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    On Pell, Conscience, Truth and Communications...
    Posted by BrianC on October 14, 2003, 3:14 pm

Dear All,

In the balance I tend to agree with Frank Donovan's assessment of Dr George Pell's address on "Human Dignity, Human Rights and Moral Responsibility" delivered at the John Cardinal Krol Chair of Moral Theology Symposium on "Catholic Moral Teaching in the Pontificate of John Paul II" at St Charles Borromeo SeminaryÝin Philadephia.

In effect, this is also Dr Pell's response to the criticism that was raised following his address on May 30th this year to the Catalyst for Renewal Bishops' Forum in Sydney. (A copy of that address can be found on the Archbishop of Sydney's website at http://www.sydney.catholic.org.au/Archbishop/Addresses/2003530_62.shtml. You can also find a copy of the part of the address on Primacy of Conscience that caused the subsequent discussion in a series of responses I wrote in this discussion forum and which I have now archived on my own website at http://www.viastuas.net.au/Reflection/78374.html.) The Archbishop's address raised a lot of comment in this forum, a tiny little of which can still be found at the foregoing link besides my own comments, in other media around this nation and, perhaps most significantly, in a major article in the September 2003 edition of Eureka Street published by Jesuit Publications by Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ which can be found at http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/articles/0309hamilton2.html.

There is an enormous amount of reading to consume even in what I have already provided and this new address stretches to a further 10+ A4 pages when printed out. It can be found on the Archbishop's website at http://www.sydney.catholic.org.au/Archbishop/Addresses/2003104_279.shtml. It is important reading though particularly in that with this latest address the Cardinal-elect has now projected this discussion onto the international canvas and one can confidently expect that, in time, this will lead to some further modification of Church teaching at the very highest level. I believe, in the main, that the direction of any change will be in an overwhelmingly positive direction and, although Dr Pell might deny it in the text of his new address, I do believe he has significantly better nuanced what he has been endeavouring to say as a result of all the comment that his original remarks in May caused.

I should point out that this question of Primacy of Conscience raised by the Archbishop extends back a lot further than 30th May this year. His remarks had previously generated significant discussion in this forum some twelve months ago when, I think it was Kate or TonyC, drew our attention to the comments he had made some years earlier at Latrobe University and which had been picked up and published nationally in The Bulletin magazine. I think our own discussion forum here can claim some credit in having contributed in a positive way to this important discussion that has been going on in the Church and even wider afield and I would like to thank those who put in considerable effort in sometimes serious and sometimes very humorous ways to carry this discussion forward.

What I really like about the Archbishop's new take on this subject are the following things which, in some ways follow the criticisms that I had of his original comments. The Archbishop makes the strong point in this new paper that the ultimate matter that we are talking about here is in trying to discern what God says to us. In his own words he explains it this way:

"My basic object is twofold: a) to explain that increasingly, even in Catholic circles, the appeal to the primacy of conscience is being used to justify what we would like to do rather than to discover what God wants us to do; and b) to claim that conscience does not have primacy. One should say that the word of God has primacy or that truth has primacy, and that a person uses his conscience to discern the truth in particular cases. Individual conscience cannot confer the right to reject or distort New Testament morality as affirmed or developed by the Church. To use the language of Veritatis Splendor, conscience is ěthe proximate norm of personal moralityî whose authority in its voice and judgement ěderives from the truth about moral good and evilî." [emphasis added]

I have no disagreement with that whatsoever ‚ I do think we do all have to recognise that both in wider society, and within the Church, there is enormous confusion in people's minds as to what this expression "Primacy of Conscience" means. It is not an invitation to some "free for all" where humankind is invited to follow "how I feel" when I wake up each morning. I believe, in using that expression, the Church is inviting us into this business of each morning ‚ indeed, each second of our lives ‚ trying to discern "what is God asking me to do now?"

I do still though have some disagreement with the Archbishop. While I agree with him that many people have either deliberately ‚ or simply by not paying attention closely enough to the meaning in this teaching ‚ try to elevate personal feelings or human rights to a place where they equate that with conscience, I think he does not pay enough attention to another sense in which the Church uses this expression "Primacy of Conscience". This is how I phrased it in my earlier criticism of his May 30th article:

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".

What worries me about the Archbishop's approach is that in his endeavours to correct an abuse of interpretation in a teaching his endeavour may have the effect, particularly within certain sectors of the Church, of seeming to substitute what God is asking us to do with some sense of sychophantic, unthinking, unreflected adherence to what some particular Archbishop or Pope or piece of paper might have to say on some subject. That is as misguiding to people in the business of getting their souls into heaven as the threat they face on the other side of the river where there are people inviting them to go off chasing their own feelings or, to quote Pell, chasing "a long-sighted selfishness ... or a desire to be consistent with oneself". I do not think Dr Pell at all understands the threat being posed to the Church from within by those who seek to elevate what the Church says or, more correctly, what THEY think the Church says, over what God says to the individual in the privacy and primacy of their own conscience.

The challenge we all face in life is to discern "what is God saying to little old me in this particular challenge I am facing in my life right now". Our life is nothing but an almost endless succession of those prayers to this Mystery at the very heart of our lives. The Church is there to help us learn how to listen to God. But the Church is not our conscience! That is the constant risk of the communication strategy that has been adopted by Dr Pell and I want to address that in a second post which I hope to get to in the next 24 hours.

In the meantime, I do highly recommend that everyone does take the time to quietly read and reflect on what Archbishop Pell has written in this latest paper. I have not mentioned his thoughts on human rights in the later part of his address which are well worth reflecting upon also. I do think the whole address is highly intelligent and packed with common sense but, most pleasing of all I do think it reflects that the Archbishop has listened to the criticisms that his earlier remarks have caused and he has now more finely nuanced precisely what the problem is and how it might be addressed. May there be a heck of a lot more of such dialogue between the grass roots and the higher levels of the Church.


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