“If I’m obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts …. I shall drink to conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.” That’s by Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman. It’s good that giants of the Church make such bold statements. They protect lesser mortals from being denounced when the latter think and say likewise.
Despite reversals trained at Vatican II, it nonetheless liberated a spirit that can’t be confined again. It’s the genie out of the bottle, the toothpaste out of the tube, the runner that got through enemy lines. It’s out and free. It’s the primacy of conscience.
Vatican II says that “we are bound to follow our conscience faithfully in all our activity and no one is ‘to be forced to act in a manner contrary to one’s conscience.’” Conscience is “the most secret core and sanctuary of a person … alone with God whose voice echoes in the depths of the person.” (McBrien, “Catholicism”)
It’s not only the voice that whispers what’s right, what’s wrong; it also includes the entire process of thinking what’s right or not, of deciding to do this and not that, of even choosing who’s arguing right or wrong. No longer can any institution’s prescribed conscience “substitute itself for the individual conscience.” What a far cry from some popes who reportedly “worked to diminish conscience in favor of absolute claims for the Magisterium.”
Now, a fashionable phrase is “formed/informed conscience.” The Church has long been accustomed to lead in this formation, such that up to now, a formed conscience is one that conforms to the “teachings of the Church,” really an imposed conscience. But give credit to the Church for not telling us who to vote for even if at times she comes close to telling us who not to vote for.
But the Church must face it. “Teachings of the Church” are not the normative criterion, the last word for a formed conscience. By all means, heed the principles taught by the Church, but an individual’s prudential judgment takes over in day-to-day applications of the principles, in light of specific and overall context. One size does not fit all.
The hierarchic mindset to insist that the “teachings of the Church” are ipso facto the word of God has to be tempered. The mindset is still sowed earnestly: “Papal Twitter messages, as with everything written by the Pope, will be part of the Church’s teachings, but not infallible.” (Inquirer, 12/14/12) “The Church will remember you [the RH nays, shady characters included] as the heroes of our nation” (Inquirer, 12/17/12).
Thank God for the temperate voice of Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle: “[B]ishops have to be clear in their own theological positions. They should be able to present their case and not just simply use authority, not simply say, ‘This is the teaching of the Church, therefore you should follow.’” (Inquirer, 11/27/12)
Sifting the “teachings of the Church” for “musts” and “mays” is only fair, instead of making all of them seem to be “musts.” Is Church solicitude about concern or control a means to obedience?
With the recovery of conscience, will people err, abuse, neglect its formation? Yes, decidedly, even with the best efforts of many. But that’s the road to adulthood—rocky. The Church cannot play man-to-man from beginning to end. Either she loosens her grip or gets shaken off.
However, there are fundamentalist-inclined Catholics, educated and learned who wholeheartedly submit to and accept “instructed consciences” when it comes to all the teachings of the Church. “Where the Church pushes the cart,” there also do “we push ours.” To each his own.
“RH (reproductive health) and conscience” is too tempting to pass. “Conscience vote” was bandied by both sides. Actually, conscience played between adherence to Church teachings and/or political expediency—who knows to what extent? At least, conscience was invoked, whether for real or for show.
But there may be a perilous parallel between RH and “Humanae Vitae.” HV in 1968 was a show of authority. Ironically, HV dealt a major blow to that authority. From then on, “everything to do with human sexuality began to be moved into the category of matters of conscience rather than obedience.” (National Catholic Reporter, 10/11/12) The faithful realized that they themselves are qualified moral agents, that moral theology and ecclesiology are not monopolies of clerics but very much within lay understanding and concern. Not a few fell away. The credibility of the Church as moral arbiter and teacher declined—to crisis points, some say. Confession “almost vanished.” Never has the pyramidal Church been so immobile; never has it also been so shaken.
Likewise, never has the local Church, back to a condemning stance, flexed its power so much as in the RH battle. Will RH be to the local Church as HV has been to the universal Church? Lest another sign of the times slips by unseen, we hope our Church leaders read the repercussions well before they rush off to the Supreme Court.
The pupil is growing up. Even in the seas of our devout, tame masses, pockets of educated, disenchanted faithful may one day say “panahon na,” it’s time. Welcome to the beginnings of a critical mass.
Asuncion David Maramba is a retired professor, book editor and occasional journalist. Comments to marda_ph @yahoo.com or fax 8284454.