Friday, May 4, 2012

Vatican II, Conscience, Error and Rights

Much has been written lately about "conscience" as it relates to public policy in the United States.  There have been statements about policies which would expect "the Church" or "institutions of the Church" (such as hospitals and schools) to "violate their consciences."  It seems to me that a helpful and necessary first step in reflecting on all of this is a quick review of the Church's teaching on the nature and exercise of "conscience."  To do that, we turn to the Second Vatican Council.

In the Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (#16) we read: "Deep within his conscience a person discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells him inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For a person has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His dignity lies in observing this law, and by it he will be judged. His conscience is man's most secret core, and his sanctuary."  This quote gives us one of the best descriptions out there about the conscience.  Notice that this is not a corporate conscience, but a radically individual conscience: "There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths."

Later in the same document (#76), the public impact of individual conscience is described: "It is of supreme importance, especially in a pluralistic society, to work out a proper vision of the relationship between the political community and the Church, and to distinguish clearly between the activities of Christians, acting individually or collectively in their own name as citizens guided by the dictates of Christian conscience, and their activity acting along with their pastors in the name of the Church."  Perhaps this is precisely the point we find ourselves struggling with at this point of time in our political life: we are involved in trying to "work out" that vision.

Cardinal Bea with Blessed John XXIII
Cardinal Bea
The other day, during a conversation on some of these issues, a person quoted the old cliche that "error has no rights" and, in his opinion, that ended the argument!  I came across a wonderful insight from one of the great leaders of the Second Vatican Council: Cardinal Augustin Bea.  Cardinal Bea, a Bavarian Jesuit and a close friend of Pope John XXIII, was a long-time scripture scholar who had been Pope Pius XII's confessor.  Pope John created Fr. Bea a Cardinal (he was not a bishop) in 1959, and he became the first head of the office promoting Christian Unity and the relationship of the Catholic Church to other faiths.  On 13 January 1963, after the second session of the Council, Cardinal Bea gave a lecture at Pro Deo University in Rome.  During his talk, he spoke of the liberty of conscience and that he would be working on the document which would address "the inviolability of the human conscience as the final right of every person, no matter what his religious beliefs or ideological allegiance."  He referred to the axiom that "error has no right to exist," but he proclaimed that although this is a popular expression used "glibly by"certain Catholic apologists," this statement is "sheer nonsense."  He correctly (in my opinion) points out that "error is an abstract concept incapable of either rights or obligations."  Rather, it is human persons who have rights, and even when persons are in error "their right to freedom of conscience was absolute."

I'll wrap this up for now, although I'm sure we will all continue to reflect on all of this over the days, weeks and months ahead.

1 comment:

  1. As the Church continues to teach - there is no "right to error." There is a right for Human dignity. And this dignity demands liberty (not commands), which is allowed without immunity, "within just limits."

    Very important distinctions.


    The right to religious liberty is neither a moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error, but rather a natural right of the human person to civil liberty, i.e., immunity, within just limits, from external constraint in religious matters by political authorities. This natural right ought to be acknowledged in the juridical order of society in such a way that it constitutes a civil right.
    CCC 2108