Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Primacy of Conscience is Official Catholic Church Teaching Even if the Hierarchy Fails to Affirm it in Practice by Bridget Mary Meehan, ARCWP

For Catholics who dissent on the hot button issues including contraception, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage in the church and women priests, etc., there is good news. Official Catholic Church teaching states that Catholics must following their conscience always in all circumstances, even if their consciences are in error.
As you know institutional church’s theology today reflects St.  Thomas Aquinas's theology in many areas of its official teaching including conscience. In recent years, especially during the papacies of John Paul 11 and Benedict,  the primacy of conscience was not emphasized.  Catholics who dissented were punished by church authorities! Even today, under Pope Francis, Catholic school teachers must sign loyalty oaths in some dioceses on issues of sexual morality. 

One wonders why the hierarchy, including the Vatican, violates a core teaching of the Church?
Thomas Aquinas, in his book of Sentences IV, 38, 2, 5) affirmed the authority of conscience in all situations. Here is the quote.
“Anyone upon whom the ecclesiastical authorities, in ignorance of the true facts, impose a demand that offends against his clear conscience should perish in excommunication rather than violate his conscience.”
 St. Thomas of Aquinas explained that even of one’s conscience was in error, it must be followed. He  taught that it would be better to be excommunicated then to violate one’s conscience. 

For centuries, this has been the official teaching of the Catholic Church, but, how many sermons have you heard on it?

 I once had a banner on my wall that quoted Thomas's affirmation of conscience and excommunication. "I'd rather be excommunicated then violate my conscience."

When the press asked me  how could I become a priest and disobey Church law? I responded that I was following my conscience and  cited St. Thomas Aquinas and Cardinal Ratizinger's quote ( below) on the primacy of conscience.   
Fast forward to Vatican 11’s “Decree on Religious Freedom”
“ In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience faithfully, in order that he may come to God, for whom he was created.  It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious.” (no. 3)
Even though the language is not inclusive, this teaching is normative Catholic teaching that applies to all people. 
Conciliar teaching reflects the highest level of church teaching.
Joseph Ratzinger, during the time when he was a theologian at Vatican 11, wrote about the primacy of conscience. (During his papacy,  however, he did not apply this important teaching to dissenters from official church teaching . Many theologians were censured, women priests and our supporters were punished, dissenters were fired from positions in Catholic institutions.)
 “Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. Conscience confronts (the individual) with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church.”
It is time for Catholics to  send a clear message to the hierarchy, that they must follow the Church's teaching on the primacy of conscience!

Bridget Mary Meehan, ARCWP,

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