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Cardinal Pell on True and False Conscience

Synopsis of a Talk on Newman and a Drama

CHICAGO, FEB. 11, 2005 (Zenit) - Australian Cardinal George Pell delivered an address to members of the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago last fall, on the "primacy of truth" and the "primacy of conscience." Catholic Online offers this synopsis of the Sydney archbishop's speech.

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Newman and the Drama of True and False Conscience
By Cardinal George Pell

Cardinal John Newman's view of conscience is far from that usually held by those who speak of "primacy of conscience" today. Newman believes a good Catholic conscience can never accept a position of dissent against central Church teaching. Moral truth is the key to conscience, and this is very difficult to deny coherently.

People who claim primacy of conscience rarely see the problems this raises in the moral life. Furthermore, this view causes a range of problems for the practice of the faith and for the Catholic sense of belonging. Newman's view of conscience has a more transcendent importance: Conscience is the normal means by which most people know of the existence of God. ...

People from across the theological spectrum would agree with Newman that conscience is "a connecting principle between the creature and his Creator" ("Grammar of Assent," Chapter 5). But while some see conscience as God's invitation to embrace his law as free subjects, others see it as a radical call to personal freedom. For many people today, conscience suggests freedom to judge God's law by our own personal resources and the right to reject the notion or reformulate this law as we think best.

I imagine that to non-Christians this must seem rather odd: If moral and religious teachings bind only to the extent that one's individual mind and will enthuse about them, then pretty clearly the teachings do not bind at all. What "binds" is simply the autonomous self, with all the limitations that our selves are prey to. And to say "I am bound by me" is hardly to make a meaningful moral utterance. Rather, it is to reject the need for morality and creed and to claim that I should be allowed to live as I choose within the constraints imposed by family, friends and society.

Of course, this theory is often dressed up with the claim that conscience is a special faculty that speaks to us, rather like an oracle. The theory may also be elevated to the status of a doctrine -- the "primacy of conscience."

But annunciating grand titles does not change moral reality. Conscience is simply the mind thinking practically, thinking morally; the mind thinks well when we understand moral principles and apply them in clear and reasonable ways; the mind thinks badly when we ignore or reinvent moral principles, or apply them in ambiguous and unreasonable ways.

"Good conscience" simply means good grasp and good application of moral truths -- it is the truth that is primary, it is the truth that is grasped and applied by the practical mind, or, if you prefer, by the conscience.

Newman carefully distinguishes himself from those who equate conscience with integrity, sincerity or preference. In the famous passage of the "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk" (Part 5), which the Catechism (1778) part-quotes, he writes: "Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, Who, both in nature and grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ."

When we receive messages, we listen to them. We do not make them up and reword them to reflect what we wish had been said. If we disagree with the Church's message so seriously that we cannot follow its terms, then we cannot reinvent it to make it easier or more palatable.

Rather, we enter into a period of prayer, study and inquiry to try to understand the message and to understand why we find ourselves opposed to it. And we should realize that if the matter that puzzles us is one of a binding Church teaching or a central moral teaching, then prayer and study of this may be a lifetime's work.

A Catholic conscience cannot accept a settled position against the Church, at least on a central moral teaching. Any difficulties with Church teaching should be not the end of the matter but the beginning of a process of conversion, education and quite possibly repentance. Where a Catholic disagrees with the Church on some serious matter, the response should not be "that's that; I can't follow the Church here"; instead we should kneel and pray that God will lead our weak steps and enlighten our fragile minds, as Newman recommends in Sermon 17 -- "The Testimony of Conscience."

Of course, Newman's view of conscience is profoundly counterintuitive to modern ears. For ...

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