Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Conscience and the Magisterium

Many bloggers are commenting on this story from Australia originally published by the Catholic News Agency:
Sydney, Jun 5, 2007 / 10:09 am (CNA).- The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney wants its school leaders to publicly commit to a vow of fidelity by adhering to church teaching on some crucial issues--homosexuality, birth control and women's ordination.The vow would apply to its 167 principals, its deputy principals and religious education coordinators and would be a first for the Catholic Church in Australia, Fairfax newspapers report.The Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, is behind the move to extend the oath. He is perhaps drawing his inspiration from the apostolic exhortation issued by Pope John Paul II in 1990, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church). In his exhortation, the late Holy Father calls for all those teaching theology in Catholic universities to take an oath of fidelity to the teaching of the Church and those who are not Catholic are asked to respect the Catholic identity of the school.

The conflict that is set up here has to do with the freedom of conscience that is supposed to belong to individuals versus the authority of the magisterium. The tricky part here is that the people who are being asked to take this vow of fidelity are representing the Church in some way. From the standpoint of a student it must be difficult to accept the authority of these school officials if it is known that the school officials themselves do not accept the authority of the Church. The natural reaction of the students would be to dismiss Catholic school claims to authority as meaningless. In other words I would favor such a policy for leaders in Catholic schools.

So, what happens then to freedom of conscience? I think that first of all, we must distinguish between matters of opinion and matters of conscience. Many times, when I find the opinion of the magisterium disagreeable I simply choose to ignore it. Is that a matter of conscience or a matter of taste? Generally regarding Church teaching it seems to me that a person who wants to claim a leadership role in the Church must strive first of all to use their intelligence and gifts of discernment to try to understand the basis for a particular teaching. In other words the first way to exercise intellect and freedom is to try to understand how to accept a particular teaching instead of deciding whether or not to accept it. If an intelligent person can, through prayer and study, understand the reasons for a particular church teaching; then accepting that teaching should be an easy thing. Accepting the teaching is just a consequence of occupying a leadership position in the teaching ministry of the Church.

For example, a while back I was asked to give an after-school presentation to teachers on the question of women's ordination. When I first studied this question my opinion was that the teaching of the Church was all wrong. However, because I was claiming some kind of leadership role I felt bound to study the teaching of the magisterium on this matter. Some of it was difficult to understand and not very compelling but I came to a point where I understood the scriptural and philosophical reasonableness of the Church's position. At that point I felt comfortable basing my presentation on the Church's position. Of course I drastically underestimated the emotional reactions that some people have on this topic but I felt that my duty was not to cast doubt on the magisterium but to try and show the reasonableness of the Church's position.

What would (should) I do if I can not understand the basis for the Church's teaching? Personally, I think that my first reaction should be to accept the teaching on the authority of the Church. Aside from the hermeneutics of suspicion I think that I should (unless proven otherwise) accept that the magisterial authority of the Church (Pope and Bishops) is made up of well-intentioned people who have the good of the whole Church in mind. What if my conscience (not taste) for some reason tells me after study and prayer that I cannot accept a particular teaching of the Church? Then, of course I must follow my conscience but still it seems to me that public dissent here does not advance the cause of Catholic education. Public silence on this matter of conscience for me would be called for. Of course you could come up with a hypothetical example where public dissent would be justified and expected but I don't think that such circumstances are likely.

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