Continued from Primacy
of Conscience A...
Let me begin my argument
by outlining where I am in agreement with Dr Pell. I do think
he has a strong argument that there is a tendency in the world
to equate Primacy of Conscience with a wrong notion that Primacy
of Conscience means that we have the freedom to believe anything
we want to believe or, for instance, that Primacy of Conscience
means we have the freedom to follow our emotions rather than the
In the middle of his argument
the Archbishop makes a two-sentence gutsy summary of his position.
"Conscience has no primacy. Truth has primacy."
It is a marvellous political
statement to advance his cause. It has the appeal of simplicity.
It has the appeal of taking away any shades of grey. It has the
appeal of being turned into a slogan. I believe though that it
has the potential to mislead in as dangerous a way as that which
he is so concerned to redress.
But neither is the opposite
of what Dr Pell writes a description of what the Church is endeavouring
to teach under this doctrine. The Church does NOT teach "Conscience
has primacy. Truth has no primacy." In a sense the Archbishop
would almost seem to be putting forward a straw-man argument as
to why this doctrine needs to be publicly rejected.
So, my own starting point
is that while I believe Dr Pell is correct to raise the difficulty
in the modern world that many people wrongly believe that Primacy
of Conscience leads to the false conclusion that they can, for
instance, follow their emotions instead of what their conscience
is telling them, I do not believe his proposal to "publicly reject"
this doctrine is going to solve that problem in the world. What
the Church has to do is explain what it means more clearly when
she writes that Conscience has some sense of Primacy in our affairs.
I believe there are three
main arguments as to why this doctrine is not only theologically
sound but why it leads to a better practical pathway for leading
people to "the Way of Christ".
Firstly, in what I have
read on this subject over the years, I have never picked up a
sense that this doctrine slowly came to the consciousness of the
Church through the machinations of a cabal of conservative or
liberal cardinals following some political agenda of their own
as seems to have happened with Humanae Vitae and other controversial
episodes in the development of Church doctrine. To the contrary,
this doctrine would appear to have all the hallmarks of that development
in human thought and divine insight that slowly evolves over long
periods of time through what we in the Church call the agency
of the Holy Spirit.
This was not some decision
made in a frenzy over a few beers in the Pope's parlour or in
the argy-bargy that goes on in the gardens of the Vatican over
morning tea at a Vatican Council or a Synod. It was an insight
that slowly grew in the consciousness of the best minds in the
Church over centuries as to why God imbued us with a conscience
and how the concept of conscience fits into the whole pantheon
of parts that make up the human "being". The insight of this doctrine
is that in all the parts that make up "being" this one of "the
inner core of conscience" is the single one that most intimately
links us to God this Mystery at the very core of our lives
and of all life. Nowhere in the make-up of our entire "being"
do we come closer to understanding God than we do through this
part of our being called our conscience.
This is a profound insight.
As I read it, the insight the Church is trying to give us is that
Conscience has a Primacy over all the other parts that make up
our "being" such as our minds, our emotions, our feelings, even
those things that we tend to follow sub- or un-consciously in
our lives because they might be programmed into us in some genetic
way or through social conditioning. Conscience is something deeper
than mere mind. It is something deeper than mere emotion or feeling.
It is hard to describe what it is. It is easier to describe what
it is not for example, it is not merely a process of thinking
or mental reasoning. It is not merely a process of intuition.
As hard as it might be to describe what it is, this is not sufficient
reason to argue that it is bunkum, misleading or something that
ought be "publicly rejected".
As I understand what the
Church is trying to say to us through this insight, Conscience
is the place in our being where God really does "talk" to us.
This is not "talk" though in some childish sense of voices in
the head -- nor the sort of infantile image that many people seem
to have in their heads of what happened at Lourdes or Fatima of
the Lady in the Sky speaking to Bernadette or the other children
in the same way as their own biological mother might have spoken
To me the closest I can
come to visualise it is to think of it as some sort of seventh
sense (if we assume intuition is the sixth sense) where we are
able to discern right from wrong, truth from fiction, the absolute
from the relative.
I know it is unfortunate
that it is not the sort of thing that you can teach a child as
simply as how we teach them that if you add 2 sticks to two other
sticks you end up with four sticks. That is not an argument as
to why we should not endeavour to explain what conscience is nor
to argue why we should not teach that it has a place of Primacy
in the elements that go into making up our "being".
The process of developing
a conscience, or finding one's conscience, I believe is a life-long
process. Indeed, I believe it is somewhere close to the heart
of what the entire religious quest is all about. Forming, and
following, our own consciences is at the heart of the process
of getting to heaven. Christ himself constantly tells us that
the process of salvation is a never ending process of dying to
self and denying self. What I think he is trying to get at here
is that it is all these other elements of our being the mind,
the body, the emotions that constantly distract us from getting
to the spiritual core where our end objective, heaven, is found.
Conscience is the place where we finally discern moral choice.
The very task of our entire lives is a process of forming or training
our conscience so that it can make the truthful choices free from
these other distractions. This, I think is what the Pope is trying
to get to when he wrote that heaven is not a place we go to. It
is a state of "being". It is the ultimate "state of being". Conscience
is that place here where we learn to get to this final state of
It is well accepted that
the new born baby is entirely innocent (apart from, of course,
this other difficult concept of Original Sin). Whether in a secular
or spiritual environment, all in society would accept that the
early years of childhood development are intimately connected
with this difficult process of learning to discern right from
wrong, pathways that are dangerous to the mind, the emotions or
the body to those which are safe and growth-inducing.
While undoubtedly the greatest
and fastest rate of development of a sense of conscience occurs
probably even before a child goes to school, the process does
not stop there or at the end of the formal educational process.
Learning to "think like God" or "make decisions as God would make
them" free from the distractions of what our friends may think
or even free from the distractions that might have been planted
in our emotions from long-buried events in our family or cultural
history is what the very "Way" of Christ is all about. That is
the end objective of our lives. It is the most important thing
we learn to do in all of our lives and it is a process that takes
our entire lives to be able to do it perfectly. If we succeed,
I suspect we will find ourselves in this paradise state of being
we try to condense into the word "heaven".
This leads then to my second
argument which I now need only summarise here. What the Church
is endeavouring to get to in this doctrine of Primacy of Conscience
as I see it is to link conscience and these processes of firstly,
forming, and secondly, following conscience to what the end
objective of what all this religion business is about: the process
of "getting to heaven" or "being with God"! This is not a doctrine
that can be discarded or "publicly rejected". It is at the very
core of what our objective is in all this "faith and belief business".