The Church and conscience

Fr. Jim Keenan, S.J., of the Boston College Theology Department (whose students, I understand, are more intelligent, hardworking, and goodlooking than those in other theology departments...) has an essay on the op-ed page of the Boston Globe. He does a great job of focusing the questions confronting contemporary Catholicism about how we as Catholics might use the resources of our understanding of "conscience" to both temper a conservative absolutism and, for those of us who tend to think as "progressives" or "liberals", to pay attention to how we form our consciences so as to best search for the truth. One excerpt:

This tension between what the church teaches and what the conscience dictates is itself a long-standing traditional debate. In the high Middle Ages, for instance, Thomas Aquinas disagreed with his great predecessor, Peter Lombard. Lombard upheld church teaching as the last word; Aquinas the conscience. It is a tension we are destined to live with.

I might sound like an old fuddy-duddy here. I am a progressive Catholic who, particularly in my life as a openly gay man, relies upon an understanding of conscience in order to guide and justify my attempts to lead a morally authentic life. Even more personally, I find that my wrestling with my conscience in prayer is one of the more spiritually privileged moments of my life. In some ways, my daily failures to live up, not to a set of external rules, but to my own conscience's (and ergo the Holy Spirit's, in a very real sense) demands and expectations, are for me a constant sign of God's loving and challenging presence. ("BEWARE OF GOD", reads the sign on my spiritual director's door.) I've been reading Bonhoeffer with my students, and Bonhoeffer's response to a libertine reading of Luther's pecca fortiter is
"Yes, and become a sinner again and again every day, and be bold about it. But to whom can such words be addressed, except to those who from the bottom of their hearts make a daily renunciation of sin and of every barrier which hinders them from following Christ, but who nevertheless are troubled by their daily faithlessness and sin? Who can hear these words without endangering his faith but he who hears their consolation as a renewed summons to follow Christ?" In the terms of a theology of conscience, there's a real way in which the sacrality of conscience must be defended." (The Cost of Discipleship, 52-53)

Again, as a progressive Catholic, the threat to sacrality of conscience in the face of an external set of rules, undermining any distinctions in a hierarchy of truths, seems obvious to me and many of my friends. But I am concerned, and I think we who are suspicious (on the basis of hard-earned experience) of the teaching of the church in its hierarchy and in our fellow Christians, need to also be concerned with our own self-deceptions, our own unwillingness to form our consciences well...not correctly, in the sense of matching up our vision with another's as though it were as simple as hanging wallpaper, but well, in the sense of fruitfully, healthily, virtuously, humbly. We can't use the theology of conscience as Bonhoeffer's targets used Lutheran thought on grace as an escape hatch from the difficult work of forming and following our consciences, of paying attention to best revere in our consciences the mission of God as Holy Spirit, rather than the mission of our own ego. To use good Lonerganian language, we need continued conversion. To be clear: I'm not trying to undermine the sacrality of conscience, but I'm particularly conscious that as a gay man trying to be a faithful Catholic Christian, I'm very aware that my action has to stand not on external standards, whether those of the Vatican or those of modern America, but on my own discernment of the voice of the Spirit in the midst of all those many voices. Anything less is too shaky a foundation for authentic discipleship.

Jim Weiss, also of B.C. theology, is on today's op-ed page as well.

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