Monday, January 23, 2012

On Conscience, the U.S. Bishops, and Manufactured Battles with the Obama Administration: David DeCosse at NCR

National Catholic Reporter is now carrying valuable commentary by David DeCosse, director of campus ethics programs at Santa Clara University, about the model of conscience the U.S. Catholic bishops are applying in their clashes with the Obama administration over "religious freedom" issues.  DeCosse focuses, in particular, on the recent battle about the HHS guidelines recommending coverage of contraception in health care plans, including in religiously owned institutions.  

DeCosse frames the discussion by looking at two concepts of conscience: the model the bishops are now promoting, and the traditional Catholic model derived from the theology of Thomas Aquinas.  I find DeCosse's analysis cogent and extremely helpful.  As I noted in my own reflections on the HHS decision last week, Catholic media gurus like Michael Sean Winters, who have been defending the USCCB in its clashes with the Obama administration, seem to me to be employing a view of conscience that is so narrow that it applies exclusively to the bishops.

And so when Winters et al. speak of how the Obama administration's support of the National Academy of Science Institute of Medicine's recommendation that all women have access to contraceptive coverage in health plans violates Catholic "conscience," they're acting as if the only Catholic conscience that matters in this debate is the hierarchical conscience.  This claim is mind-boggling in the face of the well-nigh universal dissent of faithful Catholics from what the magisterium teaches about contraception in Humanae Vitae.  It's mind-boggling because it treats that faithful dissent as non-existent, and in doing so, it treats the consciences of the large majority of Catholics who faithfully dissent from hierarchical teaching on the matter of contraception as if they do not count.

Winters and others in the Catholic commentariat defending the USCCB in its manufactured battles with the current administration make mincemeat of the traditional Catholic notion of conscience, and they implicitly insult the large percentage of their brother and sister Catholics whose conscientious decision about contraception rejects magisterial teaching.  DeCosse's commentary helps to frame this discussion by pointing to the disconnect between the bishops' understanding of conscience and that found in the classic theology of Aquinas.

DeCosse notes that the bishops (and, here, they're following Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI) want to create a "perfect closed circle of conscience" in which the faithful are compelled, if they want to identify themselves as Catholic, to accept hierarchical teaching on matters moral.  No dissent allowed here: this becomes the invisible sign posted at the door of every Catholic church under the last two papacies, and the unspoken precondition for defining oneself as Catholic under these two papacies.  The bishops (again, they're following JPII and Benedict here) have traded Aquinas's very traditional notion of liberty of conscience and of the obligation of faithful Catholics to follow their informed consciences for a notion of conscience that is entirely law-bound.

Following JPII's lead in Veritatis Splendor, the bishops want to argue that there are moral absolutes--and these are transmitted to the faithful by hierarchical teaching--which bind the consciences of faithful Catholics, so that dissent from these absolutes as formulated in magisterial teaching is impossible.  It's impossible if one wishes to identify oneself as a faithful Catholic.

But over against this understanding of conscience and how it operates, DeCosse reminds readers, is the notion of practical reason emphasized by Aquinas, which strongly emphasizes the need for every Christian to take into the inner forum of conscience, in which we are encounter God, all the factors that must be weighed in order to come to a decision of informed conscience in any situation.  These factors certainly include magisterial teaching.  And scripture.  And pastoral counsel.

But they include more than that.  They include information accessible to our consciences via reason, as it's informed by the natural and social sciences, for instance--because the Catholic tradition at its best has always understood that the same God who is the author of revealed truth is the author of all other truth which comes to us through the channels of human reason.  

If one steps back a moment from the various political debates now eliciting renewed discussion of the role of conscience in the Catholic tradition, and if one takes a close look at what the period of restoration, the "reform of the reform" under JPII and Benedict, has meant for Catholic notions of conscience, it's hard to avoid the following conclusion: there has been, under the last two popes and now through the USCCB in the American context, an ongoing, concerted attack by the hierarchy on the notion of the informed conscience of lay Catholics.  There has been a strong erosion, from the very top of the Catholic church, of traditional, long-held notions of conscience rooted in Aquinas, with a deliberate attempt to strong-arm the consciences of faithful Catholics by equating conscience with unquestioning fidelity to hierarchical teaching.

And the results of this campaign have been extremely dismal for the church as a whole.  They have resulted in widespread moral infantilism among precisely that set of Catholics who most vocally represent themselves as the defining voice of Catholicism in the public square.   

By its very nature, conscience requires that we be conscious.  We do not--we cannot--become fully conscious when we don't think.  When we don't learn.  When we don't consider every bit of information accessible to us.  When we don't diligently search for all the pieces of information pertinent as we make  an informed judgment about a matter we're considering.

The coercive law-based strong-arm approach of the hierarchy to moral issues in this restorationist moment of Catholic history implicitly teaches "faithful" Catholics that they may dispense from the hard work of mature conscience by simply accepting without question what is handed down to them from the top, as if hierarchical teaching is divine truth in toto.  This approach to conscience hollows out everything the tradition has ever understood as the operation of mature and informed conscience, and it permits those who understand conscience as unquestioning obedience to hierarchical dictate to dispense from the hard work of becoming adult believers who exercise informed conscience.

It keeps those Catholics who buy into the restorationist approach to conscience at an infantile level of moral development.  And it inculcates this moral infantilism deliberately, to serve the control needs of the hierarchy.  Infants are far easier to control than adults, and when the accent of a church's leadership is on control backed by coercion, it positively needs to produce a morally and intellectually infantile population of churchgoers who obey without question and who willingly sequester themselves in an intellectually barren, set-apart, parochial enclave in which church leaders rule and faithful Catholics obey without question.

One can look at history and find all kinds of examples to demonstrate that the creation of such intellectually barren, parochial, authoritarian cultural enclaves is dangerous precisely because people who have not been taught to think--to develop and use adult consciences--lack the tools to understand complex moral and political issues, and as a result, become tools themselves.  And when no leader of any human community, moral or otherwise, is ever free from the tendency to misuse power, peoples reduced to the level of tools, who place themselves in the hands of leaders who define themselves and their words as holy, almost inevitably end up doing not good but evil in the world.

This is how things work when people are not challenged to become informed, educated, thoughtful, and conscientious.  It is how history shows us repeatedly that things work under these conditions--and the result is always and everywhere, throughout history, unhappy in the end.

The tremendous tragedy of the current papacy and its predecessor is that things might have been very different, after Vatican II.  Vatican II introduced within Catholicism a new moment that had the potential to change the Catholic church and its relationship to secular culture in all sorts of ways, not the least of which was by assuring sound, well-rounded catechesis of the faithful, so that they could become productive citizens of the societies in which they live, transmitting the values of the Catholic tradition at its best to secular culture in careful, conscientious dialogue with culture.

Instead, the top leaders of the Catholic church have chosen the path of retrenchment, of re-parochialization, of re-mystification of hierarchical teaching and hierarchical roles.  The top leaders of the Catholic church have chosen not respectful dialogue with the laity about disputed matters such as contraception, but top-down coercion of the kind a bad parent uses when that parent substitutes because-I-say-so authoritarianism rather than reason or good role-modeling to teach children how to behave.

The results of these tragic decisions to waste the creativity provided by the Vatican II movement, to reduce "faithful" Catholics to infants, to ignore the voice of the Spirit speaking through the council and through lay Catholics: the results have been dismal in the extreme.  And they grow more dismal with each new moral inanity that falls from the mouths of the Catholic bishops in the U.S. in their made-up and politically driven battles to try to unseat a Democratic president whom they imagine as less amenable to their control than a Republican president would be.

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