Saturday, September 20, 2008

Paul's response to "conscience comes first"

Ok, as I said in my last post, I'm no longer a big fan of Paul. But, I did say I'd discuss his response, if I could get him to give one. This post was written on Tuesday, before he started suggesting liberals should be killed, so it's less biased than it would be if I wrote it later in the week.

---

As I said I would, I asked Paul what he thought of the idea that conscience might guide us to what's right, rather than what feels good. His response was to tell me to read some of his more recent posts, and the comment-conversations in those posts would make his position clearer. I have started to do this, and found one which qualifies.

In a post called "It's really very simple", in May of 2008, Paul is talking about how some famous supporters of abortion have been allowed to receive communion in a mass conducted by the pope. To him, this means (I think...) that either abortion is in fact correct in the eyes of the church, or the bishops are negligent. Not that the bishops might genuinely act in a way that is wrong (impossible), but that it must be that either his understanding of "wrong" is wrong, or the bishops just didn't realize what they were doing.

His response when pressed on this by a commenter who was not familiar with how the Catholic church works was interesting. The question was:

3. If your current bishop appears to violate cannon law, are you obligated to follow that bishop? Or can you follow a bishop with a different diocese that you consider more faithful?


and Paul responded:

3. No. My bishop is my bishop. The only appeal from my bishop is to the Bishop of Rome.

But the important question is not who best conforms to what I "consider more faithful". The question is what's true. I am not competent to judge the compliance of my bishop with canon law, much less the compliance of the entire national bishops' conference. As a layman and a regular guy, I look to them, not my own conscience, to be taught the truth. And what I am taught by them is that there is no conflict between support for abortion and being in full communion with the Church.

Because if there were such a conflict, to do so would place in jeopardy the soul of the person receiving unworthily, and would give scandal to the faithful. Surely my bishop, the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago (who also happens to be President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops), nor any other bishop would not tolerate such an occurrence to be repeated every Sunday within his jurisdiction.

Therefore, since even the Holy Father tolerated the reception of communion by famous pro-abortion politicians at masses at which he was the principle celebrant, clearly there can be no conflict.


So, Paul and I have a fundamental disagreement. Paul trusts his church leaders more than his conscience. Question to anyone for whom this is true: If you can't trust your conscience, how can you know you've chosen the "true" church, and should accept the positions taken by its leaders? I don't get it, and the fact that you have no basis to question your leaders seems to create a rather large opportunity for abuse of power.

I will give him one thing, though: if he has another way of determining the truth of the church, his position that conscience is not primary would be logically consistent (not necessarily correct, but not inconsistent). Many people would waffle, and he doesn't. I just wonder what his non-conscience truth-finder is...

7 comments:

JackieD said...

This reply would probably be handled better by someone who's more familiar with Catholic doctrine than I am, but I'll give it a try.

When Paul says that he looks to his bishops instead of his conscience for the truth, I think what he means is that he trusts his bishops more than his own prudence. Darwin has quoted this section of the Catechism before, but I just stumbled across an excerpt that made me think of this post, so here it is:

"1790 A human begin must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

1791 This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man “takes little trouble to found out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.” In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits."

Then later, in the section on prudence:

"1806: …It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid."

When two people's consciences tell them different things, how do the two of them determine which is right? In the case of Paul and his bishop, I think the conclusion he comes to (or at least, the conclusion I'd come to in his place) is that publically supporting abortion is not so heinous a crime that supporters should be publically denied the eucharist. Paul defers to his bishop's judgement, realizing that his own might be flawed.

I'm assuming that you added the bolded emphasis to Paul's words, but I would have emphasized a different section. I would have emphasized "I am not competent to judge the compliance of my bishop with canon law, much less the compliance of the entire national bishops' conference." That's the real issue here. Would you tell your doctor that he's wrong when he prescribes a treatment you don't like, or a diagnosis you don't like, and then proceed to treat yourself in the way you think best? You might seek a second opinion, but you acknowledge that a doctor has better judgement in these matters because he's devoted his life to the study of medicine. In the same way Paul refuses to toss his bishop's judgement out the window simply because it contrasts with what he personally thinks. The bishop has supposedly spent more thought, time and energy on the question, and Paul trusts that he has come to the correct conclusion, or at least a more corret conclusion than he himself.

This is actually one of the problems I have with the 'conscience only' theory. Your conscience tells you that abortion is wrong and unpleasant, but occasionally justified. My conscience tells me that it is murder, and never justified. We can't both be right, so either our consciences are wrong or we are currently incapable of discerning what they are saying.

You wondered what Paul's truth-finder is, and the short answer is the Church itself. The long answer involves the magisterium, infallibility, and several other points I'm not very familiar with, maybe Darwin or paladin will step in and explain it :-p JenF explains some of what I'm refering to in her post "Why I'm Catholic" (http://www.conversiondiary.com/2007/10/why-im-catholic.html).

Myron said...

Your post has a lot of good thoughtful things in it, which I will respond to soon. But this one bit stuck out to me so much I had to respond even though I intended to get settled away after my trip first.

Your conscience tells you that abortion is wrong and unpleasant, but occasionally justified

I'm not sure my position is clear, so let me elaborate. What my conscience tells me is that it's not simple and easy to tell when something is/becomes a human being. I also have a strong sense that the definitions we have for the types of life we should value (where one way of declaring a life to be valuable is to call it human) are incomplete, and the real true definitions are something that a God who created the universe can understand but we do not fully understand. My conscience tells me that easy definitions are an effort by people to define themselves in an in-group that deserves protection, and implicitly place people (who they wouldn't call people of course...)/life that is unlike them in an "other" category that doesn't deserve the same protection. And my conscience says that that impulse to declare things inhuman is selfish and wrong. Ideally, it would be great to declare the killing of any life to be murder, but we've got to eat so it's physically impossible to do that. So which life can you kill, morally speaking, and which not? I can't say for sure, but the answer is as complex as life itself, and I am deeply, deeply suspicious of a claim that God says killing x kind of life is OK because it's not human, because that strikes me as selfish, egotistical and overly simplistic.

What I'm saying is, my position on abortion is derived from what my conscience says about more fundamental questions like what makes life valuable, and what makes a "human". And as you can see from the text above, what my conscience says about that is very nuanced, going beyond "abortion is unpleasant but sometimes justified".

What my conscience says about abortion is basically that the answer to whether it's right or wrong isn't something about which a simple one-sentence blanket statement can be made. But my conscience is very clear that taking responsibility for your sexual actions, not treating sex as recreation, and respecting all life you have any hand in influencing to the best of your ability, are all very important principles. And in accordance with that, abortion is something I will avoid by being responsible for my actions. I think everyone should do the same, and would support strong penalties for those who act in a selfish and irresponsible manner. But my conscience tells me that condemning someone as a murderer because of the decision to have an abortion is not something I can do with absolute certainty, or with a clear conscience, because I would have to also condemn a lot of other people for murdering life that most people in the world today have defined as "other", and therefore OK to kill. It is not up to me to proclaim the dividing line between "human" life and that which falls into the "other" category, or to condemn people who have decided differently as murderers. What I can do is to encourage people to respect life and take responsibility for their actions. And if everyone did that, there would be no (or perhaps very, very few) abortions.

Basically, I really, really wish we could value all life to the extent that all killing was murder, but since we can't, making a 100% certain judgment call about which kinds of life we should value and which not is not something I can do. I have some thoughts, but ultimately I will not call someone else a murderer for thinking differently. Which is not quite the same thing as saying I think their behaviour is justified.

Myron said...

In addition to the above, after some further thought, it seems pretty obvious that all life is valuable to an extent. So in a sense abortion is always wrong, it's just that sometimes, in a few rare circumstances, non-abortion could be even more wrong. Again, I think avoiding the whole situation through responsible behaviour is the way to go, but once in a situation where you have an unplanned pregnancy... well, then you may have to choose between two wrongs.

Myron said...

I'm assuming that you added the bolded emphasis to Paul's words, but I would have emphasized a different section. I would have emphasized "I am not competent to judge the compliance of my bishop with canon law, much less the compliance of the entire national bishops' conference." That's the real issue here.

Yes, I added the emphasis. And OK, let's deal with that issue then.

If you are not competent to judge your leaders, that seems to open up a great gaping opportunity for abuse of power. Leaders, whether Catholic or not, are fallible. You might have faith in them, but if they do something really wrong it seems morally unacceptable to me to just say "well, their behaviour must be right, mine must be wrong." Any member of any church, or for that matter any other group, could say that of their leaders. But in any other context besides your church, wouldn't you regard that kind of unquestioning obediance as dangerous? And, no matter how much faith you have, you can't deny that some Catholic church leaders have done things which have given serious scandal to the faithful, some things that are really wrong.

Re: your doctor example. If I'm going to the doctor, I do have some basic knowledge of how the human body works. Maybe not anything even remotely close to being a medical professional, so of course I'd defer to a doctor. But if one started telling me things that clearly didn't make sense, that were so obviously wrong that I had to write a blog entry about it, I would trust my own judgement and go see a different doctor. There are other doctors out there, as there are other churches. But Paul, despite being so certain (even after this episode) that he's right that he's willing to suggest that any liberal (an even broader category than those who support abortion) should be killed, was not certain enough to question if he had gone to the right spiritual doctor.

I would trust my doctor, but there are limits. If publicly supporting abortion isn't beyond Paul's limits I don't know what is. And the idea of literally limitless belief in the goodness of your leaders, the idea you can believe they are infallible and no matter what they do you will continue in that belief, doesn't seem to be a good one to me.

I understand that following the certain judgement of your conscience is important in Catholicism. But so is the idea of infallibility. So, when the two conflict, which wins? The fact that it might be infallibility scares me.

JackieD said...

I don't have time for a full response, but just for the record--bishops and their decisions are not considered infallible. The infallibility of the church applies only to certain decisions that come out of Rome. I don't know what the exact process is, but I know that it's not granted lightly, nor is it a blanket qualification given to all actions and decisions of any person.

Just wanted to throw that out there in case I gave the wrong impression.

Myron said...

The infallibility of the church applies only to certain decisions that come out of Rome. I don't know what the exact process is, but I know that it's not granted lightly, nor is it a blanket qualification given to all actions and decisions of any person

Well, that's very good to know. Since I'm not well versed in Catholic practices, I guess I have to be careful so I don't start spreading misinformation around. You didn't give a wrong impression, you just mentioned the word "infallibility" and I went from there. Thanks for clarifying!

JackieD said...

"If you are not competent to judge your leaders, that seems to open up a great gaping opportunity for abuse of power."

You're right, it does. And the Church has struggled with that issue in the past, I'll be the first to admit. But note that Paul isn't saying "whatever they say is right". He's saying "I'm not familiar enough with cannon law to make that judgment". He's admitting that he is less knowledgeable than the bishops in this area, and assumes that if he had spent enough time studying the subject, he would see the wisdom in their decision. (Apologies to Paul for putting words into his mouth here, I'm taking quite a few liberties for the sake of discussion) He admits that his conscience is not informed enough.

"But Paul, despite being so certain (even after this episode) that he's right that he's willing to suggest that any liberal (an even broader category than those who support abortion) should be killed, was not certain enough to question if he had gone to the right spiritual doctor."

Or could it be that Paul, instead of questioning his spiritual doctor, questions his own conscience? Maybe he looks to the log in his own eye instead of the splinter in his neighbor's? I find it slightly amusing that you agree more with the bishop than with Paul, and yet you're worried when Paul's deference to authority leads him away from his rhetoric and venom. It could just be that the bishop is right in this case. Isn't that kind of self reflection exactly what you're asking for? If my own conscience is all I need, where is the stimulus to question it?

"I understand that following the certain judgement of your conscience is important in Catholicism. But so is the idea of infallibility. So, when the two conflict, which wins?"

I can't speak with any authority on this, but I think the solution would be to learn more about the issue in question. When conscience conflicts with Church doctrine, it is a Catholic's duty to question authority*, to learn why the Church teaches what does, and above all, to pray. If the questions and the research and the prayers do not reconcile your conscience to the Church's teaching, then you must leave. This should not be an easy decision, or a hasty one, but if it must be made, than it must.

*When I say 'question authority' I mean respectfully, in a spirit of gathering information, not a spirit of "you're wrong and this is why".

I myself have struggled with Church teaching. Actually, I haven't been in full communion with the Church for almost two years now (that means I haven't been taking the Eucharist). But after enough prayer, study and thought, enough of my doubts and questions have been answered that I hope to return very soon.