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Monday, November 29, 2010

Peter Hunter's article relevant still

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Herebelow is a transcript:

Church Teaching, Conscience and the Stifling of Discussion

by Peter Hunter


WHEN a moral problem is discussed in the Catholic press, it is to be expected that writers cite “the teaching of the Church”. But what is interesting is that many contributors suggest or imply that, as regards the problem in question, such Church teaching must automatically be decisive in the beliefs, decisions and behaviour of each Catholic concerned. As that view was phrased, Roma locuta; causa finita (“Rome has spoken; the matter is closed”).

Recent discussions on certain moral issues suggest a need to pursue two relevant questions not often directly confronted in Catholic newspapers, whether in articles or correspondence columns.

1. The first concerns the common phrase “the teaching of the Church”. The Church is of course all of us who are Catholic. But in this context “the Church” refers to its teaching authority, the Magisterium. So what does that phrase about its teaching really mean?

2. The second question is: What should be the response of the Catholic to that teaching?

Pursuing these two questions will take us into the realm of conscience, and then, in the third part of my article, into the Church’s attitude to open discussion on controversial matters.

To many the answers to the questions may seem simple.

To the first question one might say (perhaps with some irritation that it is asked at all) that “the teaching of the Church” is made up of all that the Church has taught us in the fields of faith and morals. To the second question the answer might be simply “Accept the teaching as true, and, where certain behaviour is prescribed, obey to the best of one’s ability”.

But it’s not that simple.

There are essentially two levels of Church teaching.

The first consists of statements of Catholic belief so basic that anyone no longer accepting them would logically cease to be Catholic. Examples of these beliefs, are the divinity of Christ, the teaching... and there is Incarnation and the Resurrection. These are central decisions and matters of faith.

In relation to these fundamental matters of doctrine the operation of the Magisterium is known as the Extraordinary Magisterium, and the teachings are seen as infallible.

THE second kind concerns mainly morals and church order, and is a very mixed bag.

There are teachings about prayer and matters concerning the spiritual life. Also, statements of principle on moral matters, and on the morality or otherwise of specific actions such as sexual intercourse outside marriage, and birth control. There are teachings on social policy, on communism, capitalism, trade unions and poverty.

Another cluster of items is made up of the Church’s internal policies e.g. on the non-eligibility of women and married men for the priesthood, and on vernacular translations of the liturgy. There are the Church’s external policies, on, for example, inter-communion among Christians, and on relations with other faith communities.

A further category comprises the Church’s rules on such matters as “no applause during the liturgy” and the now abandoned requirement that women inside a church wear a headcovering. This list is obviously far from complete.

In relation to these non-infallible matters of morality and church order, the operation of the Church’s teaching authority is known as the Ordinary Magisterium.

Regarding this second kind of Church teaching (and assuming of course one’s intention to remain a Catholic), are assent and obedience to Church interpretations and rulings a logical necessity as in the case of the first kind?

Certainly many Catholics speak and act as if they were, and in respect of a number of these teachings, the faithful are encouraged in this response by official statements that the beliefs and prescriptions concerned must be “definitively held.”

Some Catholics believe that all these Church statements and commands are matters of eternal truth and morality: they have never changed and never will.

The Church’s many centuries of development have given us a magnificent legacy of wisdom, knowledge, holiness, heroism, guidance for our spiritual lives and principles for our Christian ministry in the world. A vast amount of its teaching is not only valid but also inspiring.

With the very substantial widening of public knowledge of the world, of the cosmos, of human behaviour, of modern biblical scholarship and the problems of social justice, many leaders of the Church have incorporated these fruits into their own insights and teaching. (But concerning the factors in human development and married life, for example, some Church leaders resist the contributions of relevant research and professional experience, and of feminist theology.)

The Stifling of Discussion

However, many items of current Church teaching were not always accepted in the past. Some were
disputed during the early centuries of the Church and had to be settled by ecumenical councils. Often blood was spilt over these matters.

While the Church developed from a divine origin, it is a human institution. So it’s not surprising that it has negative as well as well as positive features, and that it is capable of making serious mistakes.

It was once deemed immoral for someone lending money to charge interest and so make a profit. This, called usury, has long since ceased to be considered a sin. Then, only a few centuries ago the Church approved of the torture of heretics. Obviously, no longer. (But the Papal States kept up torture as policy until well into the 19th century.)

In the early 17th century Galileo’s discovery that the earth moves around the sun brought condemnation by the Church. The Inquisition forced him to retract his claims, and he lived under house arrest. Much later the validity of Galileo’s work was acknowledged by the Church, and only in 1993 was his personal innocence officially recognised by the Pope.

After the French Revolution the rulers of that country issued a “Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man”. The Pope immediately condemned the statement. From the 1840s until the end of the 19th century the notions of liberalism and democracy were also condemned. They were put in the “Syllabus of Errors” and Catholics who participated in elections in France and Italy were excommunicated. Today, however, the concepts of human rights form a central part of Church teaching about social justice.

In 1930 Pius XI’s encyclical on Christian education included a firm rejection of schools shared by boys and girls. But in later decades Catholic coeducational schools became accepted and increasingly common.

Pius XII identified the ‘Mystical Body of Christ’ with the visible Roman Catholic Church, but at the Second Vatican Council this vision was replaced with a wider perspective and a new respect for other faith communities.

Examples like these should make one at least wonder whether to accept the notion that all our Church’s non-basic teaching is forever, and that it must be accepted uncritically.

Fortunately the Church is capable of learning from its mistakes, of changing its practices and of

amending its tenets. But as has been remarked by Sr Joan Chittister OSB (National Catholic Reporter, 13/7/2005), “The problem is that its tenets often get changed long after it [the Church] has done eons of damage to society, people and church alike.”

THE question as to whether Church law (whether in statements on immoral acts or items of canon law) calls for unquestioning assent reminds one of the stories, at the beginning of Matthew chapter 12, concerning matters strictly against Jewish religious Law.

In one of these stories, Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ criticism of his disciples for picking corn and thus harvesting on the Sabbath, which was against the Jewish Law. But, said Jesus, they were hungry, and needed food. Later, in the synagogue, Jesus was asked whether it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Jesus responded by speaking of a sheep that had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, and whose saving on such a day would certainly be justified. “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” In modern parlance, “Circumstances alter cases.”

But is there nevertheless a case for a simple obedience to a Church-espoused moral rule, whatever the consequences?

It might be argued that the mere fact of changes in the past does not justify dissent from any item of current teaching. But it does give rise to questions of the absoluteness and unchangeability of current teaching, and whether we should regard it as automatically binding on us.


THERE is another, important, factor in the matter: conscience. In its Pastoral Constitution on the
Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes #17) the Second Vatican Council made this statement:

God has willed that man should “be left in the hand of his own counsel” (Si 15:14) so that he might of his own accord seek his creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him. Man’s dignity, therefore, requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint.

In Responsibility in a time of AIDS (edited by Stuart Bate OMI, 2003, p.8), Dr Charles Ryan SPS draws attention to that statement, and to this comment upon it by R Duska and M Whelan (in Moral development: a guide to Piaget and Kohlberg, 1975):

Is not the post-conciliar Church, in effect, telling people that although it can give moral guidance, it cannot make up people’s minds for them? Does it not insist that mature Christianity demands
that people take responsibility for their own moral decisions? How then can the striving for autonomy be unorthodox? (p.91)

In his book Lay people in the Church (1965), Fr Yves Congar, very influential in the Second Vatican
Council, and later a cardinal, wrote

The job of priests with respect to lay people is not to make them the longamanus of the clergy, telling them what they’ve got to do; but to make them believing men and women, adult Christians, leaving them to meet and fulfil the concrete demands of their Christianity on their own responsibility and in accordance with their own consciences. (p.441)

In her book Confronting the truth: conscience in the Catholic tradition (2001) the theologian Linda Hogan refers to conscience in these terms:

As the culmination of personal reasoning, reflection and discernment it is indeed the individual’s subjective assessment of the rightness or wrongness of a particular decision… For Christians conscience has a double orientation. It is the human realisation of value, under the guidance of the Spirit of God… The work of conscience is not about systematically applying preconceived divine laws to situations. The integrity of human freedom and responsibility involves more than an unreflective adherence to divine will. However, human freedom and divine will do coincide when the person chooses the good. [p.24]

SO if, in confronting a moral dilemma, a person decides what to do simply on the basis of individual inclination, that would not qualify as a decision of conscience. For it would not be an informed conscience. To apply one’s conscience in a situation of uncertainty, it is necessary for serious and prayerful consideration to be given to the alternative responses. In doing so one would need, as far as one is able, to draw upon all relevant knowledge and wisdom, including sacred texts, Christian tradition and, where it exists, the formal teaching of the Church. That teaching must of course be seriously and honestly considered, but not necessarily followed, for, as we have seen, it can err. The reference to choosing the good (at the end of the above quotation) does not mean necessarily choosing the Church’s teaching on the subject, though of the course the two often do coincide.

Obviously, not all Catholics are at ease with the idea of the autonomy of the conscience. Taking the example of the birth control issue, Hogan writes:

In an increasingly divided Church one’s view of the role of conscience in decisions about contraception is deemed to be crucial. If one insists that in each and every moral situation, including those that involve the question of birth control, one is obliged to form one’s conscience and act accordingly, then one is regarded with suspicion. Yet, this is entirely in accordance with traditional theologies of conscience. (p.117)

Thomas Aquinas, for example, stated that conscience is binding: to act against conscience is always wrong. He said that it is better to be excommunicated – and more exemplary for the Christian community – than to go against a decision made in conscience. To quote Hogan again,

In the contemporary context we can see that although the basic principles of Aquinas’s position on conscience are accepted, they are frequently compromised and fudged in many important respects. (p.85)

The Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes emphasised personal responsibility rather than obedience. It stated that “the moral aspect of any procedure… must be determined by objective standards which are based on the nature of the person and the person’s acts.(#51)”

The same Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom stated that no one can “be forced to act in a manner contrary to one’s conscience. Nor…is one to be restrained from acting in accordance with conscience, especially in matters religious. (#3)”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions… especially in religious matters.” (#1782)

It is clear from the above examples that in moral judgments and decision-making the importance of the (informed) conscience is reflected not only in the Catholic tradition but in authoritative modern Catholic statements. A key maxim is “follow your formed and informed conscience.”

An obvious question, then, is why this is hardly mentioned in published non-specialist discussions on current issues such as contraception and the use of condoms in Aids-prevention. In these issues many committed Catholics have conscientiously reached decisions at variance with Church prescription, but the fact that such a process is legitimate is a matter of silence on the part of the Church leadership, at least in public.

AT the beginning of Part Two of this article, reference was made to a Vatican II statement (Gaudium et Spes, #17) on the need for people to act out of conscious and free choice, “moved and drawn from within” rather than by blind impulse or mere external constraint. That statement has never been repudiated by the Church leadership, but, apparently, at least neglected. Certainly that leadership has steered clear of the appropriate role of conscience in decisions of moral action.

Often those who are thinking seriously about their faith and its implications for moral behaviour elicit from clerics questioned no more response than one implying simply “we must obey the Church.”

The Church leadership makes use of ‘official’ statements, which have a hierarchy of levels of authority, understood by specialists but usually unknown to non-specialists. There are, for example, constitutions, decrees, declarations, pastoral constitutions from an ecumenical council, ex cathedra teaching, encyclical letters, instructions of a pope, canon law, a ‘directory’ (policy instruction) from one of the Roman congregations, catechisms, pastoral letters, statements of an individual bishop or bishops’ conference and the homily of a parish priest or bishop.

These obviously don’t carry the same weight. For example, it would be a mistake to accord the same authority to the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae (about contraception) as to the biblical
commandments. (The former is not part of the defined doctrine of the Church but at least one priest has been suspended for saying so from the pulpit.)


IT IS proper for the Church to give moral guidance. But it may not compel its members to accept that
guidance. That sentence is consistent with the Church’s recognition of conscience, but is often treated as undermining Catholic moral teaching.

When moral guidance is given in the form of (say) a pastoral letter, the limits of the guidance’s authority should be made evident, otherwise the letter is misleading. It needs to be clear that on a moral issue, for instance, conscientious viewpoints and action differing from those of the Church leadership do not in themselves imply disloyalty to the Church. But at present one has the impression of the teaching on conscience being a well-kept secret. Does our leadership believe that public recognition of the importance of conscience might open a Pandora’s Box of independent decision-making on moral matters?

This has left a very large number of Catholics with the belief that automatic obedience to Church teaching is an imperative, even if their consciences tell them that the Church’s judgment on a particular matter is illogical, ill-informed or otherwise faulty, and has serious adverse potential consequences for themselves or others. Contraception and condom use are obvious areas of tension.

Because of the present climate of silence on conscience, it is understandable that those who think or act at variance with Church teaching in such matters do not publicise this fact. Many lie low; some leave the Church.

Particularly vulnerable as regards open discussion are ‘dissenting’ people in positions of ecclesiastical authority, from priests and religious to bishops. The (even recent) history of the Church has many examples of such people being blocked from appointment to more senior roles, being prohibited from teaching or publishing, and/or being dismissed from Catholic universities.

This is also a problem for people running charities dependent upon finance from Catholic organisations which require, from recipients of its grants, obedience to Rome’s interpretation
of morality.

It is understandable that people in such situations are deterred from open discussion by the sanctions available to those who hold the centralised power in the Church, or the purse-strings.

Those who accept the basic doctrines of the Church, but in conscience differ from the Magisterium’s prescriptions on matters beyond those essentials, should be able to hold their heads high, and to contribute to public debate. It is a serious injustice where their dissent endangers their status as Catholics in good standing. Conscientiously independent charities should not forfeit their fair share of Catholic resources. And positions as actual or potential holders of high ecclesiastical office such as a bishopric should not be endangered.

The current state of affairs is inconsistent with the Church’s official position on personal autonomy, as set out in two extracts (above) from Gaudium et Spes. If the imperatives suggested changeable?” in the previous paragraph are seen to add up simply to a wish-list on the present dispensation of authority and power in the Church, then at least the laity should be aware of the situation and how serious it is. It entails injustice to large segments of the Church’s loyal membership.

MANY individuals do in fact make private moral decisions based upon informed consciences but
contrary to Church rulings. But the Church’s effective marginalisation of conscience and the inhibition of open discussion are extremely unhealthy for the Church’s mission and its development. It is by open discussion that we learn and grow and develop, both as individual Catholics and as Church.

The climate of inhibition may be illustrated by the following developments, which are in the sphere of church order rather than morals. Both concern the ordination of women.

In the 1990s Pope John Paul II stated that, in the light of the practice in biblical times, and in following Catholic tradition in this matter, the present-day Church has no authority to ordain women to the priesthood. Furthermore, the matter must no longer be discussed.

The stifling of discussion

The Tablet editorial commented: The guardians of the tradition in Rome believe that the Church is not permitted to change its practice of restricting the priesthood to men, but so far it has been possible for Catholic doubters, looking to the long term, to consider the matter as ultimately open. Among them have been a significant number of theologians, against whom the new measures are specifically aimed. Now they and any Catholic who keeps an open mind are declared to be not in full communion with the Church.

The new measures may merely close a loophole in canon law, but they introduce a chill in the atmosphere. Undoubtedly Catholic teachers everywhere will rein in debate. In Catholic universities and seminaries there will be no debate at all. From pulpits there will be still more exposition, still less encouragement to probe and enquire. (The Tablet, 11/7/1998).

A few weeks later, in the same periodical, there appeared a letter from Fr Michael Naughton OSB, director of The Liturgical Press, a major Catholic publisher based in Collegeville, Minnesota. The Press had recently removed from print a book by Sr Lavinia Byrne entitled Women at the Altar. This followed a letter to the local bishop from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stating that the book contained opinions “contrary to the magisterium of the Church.” The CDF placed on the bishop the responsibility for a response to the situation, but neither the CDF nor the bishop
directly requested that the book be removed from the sales list.

Fr Naughton’s letter stated, “Since we are a Catholic press and do not want to publish works directly contrary to the teaching authority, it was the press’s decision to remove the book from print.” (The Tablet, 5/9/1998)

In mid-2001 there took place at University College, Dublin, a conference of Women’s Ordination Worldwide. It brought together most of the world’s movements promoting the ordination of women to the priesthood. Among those scheduled to give papers were two women, members of religious congregations, from different parts of the United States. An authority in Rome brought pressure upon their respective religious superiors to stop these sisters’ participation in the conference. One of these sisters, Joan Chittister OSB, supported by her superior, presented her paper nevertheless.
The other sister did not, but was near the conference for much of the time, praying, before she decided to arrive anyway. (According to the National Catholic Reporter,13/7/2001, delegate Aruna Gnanadason, from the World Council of Churches (WCC), withdrew from the conference because Rome had threatened to cancel its participation in various WCC commissions.)

These items illustrate a phenomenon that diminishes and impoverishes the Church.

Underlying factors

THIS ARTICLE does not suggest on anyone’s part a lack of intelligence or an evil intent. But it is
important to recognise that among the underlying factors in the problems under discussion are the following:

– Alongside the riches of its Christian legacy, the modern Church has inherited a tradition of authoritarianism.
– Vatican II’s promotion of Episcopal collegiality has not been implemented.
– Under Pope John Paul II, bishops tended to be appointed from the ranks of the conservatives.
– Clergy and religious, living underbedience, are called to order in one way or another if they publicly query Rome’s interpretation of Catholic belief and practice, even where no matters of basic doctrine are involved. (The frontier between the latter and the non-basic has in some areas become blurred, with certain of the non-basic being interpreted as requiring to be ‘definitively held’ by all Catholics.)
– The laity, not living under a vow of obedience, has not until recently included a very substantial body of well-educated Catholics able to enter a debate on Church perspectives and actions, and confident enough to make public views contrary to those of the Magisterium.


THE following conclusions appear justified.

1.            The fact that the role of an informed conscience is well grounded in the Catholic tradition has commonly not been made clear in current Church statements on moral issues. It is not publicly recognised that conscience is fundamental to the moral decisions of a mature Christian.
2.            Where it occurs, this omission in Church statements and parish-level guidance entails misleading the faithful who are struggling with official teaching related to moral dilemmas. To say the least, Rome appears to lack confidence in Catholics’ ability to make conscientious choices.
3.            On the controversy over women in the priesthood, the Church has forbidden open debate among Catholics, and has taken steps to prevent the publication of views contrary to its position.
4. In general, the ecclesiastical authorities do not encourage the type of open discussion that is necessary for the development of a faith community of loyal, autonomous and mature believers.

Are these negative features of our Church unchangeable?  

Surely not.

Professor Peter Hunter BA. M.Ed (Natal, Pmb) Ed.D (California), a lifelong Catholic, spent most of his professional life lecturing in the faculties of education of a number of universities in southern Africa, including the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, where he became professor and dean of education.

Subsequently he was an academic at the University of Witwatersrand from 1976 until his retirement from the post of Director of the inter-faculty Academic Support Programme in 1993.

In 1995 Prof Hunter was invited to chair the new South African government’s committee on the restructuring of the school system, and he participated in the drafting of the legislation that followed.

As a university student in Pietermaritzburg, Peter was president of the National Catholic Federation of Students (1950); he still continues his involvement in Catholic organisations. Currently he serves on the Boards of the Catholic Institute of Education and the Reginald Orsmond Counselling Services, and on the Academic Board of our Catholic university, St Augustine College.

Peter Hunter and his wife Lucienne are blessed with four adult children and nine grandchildren.

TREFOIL – No 269

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