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

Preface to Authority and  Conscience

By Arthur Wells

The interaction between Conscience and Authority needs constant attention from bishops and theologians as well as from ordinary people. In our context, 'Authority' needs to be further qualified as meaning ecclesiastical authority - what has come to be called the magisterium. More recently, as if to emphasise its solemnity, it sometimes becomes Magisterium with a capital M. The young Butler was concerned early in his life with ecclesial legitimacy. As a bishop he always retained an affection and gratitude for the Anglican upbringing to which he owed his Christianity. As an undergraduate at Oxford, while not perhaps having magisterium in mind as such, Butler was nevertheless deeply conscious of authority. He was in the process of arguing himself into the Roman Catholic Church and in his late maturity, he recalled part of his thought process:

'Man's conscience presents him with an authority which, without destroying his freedom (indeed, rather, while necessarily presupposing that freedom), lays upon him an absolute obligation.' [He then refers to the variations of the moral law from culture to culture and continues:] 'What I find impressive is that, having determined as best one may - and doubtless partly under the influence of inherited notions - what ones duty is, one is faced with an inescapable obligation to do that duty.' (A Time To Speak p.16).

To paraphrase comments elsewhere in the same book, he speaks of his own constitutional need - knowing his personal critical capabilities - for an ecclesiastical authority against which to test, and perhaps submit, his thinking. Those concepts were in his mind aged nineteen or twenty and confirm the intellectual precocity he had shown by his having read St John's Gospel, when only fifteen, in the original Greek. A Time to Speak was far from fully autobiographical, but was a 'history' of Butler's thinking, published in 1972. Only four years earlier Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae on artificial birth control had caused considerable public discussion on the nature of the teaching authority in the Church; the wide debate had focused on the magisterium and the role of the individual conscience.


Discussion of Humanae Vitae as such is not a function of this website, but that encyclical did involve a particular exercise of the magisterium, which did not fulfil the expectations raised by the collegiality so recently outlined by the Council. Consequently, while an examination of the magisterium is not a specific purpose of this section either, nevertheless, at least a modest reference to it is relevant. A comprehensive coverage is contained in a book by Francis A Sullivan S.J. (Magisterium-Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church, 1983, Paulist Press). While perhaps tending to a slightly different view to the one which follows, it is nevertheless an important contribution and must be considered. A succinct view of magisterium, appearing in 1981, some two years before Sullivan's book, was contained in a letter in the English weekly journal The Tablet. The writer was the well known Dominican Fr. Edmund Hill OP, then serving in the missions in Africa (Lesotho). The Tablet editor at the time (Tom Burns) chose to headline the letter 'Authority and Freedom' as it followed an extended series of articles on those topics. The articles are referred to in more detail in Kevin Clarke's Councils Through History; this piece also contains a consideration of the ultramontanism which tended to be the norm before Vatican II. Together with a seemingly steady centralisation of authority - even after Vatican II - an accompanying ultramontanism is currently a matter of concern, being associated with a narrow reading of magisterium. Fr Hill's comments, some twenty-five years ago, are consequent on this centralisation and on aspects of previous articles in the debate. Relevant extracts from his letter are:

'I would put the emphasis on rather different factors when it comes to analysing what has most disturbed or disillusioned the faithful since Vatican II. I don't think it has primarily been 'liberal' theologians....... Authority, from the authority of Scripture to the authority of his colleagues and the theological tradition, and of course including the authority of popes and councils, are an essential part of the theologian's material and of his method. If some theologians in post-Vatican II excitement have tended to forget this, then to that extent they have been bad, or shall we say loose, theologians. Where I think I take issue...... is over this thing called 'the magisterium'. At least it is here that the problem lies, not with the loose theologians. It is a term and concept that is used.... least by persons in high authority who issue official documents........ in a very un-criticised and over-simplified manner. ......... In the first place we cannot set up a contrast, or even a distinction, between theologians and magisterium. For in a more conservative tradition in which I was brought up, theologians form part of the magisterium. At any rate, they are given a definite if modest place in the series of authoritative loci which theology has to take account of. Not only theologians but all the faithful have a share in the magisterium, in magisterial matters of faith; '....parents and teachers teaching children the catechism, priests and catechists preaching and teaching – all are exercising Catholic, Christian magisterium in one degree or another.

Why do we need the term 'magisterium' at all? Why is the term 'authority' not sufficient? I suggest that the only valid justification for 'magisterium' (a term I dislike) is that 'authority' is too wide, and one wants a term for that part of the Church's authority concerned with faith and doctrine.' [After analysing certain confusions and oversimplifications still current today, Fr Hill added:] 'It seems to me that the main trouble with the post-Vatican II Church is that it has failed to develop either institutions or techniques for exercising authority including magisterial authority in matters of faith and doctrine, in other than the old absolutist way.' (The Tablet, 25 July1981 pp. 717,718)

Twenty-five years ago long letters were still in vogue, perhaps an indication of vital interest among the Catholic public. Even after some 600 words, Fr. Hill continued, making substantial and still valid suggestions for improvement. In much of his letter he was echoing, for example, what both Cardinal Suenens and Bishop Butler were writing both publicly and privately a dozen years earlier in the immediate aftermath of the Council. The above brief consideration of 'magisterium' seemed necessary before introducing the contributors to this section on Authority and Conscience. Forty years after the Council and with declining popular interest, little can be taken for granted, but even so, some of the names surely need little introduction.

The first article is by Avery Dulles S J (who was created a cardinal in February 2001); the article was published initially in the journal Church in 1986, and only a year after Fr. Dulles had contributed a seemingly somewhat puzzled assessment of the Extraordinary Synod of 1985, called to review the Second Vatican Council twenty years after it closed (The Reception of Vatican II, Ed. Alberigo, Jossua & Komonchak, Catholic University of America Press, 1987). However, perhaps the most authoritative piece in this section is by John Henry, Cardinal Newman and from his 'Letter to the Duke of Norfolk'. This 'letter' of 1874 (published in 1875) responded to an attack on the Catholic Church by the British Prime Minister William Gladstone. Described as a letter, it was, in fact, a substantial book. Apologies are offered for any inelegance in the editing of the extract, which resulted from the attempt to present the essence of Newman's extended arguments at a tolerable length for this website.

Bishop Christopher Butler is, to a large degree, the inspiration for this website, which contains several pieces by him and about him, mainly in the context of the Council.. Much of his output after Vatican II was in the form of lectures, or articles concerning the teachings and the issues arising from the Council. Of the multitude of articles he wrote, many selected for this section were written for The Tablet and were connected with the topic 'Conscience and Authority'.

The subjects of the infallibility of the Church and of papal infallibility cannot be dissociated from Authority and Conscience. To touch again on Newman's Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, it had not silenced the critics, nor erased the often gross misunderstandings on the subject of papal infallibility. Butler had come into early prominence as a Catholic scholar with two books on Scripture and significantly in 1954 had published The Church and Infallibility in response to Dr Salmon, who was maintaining the attack on the Vatican I definition.

The penultimate piece in the section is a report on a talk on Authority given by Bishop Butler some thirty years ago. Partly to underline his inherent courtesy to a stranger, the Bishop's letter commenting on the draft report is appended; the final version of the report, of course, being duly corrected. For later generations, it may be useful to note that that talk of 1970 had been given barely more than four years after the Council had promulgated its final Decrees and Constitutions. The relevant article 16 of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World was headed:

The Dignity of the Moral Conscience

'In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can when necessary speak to his heart more specifically: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart, a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.' (Gaudium et Spes, n.16, trans. Abbot p. 213)