Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

Authority & Conscience

By Avery Robert Dulles

The tension between authority and conscience arises in many areas of life - for example, in the citizen's relationship to political authority, in the scholar's relation to academic authorities, and in the believer's relation to the church. In fact, the problem is likely to emerge anywhere that authority asserts itself and is thought to impose an obligation to assent or obey. Thus a child might feel justified in disobeying its parents, or a soldier in refusing to follow the command of an officer. When we hear about conflicts of this kind, our sympathies are torn between respect for the rights of conscience and impatience with those who fail to heed the voice of authority. The liberal spontaneously identifies with the dissident; the conservative spontaneously sides with the guardians of conformity and order.

According to the Catholic ethical tradition, conscience is the ultimate subjective norm of all human action. By conscience I do not here mean a blind feeling or instinct but a personal and considered judgment about what one ought, or ought not, to do or to have done. By calling conscience the subjective norm, moral theologians intend to distinguish it from the objective norm, which is frequently described as right reason, that is, reason that apprehends the objective order of things, including the will of God as manifested through nature and revelation. A person's conscience can be out of phase with what is objectively right. In such a case the individual will not be guilty for following the voice of conscience, but may be guilty for having failed to form that conscience by utilizing the necessary means. Conscience, therefore, is not autonomous. It cannot speak clearly unless it has been properly educated. When we are in doubt about whether our conscience is correct we have an obligation to seek guidance and instruction.

Without denying the normative value of conscience for the individual, public authority must also defend the rights of persons who might be injured by others seeking to follow the dictates of an erroneous conscience. The fact that a man thinks he ought to commit a murder does not imply the right to carry out such a crime. The state seeks to deter criminal actions, however well intended, and even uses force to restrain criminals from doing what they may feel conscientiously obliged to do. Thus the rights of conscience are far from absolute.

Most societies, of course, try to keep physical compulsion to a minimum. They try to educate members of the community so that each will have a moral judgment that supports the common good. Rather early in life, individuals are subjected to education that will socialize them into the group. The young are trained by parents and teachers in whose selection they have little or no choice. But through such training their freedom is nurtured so that later they can make mature and principled choices. Without social formation we could have only an infantile and stunted freedom. The members of every social group form their personal moral norms with some dependence on the group and its authorities. Among the authorities are the rituals and stories of the group, its customs, its prevalent axioms, its legal and literary classics, its heroes, and its living teachers. Authority is the voice of those who are presumed to be able to furnish reliable guidance. Just as we turn to lawyers, doctors, and investment counselors in their respective spheres of competence, so we turn to specialists to guide us in making moral decisions. But we remain morally free to disregard the experts and go against their recommendation, if we judge that they have erred. As the general reaction to the Nazi "crimes against humanity" illustrated, obedience is no excuse for doing what offends against an upright conscience.

The relationship between authority and personal judgment may be described as dialectical. That is to say, the two are neither identical nor separable. Our personal convictions about what is right and wrong are at least partially shaped by what the community and its leaders have taught us, and on the basis of those convictions we determine whether to follow the community's authorities in a given instance. To the extent that we have been successfully socialized into the community, our free and spontaneous judgments about right and wrong tend to coincide with the rules and expectations of the community.

Cases of conflict are the exception rather than the rule. Yet such cases do arise. In the area of civil life we are familiar with the phenomena of loyal dissent and conscientious objection. An enlightened government with a tradition of civil liberties makes provision for the rights of those who feel bound in conscience not to serve as combatants in a given war, or not to undergo blood transfusions. Yet there are limits to what people are permitted to do in the name of conscience. As I have already indicated, they are not permitted to trample on the rights of other persons or to jeopardize the common good.

In the academic world similar conflict situations sometimes occur. The school or university maintains the right to select professors who will impart the ideas and values that it regards as educational. Faculty members, on the other hand, insist on their right to communicate the convictions they have reached on the basis of serious research and reflection. To protect both sets of rights as far as possible, universities have adopted elaborate procedures for hiring, promotion, and dismissal. Sometimes respect for academic freedom compels them to retain faculty members of whose teaching they disapprove - a procedure that the academic world regards as preferable to giving the administration discretionary authority to dismiss otherwise competent professors whose ideas are deemed unacceptable.

These introductory remarks about political and educational institutions can greatly help us to understand the subject of "Church Authority and Freedom of Conscience." The problems in each case are similar, and yet also profoundly different. The analogies between the church and institutions such as the secular state and the independent university are helpful only to a limited extent, because the church, while it has the features of a human society, is very different in its purposes, origins, and means. Neither the state nor the independent university, at least as conceived in our American tradition, is committed to any substantive set of beliefs about the ultimate nature of reality. The state is a community of people willing to live together under the same laws, even though they may vehemently disagree in their philosophies and theologies. The academy is a community of scholars committed to adhere to certain methods of investigation and communication, but not necessarily sharing any common convictions about the way things are. The church, however, is by nature a society of faith and witness. It exists only to the extent that it continues to adhere to a very specific vision of the world - one centered on Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Unlike any secular organization, the church has a deposit of faith that must be maintained intact and transmitted to new members. Thus the church cannot accommodate the same kind of ideological pluralism that is acceptable in the secular state or university.

 A second difference flows from the origin of the church. Unlike the secular state, the university, or any other institution on the face of the earth, the church, according to Christian belief, has been established by the action of God in Jesus Christ. The members of the church, including the highest officeholders, are not free to change in a substantive way the beliefs, structures, purposes, and forms of worship of the church. They are trustees, obliged to safeguard the trust committed to them.

Third, the church differs from other societies in the means whereby it discharges its mission. Unlike the secular state and many other organized groups, the church, at least in modern times, does not use physical coercion. It has no prisons and does not execute persons convicted of crimes such as heresy. It uses only the "sword of the spirit," which works through love and persuasion and does not impose even spiritual penalties except in the hope of bringing about repentance and reform. The Declaration on Religious Freedom adopted at Vatican Council II, in asserting these principles, cautiously admitted that in the history of the church "there have at times appeared ways of acting which were less in accord with the spirit of the gospel and even opposed to it"' (DH 12).

The church also has at her disposal special aids not available to other societies. It has received from apostolic times inspired Scriptures and inspired traditions as expressions of its faith and guideposts for future development. Christ, moreover, has promised to remain with the community and its official leaders to the end of time. "Behold, I am with you all days, even to the close of the age" (Mt 28:20). In the Catholic tradition the hierarchy is considered to be included in the promises originally directed by Christ to the apostles, such as "Whoever hears you hears me" (Lk 10:16) and "As the Father has sent me, I send you" (Jn 20:21). The confidence in the continuing presence of Christ in the church and its hierarchy profoundly affects the attitudes of believing Catholics toward ecclesiastical authority. They are convinced that in submitting to popes and bishops as teachers and rulers, they are submitting to Christ and to God.

When we think of authority in the church, we must surely include Scripture and tradition, popes and bishops, but the system of authorities is in fact much more complex and extensive. As Vatican II clearly taught, Scripture and tradition were not committed only to the hierarchy, but to the church as a whole (DV 10). All the members of the church share in the priestly, prophetic, and royal offices of Christ and therefore have their own part to play in the mission of the church (AA 2). Thanks to a supernatural sense of the faith which characterizes the people of God as a whole (LG 12), believers can find reliable guidance in turning to the community of faith. As Cardinal Newman pointed out in his celebrated article "On Consulting the Faithful," even popes have been accustomed to seek out the opinions of the Christian people before they define matters of doctrine. Quoting Hilary of Poitiers as a witness, Newman maintained that at times the ears of the faithful have been holier than the hearts of their bishops. Thus, when we think of the authorities available to the Catholic Christian, we should not overlook the consensus of the faithful themselves.

Still another source of authority in Catholicism is that of theologians. The Catholic church has always had a deep respect for learning and intelligence. It has conferred on outstanding theologians the titles of Father or Doctor of the Church. John Wycliffe in the fourteenth century and Martin Luther in the sixteenth century were censured because, among other things, they failed to respect the authority of the theological schools. In the late Middle Ages and in early modern times, university faculties of theology exercised a true magisterium, rendering ecclesiastically recognized judgments as to the orthodoxy or heterodoxy of new opinions. Although theological faculties no longer exercise such an independent magisterium, they have continued to collaborate very closely with popes and bishops in making judgments about heresy and in drawing up official doctrinal formulations.

The relationship between the hierarchy and the theologians, at least as it stands in modern times, can be clarified by a distinction between official and personal authority. The popes and bishops, as members of the hierarchy. enjoy authority by virtue of their status or position in the church. Their statements have authority not so much because of their personal wisdom and prudence as because of their sacramental ordination and the office they hold. With theologians the reverse is true. Whatever authority they enjoy accrues to them not primarily because of their position but rather because of their reputation for learning and acumen. Even their scholarly degrees and academic appointments are significant merely as presumptive signs of personal ability.

Once the distinction is understood it becomes apparent why theologians are normally used as consultants by popes and bishops. The authority of office does not simply take the place of personal authority. Rather, it requires for its proper exercise that the office-bearer either be a personal authority or make use of others who have personal authority. Otherwise the authority of office will be brought into disrespect, to the great detriment of the church. The authority of office is a kind of gift or charism which, if utilized well, enables the officeholders to draw upon the knowledge and wisdom that is present in the whole community, including the scholars, and bring this to a focus, as it were. In so doing, the hierarchy is able to formulate the church's faith in an official way, and to make judgments about the compatibility of current opinions with that faith.

In its official statements the hierarchical magisterium sometimes imposes a given formulation as an apt expression of the truth of the gospel. Sometimes it condemns a misleading formulation as contrary to that truth. And sometimes it makes judgments of a permissive character, stating not that a given opinion is true but that it may he held and is not to be condemned as heretical. Thus the magisterium serves as an agency for protecting the legitimate freedom of theologians to speculate about the truth without harassment from rival theological schools.

When the hierarchy is faced by a conflict of opinions in the church, it does not always succeed in achieving a perfectly adequate response. Broadly speaking, two kinds of mistake are possible - excessive permissiveness and excessive rigidity. It is hard to know which of the two errors has done more harm.

The first of the two errors was more common at certain earlier periods in history, when communication between Rome and the other churches was difficult. During the first half of the Middle Ages, when there was little contact between Rome and Constantinople, the Eastern and Western churches developed different ways of thinking about subjects such as the Trinity; the two groups drifted apart until they finally ceased to be able to recognize each other's formulations as orthodox. Then again, before the Reformation, theological pluralism in Northern Europe ran to excess. For example, some Nominalist theologians professed an inordinate optimism about human nature, holding that even without grace human beings could perfectly observe the moral law and perform meritorious acts that God would be obliged to reward. Reacting against this, some Augustinians held that human nature had been so corrupted by the Fall that it was impossible for human beings to do anything but sin unless God's grace were to take hold of them, so to speak, by main force. Although doctrinal issues were not the sole cause of the Protestant Reformation, it is possible that the tragic split could have been averted had the excessive pluralism been held in check by a timely exercise of church authority. The price of unity, it may be said, is perpetual doctrinal vigilance.

After the sixteenth century, the Roman magisterium did practice vigilance, but in some cases it was inclined to condemn new opinions without sufficient deliberation. A famous example is the Galileo case. More recently, in the first decades of the twentieth century, the Roman Biblical Commission issued a whole series of decrees that proved, with the passage of time, unduly restrictive. For a generation or so, Catholic biblical scholars were severely hampered in their dealings with colleagues from other traditions on the basis of new scholarly discoveries. Fortunately, in the pontificate of Pius XII, the restrictions were eased, and the result has been an unprecedented flowering of Catholic biblical scholarship.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the reactions of the Roman magisterium to new developments in the physical and historical sciences were excessively defensive. But that was not so clear at the time. When the new theories first arose, the faith of many Catholics was troubled. Perhaps by its conservatism in these matters the hierarchy did in fact shield the faith of many Catholics who would have been shaken by the new advances, and gave a needed space of time in which the compatibility of the new science with the old faith could be discerned. Many liberal Protestants, who impetuously embraced the latest hypotheses, ended up by watering down their faith, or even losing it entirely.

We must recognize, therefore, that there can be such a thing in the church as mutable or reformable teaching. The element of mutability comes from the fact that such teaching seeks to mediate between the abiding truth of the gospel and the socio-cultural situation at a given time and place. For example, the condemnations of usury in the Middle Ages were based upon valid moral principles, but were linked, more than was recognized at the time, to a pre-capitalist economy. Once the shift to capitalism had been made, the moral teaching had to be modified. Other changes in doctrine were linked to new astronomical discoveries, (such as the overthrow of the Ptolemaic system), new biological theories (such as evolutionism), new methods in historical criticism, and new developments in politics.

Changes such as those just mentioned have led to important shifts in Catholic doctrine, even within recent memory. Vatican II approved of new attitudes toward biblical studies, religious freedom, and ecumenism. Those who have lived through these changes have learned how important it is not to confuse reformable doctrine with the content of the faith itself.

At this point we may raise again the question of conscience. In any response to magisterial teaching conscience is of course involved. Two questions must be asked: Can we conscientiously assent, and can we conscientiously do other than assent?

The answer will be different according to the kind of teaching involved. In some instances, rather rare, the church invokes her infallible teaching power. Practically speaking, this happens only in matters close to the heart of Christian faith, after much consultation and deliberation, where there has been a virtually unanimous consensus for a long period of time. In such cases the faithful are under strong pressure to assent, for the church has committed itself to such a degree that to reject the definition is in effect to reject the church itself. An outright denial of a recognized dogma or other infallible teaching is tantamount to a renunciation of the Catholic faith, and entails a rupture of communion.

On the other hand we must recognize that a given individual may experience considerable anguish in yielding assent, even to a dogma. A poorly educated Catholic, or one strongly influenced by the secular mentality of the day, may feel compelled to say; I do not understand the meaning of this dogma, or if I understand it correctly I do not see how it can be true, but I trust that if it were better explained to me I might be able to find meaning and credibility in it. Such a reaction, though far from ideal, could be an honest one, compatible with an upright conscience. A person who reacted in this way could still be considered a Catholic Christian.

Most of the difficulty arises in the sphere of noninfallible teaching, which, as we have seen, is reformable. Such teaching is not proposed as the word of God, nor does the church ask its members to submit with the assent of faith. Rather, the church asks for what is called in official documents obsequium animi religiosum - a term which, depending on the context, can be suitably translated by "religious submission of the mind," "respectful readiness to accept," or some such phrase. This term actually includes a whole range of responses that vary according to the context of the teaching, its relationship to the gospel, the kind of biblical and traditional support behind it, the degree of assent given to it in the church at large, the person or office from which the teaching comes, the kind of document in which it appears, the constancy of the teaching, and the emphasis given to the teaching in the text or texts. Because the matter is so complex, one cannot make any general statement about what precisely amounts to "religious submission of the mind." (See on this subject Ladislas Orsy, S.J., "Reflections on the Text of a Canon," America, May 17, 1986, pp. 396-99.)

Normally, the response of the Catholic to official but noninfallible teaching will be something more than a respectful hearing and something less than a full commitment of faith. Unless one has serious reasons for thinking that the magisterium has erred in the particular case, conscience will prompt one to submit on the basis that the magisterium is generally trustworthy. Some have compared the guidance of the magisterium in such matters to that of a doctor or lawyer, but the differences are important. The doctor or lawyer is not divinely commissioned and the content of such professional advice would normally have little relation to salvation. Because of the promise of Christ to be with the pastors of the church when they teach in the area of faith and morals, we have special assurances that in following them we are not being led astray.

With respect to noninfallible teaching, therefore, there are two possible errors. One would be to treat it as if it were infallible. Such an excessive emphasis could overtax the individual's capacity to assent and could lead to a real crisis of faith in the event of a later change of doctrine. The opposite error would be to treat noninfallible magisterial teaching as though it were simply a matter of theological opinion. This would be an error for the reasons already explained. The hierarchy is not just a group of theorists, but a body of pastors who are sacramentally ordained and commissioned as teachers of the faith.

Which of the two errors is the greater temptation for American Catholics? In the generation before Vatican II, when they were still something of a foreign enclave, American Catholics gloried in their obedience to their clergy and to Rome. An exaggerated conformism, still persists in certain circles. But the more prevalent danger today is that of excessive distrust. Charles Dickens, in 1842, identified this as an American trait:

One great blemish in the popular mind of America, and the prolific parent of an innumerable brood of evils, is Universal Distrust. Yet the American citizen plumes himself upon the spirit, even when he is sufficiently dispassionate to perceive the ruin it works; and will often adduce it, in spite of his own reason, as an instance of the great sagacity and acuteness of the people, and their superior shrewdness and independence.

When he remonstrated that this trait had bad effects on public life, Dickens received invariably the same reply: "There's freedom of opinion here, you know. Every man thinks for himself, and we are not to be easily overreached. That's how our people come to be suspicious." Turning a little later to the subject of religious dissent, Dickens observed that it would be impossible to have an established church in America. I think that the temper of the people, if it admitted of such an Institution being founded amongst them, would lead them to desert it, as a matter of course, merely because it was established." (See Charles Dickens, American Notes, [London: Oxford University Press, pp. 244-49]).

Since Vatican II a certain number of Catholics in this country, having become thoroughly Americanized, resent any interference with their freedom to think as they see fit. When confronted by anything less than a solemn dogmatic pronouncement from Rome, they are inclined to respond: "This teaching is not infallible; I do not have to believe it." Such Catholics might do well to ask themselves whether it is really better to believe less rather than more, and to be defiant rather than trusting. Do their critical attitudes in fact correspond to the ideas of humility, concord, and submission that are so powerfully commended in the New Testament?

In the normal case conscience and authority are not opposed. Conscience is not a law unto itself, but seeks by its very nature to be conformed to the law of God. Conscience therefore bids one to recognize authority, and authority, in turn, educates one's conscience. Only through a perversion of speech does conscience come to be coupled with dissent and authority with abuse. Conscience and authority normally concur because both are given by the same God as helps for knowing what is to believed and done. Even when all of this has been said, it still remains true that there are cases in which a person's conscience will permit or require the nonacceptance of some reformable teaching. Vatican II in effect admitted this by employing as prominent experts a number of theologians whose views had been suspect during the pontificate of Pius XII. Without explicitly contradicting previous papal doctrine, the council took many positions that in fact corrected what had been previously taught.

Did Vatican II teach the legitimacy of dissent from noninfallible teaching? It did so implicitly by its action, we may say, but not explicitly by its words. The theological commission responsible for paragraph 25 of the Constitution of the Church refused to make any statement, one way or the other, about dissent.

A step beyond the council was taken by the German bishops in a pastoral letter of September 22, 1967, which has been quoted on several occasions by Karl Rahner. This letter recognized that in its effort to apply the gospel to the changing situations of life, the church is obliged to give instructions that have a certain provisionality about them. These instructions, though binding to a certain degree, are subject to error. According to the bishops, dissent may be legitimate provided that three conditions are observed. (1) One must have striven seriously to attach positive value to the teaching in question and to appropriate it personally. (2) One must seriously ponder whether one has the theological expertise to disagree responsibly with ecclesiastical authority. (3) One must examine one's conscience for possible conceit, presumptuousness, or selfishness. Similar principles for conscientious dissent had already been laid down by John Henry Newman in the splendid chapter on Conscience in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1874).

A year after the German bishops, the United States hierarchy, on November 15, 1968, took up the question of licit dissent from noninfallible doctrine on the part of theological scholars. Their pastoral letter, entitled Human Life in Our Day, fundamentally agreed with the German letter except that it went somewhat further in dealing with the expression of theological dissent. It laid down three conditions: (1) The reasons must be serious and well-founded; (2) the manner of the dissent must not question or impugn the teaching authority of the church; and (3) the dissent must not be such as to give scandal. The American bishops added, as had the German bishops, that even responsible dissent does not excuse one from faithful presentation of the authentic doctrine of the church when one is performing a pastoral ministry in her name (USCC ed, p. 19).

In view of collective pastoral letters such as those of the German and American bishops' conferences, it now seems impossible to deny that dissent from the noninfallible magisterium is sometimes licit. For to deny such liceity would be to dissent from the teaching of these documents, which lay down conditions under which such dissent may be permitted. Anyone who wants to reject the teaching of these documents on dissent is thereby dissenting from the noninfallible magisterium, and thus confirming that very teaching.

It is by no means accidental that documents such as these two pastorals should have been issued several years after Vatican II, for the council by its doctrinal shifts ineluctably raised the question of licit dissent. These pastorals do not solve all the problems. Difficult questions can arise as to whether a given teaching is fallible or infallible and whether the conditions for legitimate dissent have been met. Distinctions have to be made between internal dissent, private dissent, public dissent, and organized dissent.

It is relatively easy to justify internal (or tacit) dissent, for there are cases in which Catholics of good will find themselves simply unable to accept certain teachings of the magisterium. It is more difficult to justify the expression of dissent, but as we have seen, the United States bishops do admit that this can be licit under certain conditions. If the dissent is expressed only privately, for example, in letters or memoranda circulated to a limited number of persons, there is little danger that the faithful will be misled and the public disedified. But there may be occasions when the dissenter has the right, and even the conscientious obligation, to go public. If theologians such as Yves Congar and John Courtney Murray had not publicly manifested their disagreement with certain official teachings, it is far less likely that Vatican II, under their influence, would have adopted new positions on subjects such as ecumenism and religious freedom. Another consideration is that in the world of our day it is often very difficult to keep one's communications private.

Dissent is said to be "organized" when a deliberate effort is made to influence public opinion against a decision of the magisterium. Richard A. McCormick has pointed out that organized dissent of this kind carries with it special risks and hence demands special warrants. Among the risks he lists the following: it tends to polarize scholars and hierarchical teachers in opposition to each other; it tends to undermine the confidence of the faithful in their pastors; it tends to politicize the church and to discourage truly personal reflection, and finally, it tends to associate theology with the popular media rather than with serious scholarship. The special warrants for such dissent, according to McCormick, are two: (1) Other forms of less sensational dissent are ineffective and (2) the circumstances are such that unopposed error would cause grave harm (cf. Theological Studies 30 [1969] 652). Provided that both these conditions are verified, a theologian might feel conscientiously obliged to conduct a campaign of organized dissent, but it is almost inevitable that others would deplore this action and seek to make it ineffective. The church can rather easily tolerate internal or privately expressed dissent, but it can scarcely help but oppose public and organized dissent to the extent that this would in effect set up a second magisterium in opposition to that of the hierarchy.

Some very difficult cases regarding dissent arise in connection with theological education. It is often said, with good reason, that the faithful are entitled to have official Catholic doctrine presented to them in a fair and favorable light. But such presentations can be made at various levels. In catechetical instruction the teacher is expected to present the doctrine of the church rather than the opinions of private theologians. But the case is not so simple in higher education. University students, especially at the graduate level, have the right to know the difference between reformable and irreformable teaching. With regard to the former, as Professor Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., of the Gregorian University has recently stated, they have the right to know that there are dissenting positions, and a right to know the arguments on both sides. (See NC News Service for May 6, 1986) A professor who adheres to the official teaching must be able to present the objections fairly, and one who questions the official teaching must be able to present them in a favorable light. A professor who fails on either score is deficient by academic standards.

There is always a temptation for church authorities to try to use their power to stamp out dissent. The effort is rarely successful, because dissent simply seeks another forum, where it may become even more virulent. To the extent that the suppression is successful, it may also do harm. It inhibits good theology from performing its critical task, and it is detrimental to the atmosphere of freedom in the church. The acceptance of true doctrine should not be a matter of blind conformity, as though truth could be imposed by decree. The church, as a society that respects the freedom of the human conscience, must avoid procedures that savor of intellectual tyranny.

Where dissent is kept within the bounds I have indicated, it is not fatal to the church as a community of faith and witness. If it does occur, it will be limited, reluctant, and respectful. Those who, in their zeal for orthodoxy, would wish to suppress dissent by coercive measures, might advantageously meditate on the gospel parable of the good grain and the weeds. When asked by the servants whether the weeds should be uprooted, the Master replied: "No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest" (Mt 13:28-30). The mistaken doctrines of hierarchical teachers and of theologians can alike be considered weeds, but it is not easy, at any given moment, to discern exactly which doctrines are mistaken. For this reason it is often necessary to allow both to survive, and to pray that the Holy Spirit will give clarity of insight so that God's truth may in the end prevail.