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The primacy of conscience

opinion2The primacy of conscience has become a matter of discussion at the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family. At issue is what believers should do when the conscience seems to suggest a deviance from Catholic doctrine, and how pastors, and bishops, should respond. This question is especially relevant to the debates regarding the reception of the Eucharist by Catholics divorced and remarried, and regarding the proper pastoral care of Catholics in same-sex relationships.

Blessed John Henry Newman believed that modernity had stopped listening to the real voice of conscience; instead citing the conscience to validate libertine choices. He said that a true sense of conscience had been “superseded by a counterfeit,” in order to assert the “right of self-will.”

Newman’s time is not much different from our own. And the “counterfeit” conscience seems today to have taken lodging among faithful believers, who are comfortable explaining that their integrity demands they reject the teachings of the Church. Today, in the life of the Church, many believers claim that their conscience contravenes the Gospel. But the conscience can never enjoin a person to act contrary to divine precept.

Newman also understood that pastors have an obligation to help the faithful hear the conscience, understand its voice, and respond to it. The conscience, Newman understood, is not easy to hear. Its voice, he wrote “may suffer refraction in passing into the intellectual medium of each.” And he knew that hearing the conscience requires holiness, and serious guidance.

Unfortunately, the synod’s discussions reveal that a counterfeit sense of the conscience seems to inform the view of some ecclesial leaders, who feel they must support decisions made “in conscience,” even when those decisions contravene revealed truth. This is nothing new. In the aftermath of Humanae Vitae, pastoral support for the “counterfeit conscience” ran rampant. But the consequence of suppressing and ignoring the voice of God—the authentic conscience—is borne out in the empty pews and dwindling seminaries in the places where “conscientious dissent” was most rampant.

Today, at the synod, the Church discusses wholesale endorsement of the counterfeit conscience. Such endorsement would be disastrous—most especially for those who would be taught by their pastors to ignore the saving power of divine precept.  A Catholic who believes that conscience might really abrogate the Gospel has abandoned belief in the normativity of divine law, and its contribution to human flourishing. And a pastor who fails to instruct a misguided conscience seems to have forgotten that appeals to false conscience will offer no protection in the final judgment. – From ‘Toasting the Conscience’ by Bishop James Conley @ www.firstthings.com

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