Following Conscience on our Journey in Faith
Chris McDonnell CT September 18th 2020
The recently canonized John Henry Newman concluded a long Note on Conscience addressed to the Duke of Norfolk with these famous words.”I add one remark. 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.”
The issue of conscience has been a formative theme in the teaching of Francis. It has also been a matter that has evoked much opposition. In Amoris Laetitia he said that the Catholic Church was called “to form consciences, not to replace them.” This remark led to the charge that it opened the door to subjectivism on issues such as divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion when in fact he was only emphasizing the perennial teaching of the Church.
When we are told to ‘follow our conscience’ it is presumed that we have taken the trouble to examine the factual background to the argument, that we have ‘informed’ our conscience to the best of our ability. That is what many Catholics did in 1968 when Humanae Vitae was promulgated by Paul VI.
That is our responsibility at the time of Elections. When we make a political choice at the Polling Station we cast our vote after considering the arguments of the candidates standing for election. Sometimes, in fact often, we have to make compromises and vote in favour of the greater good. It is rare that we find an exact match.
The question of political advice from the pulpit has always been contentious. For some, what is said is followed without question. For others there is a considered reflection before consequent action. Recent open support for the re-election of Donald Trump offered by the Cardinal Archbishop of New York is hard to countenance given this President’s record in office.
When it comes to Civil Disobedience following our conscience can indeed be a lonely path to follow. The clash between the State and personal belief has a long and chequered history since the time of the Apostles. Thomas a Beckett lost his life for not following the diktat of his King. How far can the individual, a citizen of the State, exercise personal choice? How far might he or she go in expressing disagreement with laws passed by the State, and what might be the consequence of their actions?
This was the issue that faced the Conscientious Objectors during Wartime. For some it led to summary court martial and execution on the field of battle during the First World War, with family stigma and a charge of cowardice lasting long after. Yet a person following conscience is in so many ways, a brave individual, someone willing to risk all for the principle of personal belief.
Walter Griffin was one of them. He recorded facing a Sergeant Major on parade:
“I felt no fear at all and yet you might say I’ve a nervous disposition I suppose, to a point, but in these sort of things I had no fear whatever. I was up against a sergeant major, a brute. He sort of tried to bully me in that way. He came right up to me and tried to shout as hard as he could to me, right within a yard or two. And I looked him straight in the eye and told him, I said, ‘I respectfully refuse to obey your orders,’ and he went barmy. Absolutely barmy. In front of a lot of recruits, the most stupid thing anybody could do and he just went barmy.”
There is indeed a price to be paid for following conscience. It is a price many Christians have paid and are still paying. Recent years have been littered with attacks on individuals, priests and laity alike, attacks on churches during times of prayer, all aimed at demoralizing those whose faith is practiced openly in the community. Whether sanction by the state or by other religious groups, this sign of intolerance is a high price to pay for belief.
In Germany the Abbess of a Benedictine community, Mechthild Thurmer, has been threatened with jail because she refuses to hand over an Eritrean asylum seeker who has been sheltering in her Abbey since 2018. She is reported as saying that her refusal was a matter of conscience. She awaits the decision of the German courts.
The Cold War years gave rise to conscientious protest against the possession with intended use, of nuclear weapons as both East and West built up huge stockpiles of warheads together with the delivery systems of missiles, submarines and planes.
Here in the UK, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, CND, held an annual Easter march from the Aldermaston atomic weapons research centre to Trafalgar Square in London to proclaim their conscientious objection to such weapons. For many years Bruce Kent, a Catholic priest, was a prominent voice in the movement. His following of conscience led to his being accused of being a communist-which he clearly wasn’t. It also led, in 1987, to his leaving the priesthood rather than comply with an instruction from the late Cardinal Basil Hume to desist from involvement in the 1987 UK general election in accordance with the canon law of the Catholic Church. He remains to this day, a supporter of CND and a loyal member of the Church.
In the US, members of the Plowshares Movement have risked jail in consequence of their direct action taken in pursuit of peace. Nuns, priests and laity who sought a better way of doing things paid a high personal price for their honestly held convictions.
Within the Church, other individuals have not escaped the consequence of listening to their conscience. Over many centuries our history tells the story of those whose disagreement resulted in punishment and sometimes, even death. Yet in being faithful they could do no other.
Right in to the 20th century, those whose views were suspect were silenced, not allowed to publish books and papers, refused the right to speak from church pulpits or lecture from the platform of Catholic educational institutions. Great theologians such as Teilhard de Chardin, Yves Congar and Edward Schillebeeckx were censored. With the passage of time wrongs have been set right and their reputation has been restored. Yet still, in our own days there are those Irish priests whose position is called to question, their faculties suspended and who, in common justice, have not had a fair hearing.
The same was true for the liberation theologians in South America, who sought justice for the people based on Gospel values. At last an understanding has now been reached since Francis has occupied the See of Rome. Long may it continue.
How is our conscience formed? What shapes the way we act? How does personal belief affect our day-to-day patterns of behaviour?
For many, the nest we come from, our family, is the seedbed of our belief. Where we grew up, the values and circumstances of our early years, the example of individuals we met, all contributed in one way or another to the person we have become.
Some come to reject the experience of those formative years, often through casual lassitude rather than positive refusal. In later years, through circumstance and experience, they sometimes turn again in response to conscience and pick up the story. Through meeting others, through work, through reading and listening, threads are rejoined and misunderstandings are healed.
It is worth reflecting that not only have we been formed by others but we in our turn help form others. Our example leaves footprints in the pathway that others might follow. It is a big responsibility that we carry. Conscience cannot be denied, whether it concerns opinion in the public forum or within the Church that is our home. Listen, talk and listen again before taking action that solves nothing and only leads to regret.