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Mistakes in the past and the primacy of conscience

30 November, 1999

Has the Church made mistakes in its pronouncements in the past? If a person today finds themselves in conflict with Church statements, what should they do? Seán Fagan SM tries to shed some light.

We should learn from mistakes of the past. Pope Leo X declared, against Luther, that the burning of heretics was perfectly in accordance with the will of the Holy Spirit. Pope Gregory XVI in 1832 and Pope Pius IX in 1864 declared that freedom of conscience was ‘sheer madness’, whereas the Second Vatican Council proclaimed it as a basic human right, rooted in our very nature. Pius XI in 1931 declared in Divini Illius Magistri, his encyclical on education, that co-education was against all Catholic principles, indeed against natural law, and he wrote a whole paragraph explaining the natural law on the subject. Religious involved in co-educational schools were told that they needed the permission of the Holy Father to do so, but by 1954 the Vatican announced (because of the increasing number of requests) that the local bishop could give permission (to dispense from natural law!). There is a long list of such examples, inviting us to be a little more humble in our pronouncements.

These historical facts give rise to the question: to what extent is the Holy Spirit responsible for such misguided pronouncements? Again, a little more humility is needed. When Pope Paul VI published his encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968 it was made clear that it was not an infallible statement. It is estimated that more than 80% of Catholics are not convinced of its teaching. The question was withdrawn from discussion by the Council, and of the 72 members of the special papal commission established to consider it only four voted that there could be no change in the traditional ban on artificial contraception. These four admitted that their position could not be proved theologically, but it was a question of authority; a change in the teaching would provoke a schism in the Church. It is not a matter of divine faith, but simply of a certain understanding of natural law.

Some theologians argue that the Holy Spirit enlightens the pope with a deeper insight into the natural law, but the faithful would like to know why the Holy Spirit could not give him the extra little bit of help that would enable him to convince the ordinary members of the Church. In a debate with Cardinal Ratzinger in 1992, Cardinal Konig, the retired archbishop of Vienna, dismissed the “irritating distinction between artificial and so-called natural contraception, almost as if the morally important thing is the ‘trick’ of cheating nature”.

Belief in the divine power of the Spirit at work in the Church and the world should not lead us to a magical notion of her influence. We do not have to believe that God’s Spirit positively wills everything that happens in the Church.  History is witness to the disastrous decisions and sinful behaviour of Church members and especially leaders that brought shame to the Church.

The “grace of state” that comes with appointment to special office (popes, bishops, priests, etc.) is not a divine assistance that works automatically, or a power-source that can be turned on simply by saying a prayer. It is a special grace or help of the Holy Spirit which is available to Church leaders. But to be effective in practice, it needs to be actually availed of by means of serious, committed prayer and by taking the necessary steps of research, study, reflection, consultation (not just of like minded people), and listening, and all of this in a spirit of humility and openness. Piety and good will are not enough. Church leaders must remember that the ninety-nine per cent of Church members who are not popes, bishops or priests are equally temples of the Holy Spirit, who speaks through their faith and personal experience.

The concept of the Holy Spirit “enlightening” somebody with extra new knowledge has little if any theological foundation. It is traditional Catholic theology that the Holy Spirit working within us in moral decision-making does not make a concrete judgement of truth for us, nor reveal to us in some hidden, mystic, intuitive way what we ought to do in a particular situation. That decision is our personal judgement of conscience.

But we can count on the help of the Spirit to help us become aware of our own weakness and prejudice, to face a particular situation with courage and as truthfully as we can, to move us to seek the truth whatever the difficulties, and to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through the voice of the teaching Church, our fellow-Christians, and through the natural abilities and talents of our fellow human beings.  In the end the judgement of conscience is ours alone, totally personal, with its absolute, authoritative claim on our behaviour.

Given our human limitations, our judgement may be objectively wrong, mistaken, but we rely on the Spirit to see that our judgement and behaviour have been conscientious. The Council reminds us that “conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of the human person” (The Church in the Modern World, 16) We are also told that “God calls people to serve him in spirit and in truth. Consequently they are bound to him in conscience, but not coerced. God has regard for the dignity of the human person whom he himself created; human persons are to be guided by their own judgement and they are to enjoy freedom.” That the human judgement may also be the judgement of the Holy Spirit is the great mystery of God’s grace, like the decision of the Council of Jerusalem: ‘It is has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us …’ (Acts 15:28).

On the sacredness of conscience, theologian Ratzinger sums up perfectly the teaching of Vatican II:

Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, even if necessary against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. This emphasis on the individual, whose conscience confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of extemal social groups, even of the official Church, also establishes a principle: in opposition to increasing totalitarianism.” (Joseph Ratzinger, in  Ed. Herbert Vorgrimler, Commentary on the Doctrine of Vatican II, vol V, p 134.


This article first appeared in Doctrine and Life (Dec 2004) and Pastoral Renewal Exchange (June 2005).