Tuesday, February 2, 2010

On Conscience

How many people, whether Catholic, Jewish, or Sikh, actually have a relationship with God or experience God in their prayers, in the mundane events or tasks of their daily lives, in their work, in their relations with their fellow human beings? If there is some kind of connection, a form of discourse perhaps, with God, how is it manifested? I wonder whether the communication that takes place is direct, as in the voice of God speaking to the believer, or if it is metaphorical, through signs. A young seminarian based his whole vocation on just such a sign. He told God that if he sent him a sign in the form of the sighting of a black rose, he would take that as a divine message that he should become a priest. The next day he saw a black rose in a shop and knew there and then what God intended for him. I am sure that there are countless stories like this young man’s.

I must admit that I have never experienced the presence of God in my life. Yet I do believe in God. Maybe I just have not had my receiver turned on or at least tuned in; perhaps God indeed does speak to me—when Butterfly sings “Un Bel di Vedremo” or when I see the snow-covered mountains in Vancouver on a sunny winter’s day. As Eckhart Tolle tells us with such beautiful simplicity, the constant chatter of our thinking mind prevents us from becoming aware of and truly experiencing the stillness that is the space between our thoughts. Is it in this space, this stillness, that we will find God?

I wonder if one of the ways that God does speak with us is through conscience. I do not mean the conscience that is trained and guided by the dogma and doctrine of any organized religion, particularly the Catholic Church, but rather that voice, governed neither by passion nor by reason, that tells us, in any given situation, what is morally right and what is morally wrong.

Let us indulge in a slight digression for the moment and look at the Catholic discussion of natural law. According to the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, natural law is “the rule of conduct which is prescribed to us by the Creator in the constitution of the nature with which He has endowed us.” The explanation goes on:

According to St. Thomas [Aquinas], the natural law is “nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law”….Like all the rest of creation, man is destined by God to an end, and receives from Him a direction towards this end. This ordination is of a character in harmony with his free intelligent nature. In virtue of his intelligence and free will, man is master of his conduct. Unlike the things of the mere material world, he can vary his action, act, or abstain from action as he pleases. Yet he is not a lawless being in an ordered universe. In the very constitution of his nature, he too has a law laid down for him, reflecting that ordination and direction of all things, which is the eternal law. The rule, then, which God has prescribed for our conduct, is found in our nature itself. Those actions which conform with its tendencies, lead to our destined end, and are thereby constituted right and morally good; those at variance with our nature are wrong and immoral.

How do we know, then, whether an action conforms with our divinely endowed nature or is at variance with it? The Church would have us subscribe to its interpretation of natural law in considering the morality of our actions:

Actions are wrong if, though subserving the satisfaction of some particular need or tendency, they are at the same time incompatible with that rational harmonious subordination of the lower to the higher which reason should maintain among our conflicting tendencies and desires. For example, to nourish our bodies is right; but to indulge our appetite for food to the detriment of our corporal or spiritual life is wrong. Self-preservation is right, but to refuse to expose our life when the well-being of society requires it, is wrong. It is wrong to drink to intoxication, for, besides being injurious to health, such indulgence deprives one of the use of reason, which is intended by God to be the guide and dictator of conduct. Theft is wrong because it subverts the basis of social life; and man’s nature requires for its proper development that he live in a state of society.

Here is where we get into a few problems because there is now a mediator between God and the individual natures of human beings. In the “rational harmonious subordination of the lower to the higher,” for example, who decides what is lower and what is higher? How has it been determined—and by whom—that reason “is intended by God to be the guide and dictator of conduct”? It is rather simplistic to say that theft is always wrong; when a man steals from a wealthy exploiter in order to feed his starving family, surely this cannot be called wrong.

If my God (or yours) is a God of love, reason should tell us that an action is only wrong if it causes harm to self or to others; if we love God, ourselves, and others, we do not intentionally cause harm to be done. I do not believe that we need a set of laws, either religious or secular, to tell us this because we participate in the “eternal law” through the working of conscience, which tells us whether an action is harmful to ourselves or to others. Nevertheless, as humans are weak—or sinful—they do not always act out of love or according to the dictates of conscience. The seven deadly sins do indeed reflect the dark side of human nature, and because many of us act on that aspect of our nature, we need to prescribe consequences for failure to listen to our conscience when serious harm results from that failure. Naturally, there are also those who are so damaged that the regulating function of conscience is disordered; the rest of the world needs to be protected from these broken souls.

When we were children and we did something which we clearly knew was wrong, like striking a younger sibling or taking the possession of another against his or her will, our parents would say to us, “You know that’s wrong. Why do I have to tell you?” As adults we also know that actions that harm others or potentially harm others—directly or indirectly—are wrong. As we are social creatures, we have a fairly sophisticated understanding of our responsibilities toward ourselves and others. We do not need God or conscience to tell us that running a red or “nearly-red” light is wrong or that dropping garbage on the side of the road is immoral or that smoking will likely kill us and maybe a few others along with us.

But what do we do when the line between right and wrong is not so clear? I believe that if we allow ourselves to be guided by the voice of God—which is in all cases the voice of love—intoned through our conscience, we cannot fail to arrive at the answer that is right for us. Let us take, for example, the recent controversy sparked by the decision of Notre Dame University, a Catholic institution, to invite pro-choice President Obama to give the 2009 commencement speech and to bestow on him an honorary degree. Conservative pro-life groups, including nearly three score of Catholic bishops, denounced the invitation. Moreover, Harvard Law professor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, Mary Ann Glendon, who was to receive the university’s Laetare Award at the commencement, sent a letter to university president Father John Jenkins declining the award.

The Laetare speech was delivered, in Glendon’s place, by Judge John T. Noonan, who had been recipient of the award in 1984. An article on the website of America Magazine lauded this choice: “In the event, he delivered one of the most memorable speeches of any commencement, one that should rank with Secretary of State George Marshall’s commencement address at Harvard in 1947, not in terms of their immediate political significance but in terms of the way both men used the moment to raise the intellectual climate of the nation.”

Here is what Noonan had to say in his speech on the rights and demands of conscience:

By conscience, as you graduates of 2009 know, we apprehend what God asks of us and what the love of our neighbor requires. More than the voice of your mother, more than an emotional impulse, this mysterious, impalpable, imprescriptible, indestructible, and indispensable guide governs our moral life. Each one is different. You may suggest what my conscience should say, but you cannot tell me what my conscience must say. That's the rub when your moral vision is clear and the other fellow's is cloudy. You become impatient, the more frustrated if the other fellow is a friend - an old friend or a potential friend. Why can't he or she see it? To satisfy that frustration by shunning or denouncing your unseeing companion will accomplish little beyond expressing your own exasperation.

The Catholic Church teaches that man’s conscience must be educated and that the primary source of instruction is the “authoritative teaching of the Church.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1783-1785) states:

Conscience must be formed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.

The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness, and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.

In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.

Again we have a mediator, in the form of the “authoritative teaching” of the Church, prescribing exactly how we are to adhere to “the rule of conduct which is prescribed to us by the Creator in the constitution of the nature with which He has endowed us.” In other words, God speaks to us through the Church, which in turn interprets and codifies his law in all its complexity and minute detail and passes it on to us, who are expected to obey. Failure to obey constitutes sin, either mortal or venial, and could result in our being condemned to the everlasting fires of hell.

There can be no question that the Church, especially at the local level, is a force for good in that through the ritualized enactment of the liturgy of the Word and of the Eucharist it serves to remind us of our need to recognize that which is greater than we are, of the need to love God and to love our community, and of the need to acknowledge and provide comfort to the less fortunate in our world. The sacraments, “visible signs of an invisible grace,” enrich our lives and bring us closer to God. The Church can also be a powerful moral guide, when the issue involves social justice or a clear choice between good and evil (cause harm or do not cause harm), both for us as individuals and for the world at large.

When it comes to our relationship with God or our experience of God, however, I would argue that as intelligent adults we must also recognize that the Church is made up of men—imperfect men often committed to the preservation of power, both their own and that of the institution. It is sinful and imperfect men—men who may indeed be well intentioned—who interpret God’s law and require us strictly to agree with and obey the dogma and doctrine that result from their interpretation. In the process of submission to the earthly authority of the Church, we seem to have lost the awareness that God does—through our conscience—speak directly to us. If we can quiet the constant calculating, judgmental, and anxious activity of our thinking mind, we will hear—or rather feel—the voice of God telling us what is right for us. In order for us to lead peaceful, truly productive lives, this voice must assume primacy over any other, including that of Church, state, society, or parents.

On July 25 1968 Pope Paul VI issued Humanae vitae, the long-anticipated encyclical on birth control. The essence of the encyclical’s message was “The Church, calling human beings back to the observance of the norms of natural law, as interpreted by her constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.” Upon learning that the pope had gone against the recommendations of the commission he himself had appointed, Catholics began following the advice of Catholic University theologian and professor Father Charles Curran: “Spouses may responsibly decide according to their conscience that artificial contraception in some circumstances is permissible and indeed necessary to preserve and foster the values and sacredness of marriage.” Writer James Carroll, about to be ordained a priest at the time, recalls in his book Practising Catholic:

Eight other CU theologians were first signers of Curran’s statement. It was a shot heard round the ecclesiastical world. Within days, hundreds of other theologians and Church officials joined them, including some of the most admired scholars in all of Catholicism, like Karl Rahner, Hans Küng, and Bernard Häring. Most of the Paulist priests who had been my professors over the previous six years affirmed the Curran position. Very quickly, Canadian and European bishops’ conferences issued statements saying that Catholics should consider contraception a matter of conscience….As far as I knew, not one of my classmates accepted the encyclical, and not one of our professors indicated that we should. No sooner had the encyclical been issued than vast numbers of Catholics instinctively understood that they could reject it without thereby becoming bad Catholics. This became as essential part of Catholic self-understanding, though bishops would rail against it for the next generation.

In spite of the reinstatement of monarchical papal authority following the election of John Paul II and repeated reaffirmations of the principles espoused by Humanae vitae, Catholic couples all over the world continue to listen to their conscience when it comes to the issue of artificial birth control. Many of these couples, fully aware of the doctrinal prohibition against this practice, must ask themselves if preventing contraception does harm and is thereby an evil action. They must wonder how it became an imperative of natural law that the act of making love to the one they love must “be open to the transmission of life.”

Just as Catholics understand that they can reject the teachings of the Church on contraception without becoming bad Catholics, as a gay man, my conscience tells me that the doctrine on homosexuality as reflected in Joseph Ratzinger’s 1986 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” is one which I and all other gay Catholics—in fact, all Catholics period—can ignore without guilt. The letter states the following:

In the discussion which followed the publication of the Declaration [the "Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics" issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on December 29, 1975], however, an overly benign interpretation was given to the homosexual condition itself, some going so far as to call it neutral, or even good. Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.

Therefore special concern and pastoral attention should be directed toward those who have this condition, lest they be led to believe that the living out of this orientation in homosexual activity is a morally acceptable option. It is not.

Love between two people of the same sex in no way contravenes “the rule of conduct which is prescribed to us by the Creator in the constitution of the nature with which He has endowed us.” In fact, homosexuality constitutes part of my divinely endowed nature, so God and I are just fine with it. Moreover, a gay relationship based on mutual love and respect can under no circumstances be considered evil. I can live a peaceful and productive life as a gay man—even if I am in a gay relationship—and still be a good Catholic because what God says to me through my nature and through my conscience trumps the teaching of the Church.

If our conscience is to be educated by the authoritative teaching of the Church, we must be able to insist, in this modern age, that the Church be educated by the authoritative teaching of the modern natural and social sciences. As Catholics we need to adopt a mature faith tempered by integrity and healthy skepticism and recognize the tendency of Church leaders to resist change and cling to a medieval, anti-modern view of the Church as a hierarchical institution. As Hans Küng states in his The Catholic Church: A Short History, “In this view the pope stands at the head as absolute sole ruler; then comes the aristocracy of the bishops and priests; and finally, in a passive function, the subject people of the faithful.”

These words of Cardinal Ratzinger in his “Letter to Bishops” reflect the arrogance and distortion of truth to which this tendency leads:

Naturally, an exhaustive treatment of this complex issue cannot be attempted here, but we will focus our reflection within the distinctive context of the Catholic moral perspective. It is a perspective which finds support in the more secure findings of the natural sciences, which have their own legitimate and proper methodology and field of inquiry.

However, the Catholic moral viewpoint is founded on human reason illumined by faith and is consciously motivated by the desire to do the will of God our Father. The Church is thus in a position to learn from scientific discovery but also to transcend the horizons of science and to be confident that her more global vision does greater justice to the rich reality of the human person in his spiritual and physical dimensions, created by God and heir, by grace, to eternal life.

While these words are personally offensive to me, I am secure in my conscience that they do not reflect the will of God, that in this case the “authoritative teaching” of the Church is an oxymoron. I am also confident that those who chose in 1968—and those who to this day continue to choose—to follow their conscience rather than the doctrine affirmed by Humanae vitae, recognize that the will of God does not necessarily correspond to the “authoritative teaching” of the Church and that when God speaks to us in a voice unmediated by any agent, we are hearing the Truth.

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