Posted by | July 31, 2010 14:04 | Filed under: Top Stories

by Bruce Friedrich

Perhaps the least known aspect of Catholic doctrine, both inside and outside the church, is the “primacy of individual conscience,” which has been explained (by no less an authority than the current Pope—albeit in 1967) this way:

Over the pope as expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there stands one’s own conscience which must be obeyed before all else, even if necessary against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority.

Taking this essential aspect of Catholic doctrine seriously, in a recent “off the record” discussion (which has now been published in the National Catholic Reporter, and which I’ve gotten via email about 15 times in the past few days) with lay Catholics in South Africa, Bishop Kevin Dowling discussed what he sees as a radical shift to the right among the Catholic hierarchy (and thus the Church):

[T]his is also a symbol of what has been happening in the church especially since pope John Paul II became the Bishop of Rome and up till today… the carefully planned dismantling of the theology, ecclesiology, pastoral vision, indeed the “opening of the windows” of Vatican II — in order to “restore” a previous, or more controllable model of church through an increasingly centralized power structure; a structure which now controls everything in the life of the church through a network of Vatican congregations led by cardinals who ensure strict compliance with what is deemed by them to be “orthodox.”

He calls for the Church to move toward more decentralized (and Christian) decision-making, and also away from concern with minutia and back to Christ’s focus on “issues of injustice, poverty and misery in the world.”

[C]hurch leadership, instead of giving an impression of its power, privilege and prestige, should rather be experienced as a humble, searching ministry together with its people in order to discern the most appropriate or viable responses which can be made to complex ethical and moral questions — a leadership, therefore, which does not presume to have all the answers all the time.

He concludes his remarks with the quote from (I almost can’t believe it) Benedict XVI:

Over the pope as expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there stands one’s own conscience which must be obeyed before all else, even if necessary against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority.

Taken seriously, adherence to the primacy of individual conscience might have spared the Church some of the recent “Were we ordered to stay silent in the face of pedophile priests?” hierarchical hand wringing of recent years, since Church leaders would have simply reported criminal Priests to the authorities—because that’s what  conscience dictates.

Taken seriously starting today, it might allow for a humility and honesty from the Church that could win back the Holy See’s lost moral authority globally, and with it some of the faithful who have left the Church in recent years.

And, of course, as Bishop Dowling rightly notes, primacy of individual conscience is Church doctrine and is in keeping with Christ’s own humility.

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Copyright 2010 Liberaland
By: BruceGFriedrich

Vice President, Policy, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals