Friday, October 10, 2008

To Conscience!!

These comments are inspired by an opinion piece I discovered on-line by a retired priest named Fr. Emmett Coyne which was brought to my attention thanks to the blogging of Deacon Greg Kandra. Fr. Coyne's piece can be found on Deacon Kandra's blog at

In all fairness to Fr. Coyne, he is not attempting a systematic treatment of conscience in the life of the voting Catholic. Nonetheless, he lays out the issue in a way which I think obscures the important points he is raising.

I always feel uncomfortable when conscience and authority are assumed to be at odds with each other. In point of fact, they are partners. Conscience depends on external moral authorities, and external moral authorities rely on conscience. Fr. Coyne demonstrates this by using authorities to support his argument for conscience. He tells us the story of his friend whose allegiance to the Democratic party compelled him to leave priestly ministry, recalls the heroic witness of Franz Jagerstatter who refused to join the German army in World War II and cites the classic work on conscience by Cardinal Newman, "A Letter to the Duke of Norfolk". Fr. Coyne's position as a Catholic priest is also a source of authority for his argument. Since I cannot pretend to be his equal in terms of service to the Church nor probably in terms of education, I will have to rely on the authority of reason and my powers of persuasion to make my case. Either way, conscience always makes reference to external moral authorities. This is because the moral life is a shared, community effort.

Not only do our consciences rely on authority to help them in their formation, but authority itself relies on conscience. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church, to give one example, is comprised of men who are themselves endowed with consciences. They bring their consciences to bear daily when interpreting and applying the Church's teaching. And, what is the Church's teaching if not two thousand years of committed Christians in conscience applying the truths of Sacred Scripture to the demands of everyday life?

It is true that conscience and authority often find themselves at loggerheads. Nonetheless, defining or illustrating them as warring factions, I fear, obscures their role in the moral development of Christians and the witness of the People of God in modern society.

All this being said, the heart of the issue is that each individual Catholic must vote according to his or her conscience. The hierarchy may not dictate a candidate or political party to us. Nonetheless, Catholics have a right to receive guidance from the Church's teaching authority in the development and exercise of their consciences. This includes guidance as it relates to political and social issues. I agree with Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado when he argues that abortion is the "foundational" moral issue of our time. That is, the issue of abortion challenges us as a nation to decide whether the right to life will extend to all human beings or whether one group of humans will be able to judge the lives of others as unwanted, undesirable or burdensome and so worthy of destruction. War, unequal distribution of wealth, the death penalty and the environment among others are no doubt pressing moral issues. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine that any of these trumps abortion in scope or in its sheer number of victims.

One might argue that the sum of those other moral issues outweighs the one issue of abortion and necessitates a vote for a pro-abortion candidate as a lesser evil. Or, one may argue that even the most devoted pro-life candidate will not be able to overturn Roe-vs-Wade single-handedly. I wouldn't expect to be convinced by those arguments personally, but they could be made more or less successfully as a proportionate reason for voting for a pro-abortion candidate. My sense is that this is Fr. Coyne's position. If he had focused on making a case for this proportionate reason, his article would have been more helpful.

The real tragedy in all this is that we have lost the ability to speak to one another about these moral issues. We tend to set up opposing camps and fire barbs at each other from behind our fortified walls. One wonders whether being Republican or Democrat, pro-life or pro-abortion, liberal or conservative is now any different from being a Red Sox fan or a Dodger's fan. When we set up a discussion of conscience and authority as antagonists rather than partners in the search for truth, we only make dialogue more difficult. By giving the impression that the conscientious Catholic may poo-poo the hierarchy in political and social matters, I fear that Fr. Coyne's article contributes to the antagonism rather than facilitates the dialogue.

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