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    The counter argument to Dr Pell on Primacy of Conscience A...
    Posted by BrianC on June 2, 2003, 5:46 pm

Dear all,

In his address to the Catalyst for Renewal Bishops' Forum, Archbishop George Pell, has put forward an argument as to why the Church should "publicly reject" what he describes as "this misleading doctrine of the primacy of conscience". He has previously called for this in addresses but in this article has made his call more emphatic.

While I find some points of sympathy with why the Archbishop believes this is the way forward, in the final analysis I find myself strongly opposed to what he is suggesting. I do not believe his solution will solve the problem of the decline of religious practice in the Western world but is more likely to exacerbate the problem. I'll put my own arguments in a second post. In the meantime, here is the full text of Dr Pell's argument why this doctrine should be publicly rejected.

-----------Archbishop Pell's argument--------------------

Why and how have we arrived at this situation? George Weigel, the author of the best biography of Pope John Paul II claims that theologians today learnt from the fate of Charles Davis who left the Catholic church round about Christmas time 1966 over important doctrinal differences. He disappeared from public view, being mentioned publicly only at his death some years ago. Weigel suggests that dissident theologians have learnt from this and believe they can get much more publicity for their views while remaining in the Catholic Church. There is no doubt that many, perhaps all of them, want to reform the Church in major areas, to make it more "acceptable", to bring it closer to the spirit of the age. And one of the enabling mechanisms for this has been the appeal to primacy of conscience

I believe strongly in the importance of individual conscience. It is indispensable. I have already endorsed the Second Vatican Council document on Freedom of Religion. In the past I have been in trouble for stating that the so called doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be quietly dropped. I would like to reconsider my position here and now state that I believe that this misleading doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be publicly rejected.

Let me tell you a story. At a cocktail party one evening a fairly prominent figure in Australian public life told me that he was not a Christian because he could no longer believe in the Divinity of Christ. I replied that I agreed that he could not be a Catholic while rejecting the Divinity of Christ but it could be possible for him to call himself a Christian, if he accepted many of Christ's teachings about God and on morality. "No", he said, "I do not accept the Divinity of Christ, and therefore I am not a Christian. But I do believe in God and I am not frightened to meet my Maker after death".

This was a man of integrity. He had reached a wrong conclusion, but there was every indication that he had come to this decision honestly and honourably. I admired his integrity. He acknowledged that he stood under the truth, that he would answer to God, and that he had to take the consequences of his position for his membership of the Catholic Church. This was an appropriate exercise of individual conscience, even though, as I mentioned, the conclusion was mistaken.

In Chapter 3 of the first letter of St. John, read at Mass some weeks ago, St. John spells out the link between conscience and the commandments, between freedom and truth. He explained that the way to love God is to follow his Commandments. This is basic. Christians have no entitlement to define sins out of existence, to deny or ignore fundamental teachings of faith, by claiming that their consciences are free or that they believe in the primacy of conscience. There is no substitute for personal sincerity, and we honour striving for the truth. But our consciences can be mistaken, sometimes mistaken through our own fault. And in any event we have to take the public consequences for our positions. It will not help me in a court of Law to claim that I did not realise I was driving on the right hand side of the road!

It is somewhat misleading also to claim that our conscience is free. Free for what? We do not boast that we are free to tell lies, although usually lies do not put people in gaol. Neither do we boast that we are free to read our watch in anyway we like, to get the time wrong intentionally. So too with conscience. Conscience is at the service of truth; it stands under God's word. Conscience has no primacy. Truth has primacy. The Word of God has primacy. When basic Catholic and Christian doctrines are explicitly and sometimes publicly denied, basic questions of personal integrity then have to be answered. I believe that the mischievous doctrine of the primacy of conscience has been used to white-ant the Church, used to justify many un-catholic teachings, ranging as I mentioned from denying the Divinity of Christ to legitimising abortion and euthanasia.

The so-called primacy of conscience offers no useful way forward in our current dilemmas.

-----------End Archbishop Pell's argument--------------------

Link: The full text of Archbishop Pell's address


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