Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Your Conscience and Church Teaching:
How do they fit together?
Many Catholics get dizzy when they see disagreement
in the Church over such moral issues as birth control, divorce,
the changing role of women or nuclear disarmament. How are we supposed
to deal with the confusing relationship between per—sonal conscience
and official Church teaching?
Public disagreement with Church teaching on contraception,
for example, is disturbing to many Catholics. Further disturbance
arises when theologians publicly disagree with official Church teaching
and, in general, urge greater freedom of conscience.
Why should there be ambiguity and confusion? How
do we cope with it or live with it—or even come to understand it?
How can all of us in the Church—whether individual Catholics, pastors
or preachers, theologians, bishops or pope—work together to understand
and apply gospel values to our decisions? This Catholic Update
hopes to answer these questions and shed some light on the complex
link between our personal consciences and Church teaching.
A difference in approach
In the beginning we must realize that there is an
important difference between gospel values themselves (the content
of Church teaching) and the way they are proclaimed (the method
of Church teaching). A major reason for confusion today is that
we are in a transitional period, caught in a clash between two competing
methods of arriving at moral principles: the "clas—sical"
and the "personal." These two methods are not contradic—tory, but
they are very different, and each has something to teach us. They
are based on different ways of looking at reality.
1) The classical method. The goal of the classical
method is to capture what is universally true—for all people, all
times, all circumstances. From the concrete and complex circumstances
of everyday life, it deliberately abstracts—or draws forth, to use
a less philosophical term—the nature or essence of
In the area of truthfulness, for example, this method
would consider primarily the truth or falsity of statements. To
a cap—tured soldier trying to protect his comrades while undergoing
questioning, it would say he could remain silent or rely on double-meaning
statements. In the classical approach, he could not deliberately
give false information; that would be telling a lie, which by its
nature is always evil. Similarly, the classical method comes up
with basic, unchangeable principles of sexual morality by carefully
pondering the sexual nature of man and woman and the obvious relationship
between the genital organs and reproduction.
The strength of this method is that it gives us valid
insights into human nature expressed in logical, clear, precise
terms. Its formulations can be addressed to all cultures in all
times. It clearly avoids any danger of subjectivism.
The weakness of the classical method is that it too
readily states in absolute terms the evils of certain concrete behavior
without considering the persons involved, their situation, the changing
aspects of history. It tends to underplay personal growth, rela—tionships,
the impact of cultural, social, economic and psycho—logical factors.
it can give the impression that official teachers always have absolute
answers even when the questions are new and complex (such as bioethical
issues dealing with test-tube babies and other matters undreamed
of in medical practice a generation ago) and do not need to consult
the expertise of laypersons or theologians.
Today only those trained in scholastic philosophy
and theology (which now excludes many priests) fully appreciate
this method; the vast majority of Catholics do not understand the
classical approach. Catholics can get all tripped up in flatly rejecting
such a method, because in doing so they may reject the content
of Church teaching as well. (For example, they may wrongly see
the Church as having nothing worthwhile to say about sexuality.)
In the long run, this is disastrous.
2) The personal approach. The personal or
historical approach starts by examining the experience of individuals.
It traces the development of an idea or teaching through the years
instead of focusing on human nature in the abstract. Its moral judgments
consider the unique qualities and total personality of each individual,
as well as how a person relates to others and to the community.
From the practice of Christians down through centuries and from
reflection, analysis and broad consultation, the personal approach
seeks to formulate values and disvalues into universal laws.
The personal approach would thus say the captured
soldier could give false information to the enemy because the value
of truthfulness is outweighed by the value of saving other lives.
In the matter of sexuality this method would consider the total
persons involved, the meaning of love and the experience of conscientious
The relationship of the personal approach to personal
human experience makes its positions seem reasonable—a stronger
appeal in an age of democratic ideals than an insistence on authority,
but it can lead to mere subjectivity ("It—s right because I think
so") if it is improperly used.
The infallible impression
A second reason for today—s confusion is what I call
the "infallible impression"—the tendency to assume noninfallible
teaching is beyond disagreement.
The Church defines doctrine only on rare occasions:
when the pope speaks ex cathedra or when an ecumenical
council defines something as a matter of faith. The Church also
teaches infallibly when all its bishops, even though dispersed throughout
the world, agree that a particular teaching is to be held definitively.
But Church authority (pope and bishops) also teaches in noninfallible
ways—through encyclicals, pastoral statements and the documents
of national bishops— conferences, for instance.
Such teaching is presumed to be true and is to be accepted with
loyalty and reverence. Yet, in the course of history, many such
teachings were changed. It is misleading to leave the impression
that such teaching is infallible and that no one may in good faith
withhold from it the assent of faith.
The work of the Spirit
A third reason for present-day confusion is a tendency to oversimplify
the activity of the Holy Spirit. We trust the promise that the Spirit
will guide the Church, but we cannot overlook the fact that divine
assistance does not dispense with human effort.
The Holy Spirit assists the teaching authority of
the Church in and through the human, not apart from it or
in spite of it. As Catholics we assume that the Spirit is present
and active in official Church teachers as they carry out their role.
But we also believe the same Spirit is present and active in the
hearts of all the faithful.
Therefore, just as members of the Church cannot readily assume
that they are right and Church teaching wrong, so official teachers
cannot rule out the possibility that they may be wrong and ordinary
believers right when there is real difficulty with a particular
teaching. So, while rightly relying on the assistance of the Holy
Spirit, the pope and bishops must do their very human homework.
They must seek the facts thoroughly; they must rigorously examine
and assess all data. Only then can they formulate and communicate
What—s a theologian to do?
Theologians are one source the pope and bishops use to help them
collect and analyze data and understand historical development.
To carry out their responsibility to the teaching Church, theologians
must be in close and open communication with the pope and bishops.
And that brings us to the fourth reason for present-day confusion.
For various reasons, the working relationship between
some theologians and the Vatican has not been good. These theologians
do not participate in the learning process and formulation of official
Church teaching and are often forced instead to react to a finished
statement. Thus they often appear to be "at odds" with the official
teachers and even, in the eyes of some Catholics, "disloyal" to
San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn proposed a solution
to this dilemma to the 1980 Synod: "that the Holy See initiate widespread
and formal dialogue with Catholic theologians throughout the world
on the problems raised by...dissent from the teaching of Humanae
Vitae." He suggested a completely honest examination of the
serious problems involved in the contraception question. Listening
would be the first phase; those who disagreed would "be encouraged
to a full expression of what constitutes the heart and the resolution
of the problem. At the same time the theologians should be encouraged
to listen in a spirit of faith and openness to the magisterium,
to its position and assumptions."
Listening to Christ—together
Archbishop Quinn—s suggestion points out the way
all of us— pope, bishops, theologians, preachers, pastors and individual
Catholics—ideally work together to proclaim the Good News. God loves
sinners and works in and through Jesus to bring salvation to everyone.
In the light of this Good News the Church seeks to proclaim gospel
values—how we can live as Jesus lived, in faithful response to the
Father—s call and open to the Spirit—s guidance.
This teaching mission has three phases, and each
of us has a role in the process.
1) The role of the official teachers. The
pope and bishops are responsible for teaching gospel values to people
of every country and culture. They draw on many sources: Scripture
above all, the Church—s living tradition, theologians. They need
to be intimately in touch with the experience of the faithful, the
thinking of philosophers and all the developments of technology.
To ignore any of these sources would jeopardize the
effective—ness of Church teaching. The Church exists in the world,
not in a vacuum; its teaching is historically conditioned. It
cannot ignore the rootedness in space and time that has, over the
centuries, altered its understanding of such issues as slavery,
war, interest on loans and the role of women in society.
Adapting moral teaching to historical conditions
does not mean watering down the gospel. The gospel is never easy
to live. It always involves conversion, discipleship, the cross.
It demands giving our life for others, seeking the Kingdom first,
becoming poor, humble, simple, merciful. So the Church—s teaching
must ever be challenging and prophetic, calling us to change
our minds and hearts and life-styles and struggle to grow.
Finally, the Church—s teaching is necessarily general
and abstract because it is addressed to the whole world—people
of all countries and cultures, children and adults at different
stages of faith development. Church teaching concentrates on what
ought to be and how people ought to live, all things being equal.
2) The role of theologians and preachers.
In flesh-and-blood reality, all things are often not equal. Thus
the translation of Church teaching into the lived reality of people—s
lives is an important and necessary step which the teaching itself
cannot accomplish. This is the task of theologians and preachers.
Theologians are concerned with the meaning
of a particular teaching, its relationship to the gospel, to other
Church teach—ings, to tradition and to other human sciences. They
examine a teaching—s implication for daily life and its place on
a scale of gospel values. Their loyalty to the Church demands that
they use all their talents to promote and to critique the teachings
of the Church they love and cherish. The effectiveness and fruitfulness
of Church teaching is at stake.
From preaching at Mass to conducting retreats, from
large group lectures to small adult education classes, preachers
play a vital role in translating official teaching and helping
people apply it to the circumstances of their lives.
A bishop depends, in great part, on those who preach
and teach in his diocese to fulfill his official teaching function.
Preachers must make every effort to understand official teaching
and to communicate it realistically and effectively. They need to
be in touch with the people to whom they preach and be aware how
their own personal opinions and prejudices affect the way they preach
and what they preach. These preachers have the power to inform,
to challenge and to encourage growth—or to distort and deaden the
3) The role of personal conscience. Official
teaching is useless if it fails to influence people—s lives. The
best theology, the most effective preaching is empty if it does
not help people live and choose in the light of gospel values. The
third and most important phase of the Church—s teaching mission
is the individual believer—s response to Church teaching.
We may be turned off by the classical method or its
language; we may reject this way of stating moral teaching. But
if we refuse to hear what the Church is saying just because
we are upset by method or style, we risk missing the vital teaching
help of the Church and suffering serious consequences in trying
to respond to Christ—s call.
Each of us must seek to be "teachable"—open, willing,
even eager to hear the teaching of the Church, even when it requires
reexamining our values, opinions and conduct. Our duty in conscience
is to know the official teaching of the Church. This means
getting to the heart of the matter to discern the values being taught.
With this kind of attitude, we are "loyal" to the
Church even when we are unable to agree with some aspect or method
of Church teaching. Such an attitude keeps us sincerely con—cerned,
respectful and involved—ready to achieve a wedding of Church teaching
and personal conscience which will become evident in our behavior.
To achieve that wedding—to assimilate Church teaching
and translate it into action—is a big order. There is no automatic
leap from knowing the Church—s stance on moral matters to
living it out. Indeed, there are two major steps we must
take before this begins to happen.
First, we personally assimilate the Church—s
values so that they become our values. And values don—t become
ours until we go beyond just "knowing."
What this "beyond knowing" is remains mostly a mystery
to us. Somehow it involves openness, sharing, trust and love betwet
persons. It includes what we mean when we say that "actions speak
louder than words" or refer to the power of personal example. Somehow
it involves the whole question of religious education and formation
of conscience. Somehow it involves finding people who embody values
in an inspiring, personal way.
Secondly, as values become ours, we discover something
of our potential and hear the call to grow; we are moved to seek
concrete ways of embodying those values in our lives.
Most of the time we have no difficulty moving through
these two steps. Most of the values the Church teaches are neither
new to us nor foreign to our lives. Church teaching usually just
chal—lenges us to keep struggling, to do better.
But once in a while the Church—s teaching calls for
radical change. Vatican II, for instance, called for changes in
our attitude toward other faiths, more active participation in the
Eucharist, a sense of the positive call to holiness (keeping the
Commandments is not enough!). Or sometimes the Church—s teaching
is so demanding that we try to ignore it. This has been the case,
for instance, with the powerful and emphatic papal appeals for social
justice in this century.
The Spirit is our compass
It is a serious mistake to confuse the three phases
of the teaching process as expressed in the three distinct roles
of (1) official teachers, (2) theologians and pastors, (3) individual
Catholics. It is a more serious mistake to allow charity to slip
out of the process. Official teachers, whatever their human failings,
are not hardhearted taskmasters trying to impose unreasonable burdens.
Theologians are not rebellious, faithless seekers of notoriety and
power. Individual Catholics are not just sheep to be told what to
do and considered automatically guilty of sin if they do not do
We are all trying to follow the one Christ who promised
to remain with us. We are all guided by the Spirit he promised to
send so that we do not lose our way—even in times of confusion and