Monday, November 28, 2011

Religious authority vs. primacy of conscience (Part I)

Thus Kate Childs Graham, writing in the National Catholic Fishwrap almost three years ago:

... I am a prochoice Catholic because my Catholic faith tells me I can be. The Catechism [§1776] reads, “[Conscience] is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” Even St. Thomas Aquinas said it would be better to be excommunicated than to neglect your individual conscience. So really, I am just following his lead. … Being a prochoice Catholic does not contradict my faith; rather, in following my well-informed [?] conscience, I am adhering to the central tenet of Catholic teaching — the primacy of conscience [??].

I’ve brought up this piece of rampant intellectual dishonesty before, on at least two or three occasions on this blog alone, because it summarizes so neatly the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach of dissident Catholics that makes them objectionable in a way Protestants — even rabidly anti-Catholic Protestants — could never be. In fact, not only is the primacy of conscience not “the central tenet of Catholic teaching”, it could be called with some justification the single most misunderstood, misapplied and counterproductive concept ever botched up by Western man.

However, Joe Heschmeyer has a post up on Shameless Popery where he discusses the problem of the visible division in Christ’s body as represented by denominationalism, which as I’ve said before overwhelms any notional “invisible union of believers” to Christianity’s great detriment and the scandal of unbelievers. While C. S. Lewis made an admirable attempt at a definition of a rock-bottom “mere Christianity”, all such attempts inevitably founder on the reef of religious authority. Who owns the trademark? Who has the right to say, “You, sir/madam/small child, are (not) a Christian”?


This is only one aspect of where the “primacy of individual conscience”, as most people apply it, has had a detrimental effect on Christian unity: it becomes well-nigh impossible to lay down an objective definition of membership in the tribe or family. Most organizations have clear, enforceable boundaries of membership. Heck, even many theoretical constructs such as race and ethnicity have some generally-defined borders which most people are at pains to respect. Yet there are denominations whose ties to the beliefs of the apostles and Church Father are vestigial, but who nevertheless claim full membership in the Body of Christ … and who can gainsay them with universal acquiescence? And just who is this Lewis fellow to define what is or isn’t “mere Christianity”, anyway?

Human religious authority, to be successful, can’t admit of middle positions: it must be definitive and absolute on all matters of faith and morals or none. Even taking the Orthodox position that the Pope is “first among equals” is to say little more than “We’ll allow the Pope to be our leader only when and where we want to follow him. Otherwise, he’s just another successor to another apostle like our bishops are.” To be primus inter pares is to fail to reach even the lesser dignity of a straw boss. On the other horn of the dilemma, for a Catholic dissident such as Graham to grant authority to St. Thomas Aquinas is to tacitly grant superior authority to the Pope who bestowed it upon him (Leo XIII), and further to the Petrine succession from which that Pope derived his authority; the contradictions flow thick yet fast.

Well, why a monarchical model? Why not a more democratic model, such as an authoritative ecumenical committee or permanent standing council?

To even get this far, you must first admit that the individual conscience isn’t infallible, that the “still, small voice” to which you listen may not belong to the Holy Spirit, that a well-informed conscience is not the same as, and doesn’t necessarily lead to, a well­-formed conscience. To concede this, the primacy of conscience can’t mean anything more than that we’re all responsible for our own acts, and that we can’t fully evade or deny our responsibility by blaming others … even our teachers.

To get any further, you must admit human authority is not only a practical necessity but an inevitable and indispensible feature of education, even when the subject is religion. We don’t come out of the womb knowing everything; most of what we know isn’t learned directly through experience (what Aristotle called proper knowledge) but rather indirectly through education and secondary sources (improper knowledge). Even the so-called “freethinkers” have their authorities and sources to which they’re indebted for the vast bulk of their knowledge.

This fact calls for sufficient humility to acknowledge that you don’t know everything; you probably don’t even know enough to know how much knowledge is “enough”. Herein lies a grave, perhaps insurmountable difficulty: Martin Luther’s infamous declaration, “Scripture is its own interpreter”.[1] With one infelicitous phrase, Luther put everyone with a Bible and some nominal reading skills on equal footing with seminary-trained doctors of divinity; yet he needed the fiction of the “self-interpreting Bible” to justify his appeal to Scripture against the authority of bishops and tradition. If Scripture interprets itself, then what need of an authoritative Church to explain it?

Why must we admit these things to have even a democratic process? We must admit them because there’s no point in having such a central committee (if you’ll pardon the unintended political overtones) so long as there’s no one right answer to which all must be bound in conscience. The postulate that there is a single right answer to every question implies the concession — in theory, at the very least — that you may not have it, that all these Wise Persons may very well get together and decide that your favorite doctrine, the hook on which you hang your personal righteousness, is unjustified. But if you don’t make this concession, then the central committee is an exercise in futility: it has no raison d’être.



[1] Commentaries on the Psalms, cit. in Ray, Steven K. (1997). Crossing the Tiber: Evangelical Protestants Discover the Historical Church. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, p. 45 n. 62.