Saturday, September 10, 2011

Of Morals and Conscience, and Absolute Certainty, Pt. 1

Nearly 200 Roman Catholic priests throughout the U.S. recently signed a letter to Maryknoll's superior, asking that he and the community support Fr. Roy Bourgeois, despite Vatican orders, on the basis that he was simply following his conscience - as is required of everyone. Now, despite the fudging on why Maryknoll should support him (nothing was of his support for women's ordination being good, just, etc.), this was a heroic act on their part. The Vatican is losing patience more and more quickly with "recalcitrant" priests. It does, however, provide some solid "musing" for this Renegade Theologian.

We aren't required to follow "any old conscience," but a properly informed one. The Vatican would say (and has said) that "properly informed" means learning what the Church [i.e., the Pope] teaches, and following it without question. That, however, presents a number of problems for the student (however casual)of moral theology/ethics: absolute certainty in moral questions; restricting information to one source, suggesting (if not outright requiring!) acceptance of that source without question; no distinction between the "right" and the "good" - which equates the legal with the moral, perhaps making them interchangeable; and making the "moral" universal - impersonal, as it is without reference to the person making a decision.

We are required, as Christians -not just as Catholics, Roman or otherwise - to follow our conscience, insofar as it is properly informed. This isn't an option, it's a requirement! To come to an informed decision, then chicken out because it's tough or scary or might endanger our income is sinful. But what does the phrase "properly informed conscience" mean?

Following that can be scary! It's a whole lot easier, and safer, to "follow the rules," without question - probably the biggest reason people run for the safety of reactionary parishes where "Father knows, and I can't do anything wrong by doing what he [sic] says." It takes awareness, time and effort, and sometimes a giant leap of faith to inform our conscience well, and then follow its direction without the comfort of absolute certainty.

Absolute certainty, however, is impossible for human beings. As Thomas Aquinas points out, we are finite beings, with finite knowledge. (He uses the term "knowledge" broadly, it isn't strictly "intellective" - knowledge we get from a book, but I'll get into that later.) God alone is Absolute, to God alone can "absolute" knowledge - or any other attribute - be assigned. For us mortals, the properly informed question brings us, at best, to "moral certainty," the point at which we have done all we can to inform our decision, and must make it in good faith, and act on it.

That decision, all moral decisions, is made by a specific person. "I" have a specific history, skills, gifts, possibilities and real impossibilities in a given situation, access to ability to understand helpful information. "I" am making "my" decision in a very specific personal context. "General norms"and universal statements/teachings can and often should be a part of my information gathering - but these are not sufficient; they ignore the moral context in which "I" find "myself." This is when it gets scary at times, and where the reactionaries start screaming "Relativism!"

It's only Relativism, however, if we ignore all sources outside ourselves - at least, those which don't agree with what we want to do!

While "I" am a specific person, a specific moral agent in a specific moral dilemma (no dilemma = easy decision) and in a specific moral situation/context, "I" am, as a Christian, equally part of a faith community. "I" have the ability to gather information from outside "myself," as well as from within "myself." (Even those with intellective limitations are responsible to the extent those limitations permit.) In order to make a moral decision and act on it from an informed conscience, "I" must gather information from both outside and inside of "myself." "I" must seek out what my church teaches on the subject of "my" dilemma and consider that seriously, and prayerfully. "I" can search out other sources from "my" particular church - theological writings past and present, homilies, even articles in "my" church's newspapers and/or magazines. "I" must apply the intellect which is God's tremendous gift entrusted to us. That's not enough, thought. Reason isn't restricted to intellective knowledge, says Aquinas (and me). Our human design helps us, informs us, also through imagination - imaging ourselves doing or not doing something, imagining the consequences - good as well as bad - of a particular decision. Then there is that nebulous but inescapable quality call "intuition." There is within us, in every decision - moral or not, that something deep within us, that urges us to go ahead, stop, think it through, etc. It's even been called "the voice of God" - and this particular theologian calls it just that. Intellective knowledge, imagination and intuition are the powerful, trinitarian form for "the gift of reason." All three should be utilized as sources of moral knowledge if we struggle to make a moral decision...and act on that decision.

Okay, getting way too long for one post. Can you tell this particular theological area is a passion? More next week.

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