For LGBT Catholics struggling with formal Catholic teaching on sex and gender, conscience is a lifeline. In this regard, it’s worth paying attention to the thoughts on the subject by Cardinal Cristoph Schonborn, who is perhaps the most influential theologian guiding the Catholic church on lgbt issues.
One the one hand, Schonborn is highly respected by both our living popes. Pope Francis invited him to present the formal launch of Amoris Laetitia to the press. He’s also close to Pope Benedict XVI as a former student, a close friend, and a regular participant in the theological “Ratzinger Schulerkreis” Benedict used to hold every summer at Castelgandolfo. He was also the general editor 25 years ago of the Catholic Catechism. His judgement matters.
David Ludescher, a regular OT reader, has put to me some important questions on the formation of conscience. These arose in response to my post on empirical research findings on the current state of British Catholic belief, and some observations I made on the implications for our understanding of the sensus fidelium (on sexual ethics and priestly ministry in particular).
These questions were put in a comment box, which I have reproduced in an independent post for easy reference. Just follow the link to read the questions in full. This is my response:
David, I cannot offer a “methodology” on the formation of conscience. I’m not sure such a mechanical, formulaic approach is possible or desirable. (If it is, I do not have one). I do however, have a few important principles that I apply, and some specific techniques and strategies that I apply, or have applied in the past. These I am happy to share.
Before getting to the important issue of conscience formation, just a word on how it applies to the sensusfidelium. I agree completely that this is not a concept that is useful for personal conscience formation. In raising it, I did not in any way want to imply that our decisions should be based on the results of opinion polls – that would be mere ethical mob rule, which is poles apart from my own thinking. However, it is important in assessing the validity of claims that one or other belief is part of “church teaching” – or is simply part of Vatican doctrine.
Your primary request was for my thoughts on resolving the first question you put:
So, how does a Catholic, wishing to be a faithful Catholic, Christian, and human, go about determining a methodology for discerning how to inform one’s conscience?
I fully accept and agree with your assertion that the primary influences on conscience should be (a) Holy Scripture, (b) assisted and guided by the teaching of the Magisterium. However, there are some serious caveats against relying on these alone, which is why (c) the final arbiter is the individual person – an observation which raises its own difficulties. I take these in three bites, before moving on to two other important considerations.
is a vast assemblage of texts, written in languages, literary idioms and historical contexts remote from the language and conditions we are used to. The Pontifical Biblical Commission has warned that there are grave dangers in simplistic readings of specific texts. Rather, a proper understanding of Scripture requires that we approach each with a true understanding of several contexts: the context of the passage in the Bible as a whole; the historical context in which it was written; and the modern context in which we wish to apply it. We also need careful attention to the language and literary idiom in which it was written. Few of us have the skills to properly apply all of these skills in our own study of Scripture. This is why we need the help and advice of specialists, notably in the form of the magisterium.
That alone does not resolve the problem, as much the same difficulties arise. The full magisterium is an even greater assemblage of texts, written (except for the earliest materials) largely for specialists, and in language that is foreign to us. This is why we have the Catechism, which is an attempt to make the magisterium available in a more accessible form to non-specialists. The Catechism has the opposite disadvantage – in its simplification and distillation of a vast body of work, it has lost much of the subtlety and nuance of the full teaching.
There are also more serious difficulties with the entire concept of relying on the Magisterium. Unlike Holy Scripture, there is no claim that it is divinely inspired, nor is there any agreement (that I am aware of) on a fixed, unchanging selection of work that is agreed to be canonical to the exclusion of all others. We know that some key theologians and their works are fundamental, but we also known that some teachings that were once thought to be inviolable have been abandoned, while some secondary writers come in or out of favour, have been forgotten or been rediscovered.
We also know that it is human nature that the people in any institution will have a tendency to exaggerate their own importance. So, in evaluating the Magisterium we need to adopt at least some caution, if not outright scepticism, to Church claims about the importance of its own authority.
I have stressed some of the difficulties of simplistic reliance on Magisterium, especially as reduced to the Catechism, but I emphatically do not reject it. I welcome and value the teaching authority of the church: but that is teaching authority, not legislative power. Any good teacher will welcome and encourage a student who criticizes the teacher, provided that he can do so on well-reasoned grounds. Such critical evaluation of the magisterium in its application to conscience formation is appropriate to adult, educated Catholics.
The Individual Person.
Here we have the ultimate conundrum: if Scripture is too vast, remote and complex to yield to simple interpretation by non-specialists and requires the help of the magisterium; and if the magisterium is even more complex and inaccessible to ordinary people, requiring ultimate evaluation by the individual – where is that ordinary Catholic to find the resources to provide that evaluation?
The first answer, I submit, is to recognize that the magisterium, as produced by Vatican-approved theologians, is not the only source of human knowledge, or even of theology. There was a time when the only theologians were priests or monks, and more specifically bishops and abbots. There was even a time when virtually all (West European) human knowledge was produced or preserved in the Church. Those days are long gone.
Today, we have countless important theologians outside of the Catholic clergy: both in other Christian denominations, and Catholics outside the priesthood, as religious women and lay people. There voices too should be read and considered. We must also recognize that there is knowledge outside of theology: history, physical and biological sciences, anthropology, medicine and psychology all have useful things to say about the human condition. Some of their findings impact on theology – and so on conscience.
Theologians once accepted without question that creation occurred precisely within a space of seven days. In the light of palaeontology and cosmology, most people now accept that the “seven days” of Genesis are not to be read so literally. In the same way, we need to consider the findings from secular knowledge when evaluating traditional teaching on many issues of theological ethics.
But all of this is simply expanding the sources we need to draw on, and we cannot possibly expect to have more than a superficial understanding of any single one, let alone the full range of sources I am now recommending: Holy Scripture, Magisterium, church history, secular history, natural history, anthropology and social science, medicine, psychology, and even more.
The task would be impossible, except for the most important source of all.
God, Heard Through Prayer.
I started by rejecting the concept of a mechanical “methodology” for conscience formation, which I did primarily for the connotations of the word as all “head stuff”. One of the treasures that I took away from the dozen or so years of experience I had in a Jesuit parish and in the Ignatian –based Christian Life Community (CLC), is the importance of balancing “head” and “heart”. All of the foregoing is essentially intellectual head-stuff, but the Lord speaks to us in the quiet of our hearts.
Central to the Ignatian approach to decision-taking is the idea that we need to apply both. First, we must apply our intellects to gather and assess the factual information as best as we are able. Then (or in parallel, in an extended decision), we take the factual material to prayer, and allow the Lord to speak to us directly in our hearts. It is entirely appropriate, I believe, that conscience is often described as the “still small voice” within us. It is the voice, I believe of God in God self – if only we can learn to hear it.
The Jesuit theologian has written that we all have the potential to find a direct experience of God. When we do, there is nothing that the Church, or even Scripture itself, that can countermand what we learn directly from the ultimate source. And so, to approach this final state of conscience formation, we need to set the neglected task of spiritual formation.
For me, this is a badly neglected area of Catholic education. Perhaps times have changed since I was at school, perhaps it is something that cannot be really appreciated until we have reached a certain maturity. Whatever the reason, I suspect that most Catholics underestimate the importance of prayer not simply as a means of talking to the Lord, (or just asking for favours, in prayers of petition), but as a means of listening for guidance.
How we learn to do so is a vast subject itself, which I do not have either the space or the expertise to go into. But noting its importance, I can now summarize my approach to the formation of conscience:
Use Scripture, and the Magisterium, to the best of our ability. We will never achieve full understanding, but we can constantly extend the knowledge that we have.
Extend and balance that understanding with additional information, we can access it, from secular source.
Add in the one area where we are all experts – our own experiences. Share these with others, and learn also from their stories.
Take the whole lot to regular prayer – and listen to the Holy Spirit speaking directly to your heart.
This, at least, is how I read the doctrine of Protestants as well as of Catholics. The rule and measure of duty is not utility, nor expedience, nor the happiness of the greatest number, nor State convenience, nor fitness, order, and the pulchrum. Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.
Thus, Blessed John Henry Newman in his famous “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.” The quote captures his brilliance as an essayist, the phrase “a long-sighted selfishness” a masterpiece of communication and construction. But, it does something else: While Newman is keen to differentiate conscience from any kind of subjective whim, the quotes captures the liveliness of conscience and the unmistakable fact that conscience speaks, as it were, inside of our lives. Not in any abstract categorization can it be affirmed or denied.
“Conscience” is a difficult term; it has an absolutely essential place in our construal of morality, but its place frequently becomes obfuscated by descriptions that are too broad and too narrow, especially when those descriptions are placed in service of social and ecclesiastical power games. Creighton theologians Todd Salzmann and Michael Lawler have written an article in NCR on conscience and AmorisLaetitiawhich recognizes one side of this problem, but then perpetuates the other side. They contrast two ways of construing conscience. The first sees laws as “outside the subjective conscience. The role of the conscience is to know and apply these norms as a deductive syllogism.” This approach is assigned specifically to Archbishop Chaput. The second “sees conscience as having both the objective and subjective dimensions.” Its subjective dimension involves “having inner knowledge of the moral goodness of the Christian” as created in the image of God and living in a constant relationship with God, while its objective role “gathers as much evidence as possible, consciously weighs and understands the evidence and its implications, and finally makes as honest a judgment as possible that this action is to be done and that action is not.” This approach is assigned to Pope Francis, and is interlaced with (selective) quotations from the documents of Vatican II.
Thomas Aquinas first established the authority and inviolability of conscience, which was affirmed in the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes and Dignitatis Humanae. Other commentators, like Chaput — who does not even mention the internal forum in his archdiocesan pastoral guidelines for implementing Amoris Laetitia — believe that subjective conscience must always submit to, and obey, the objective “truth” of magisterial teaching.
Papal theologian: “”Conscience is the act of practical reason”
Gay and lesbian Catholics who disagree with Church teaching on sexuality know that the best defence against our critics is the primacy of conscience, which is well established in Catholic doctrine. It’s also a theme which had renewed attention during the recent Synod of Bishops’ assembly on marriage and family, where the “inviolability of conscience” and the closely related “interior forum” received much attention.
Against this, orthotoxic rule book Catholics often retort that conscience is not simply giving way to personal feelings, but must be properly “formed”, implying that a well-formed conscience must be in accordance with the Catechism. The truth, however, is that accordance with conscience is neither a simple matter of licence, nor one of blind adherence to external rules.
Strong feelings have been expressed in several quarters about Pope Francis’ meeting with Kim Davis. I agree wholeheartedly that meeting was distinctly ill – advised, especially (as Francis DeBenardo points out, considering that he did not meet personally with any of the LGBT Catholics and Catholic groups that had hoped to meet with him).
In Genesis 9:8-15,the first reading for the first Sunday of Lent (year B), we learn how God described the rainbow (his “bow in the sky”)as a covenant between God and all God’s creatures:
‘Here is the sign of the Covenant I make between myself and you and every living creature with you for all generations: I set my bow in the clouds and it shall be a sign of the Covenant between me and the earth. When I gather the clouds over the earth and the bow appears in the clouds, I will recall the Covenant between myself and you and every living creature of every kind.
There is nothing in there to suggest that the Covenant applies only to opposite – sex couples in church – approved marriages. It is fitting, then, that in this image of the ark by Paul Richmond, the homophobes and bigots opposed to inclusion and equality are left to drown in the flood waters. Continue reading God's Rainbow Covenant for ALL!→
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.
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.
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.”
Last night’s Mass in Soho was eventful for three different reasons – over and above the Mass itself. Before Mass, I was interviewed for the first time by a reader, a visiting journalism student from Phoenix, Arizona. After Mass, we arranged a screening of the powerful documentary movie, “For the Bible Tells Me So”. I have written of this before (and hope to do so again), but a second viewing was welcome. This was an entirely new venture, undertaken with some uncertainty whether people would stay for a further 90 minutes after Mass and refreshments, but we need not have worried. Close on 30 gay men stayed behind – and our token straight woman. (Where were our lesbian sisters, I wonder?). The response was overwhelmingly positive, and we will undoubtedly repeat the exercise on other occasions.
But we were still not done. After the screening, were introduced to another visitor, Michael B. Kelly from Australia, founder ofRainbow Sash Australia, a noted retreat director and a writer on spirituality from an explicitly gay male perspective. He is in London to present a paper at an academic conference on spiritualityin which he is to argue (if I understand him correctly) that gay men, by reflecting and sharing on their erotic experiences and using them in their own practice of spirituality, can make a valuable contribution to spirituality in the wider church. This is a paper that I dearly long to read when I have the chance – and hope to persuade Michael to allow me to post it here. After a brief meeting at the church, I was determined to continue the discussion, so accompanied Michael and others to supper in Soho, where we enjoyed further lengthy conversation on matters religious and sexual. I will meet up with him again, and will certainly write more about his work and insights on other ocassions.
What I want to share with you now is some reviews I have come up against of his book, “Seduced by Grace”.
I have not as yet had the good fortune to read it for myself, but on the strength of my meeting with him, and the reviews I have read, I would heartily urge you to hunt down a copy and read it for yourself.
From a perspective which is gay, but not Catholic:
“While the dyspeptic (iconoclastic?) Christopher Hitchens is content to go on bashing his straw-man ‘God’ (see God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 2007), a more interesting set of insights into that tired, overworked tradition has come from what might seem to be an unlikely source — a self-professed Gay man and, moreover, one who knows from first-hand experience the shortcomings of his Church (specifically, its Roman Catholic incarnation). For Michael Bernard Kelly, as David Marr puts it, has ‘has come out but stayed in’—rather than quitting a homophobic Church in disgust, he is pushing for it to renovate itself from within. A potent collection of thoughtful writings by Kelly, the noted Australian Catholic dissident, Seduced by Grace gathers essays, articles, letters and talks he has produced over almost a decade, from late 1998 to May 2004, that are at once an acutely accurate critique of the shortcomings of the Church and a poignant testimonial to the heroic spirit that has, at times, invigorated it.
Kelly the activist is (in)famous in Australia. He was one of the founders of the Rainbow Sash movement that has been a thorn in Cardinal George Pell’s side, with its public challenge to the Catholic Church’s treatment of Gay and Lesbian people (the movement has been taken up in the United States, also) and in this role, he has become a prominent media spokesperson for Gay Catholics. But as is clear from the opening piece in this collection, “On the Peninsula, alone with God,” Kelly’s activism is grounded in contemplative practice. He has produced a stimulating video lecture series, “The Erotic Contemplative: the spiritual journey of the Gay Christian” (through Joseph Kramer’s Erospirit Institute) and leads Gay spirit retreats at Easton Mountain, in New York State, as well as in Australia and the U.K. His voice reaches loudly and clearly across the once impassable divide between eros and spiritus. Kelly is now working on a doctorate in the field of Christian mysticism and Gay experience at an Australian university.
Raised in an Irish Catholic family in Melbourne and educated in Church schools, Kelly was smitten early with the religious life and served as an altar boy, assisting priests in the celebration of Mass, as all good Catholic sons would do. As a teenager, he was inspired by the life and example of Francis of Assisi —“Who could resist a dancing saint?” he asks in his short piece on the inspiring 12th Century figure. He actually joined the Franciscans at 17, but eventually left the Order, and while remaining celibate, continued to work as a religious education specialist and campus minister in Catholic schools and universities for a further seventeen years, before taking the fateful decision to come out, and to come to terms with his sexuality — a decision which, of course, cost him his job. But he continued his studies in theology (including a master’s in spirituality in San Francisco) and today inspires many men with his revisioning of a spiritual life not predicated on a denial of the body. Kelly says his dick keeps him honest.
More power to him. This is the kind of “real world” starting point that earths his spirituality and renders his positions convincing to those of us who have found more breathing room outside the stifling environs of Christian idealism.”
“By the time I’d finished reading I was convinced that every family with a gay* member should read this book — but I soon corrected that to everyone — full stop! Michael has something very important to say and we do ourselves and society a disservice if we don’t give him a hearing. As Catholics, we pay lip-service to any ideas of ‘compassion, sensitivity and respect’ if we don’t at the very least enter into a dialogue with gay people — which includes truly listening to them — and Michael B Kelly is certainly a worthy spokesperson.
“As a woman I don’t pretend to understand what it must be fully like to inhabit the body and psyche of a man, yet I love men, and particularly my husband and my own son. As a heterosexual I likewise find it extremely difficult to personally understand what it must be like to inhabit the psyche of someone who is sexually attracted to others of their own sex. It’s almost like me trying to imagine what it must be like to have been born black. In the music industry I have worked with many people who are gay, and some of them have become close friends.
Michael’s voice is a prophetic one. It enables us to better understand what it must be like to feel imprisoned as one of the sectors of society who are discriminated against and maligned because of the life circumstances they were borne into and have very little control over. Michael Bernard Kelly is a man who carries himself with great dignity and, in a very real sense, provides leadership not only to gays but to other sectors in society who are discriminated against and maligned unjustly.”
I was intrigued by the reference to Kelly as ‘out’ (as gay), but still ‘in’ (the Catholic Church). Some of my readers may recall that that was virtually the title of my opening statement when I set up this blog – “Welcome: Come In, and Come Out“. We clearly share a lot in common.