Sunday, February 19, 2012

Talking About Conscience X

Let us pause for a moment here, before we attempt to formulate comprehensive answers to the question about what conscience truly is. We must first extend somewhat the basis of our considerations, going beyond the personal sphere that was our starting point…

[I want to] begin with the figure of Cardinal John Henry Newman, whose entire life and word could be called one great commentary on the question of conscience… To speak of Newman and conscience is to evoke the famous words in his letter to the duke of Norfolk (1874): “Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing), I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”

Newman intended this to be a clear confession of his faith in the papacy, in response to the objections raised by Gladstone to the dogma of infallibility. At the same time, against erroneous forms of ultra-montanism, he meant it to be an interpretation of the papacy, which can be understood correctly only when it is seen in connection with the primacy of conscience—not in opposition to the papacy, but based on it and guaranteeing it.

It is difficult for people today to grasp this point, since they think on the basis of an antithesis between authority and subjectivity. Conscience is seen as standing on the side of subjectivity and as an expression of the freedom of the subject, while authority is regarded as the limitation of this freedom, or indeed a threat to it, if not its actual negation. We must look somewhat more deeply here if we are to learn once again how to understand a vision in which this kind of antithesis has no validity.

The intermediate concept that holds these two together for Newman is truth. I would not hesitate to say that truth is the central idea in Newman’s intellectual striving. Conscience is central to his thinking because truth is the heart of everything.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 86-7

Reflection – Ratzinger now launches into his positive presentation of conscience in earnest, and takes Newman’s famous after-dinner toast as his starting point. Now, I am no expert of any kind on Newman, so I can’t provide any bigger commentary on his words here and how they fit into his whole thought.

But these words often get quoted badly out of context, as if Newman is somehow ‘dissing’ the papacy. Since offering an after-dinner toast to somehow is not normally seen as an act of disrespect, I am not sure how this interpretation can be credibly offered. Wishful thinking on the part of those who offer it, I suspect.

Newman is praising the papacy precisely as an instrument at the service of conscience. And this is the whole key to the matter. We exercise our conscience, but our conscience must be formed. We have to make up our minds about good and evil, but good and evil are objective realities ‘out there’, not constructs of our mind. We are obliged to our conscience… but our conscience is obliged to the truth, and that’s the key to the whole matter.

This is why freedom of conscience and freedom of religion are so intertwined. Both are concerned with the capacity of human beings to seek the truth and live it out. And this capacity to seek and live the truth in freedom is central to the entire human project.

This is why, and I will keep repeating this, what President Obama is doing is not so much an attack on the Catholic Church (although it certainly is that) or even on religion. He is attacking humanity, and every human being of good will should be ready and determined to resist this attack in peaceful ways: the political and legal process, and civil disobedience if necessary.


  1. Father Denis,

    I am really trying to get this. Honest, I am. But, I am just not getting it.

    OKay, maybe we don't agree o the 98% number.., maybe the numbers are closer to 67/20, 64/20 or 72/20. I do no think you can disagree that the general sentiment amonog Catholics is that private insurance plans should cover the full cost of birth control for their female patients.

    That really can't be a surprize. The largest Catholic University in America, DePaul University, routinely offers birth control coverage among its employee benefits. So does, Marqutte UNiversity in accordance with State law. 28 states already require that insurance companies cover birth control for all employers; some of those states don't exempt any religious employers, not even churches.

    So what Obama is doing, in accordance with te federal-health overhaul law, is nothing new. And when he responded to the bishops concerns- saying that Catholic institutions don't have to pay for the coverages; the cost will be bourne by the insurance companies- he won my support...and the support of the Catholic Healthcare Association, Catholic Charities, the Assosiciation of Jesits Colleges and Universities... well you get the picture...

    Obama's policy is grounded in the very simple principle: If a faith affliated institution serves the general public, receives public money for doing so, hires workers form outside the faith, then it should abide by the rules that apply to everybody else. IN oter words, women should have the same access to repoductive services no mater where they work.

    See, I just don't get it.

    I really do not understand the objection. I mean, the insurance is seen as a type of compensation for services. Like, really, if I chose to buy condoms with my paycheck, well my employer has no control or culpability.

    Insurance works by pooling risk and premeium dollars. I know that my insurance coverages for example..maybe paying for someone else's chemotherapy.. or viagra. I have to accept that.

    Objecting to the insurance issue at this level is akin to someone objecting that their tax dollars go to the department of defense or food stamps or something else that they may object to in principle. But, people still have to pay taxes. The church has always paid taxes- because they know that they money also goes to the common good

    Forgive me. It is not my intention to offend you. I just cannot see that the bisphops and their advisers have thought through the entire bundle of values at stake. Nor, are your quotes form Ratzinger helping me any.

    I hope you are still praying for me. :).

    1. Catherine-
      God bless you! Thank you for continuing to work at it and not giving up. OK… so let’s see if this will help us both…
      Well, first, just to clarify, I am aware that my excerpts from then-Archbishop Ratzinger are not exactly on point re this controversy. I, like him, am not by nature a controversialist so much as a teacher. My primary instinct in the face of this (or any) issue is to say, “OK, first let’s make sure everyone knows what the word ‘conscience’ means and what it does and why it matters not to violate it and… in other words, good little Thomist that I am, I always start with going back to the beginning and defining terms. Annoying of me, I realize.
      I do believe, though, and will not be shaken from it, that Obama’s actions are an assault on freedom of conscience, and that people will not defend something they neither understand not value. Hence, this series, as meandering from the seeming topic as it is. And blogger tells me this comment is too long, so I will continue in the next comment!

    2. OK, so let’s go through the questions you raise.
      Well, I think what Catholics think about all this often is an effect of how the question is asked. Should women’s reproductive health costs be covered by every insurance provider will obviously have high positives. Should the federal government be allowed to force Catholic institutions to pay for contraceptives and abortifacients… well, obviously the number will drop. And yet the two questions are identical. Classic muddy thinking, nothing new here.
      My understanding is that the universities, etc., that already cover birth control are either 1) covering it in cases like yours, where the pill is prescribed for non-contraceptive purposes or 2) being forced to cover it by state governments. In other words, the violation of conscience has already gone on at the state level for some time.
      This is an outrage, and it is woefully unfortunate that the bishops did not catch this at the state level. But to say, “Well, the rights of some Catholics are being violated already, so why object to the rights of all Catholics being violated?” seems a bit rich.
      The so-called accommodation you reference is anything but. Did you read the link I had provided back in our previous conversation, the one with Bishop Lori’s testimony to the house committee? It really does explain all this in clear language. Obama’s compromise is essentially a bookkeeping shuffle. The insurance companies will provide contraceptive coverage, and then bill the Catholic institution anyhow. The numbers simply get put in a different spot in the ledger. And on to the next comment...

    3. As for the Catholic organizations that are supporting this ‘compromise’ – well, shame on them. Not one of the bishops, who are the shepherds and teachers of the Church, have bought it at all, and rightly so. Really, read Bp. Lori’s testimony if you haven’t already, and tell me where he goes wrong in his reasoning.
      Now according to Obama’s ‘very simple principle,’he says that institutions are only religious if they serve their own faith community. So, goodbye Jesus! You are excluded, since you healed non-Jews! He is declaring the right to decide what a religious work is or not. Very strange overreach for the state, don’t you think? Especially since the Catholic Church has been feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, educating the young, etc., for 2000 years, and has been fairly sure that this is part of our mandate from Jesus to do so. I guess cuz Obama says it’s not, we’re wrong and he’s right?
      To say, the Church has to abide by the same rules as everyone else… well, that seems to be begging the question. The very debate is about what the rules are. These are new rules! Brand new! And we’re saying these rules force us to violate our conscience, force us to pay for things we believe to be outright evil. If the federal government is so determined that women get free birth control, why don’t they just pay for it their own damn selves? I mean, really!
      I don’t think an employer providing health insurance is exactly like another form of paycheck, or like paying taxes into the common fund. There are specific goods and services which employees make claims for, so unlike the paycheck example, the employer is knowingly paying for an employee to do something the employer views as evil. This is, in Catholic terms, proximate material cooperation with evil, and as such it is unacceptable.
      Anyhow, you may never come to understand fully the objection. But… is it not enough that clearly many Catholic institutions (not just the bishops, you know) are loudly, vehemently, fiercely saying, “This cannot stand. We will go to jail, shutter our doors, rather than do this.”? Even if you cannot see why they are so upset, can you not understand that we really do feel ourselves being asked to betray God and our faith in this? And that… well, if we feel that strongly, perhaps the government could respect our conscience on the matter?
      Anyhow, this is a very long response for a blog comment, and I apologize. Yes, let us continue to pray for one another, and continue to disagree (if you insist!) in charity and courtesy. Bless ya.

  2. Father Denis,

    Thank you for spending time with me in this way. I appreciate it, I do.

    I think for now, we are still just not on the same page.

    God's heart is big enough for us both. I will keep praying for you, please keep praying for me too.

    I may write again, but I need a little more time to think and pray.


    1. God bless you. My own sense is that, while we may not be on the same page in terms of issues and understanding, we can very much be on the same page spiritually. United with you in prayer, and always happy to discuss anything you want to discuss!

    2. And... not to pester you, but I do encourage you to really follow up on what your bishops are saying. There's a whole thing on the USCCB website outlining exactly what their position is. I don't think I've ever seen the US bishops speaking so strongly and with such unity on an issue ever - surely that says something. Anyhow, that's enough for now. God bless you!


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