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
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.
Archbishop Pell's argument--------------------
full text of Archbishop Pell's address