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    The counter argument to Dr Pell on Primacy of Conscience B...
    Posted by BrianC on June 2, 2003, 5:58 pm

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 truth.

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 them.

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 being.

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".



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