As you may know, I am currently an “enquirer” to become an “aspirant” to become a “candidate” to become a permanent Deacon in the Church. Its a long process (four years formation) and I am only at the end of the first year (the “enquirer” year), and there’s no guarentee that the Church will judge my personal sense of vocation to be a sign of a genuine call.
I mention this, because when the Director of the Office for the Permanent Diaconate reviewd formal studies in theology from the Lutheran Seminary, he deemed it to be insufficient in moral philosophy. Hence, next year, I hope to enrol at the Catholic Theological College to remedy this deficiency.
I tell this little story because last night I was invited to give a talk on the topic of “Conscience” to a local Melbourne youth group. If I had been asked straight out to do a talk on this topic, I would have declined and referred them to an expert in the area – Bishop Peter Elliott, for instance, who wrote this little piece (“Moral Conscience”) for Kairos (our archdiocesan rag) a few years ago.
However, that isn’t how it happened. They booked me up some months ago to speak on the topic of ecumenical and interfaith relations – something I do know something about. I accepted. Then two weeks ago, I got a phone call asking if I could speak on a different topic. Okay, I said, what do you want me to speak on? Conscience.
Understanding the importance of Conscience and its role in living the moral life is just about the first plank in any system of moral philosophy – the aforesaid area of deficiency in my theological eduction. But, I thought to myself, surely it can’t be too hard for a layman to understand? Afterall, everyday I (like you, dear reader, lay or otherwise) have recourse to my conscience on an endless number of issues. So, armed with Scripture and Catechism and a few essays by local chums, off I went to give my presentation.
You can find it here and evaluate it for yourself. The main idea, as far as I see it, is something like this. Conscience is (as the Catechism says at §1778) “a judgement of reason”. Like a compass that always points North/South, Conscience always enjoins a person “to do good and to avoid evil.” (CCC §1777). But as the same paragraph says, conscience “bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn [ie. God]”. So the whole deal looks something like this:
God = Supreme Good = Truth
Authority = Witness to the Truth = Voice of God
Reason = Judgement = Conscience
Will = Discipline / Prudence
Concrete Action = Future / Present / Past
And thus, as the usefulness of a compass depends upon a the accuracy of the map with which it is used (and knowing where you actually stand in relation to that map), so the usefulness of the rational judgement of conscience will depend upon the authorities upon which one relies and trusts to hear the “voice of God” speaking to one.
While many and various are these “authorities”, the Catechism suggests five such authorities on which Christians rely (CCC §1785):
– the Word of God
– the Lord’s Cross.
– the gifts of the Holy Spirit,
– the witness or advice of others
– the authoritative teaching of the Church.
That last one is has become the sticking point for “dissenters” in the Church today. On this, two opinions are interesting, first that of Cardinal George Pell (as given in two addresses: The Inconvenient Conscience and Newman and the Drama of True and False Conscience):
“If we disagree with the Church’s message so seriously that we cannot follow its terms, we cannot reinvent that message to make it easier or more palatable. Rather, we enter into a period of prayer, study, and enquiry to try to understand the message and to understand why we find ourselves opposed to it. And if the matter that puzzles us is one of a binding Church teaching or a central moral teaching, then this may prove a lifetime’s work. .” George Pell, The Inconvenient Conscience
The other opinion, not differing from this, is in an essay by local Australian Catholic University theology, Brian Lewis. Lewis is actually writing in reply to another very good essay by Bishop Anthony Fisher, “The moral conscience in ethics and the contemporary crisis of authority”. Although he does not share Bishop Anthony’s evaluation of the authority of the Magisterium in matters of conscience, nevertheless he concedes that:
“For a Catholic to make a decision in conscience, deliberately ignoring the official teaching of their Church, would be to forfeit one’s claim to be acting as a committed Catholic and in accord with a properly informed conscience.” Brian Lewis , Conscience and the Teaching of the Magisterium on Morality
Anyway, what do you think? Do we need doctorates in moral philosophy just to understand the Church’s teaching on conscience? Or is it all, in the end, very simple?