Monsignor Lynn, conscience and obedience

At the same time the U.S. Catholic bishops are giving daily lessons on how important it is for government to respect individual conscience, the Philadelphia jury that convicted Monsignor William Lynn on Friday of child endangerment has offered a lesson on the role of conscience in the church.In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, jury foreman Isa Logan spoke of how he told the other jurors about his military experience; he served two years in an artillery unit in Korea. "All I told them was, I'm a soldier, and if my commander tells me to do something that's inhumane or against any kind of Army rules," he would not, Logan said. "I'm a human being before I'm a soldier."Contrast that with Monsignor Lynn's testimony, reported here by journalist Ralph Cipriano:

Lynn's direct testimony ended in a flourish, when [defense lawyer Thomas] Bergstrom asked the monsignor why he didn't just quit his job as secretary for clergy, as some critics have suggested.

It's "not in my nature to do that," Lynn said. He explained he had a "simple faith" that "the will of God works through the bishop as far as your assignments are concerned." He said he preaches that belief to fellow priests. It was a belief that provoked classmates in the seminary to call him a fool, Lynn said with a smile. But the monsignor said he sincerely believed it, so how could he quit his job as secretary for the clergy under Cardinal Bevilacqua?

"It's just not who I am," Lynn said."That's all I have," Bergstrom said.

Another close observer of the trial, Associated Press reporter Maryclaire Dale, highlighted this issue of conscience vs. obedience. She wrote:
His case shines light on the culture of obedience ingrained in Catholics, especially priests. Archdiocesan priests in Philadelphia take vows of obedience to their archbishop, and trial testimony demonstrated that Cardinal Anthony Bevilacquatreated a priest whistle-blower more harshly than some priestabusers.
"You don't say no to Cardinal Bevilacqua," Monsignor James Beisel said last month when he testified as a defense witness.

I understand what this witness means. I once saw Cardinal Bevilacqua speak at a parish in my Brooklyn neighborhood. In what was billed as a Lenten reflection, the point he hammered was obedience to his authority.The jury's verdict calls for the rhetoric of obedience to church authority to be tempered and for greater respect for conscience within the church.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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