now?" in the aftermath of the BXVI visit is germane, if not readily knowable.There seems to be a lot of post BXVI retrenchment and assertion of authority here.I thought BXVI tried to emphasize the Church was not into power but service.It's kind of ironic that Bishop Robinson's speaking tour here on issues of power and control in the Church was sought to be blocked by the Cardinal of Los Angeles.Often I have this fear, perhaps my orejudice, that folks who talk about truth or objectivity ar ereally talkin gaboutr power.

Discernment is not easy. I have just been reading Cozzens' The Changing Face of the Priesthood. How about this: "Priests who know their church history know the dangers of preaching God's word. They know, for example, that three ecumentical councils and eleven popes condemned usury in the name of God's word. To hold otherwise was heresy which, in that period of the church's history, could lead to the stake."Worth thinking about?

Such great posts by lay people here. And they should not be preaching? It is protocol. Not after the homily that is. No wonder the laity were forbidden to read the scriptures. Jimmy Mac, one of your best posts. Bernard Haring, that great proclaimer of the goodness of God. There was something wrong with him according to the CDF. Yet Jesus repeatedly makes the point; mercy over sacrifice. My fantasy is that the CDF really wants to take a crack at straightening out the Good Samaritan. Should he have been so quick to mercy? Perhaps he should have made the victim recite the Nicene Creed first. Or made him make a loyalty oath, insisted on baptism, etc. His wounds could wait.And say it again Alan: " Neither is it something which only afflicts the faithful; bishops and archbishops suffer from it as well. Indeed some say that it can be individual and institutional, to the extent that it involves the elimination of knowledge that does not comport with our own particular worldview. "All of this makes clear what a smashing success Vatican II was/is.

Let me pick up a couple of things mentioned above, namely Joseph O'Leary's point about the communal character of serious moral thought and Jimmy Mac's mention of epikeia.Is there any difference between conscience and practical wisdom? Practical wisdom guides one in responsibly dealing with rules. It is necessary, in the minds of us Aristotelians, because no legislator can know, when he or she makes a law, all the relevant factors that confront the person faced with determining whether just to obey the letter of the law or to act in such a way that the law is, though literally violated, violated as little as is necessary under the circumstances. To exercise practical wisdom, one must be attentive to the advice of serious people, to take the law or rule in question as binding in all "ordinary circumstances," and to acknowledge that no exercise of practical wisdom is immune from reasonable criticism. It follows that no exercise of practical wisdom gives one anything more than "moral certitude" that he or she is acting in a morally good way. This moral certitude is not Cartesian certitude or theoretical certitude. It is no more, but also no less, than the best a fallible being can achieve in the time and circumstances available to him or her to determine what to do or omit doing.If conscience delivers something other than practical wisdom, what is it that it delivers?To say that one must always follow his or her conscience cannot mean that conscience is infallible. It can at most mean that following a properly formed conscience is never culpable.Unfortunately, I don't know Lonergan's work. Whether what I've just said meshes with or clashes with what he says I just don't know. Finally, all exercises of practical wisdom aim at objectivity. But this is the kind of objectivity that is appropriate of human actions, not the objectivity one would look for in matters of fact.

" It is necessary, in the minds of us Aristotelians, because no legislator can know, when he or she makes a law, all the relevant factors that confront the person faced with determining whether just to obey the letter of the law or to act in such a way that the law is, though literally violated, violated as little as is necessary under the circumstances."Bernard --Indeed. And the problem goes beyond current facts -- there's the problem of unintended consequences.. G. E. Moore pointed out that consequentialism, as it's called today, is an impossible ethical theory because we cannot ever predict what the ultimate consequences of *any* act will be. Here comes my chant again: Aristotle is great, but the foundations of his ethical theory need to be improved. His natural law theory leaves too many loose ends. Yes, ;there's such a thing as prudence or practical judgment, but too often the ethicians appeal to that weakest of Aristotelian principles -- do what a good man would do. Begs the question, I think. There have got to be some prudential principles somewhere, or at least some ethical decision procedures for such conundrums. So far, the best writer I've found on this matter is Confucius.You appeal to what is "appropriate". How do you know that when you see it? Yes, it's an objective matter, but how to judge it.

Fr. ImbelliYou are right in saying that "considero" is derived from "sidus". So also is "desidero". Oddly enought the simple verb "sidero" is cited only from Pliny the Elder who uses it in the sense "inflict with sudden paralysis". The primary meaning in use of "considero" seems to be "gaze at carefully or intently". How it gets this meaning is hard to say. The verb "contemplor" has the same sense and it may be connectd with the use of "templa" for regions of the sky distinguished for purposes of augury. But that does not appreciably throw light on "sidero" and its compounds. The semantic developments are not at all obvious.

" ... largely arrived at by a power structure that excludes women, married people, and homosexuals. This has been said millions of times in different ways, but how can it not occur to married men, all women, and gay people that the people making the rules are all unmarried heterosexual men who have committed themselves to celibacy?"David: I hope you made these comments with your tongue firmly planted in your cheek. The idea that the hierarchy, curia and other bits of the Church magisterium had no homosexuals is not only unbelievable but laughable as well. The operative idea, of course, is that these homosexuals were, at best, closeted and most likely self-hating to boot.

Ann, There's no way to take the fallibility out of any moral decision. When we realize that, then we can learn to recognize careful moral reflection when it takes place. Of course this recognition is itself fallible. I take it that what i describe is objectively accurate. It's just the way people are. God's judgment is not fallible. So, from God's vantage, there is no mistaking the moral worth of what I do. From our vantage point, yours, mine, and the rest of us including popes, it is objectively the case that any one, or all, of us might get it wrong. Indeed, I do think that it is often the case that more than one human determination of the moral worth of an action might satisfy the "criterion" of appropriateness, with no way of ranking these determinations. Whether God would have a way of ranking them is beyond me.Of course, Ann, we both know that we Louisianians have a reputation for cleverness in befogging moral matters. Maybe I'm just showing my true heritage.

Bernard,I agree with everything you say, including your comment about Louisianians :-) My post is just a plea -- a plea for help us in discerning what to ought to be done in particular circumstances, especially decisions that run counter to what one's own bishop required us to do. The right constantly tells us to read Scriptures, the popes, read the encyclicals, CDF papers, letters from our bishops (this latter even when the neighboring bishop disagrees with oour own bishop). But that is obviously not enough.Here is a salient fact, which even the hierarchy does not deny any more: the authoritative hierarchical sources sometimes contradict each other or imply contradictions. We are reqired to be rational, so how to decide on the basis of the apparent contradictions offered to us? The historical fact of contradictory teachings (explicit or implied) wrecks the general claim that the Church will provide us the truth in faith and morals. Granted, somewhere in those contradictions the truth does lile. So how best should be go about looking for it? And what should we do about a bishop who contradicts himself? Obviously, Yogi Berra's advice ("When you come to a fork in the road, take it") is metaphysically impossible. A seminarian friend told me once that Aquinas had this ethical decision procedure:1. Study what the theologians have to say about the matter.2. If the theologians disagree, discuss the problem with someone who has been in a similar existential situation.3. If that provides no satisfactory answer, do what you are inclined to do.Unfortunately, my friend could give me no reference, but to me it has a certain wisdom. But, I suspect, it is not what any many bishops would approve of.

Ann, let me stick to matters of morals and leave aside questions about dogma.Some general points:1. Each human action has its own unique features, e.g., time, place, age and maturity of the agent, etc. Accordingly, there is no procedure for determining apodictally whether the particular act in question is morally proper or not.2. Nonetheless, many, probably most, actions are so routine and ordinary that there is no genuine problem about whether they are good or not. Practical wisdom would have have us just do what people usually do, e. g., obey traffic laws, give truthful directions when asked, etc.3. Sometimes, though, standard practices become questionable, for assorted reasons. For example, the usury issue. Here, a non-expert would do well to consult relevant experts, e.g., physicians, theologians, economists. But again, no expert has a procedure for providing apodictic answers. They can only give their best, always fallible judgment. 4. Ordinarily, it is practically wise to follow the advice of experts who have good reputations for their advice.5. But sometimes, reputable experts disagree. This situation gave rise to the discipline of casuistry.6. Practical wisdom would tell me that most people on most issues ought to follow the practices of people who have good moral reputations. But it would also tell me that I could never be sure that there are no exceptions to this policy and that there is no way to pick out with certitude any such exception.All this does not lead to rampant skepticism or relativism. Rather it is an acknowledgment of the objective moral conditions that confront an agent trying to determine what he or she should do or avoid in some specific situation.

"All this does not lead to rampant skepticism or relativism." Except for the fact that you end up with a bajillion different definitions of Truth. So how do you know what is the right thing to do? Someone has to be the final authority. Christ did not come to confuse us. The Truth is consistent, yesterday, today, and always.

"All this does not lead to rampant skepticism or relativism. Rather it is an acknowledgment of the objective moral conditions that confront an agent trying to determine what he or she should do or avoid in some specific situation."Bernard,Thank very much ffor your analysis. It helps me clarify what I'm wondering about. But I still have questions.I agree with the paragraph above. To admit that we sometimes, even often, do not have enough information to make a totally certain judgment is not to admit that there are no norrms towards which we should strive to the best of our abilities and information. What about the casuitry? Does it offer any ethical decision proceedures? I mean ways of going about determining which values trump which? The problems, as I see them, especially since the advent of modern medicine, usually concern which of different but apparently relevant principles should prevail in circumstances when the principles are apparently in conflict. For instance, people agree that 'we ought not to destroy a body's integrity' contradicts ; when a gangrenous leg is beyond saving it should be amputated'. Maybe my basic question is: how do we know when to make exceptions? Are there any principles to guide us? Put another way, there are conflicts of moral principles, and I don't know how to go about solving this problem when relying on ethics alone. Sometimes what is reasonable seems to be arrived at on the basis of feeling alone, but that way does seem to lead to relativism -- what is right is what I *feel* is right.

Thanks, Ann, for pushing me on these matters. I'm no moral theologian, so grains of salt are in order.You are right to say that there are always some norms that we have to take into account when determining what we ought to do or avoid. One of these norms concerns motives. We ought always aim to do good and avoid evil. For us believers, this means that we ought always to want to do God's will.But there are also norms for determining which deeds are good and which are not. Here's where problems come up. Sometimes, as you say, two or more norms seem to clash. We can't seem to respect both of them at the same time. Classic cases concern keeping promises, not telling lies, etc. Must I keep promises or refuse to lie no matter what? This gets into the deontology -utilitarianism business. Probably irresolvable without sleight of hand. So far as I can tell, practical wisdom (always contestable) has to carry the day. Coupled with a good motive, it's the best we can do under the circumstances. If I remember correctly, the Church teaches that we must not act when we are in doubt about its moral propriety. Practical wisdom "resolves" the doubt in those cases where we cannot refrain from acting or refusing to do so. This is a practical resolution, not a theoretical one.Sometimes we have doubts about whether some norm binds us in a particular set of circumstances. The discipline of casuistry was developed to help us resolve this sort of doubt. The principles that underly casuistry are (a) a doubtful law does not bind, and (b) we may not act when in doubt. The obvious way to handle doubts of this sort is to ask an expert. But suppose the experts disagree. Casuistry was seeks to provide guidance when the expert guides disagree. Casuists themselves have disagreed about what guidance to give in these circumstances. At the end of the day, we have to fall back on practical wisdom.Note though, that practical wisdom never allows us to simply ignore the advice of qualified people. to the contrary, we must take it seriously and do the best we can to follow it. But in the end, practical wisdom is what we have to rrely on.By the way, I think that all this is relevant to the controversy between the Archbishop and the Governor that been discussed in the thread above. Happily, it's not my job to make the final call.

Alan Mitchell, thanks for the Ratzinger quote.You asked Robert Imbelli, "[Does] the older Ratzinger no longer believe[] what he had then written, or that the truth of what he said has changed and no longer represents the traditional teaching of the Church on the primacy of conscience?"Ratzinger gave a talk on "Conscience and Truth" to American bishops in Dallas in 1991. In a Commonweal article ("What Is a Good Conscience?"), author Sidney Callahan analyzed the speech. Having read both references, I can only conclude that the future pope believed then (and presumably believes today) that "Papa knows best."Ratzinger's talk can be found at .Callahan's article can be found at

I hope that Sidney Callahan has mistaken the pope's position. If she hasn't, I can't help but say that this position is simply untenable. How could anyone, even a pope, become so free of fallibility in these matters?

Dear Joseph Jaglowicz,Many thanks for making available the talk by then-Cardinal Ratzinger which I did not know. I find it a rich presentation and deserving of multiple readings. I believe that Ms Callahan said she agreed with 80% of it. I would undoubtedly go further.I do not however agree with your suggested "synthesis:" "Papa knows best." I believe the piece is much more nuanced than that, and recommend its reading to all.Let me only highlight two points. I'm struck that part of the context Ratzinger gives was the recent (1991) liberation of Eastern Europe and the recognition by some (including Havel) of "an enormous spiritual devastation which appeared in the years of the intellectual deformation. They speak of a blunting of the moral sense which is more significant loss and danger than the economic damage which was done."That plus Ratzinger's allusion to the "sincere conscience" (my words) of the Nazis show that the measure of conscience cannot lie within conscience itself. In the words of "Called to be Catholic" (the founding document of the Common Ground Initiative) "Christ is the measure, not that which is to be measured."This leads to the second point from the talk that I want to call attention to. The Petrine ministry's service to the memory (anamnesis) of Christ. Here is part of Ratzinger's theological reflection on the matter:"This Christian memory, to be sure, is always learning, but proceeding from its sacramental identity, it also distinguishes from within between what is a genuine unfolding of its recollection and what is its destruction or falsification. In the crisis of the Church today, the power of this recollection and the truth of the apostolic word is experienced in an entirely new way where much more so than hierarchical direction, it is the power of memory of the simple faith which leads to the discernment of spirits. One can only comprehend the primacy of the Pope and its correlation to Christian conscience in this connection. The true sense of this teaching authority of the Pope consists in his being the advocate of the Christian memory. The Pope does not impose from without. Rather, he elucidates the Christian memory and defends it. For this reason the toast to conscience indeed must precede the toast to the Pope because without conscience there would not be a papacy. All power that the papacy has is power of conscience. It is service to the double memory upon which the faith is based and which again and again must be purified, expanded and defended against the destruction of memory which is threatened by a subjectivity forgetful of its own foundation as well as by the pressures of social and cultural conformity."This does not mean that every dictate of the Pope is a faithful elucidation of the Church's sacramental memory of Christ. But it points to the measure which binds and frees every Christian conscience: to the One who is the way, the truth, and the life.Thanks again for making the text available. And thanks to Bernard Dauenhauer for his continued helpful reflections on an issue of great complexity and moment.

Conscience is a guide, but not an infallible guide. When we are listening to our conscience, what are we really listening to? It should be self evident, I think, that one can be wrong if one looks over one's own life and all of the ethical mistakes that one as a human is bound to make over time. On the other hand, does one betray one's own conscience if one begins at any point to consider the possibility that one's conscience might be fallible?Faith would seem to enter into the question at every step. If one relies only on one's "conscience", one is having faith that one's conscience is somehow privileged in its judgment. If one thinks that one's conscience needs to somehow be informed (and developed), one needs faith in order to begin to look for sources of that development. That is, one must have faith in another source in order to learn from it.(I think that Alasdair MacIntyre makes this point in some of his writings when it talks about tradition. One suspends the role of one's conscience as infallible guide in order to learn. I think that he says that this is a necessary first step to this kind of learning, This does not mean that one kills one's own conscience in order to slavishly follow some system. It means that one opens oneself to the idea that there might be wisdom "out there" and that one needs to openly consider the possibility that it is out there before one can bring it "in here".)To take an example, let's look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a complex document that states what the Church says we believe. I think that the document is meant to be internally consistent and to be externally consistent in the sense that it is a reflection of an underlying reality called natural law which is itself a reflection of God's order. When one first looks at it, the Catechism looks like just a bunch of rules. And in fact, everyone I know flips around it at first to look up stuff that they are interested in. We are told that this is what the Church believes and as Catholics this is what we are also obligated to believe as well. Some people are willing to have faith in the rules of the Catechism on the basis of their faith in the Church. But the Catechism as a book of rules is an inadequate document for two reasons. First, it doesn't, and cannot possibly cover all possibilities of ethical choice. There are always new things coming up that the Catechism doesn't really (that is, definitively) address. What fills the gaps? People are asked to and claim to appeal to their consciences. But here's the second problem. Even if one accepts the Catechism, these appeals to conscience don't create consistent conclusions. We in fact have a strange situation where Catholics can say (in good "conscience") that we all agree that we are obligated to go to Mass of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, but that reasonable Catholics can disagree on things like torture, executions, and preemptive war.The point is, appeals to conscience are not enough and appeals to things like the Catechism as manuals for belief and action are not enough. Faith is required to begin to appeal to things like the Catechism, but that kind of faith isn't enough either. What also needs to enter the conversation is a "conversion" where one moves into the realm underlying the Catechism, which we call the love of God. "Love and do what you like" said Augustine. In this conversion, one does not free oneself from things like the catechism not does one suddenly obtain an infallible conscience. But it may be (if the records of the saints who claim to have experienced this kind of conversion are anything to go by) that what look like the arbitrary rules of the Catechism and things like that become more clear in the context of the thing they are merely representing. Perhaps there is a spiritual progression that goes first with one's conscience, then with one's doubt and search for something else, then with one's tacit acceptance (rationality informed by faith), then one's more active acceptance (faith informed by rationality), and then surrender. The conscience never vanishes throughout this, but it is never seen to act alone.I'll say that in my own life, I have seen myself all too many times make a decision based on my "conscience", doing so in good faith, and then in retrospect using my good faith argument to myself to mitigate my shame and self anger when my ethical decision blew up in my face. Having one's ethical decisions blow up in one's faith turns out to be a grace, if it leads one to the conclusion that one's conscience isn't some sort of stand alone judge.

"On the other hand, does one betray ones own conscience if one begins at any point to consider the possibility that ones conscience might be fallible?"Unagidon --Indeed. And when one considers one's acceptance of the Faith, it seens to me that conscience requires that one look directly not only at the Faith but at one's own *acceptance* of the claims of the Church, and one must look at our act(s) of acceptance as objectively as possible. (It might seem to be a contradiction to be talking about the objective consideration of subjective experience, but I think that is only a linguistic problem -- what is subjective is just as real as the facts of the "objective" world.) But how does one know one was (and is) being objective about the claims of the Faith? One can't ever be sure, I think, and so it seems to me that one's acceptance of the Faith must always be tentative, subject to revision in whole or in part. That's why it's called "faith". Indeed, with the discoveries of modern psychology we now know that "the self" is vastly more complex than the ancients had assumed (at least the Western ancients). Now we know that there are level upon level (as some mystics would say) of conscious and unconscious inner workings which include a myriad of contradictory inclinations and powers. Motives, as we know, can deform our judgments of conscience, but finding our deep-level motives so that we can weigh them in the balance when making decisions can be a dreadful problem. So it's not just the relationships among ends and means that is problematic, nor is it just the fact of conflicting principles, nor is it simply a problem of prioritizing values objectively. A huge problem is our own self insofar as our hidden or ignored parts determine our perception of values and the priorities among them . This is not a theoretical problem. It's much more difficult -- it's a matter of judging the origins and motives of our own individual judgments of conscience.(I've found a very useful and simple Asian (Buddhist?) method for calling up and observing one's motives -- it's called "the thousand petalled lotus". Very revealing of both good and bad subjective factors. It's quite useful when examining one's conscience. Not that it's perfect, but if anybody is interested, let me know and I'll post it.)

It seems to me that that you are bringing up an objection based on something I probably implied by my use of the word faith. You seem to ask whether faith bridges the contradiction we see between the desires of conscience and Catholicisms ethical rules. I have argued that conscience needs to be informed and developed. I have implied that faith transforms conscience relative to ethical rules. Faith as a surrender to God would seem to also be a surrender to the rules. The rules as an expression of the Will of God becomes valorized to the person who has faith in them. But does ones faith valorize the rules themselves? I think that you might be saying that while faith transforms the believer relative to the rules, the question about whether all the rules themselves are (all) really licit still remains. Or to put it another way, does faith just make ones conscience seem more reliable without solving our initial problem of determining whether ones conscience is actually reliable.So what does faith (in the sense of conversion that I have spoken about) do and what does it not do?I think that in our religion, faith makes us desire to live a life that reflects our love of God and Gods love for us. Our model is Jesus Christ and our faith imparts in us a desire to love as Christ loved. I think that faith brings with it some resources to do this. (What powerful or overwhelming desire does not bring with it its own energy?) Faith may also be accompanied by signs (although faith seems to me to be its own sign), one of which might be what we call mystical experiences which are nothing more than a physical experience of Gods love.What faith does not do (and I refer here especially to our best models of faith, that of people we call saints) is make our moral judgment in action infallible and therefore free us from sin. While I wont say that a conversion experience even makes one have a propensity to be more sinful, it seems to bring with it an understanding about how weak and sinful one really is, coupled with a much higher need for a vigilance that was lacking before. (This is what I meant when I talk about Simone Weil and her idea that the converted person moves from will to attention in their approach to God and the world.)Conversion then, creates a new context for conscience, which must nonetheless continue to be worked on so it can develop. It may sound ironic, but a converted person does not say I have faith in God; my conscience in now strong whereas before it was weak. A converted person says I have faith in God; I see now that my conscience is weak whereas I used to think it was strong.So we are therefore bound to pray because faith shows us in a radical way that we cannot rely on our own resources. We are bound to explore even more carefully. I will speculate here that the Church recognizes this with the Liturgy of the Hours, which is not just about prayer but also about instruction. The need to do this study and meditation is so essential that as you know, people in Holy Orders are required to submit to the discipline of observing the Liturgy of the Hours and I would suspect that a willingness to submit to this discipline is considered one sign of a conversion.In our age there seems to be a warped sense of what faith means, as though it means Please deposit your brain in the box located on the floor next to the statue of the Virgin Mary. This includes the general idea that the saints were or are airy fairy people who were zapped with some sort of alien god ray that took away their doubts and problems. Remember the outcry when Mother Theresa of Calcutta revealed in her memoir that she had lived and worked through an aridity that lasted for decades, performing acts of faith and will with far more anguish and doubts than the average insurance executive who says to himself Gee, if only I had the faith and assurance of a Mother Theresa; think of what I could accomplish!So you are right. The components of what we bring to this thing we call our conscience are still there, stronger than ever in fact. Perhaps what changes in conversion is the intensity of our desire to mediate the ever present contradictions.

I'm glad Ann and Unagidon have continued their reflections because I find the comments illuminating.I liked very much the last sentence of the above comment: "Perhaps what changes in conversion is the intensity of our desire to mediate the ever present contradictions."I have long been persuaded that a mark of spiritual maturity is the ability to sustain tension: the humanity AND divinity of Christ being one such. The sometimes too facilely invoked Catholic "both/and" is truly a rare attainment.I was also reminded by the following phrase, "faith imparts in us a desire to love as Christ loved," of the discovery by a young friend some years ago that the real challenge of "love one another" are the words that follow: "as I have loved you."

Unagidon tells us: I have implied that faith transforms conscience relative to ethical rules. Faith as a surrender to God would seem to also be a surrender to the rules. Ann replies: I'm don't understand just how you relate faith and conscience and ethical rules. I"d guess our definitions differ, if I had definitions of them. Sigh. And there are so many different and important meanings of them in ordinary language. It's a vast subject too --closely related no doubt to our original topic here, "mysticism", Not to mention the topics of so many other threads concerning political conscience.''Unagidon says: I think that you might be saying that while faith transforms the believer relative to the rules, the question about whether all the rules themselves are (all) really licit still remains. Ann replies: Indeed, My problem is not with belief as such, but with justified belief: what are we justified in believing and why? This question is about all sorts of beliefs, not just theological ones. This requires, I think, a theological epistemology that addresses specifically theological problems concerning belief and evidence, and it has yet to be written. Having trained only in philosophy (I've never had a theology course), I approach theology from a philosophical stance, even a secular one, if you will, and it seems that my and the seculars' questions are usually not even asked by contemporary theologians. I find the medievals theologians so much more relevant than the contemporary ones who, like Kant, really just by-pass the humongous questions concerning truth and evidence (especially theological truth and evidence) raised by Hume and all the rest who follow him. True, maybe I've just never heard of the contemporary theologians who do the sort of foundational (read: metaphysical and epistemological) thinking that would address those critical questions and ultimately ground theology for our age. But I ramble. Maybe we could talk about the necessity of foundational thinking on another thread (or more likely many other threads). It just seems to me that we've been talking *around* these foundational problems, especially when we talk about abortion and conscience. (Nobody seems interested in addressing the metaphysical questions of just what a human being is and how we tell one when we find one, and we need to get more deeply into just what is justified theological belief, and what exactly is conscience. Still I"m very grateful that Commonweal is supplying my theological education :-) So thanks, folks.

Fr. Imbelli tells us: I have long been persuaded that a mark of spiritual maturity is the ability to sustain tension: the humanity AND divinity of Christ being one such. The sometimes too facilely invoked Catholic both/and is truly a rare attainment.Ann replies: Yes, when we approach the theological mysteries we always come up against the limits of our own powers and consequent contradictions, but it seems to me (a scholastic rationalist) that what we must do is first admit that something is wrong with our thinking, not, as Kierkegaard and other would have us do, think that there is some ultimately irrational reality whose irrationality we must accept and even wallow in. (Sorry, K.) Then, hopefully, we can go on to refine our thinking, always recognizing that at least in this life we'll never be without contradictions.

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