Bishop Fisher on Conscience and Authority
"Struggling to Recover a Catholic Sense"
VATICAN CITY, MARCH 5, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is the text Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia, delivered at the conference sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Life and held in the Vatican last Friday and Saturday. The theme of the conference was "The Christian Conscience in Support of the Right to Life."
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The moral conscience in ethics and the contemporary crisis of authority
1. The voice of conscience
1.1 What conscience is not
It might scandalize you to hear that I keep a lady in my car to instruct me on which way to go in life. "In three kilometers turn left," she commands. "Turn around," she pleads. "Coming up, on your right, you have arrived," she advises. She is, of course, a global positioning satellite navigator and I would be lost without her calm voice telling me where to go. She can be wrong at times, due to mechanical faults or wrong information. Sometimes I ignore her or switch her off. But usually I obey her; and if I don't I am usually sorry later.
In lots of ways conscience might seem to function like my satellite navigator and so we might call her Conscientia. Though I will argue that conscience is not like a satellite navigator, many people think it is a sort of angelic voice distinct from our own reasoning which comes, as it were, from outside us, even if we hear it in our heart; it is generally trustworthy, but we must decide to obey it or not. There is more than a hint of this at several points in our theological tradition. But whatever these texts mean, they clearly do not mean a divine or diabolical voice intrudes into our ordinary reasoning processes, commanding or complaining, a rival with our own moral thinking. If we experience such voices we should probably see a doctor or an exorcist! Were conscience really a voice from outside our reasoning it would play no part in philosophy and there might be some kind of double truth in the moral sphere.
Late scholastic voluntarism and post-scholastic legalism took moral theology down just such a blind alley. Magisterium became the satellite navigator and the role of conscience was to hear, interpret and obey. Many contemporary theologians and pastors are heirs to this. For some the solution to the crisis of moral authority is to keep calling for submission to the navigator. Moral tax lawyers, on the other hand, try to find ways around the moral law, or ways to "sail as close to the wind as possible" without actually breaking the moral law. Can you do a little bit of abortion or embryo experimentation or euthanasia without breaking the moral law? Can we reclassify some of it as something else and thereby avoid the law? What both approaches have in common with the late schoolmen is a view of the magisterium as a voice external to conscience which commands things to which conscience is not naturally disposed.
In my written paper I trace what became of conscience in liberal modernity. By the 1960s it meant something like strong feeling, intuition or sincere opinion. To appeal to conscience was to foreclose all further discussion and to claim immunity to reasoned argument or the moral law. "Follow your conscience" came to be code for pursuing personal preferences over and against Church teaching, especially in sexuality, bioethics, remarriage and communion. Conscience was now the highest court of appeal: it had "primacy" or infallibility. Sophisticated consciences yielded judgments in accord with the New York Times rather than L'Osservatore Romano. Conscience became, as the then-Cardinal Ratzinger put it, "a cloak thrown over human subjectivity, allowing man to … hide from reality."
1.2 What conscience is: a little history
In my written paper I trace the origins of the Christian conception of conscience in the universal experience of agency and the Old and New Testaments, especially in Pauline literature, and thereafter in the Fathers and the scholastics. While the concept of conscience played only a minor role in Aquinas' moral theory, in the early modern period it was "hoisted to new heights" and a whole, lengthy tract devoted to it in the manuals, with practical reason and prudence accordingly diminished. Soon "all roads, in the moral world, led to conscience."
Conscience featured especially often in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. The Council declared that:
-- all are bound to seek, embrace and live the truth faithfully;
-- conscience is experienced as an inner sanctuary or tribunal, rather than something external, yet it mediates a universal and objective moral law which is given rather than invented;
-- conscience summons us to seek good and avoid evil by loving God and neighbor, by keeping the commandments and all universal norms of morality;
-- conscience is common to all human beings, not ...
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