Saturday, October 11, 2008

More on Conscience

I absolutely understand the unease many Catholics feel whenever the Church discusses who among the faithful may or may not receive Communion, especially when the debate involves politics. It gives the impression that the Church is using the Eucharist as a weapon. Nonetheless, exclusion from the Eucharist is the consequence of a Catholic politician's exercise of conscience. Any exercise of conscience which contradicts an external authority comes with a sanction. The conscientious Catholic when faced with a choice which contradicts the hierarchy must accept that such a choice places him or her outside of the community to some extent. That is why courage is such an important virtue for the development and exercise of conscience. If we are to champion the primacy of conscience, we must be aware of and accept the consequences of its exercise. And, that may include exclusion from the Eucharist.

I would question, however, whether many Catholic politicians are in fact exercising their consciences when they support pro-abortion policy. As many of them explain it, they claim to be personally opposed to abortion but supportive of it because of the wishes of their constituents. If this is true, then they are in fact violating their consciences. That is, they are taking a position which contradicts their personally held views solely because of an external authority - namely, their constituents. I cannot read the human heart, and I am certainly in no position to judge; but when these same politicians also support partial-birth abortion which a majority of their constituents oppose, one wonders whether their loyalties do indeed rest with their constituents or with the powerful pro-abortion lobbying interests.

This leads us to another important point. Taking a position which contradicts an authority does not necessarily make it a decision in conscience. If a person is ill-informed or has a psychological aversion to authority, then that decision is not based on moral principles and values. Likewise, just because a moral choice happens to coincide with the hierarchy does not necessarily mean that it is not a conscientious choice.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am a Catholic currently married outside of the Church. As my wife and I work toward sacramentalizing our marriage, I have decided to fast from the Eucharist. My wife has made the opposite choice. My decision is no less an exercise of conscience because it coincides with the Church's teaching. Neither is my wife's decision necessarily made in conscience because it contradicts Church teaching. Again, I am in no position to judge anyone, whether it be my wife or a Catholic politician. I am simply a man whose conscience compels him to witness to the truth as he understands it in hopes of moving the discussion from antagonism to dialogue.

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