Sunday, 21 February 2010

Newman and "conscientious dissent"? ...Er, no ..

A few days ago, I posted By way of a preliminary .. This is the post to which that one was the preliminary. I ended that post by writing:
Acceptance of the teaching contained in the Catechism is, so far as I can see, a necessity for a any realistic dialogue towards unity in the Church.
The question of authority and conscience is one that is raised in a section of the site Vatican II - Voice of the Church. What I would like to do in this post is engage with one of the contributions to that section, an article written by Avery Dulles and published first in 1986. The title of the article is Authority and Conscience.

One of the problems with this article is its use of terms like "infallible teaching", "non-infallible teaching" and "official teaching". The real question to be answered is not so much which of these three descriptions one wishes to apply to the Church's moral teaching in general, or to a particular invidividual teaching amongst the whole. The question is more one of whether or not the teaching is part of the content of the Church's moral doctrine, and proposed as being part of that doctrine; the hazard of the three terms is that they avoid answering this key question in a particular case, and so leave open the possibility of a vagueness about what the Church does or does not teach. This was the significance of my By way of a preliminary ... post, the essential conclusion of which is that it is the Catechism of the Catholic Church that can be considered as the reference point for deciding what is or is not Catholic teaching (the post presents this within a fuller account of the relation of the Catechism to Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium).
Did Vatican II teach the legitimacy of dissent from noninfallible teaching? It did so implicitly by its action, we may say, but not explicitly by its words. The theological commission responsible for paragraph 25 of the Constitution of the Church refused to make any statement, one way or the other, about dissent.

A step beyond the council was taken by the German bishops in a pastoral letter of September 22, 1967, which has been quoted on several occasions by Karl Rahner. This letter recognized that in its effort to apply the gospel to the changing situations of life, the church is obliged to give instructions that have a certain provisionality about them. These instructions, though binding to a certain degree, are subject to error. According to the bishops, dissent may be legitimate provided that three conditions are observed. (1) One must have striven seriously to attach positive value to the teaching in question and to appropriate it personally. (2) One must seriously ponder whether one has the theological expertise to disagree responsibly with ecclesiastical authority. (3) One must examine one's conscience for possible conceit, presumptuousness, or selfishness. Similar principles for conscientious dissent had already been laid down by John Henry Newman in the splendid chapter on Conscience in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1874).
Avery Dulles argument in the first paragraph of this section is questionable to say the least. It is difficult to read in the text of n.25 of Lumen Gentium any justification whatsoever for a legitimacy of dissent, even if one does understand it as tacitly speaking in terms of the "infallible", "non-infallible" and "official" distinctions; the text speaks only in terms of assent.

What I would like to give more attention to is the last sentence of the second paragraph (my emphasis added), in which Avery Dulles suggests that Cardinal Newman laid down principles for conscientious dissent. Where Avery Dulles' paragraph contains a fudge is in its move from consideration of "instructions" to consideration of "teachings" - where Cardinal Newman keeps a very clear distinction between matters of teaching and matters of legislation or policy. I think the moral of the story is that, if you really want to understand what Cardinal Newman says about the collision between conscience and Papal authority (and I think we can fairly extend his principle to apply to ecclesial authority as a whole), you need to read the whole of Chapter 5 of the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, and not just the last part of it.
1. First, I am using the word "conscience" in the high sense in which I have already explained it,—not as a fancy or an opinion, but as a dutiful obedience to what claims to be a divine voice, speaking within us; and that this is the view properly to be taken of it, I shall not attempt to prove here, but shall assume it as a first principle.

2. Secondly, I observe that conscience is not a judgment upon any speculative truth, any abstract doctrine, but bears immediately on conduct, on something to be done or not done. "Conscience," says St. Thomas, "is the practical judgment or dictate of reason, by which we judge what hic et nunc is to be done as being good, or to be avoided as evil." Hence conscience cannot come into direct collision with the Church's or the Pope's infallibility; which is engaged in general propositions, and in the condemnation of particular and given errors.
[A complete treatment of how we manifest our conscience addresses three "moments" - the knowing of what is morally right and wrong which, for a Catholic, arises from knowledge of the teaching of the Church, cf my By way of a preliminary ... post; the mediation of that knowledge to the particular situation now being encountered; and then the "impulse" to act in one way or another. Cardinal Newman here narrows his use of the word conscience to only the second two of these phases.]

3. Next, I observe that, conscience being a practical dictate, a collision is possible between it and the Pope's authority only when the Pope legislates, or gives particular orders, and the like. But a Pope is not infallible in his laws, nor in his commands, nor in his acts of state, nor in his administration, nor in his public policy. [Here Cardinal Newman only admits the possibility of collision between conscience and Papal authority over matters of legislation or policy; the possibility of collision over questions of doctrinal or moral teaching are absolutely ruled out.]
So, when in the extracts quoted on the Vatican II - Voice of the Church website, Cardinal Newman refers to "non-infallible Authority" of the Pope he is not referring to some "non-infallible teaching"; he is referring only to matters of legislation or policy as the cited examples amply demonstrate. You should not read these extracts as a justification for dissent on matters of doctrinal or moral teaching.

 In summary, it is quite incorrect for those who dissent from points of Catholic doctrinal or moral teaching, and campaign for them to be changed, to claim that Cardinal Newman's teaching about conscience justifies such dissent.  And, when Cardinal Newman asserts the priority of conscience, he does not at all mean that we should be deciding for ourselves what is right and wrong, perhaps "taking some note" of the teaching of the magisterium, rather than accepting it as true. He does not extend the freedom of conscience to that first moment of its activity, namely the knowing what is right and wrong, which for the Catholic comes about by knowledge of the teaching of the Church'a magisterium.
In the year in which Cardinal Newman will be beatified, I think it is particularly important to recognise what his real position is on the freedom of conscience. In an era before the "sound-bite" was even thought of, the dear Cardinal seems to have gone in for the "word-bite" in some style and in a way that lends himself to being mis-represented. The last sentence of the chapter on conscience in the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk is a case in point, with it only being possible to understand it properly if you have read ALL of the preceding chapter:
I add one remark. Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please,—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.

1 comment:

Francis said...

Thanks for this, Joe. A very clear explanation based on a close reading of the text.