Tag Archives: Church teaching

For Queer Catholics, Conscience is Key!

For lgbt Catholics, and many other Christians, one of the most pressing and agonising dilemmas they face, is that of reconciling what they know to be the truth of their sexuality or gender identity, and church teaching. For Catholics in particular, the top – line response should be easy – “Follow your conscience”. The primacy of conscience is firmly established in Church teaching. Sadly, it’s not quite that simple.  Following one’s own conscience is not a blanket get – out of jail free card, allowing us to simply decide according to our own impulses how to make up our mind on ethical issues: Church teaching is clear on the primacy of conscience – but also insists on a rider, that conscience must be fully formed. Some Catholic archconservatives would argue that a conscience can only be fully formed, if it leads to straightforward compliance with the rules of the Catechism, but that is also simply not so. The essence of the dilemma, really, is not about how to reconcile sexuality and Church teaching, but how to find a balance between these two views.

An excellent starting point in that exploration is in an article in America magazine, “Following Faithfully: The Catholic way to choose the good“, by the lay theologians Todd Salzmann and Michael Lawler is worth not just reading, but careful study. (So is their influential book on sexual ethics, “The Sexual Person”).

We hope to reprint the full article in the next Quest Bulletin, but meanwhile, here are just a few extracts:

On the primacy of conscience:

From the great doctor of the church, Thomas Aquinas:

“Anyone upon whom the ecclesiastical authorities, in ignorance of the true facts, impose a demand that offends against his clear conscience should perish in excommunication rather than violate his conscience.” For any Catholic in search of truth, no stronger statement on the authority and inviolability of personal conscience could be found, but Aquinas goes further. He insists that even the dictate of an erroneous conscience must be followed and that to act against such a dictate is immoral.

From Fr Joseph Ratzinger (later, Pope Benedict XVI):

“Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. Conscience confronts [the individual] with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church.”

From Vatican II’s “Decree on Religious Freedom”, which, note Salzmann and Lawler, embraced Aquinas’s judgment on the inviolability of conscience:

“In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience faithfully, in order that he may come to God, for whom he was created. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious”

On balancing the two views of conscience

Salzmann and Lawler contrast the positions of two eminent modern theologians, Germain Grisez and Bernhard Häring, C.Ss.R.

Germain Grisez holds that the only way to form one’s conscience is to conform it to the teaching of the church. …… For Professor Grisez and theologians who agree with him, including St. John Paul II, conscience is ultimately about obedience to church teaching.

and

Bernhard Häring, C.Ss.R., is diametrically opposed to that stance. …. Church doctrine is at the service of women and men as they use conscience in their search for goodness, truth and Christian wholeness; conscience is not at the service of doctrine. “It staggers the imagination,” Häring writes, “to think that an earthly authority or an ecclesiastical magisterium could take away from man his own decision of conscience.”

"Real Catholicism": Blind Loyalty, or a Search for Truth?

Since Archbishop Vincent Nichols repudiated Edmund Adamus’ claim that the UK is the world centre of a “culture of death”, John Smeaton at SPUC has worked himself up into a froth, once again:

The UK, not the US, China, North Korea or any other country you care to mention, has always been the main operating base and favourite milieu of the movement for abortion, contraception and eugenics…………

Is he living on the same planet I am? China has a rigid policy enforcing the national limit of one child per family:

……authorities claim that the policy has prevented more than 250 million births from its implementation to 2000. The policy is controversial both within and outside China because of the manner in which the policy has been implemented, and because of concerns about negative economic and social consequences. The policy has been implicated in an increase in forced abortions, female infanticide, and under-reporting of female births, and has been suggested as a possible cause behind China’s gender imbalance. Nonetheless, a 2008 survey undertaken by the Pew Research Center showed that over 76% of the Chinese population supports the policy.

– yet it is the UK which has the culture of death?
The problem with the rabid exponents of Catholic “orthodoxy” is that they can see teaching only in strictly one-dimensional terms. They latch onto one single element of Catholic teaching, and then condemn anybody or any institution that does not conform strictly to their own view of the teaching as being “anti-Catholic”. So it is that Smeaton glibly dismisses the British Catholic publication “The Tablet” as “anti-life/anti-family” – a view that must seem bizarre to any one who actually reads  it.
I am however grateful to John Smeaton for one thing. Reading his rants has led me to some of hte things that have upset him – and which in fact are worth reflecting on. On of these was a partial transcript of an earlier BBC interview with Archbishop Nichols, from 2 July this year. What had specifically upset Smeaton was Nichols’ “refusal” to rule out church sanctioning of gay civil unions at some future date. In fact, what happened was somewhat milder – the archbishop had simply not fallen for the interviewers attempt to trap him into an unequivocal stance. 
In saying nothing, he certainly avoided ruling out civil unions – but did not “refuse” to do so. Here’s the relevant passage:

S. The Church of England for example in this country is taking a rather different view. They believe there has to be some flexibility. The church has to be a reflection of society’s values to a certain extent and therefore we see women priests, women vicars, and there’s obviously in some parts of the Anglican Communion, women bishops.

N. Certainly. S. Some of their vicars are also prepared to sanction gay unions. That church is showing flexibility. Is the Catholic church not going to have to do the same eventually? N. I don’t know. Who knows what’s down the road?

Who knows, indeed? He certainly did not “rule out the possibility”, but that’s a far cry from the claim that he “refused” to rule it out. Nevertheless, I am grateful for the tone of caution and moderation here. It was the rest of this interview thought, that I thought was really notable, with direct relevance to those of us who find ourselves outside the mainstream of orthodoxy.  for the interviewer repeatedly tried to categorize the Catholic church as one  distinguished by loyalty to the received truth of Catholic doctrine. Archbishop Nichols to accept this view, and emphasised instead that the most important feature of Catholicism was not blind loyalty, but a profound respect for truth. More, he made clear that it is incorrect to assume that the Church sees itself as the sole repository of truth to which all must submit – the point of “truth” is that it is a permanent search, a goal to which we all aspire but do not absolutely reach.
S. But I just wonder whether you sometimes feel uncomfortable because on the one hand your Catholic faith and your belief in the Pope and this Pope in particular leads you to a position where you want to be loyal. Loyalty is a fundamentally important part of the Roman Catholic tradition……
N. Well I think we start off here by wanting say, and this would be my most fundamental commitment, would be a search for truth, a search for what actually helps me to know who I am, what my destiny is, what my deeper origins are, what is going to make sense of this myriad of experiences that make up a daily life. And I think the church is misunderstood when the Church is represented as saying we possess the truth and from here on we’ll give it to you. And Pope Benedict would never say that. He would say and I would try and echo that we are searchers for the truth. We want to be possessed by the truth – not possessive.



This implies that we must respect the possibility that others engaged in the same search may reach views that differ from our own. That difference of opinion does not make our opponents “anti-Catholic”, still less anti-life. (The full BBC interview is available to watch on-line, at BBC Hardtalk)