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A Catholic Social Conscience: Can it be Reclaimed in Our Time?

Frank Brennan SJ AO

Australian Catholic Movement for Intellectual and Cultural Affairs (ACMICA) seminar
Australian Catholic University, North Sydney
10 June 2004

I have just come from the rally at the Town Hall protesting the ongoing detention of children asylum seekers in Australia and on Nauru. There would have been many Catholics there in good conscience doing what little they could to reverse a government policy that they think unconscionable. There would have been many Catholics of good conscience who were not there, either because they had more important, more pressing, or more routine things that simply had to be done by them. There would have been many Catholics of good conscience who were not there because they had not heard about it, or having heard about it, they thought it was nothing to do with them, a waste of time, or a political activity of which they did not approve. My hope is that all these Catholics, whether or not they were there, and for whatever reason, are on a journey of life developing a formed and informed conscience about the many complex issues confronting us all in our world. On some of these issues and decisions, we do obtain useful guidance from our church leaders; but on many we do not. That is not their fault. Life is just too complex and truth so multi-faceted. That's why there is a need to reclaim the Catholic social conscience.

Bishop Cremin was at the Town Hall to offer a prayer; I was there in my role as meddling priest; others were there in solidarity, celebrating their joint commitment to making a stand and a difference to the lives of those in detention. On the train coming across the bridge at peak hour after the rally was a woman wearing her "Children Out or Detention" T-shirt and still carrying her "Children out of Detention" helium balloon. We exchanged a smile of recognition as she courageously spread her message to weary commuters, simply by her presence. Each of us has our roles to play. This day I think hers was one of the more courageous and sustained roles.

Of late there has been some suggestion that there is a competition between conscience and truth, only one of which can enjoy primacy. Some Catholics like Cardinal Pell think other Catholics would do better if they stopped talking about the primacy of conscience. Others think there is a need for more emphasis on the primacy of the individual conscience over against the directives, witness and actions of bishops and even the Pope if we are to have any chance of discerning and living out the complex truth of our life project. I am one of those others. Cardinal Pell, like me, often invokes Thomas More when it comes to limiting the competence of conscience. But some others have hailed Thomas More as the patron saint of the primacy of conscience. At his trial, he said, “Ye must understand that, in things touching conscience, every true and good subject is more bound to have respect to his said conscience and to his soul than to any other thing in all the world besides.”

Presently, there is a conflict in the Australian Catholic community about the primacy of conscience. It may simply be a difference of perspective, some seeing the glass half-full and warning against the limits of conscience in coming to truth, and others seeing the glass half-empty and espousing the potential of conscience in living the truth. For some years now, Archbishop George Pell has been eloquently blunt suggesting that the notion be ditched. In his 1999 Acton Lecture he said:[1]

Catholics should stop talking about the primacy of conscience. This has never been a Catholic doctrine (although this point generally cuts little ice). Moreover, such language is not conducive to identifying what contributes to human development. It is a short cut, which often leads the uninitiated to feel even more complacent while “doing their own thing”.

Were Catholics like me not to talk about the primacy of conscience, we would find it difficult to communicate the message of the Second Vatican Council in its Declaration on Religious Freedom:[2]

In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience faithfully, in order that he may come to God, for whom he was created. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious.

The Church teaching on conscience gives no consolation to the uninitiated thinking they can simply do their own thing. But neither does it accord religious authorities the liberty of insisting upon wooden compliance with their instruction or view of the world. Good conscience must always be accorded primacy even by bishops who would act differently in the circumstances, bearing in mind John Henry Newman’s observation that “conscience is not a judgment upon...any abstract doctrine ... but bears immediately on something to be done or not done”[3]. As the Vatican Council said in Gaudium et Spes, its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (with some modification out of consideration for those offended by non-inclusive language):[4]

In the depths of our conscience, we detect a law which we do not impose upon ourselves, but which holds us to obedience. Always summoning us to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can when necessary speak to our hearts more specifically: do this, shun that. For we have in our hearts a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of the human person; according to it we will be judged.

Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a person. There we are alone with God, whose voice echoes in our depths.

I respect the conscience of Archbishop Pell in the making of his statement rejecting the primacy of formed, informed conscience together with the unformed, uninformed conscience. I trust he respects my conscience in my begging to differ. I just happen to find more solace in Pope John Paul II’s Message for World Peace Day 1999 when he said, “People are obliged to follow their conscience in all circumstances and cannot be forced to act against it.” We must always accord primacy to the conscientiously formed and informed conscience, regardless of the person’s place in the church hierarchy. The Christians’ contribution to the contemporary world would be greater if there were more attention to the formation of conscience and to the injunction: inform your conscience and to that conscience be true. For most people, the questions of conscience will not be: am I to believe this church teaching? But “Am I to do this particular act or refrain from it?” That act may be one relating to personal relationships; it may be about political engagement and a commitment to make a difference in the public forum. It may even be the decision to endorse a war or to condemn it or to remain silent.

Though keen on the primacy of conscience, I do not equate it with simply doing one's own thing or doing what one feels like. I am obliged to follow my conscience in the same way that a bishop is obliged to follow his. Each of must ensure that we have a formed and informed conscience as we decide not only what we will believe, as that is probably the less problematic part, but also as we decide what we will do. Before acting we will search for the truth insofar as the truth is discoverable. But we will then make prudential decisions about what to do, having applied whatever moral principles might apply to the matter under consideration. I am one of those Catholics who is very heartened by the present Pope's insistence on the primacy of conscience in the sense that he uses that term. In his World Day of Peace Address in January 2002 he said:

Respect for a person's conscience, where the image of God himself is reflected (cf. Gen 1:26-27), means that we can only propose the truth to others, who are then responsible for accepting it. To try to impose on others by violent means what we consider to be the truth is an offence against human dignity, and ultimately an offence against God whose image that person bears.

There are many complex issues in the world today which are not susceptible of unequivocal answers about what is true and what is good or what is the greater good in terms of actions and outcomes. In these situations, I cannot acquit my conscience simply by pleading that I followed what the bishops said, did or failed to do. All of us, like the bishops, are obligated to play our respective roles in the societies of which we are a part, forming and informing our consciences, and acting according to our consciences. As we mark the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council it is helpful to recall paragraph 43 of the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes:

Laypeople should also know that it is generally the function of their well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city; from priests they may look for spiritual light and nourishment. Let the laypeople not imagine that their pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give them a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church, let the laypeople take on their own distinctive role.

Often enough the Christian view of things will itself suggest some specific solution in certain circumstances. Yet it happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that with equal sincerity some of the faithful will disagree with others on a given matter. Even against the intentions of their proponents, however, solutions proposed on one side or another may be easily confused by many people with the Gospel message. Hence it is necessary for people to remember that no one is allowed in the aforementioned situations to appropriate the Church's authority for their opinion. They should always try to enlighten one another through honest discussion, preserving mutual charity and caring above all for the common good.

What place was there for the Catholic social conscience in the lead up to recent Iraq War and in the subsequent debate about the morality of the war? In the lead up to the war, the church leadership in the US, UK and Australia was remarkably united in its criticism of the public rationale offered for war. However, there was a variety of views about the margin for error to be afforded to government. There was a variety of responses from church leaders here in Australia when the Prime Minister claimed some church support for his decision to join the Coalition of the Willing. When asked about the clear opposition from church leaders such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican John Howard told the National Press Club:

There is a variety of views being expressed. I think in sheer number of published views, there would have been more critical than supportive. I thought the articles that came from Archbishop Pell and Archbishop Jensen were both very thoughtful and balanced. I also read a very thoughtful piece from Bishop Tom Frame, who is the Anglican Bishop of the Australian Defence Forces. The greater volume of published views would have been critical, but I think there have been some very thoughtful other views and the ones I have mentioned, I certainly include in them.

Once the war commenced, Archbishop Jensen said, "For my own part I remain unpersuaded that we ought to have committed our military forces, but I recognise the limitations of my judgment and the sincerity of those who differ."

In the month before the war, Bishop Frame had said: "I am now inclined to believe a campaign against Iraq during the next few months involving Australian Defence Force personnel would be just." Three months after the war, Bishop Frame said: "If it is established that the weapons did not exist and the Coalition did or should have known this, the war will not have been justified and must be deemed immoral. A case for war against Iraq based solely on ‘regime change’ would have been inadequate and I would have been obliged to share this conclusion with those for whom I have a pastoral responsibility. " On Palm Sunday 2004 Bishop Frame announced his "considered conclusion that the war against Iraq was neither just nor necessary". Let me give you a selection of quotes from his Palm Sunday address to the ecumenical peace rally held in Perth:

My conclusion is simply that the war cannot be reconciled with just war principles nor, in my judgement, are there grounds for claiming it was strategically necessary.

One year on, it would appear that no-one now seriously entertains the prospect that WMDs will ever be found in Iraq.

I do not agree with those who say it is still too early to make ethical judgements about the war itself. Perhaps it is too early for political and strategic assessments but there is sufficient data to allow ethical determinations to be made.

As I look back on the events of the last twelve months I continue to seek God’s forgiveness for my complicity in creating a world in which this sort of action was ever considered by anyone to be necessary. Even so, come Lord Jesus. Amen.

It is helpful to quote Bishop Frame at some length for three reasons. He was the clearest public advocate for war in the Australian church hierarchies before the war. He is a senior military chaplain who was himself an officer in the services before his ordination. And most significantly as he now tells us:

In the weeks leading up to the commencement of hostilities on 20 March 2003 I had direct dealings with the Prime Minister and senior ADF officers concerning public anxieties over the prospect of Australian involvement in a US-led campaign against Iraq. I wrote two articles for The Australian newspaper concerning the matter because I was asked by many ADF members to assess ethically the case for war as it was presented by the Government.

Speaking on ABC Radio National on 14 April 2004, Bishop Frame said in light of the absence of weapons of mass destruction and the absence of means or motive for Iraq to have been a threat to its neighbours, "It would be impossible for me to say now that the war in Iraq was just….I could not and cannot take that view now and that's something that sits very uneasily with me but it's the way my conscience has driven me when I've considered what's at stake here."

Despite the Prime Minister's fudging of the issue, Cardinal Pell has never given any public indication that the war was justified. However unlike Jensen, Pell did not make any clarifying statement once the war commenced. He left stand his earlier caveat, "The public evidence is as yet insufficient to justify going to war, especially without the backing of the UN Security Council," as well as the statement of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference to which he was a signatory:

With the Holy See and many bishops and religious leaders throughout the world, we believe that the strict conditions of Christian teaching for the use of military force against Iraq have not been met. In particular, we question the moral legitimacy of a pre-emptive strike. Indeed, any action against Iraq without broad international support and the mandate of the United Nations Security Council would be questionable.

The Prime Minister's statements and the Cardinal's later silence left many Catholics confused. Presumably the Prime Minister drew solace from the cardinal's pre-war observation, "Decisions about war belong to Caesar, not the church." Though Caesar makes the decision, the church must discern and comment on the morality of that decision. Church leaders must publicly help their people make the moral assessment. It is not good enough to suspend the moral faculty and simply trust the government of the day. If we do that with war, then why not with any other moral issue?

Last month, Cardinal Pell for the first time since the Prime Minister's misrepresentation of his position in March 2003 clarified his position on the Iraq war. He told ABC Radio in Ballarat:

I never publicly endorsed the second war in Iraq. I wrote publicly about it and I said at that stage the case was not established. They said they were going to Iraq basically on two grounds: that there were weapons of mass destruction there; and that Saddam was actively supporting Al Qaeda. Neither of those two grounds has been established. ... I didn't endorse the war.

I can only assume that the Cardinal was acting with a good conscience when he decided not to publicly correct the public misperception about his position at such a crucial time. Even if he did act in good conscience, it may still have been more prudent for him to have issued a correction at the time. Presumably the Cardinal has had the opportunity to express his view to the Prime Minister privately many times since March 2003. I would even presume that there would have been some opportunity for discussion between the Cardinal and the Prime Minister back in March 2003 when the Prime Minister, at least by implication, was invoking Cardinal Pell as one of three church leaders giving him greater room to move in joining the Coalition of the willing with arguably just cause. Afterall the Prime Minister was taking time to meet with Bishop Frame and it is well known that Cardinal Pell has a good working relationship with the present government. Though the Prime Minister purported to distinguish those views of church leaders that were "thoughtful and balanced" from those that were critical, we can now appreciate how misleading it was for the Prime Minister to group the Pell and Jensen comments together with the Frame comments. At no time did Pell and Jensen give the war the tick. Frame did but has since retracted, obviously having good reason to revise what he was told by the Prime Minister and senior advisers before the war.

We are still in turbulent waters assessing what is a moral response to the new world situation in which the Americans have put us all on notice that there is one rule for the US and one rule for the rest of the world. Imagine, for example, if India and Pakistan were free to engage in pre-emptive strikes. In September 2002, the United States National Security Council published The National Security Strategy of the United States of America:

The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction— and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.

After the Iraq debacle, it is essential that we return to a more critical application of just war theory. If the western democracies on the UN Security Council are not unanimous about the international threat to peace and security posed by a rogue state, it is unlikely that such a state poses an imminent threat warranting armed intervention. Given the mistakes made before and after the Iraq intervention, I leave you with two questions: Why is it so unthinkable that we Australians should become a little more like the New Zealanders and Canadians, rather than surrendering our consciences and subscribing to armed intervention whenever requested by the Americans? Why don't all our bishops lead our thinking in this regard, more in harmony with the conscience of the Pope than with the conscience of our Prime Minister? Kofi Annan is right to seek clearer guidelines for the future, setting down criteria for humanitarian intervention. Let's hope we Australians can constructively contribute to such a discussion rather than our recently acquired taste for bagging the United Nations. Let's hope the Vatican's contribution to such a dialogue will be strongly backed by the episcopal conferences of those countries which signed on for the Coalition of the Willing.

As we seek to reclaim the place of conscience in these debates, we all need to admit that it is very easy for us to be more swayed by our ideology and preconceptions than by a dispassionate moral assessment of the issue. I must confess that I don't always quote the Pope with such vigour on all social questions that he addresses. But I think that goes for all Catholics. Just the other morning a conservative friend of mine told me that he was to attend a seminar by Professor Neuhaus who he described as "President Bush's adviser on gay marriage". I observed, "Isn't he the same man that Bush dispatched to the Vatican to try and convince the Pope about the morality of the war? And he failed dismally." My friend agreed but indicated that President Bush and the Pope had now come much closer at their meeting last Friday. I asked, "Who moved?" He said they both did. In his address to President Bush, the Holy Father said: "Your visit to Rome takes place at a moment of great concern for the continuing situation of grave unrest in the Middle East, both in Iraq and in the Holy Land. You are very familiar with the unequivocal position of the Holy See in this regard, expressed in numerous documents, through direct and indirect contacts, and in the many diplomatic efforts which have been made since you visited me" in 2001 and 2002. No movement there! The Pope's view remains quite entrenched: this war was wrong. The Coalition of the Willing acted immorally in violating the just war principles.

When dealing with complex moral issues, let's follow the advice of Vatican II always trying "to enlighten one another through honest discussion, preserving mutual charity and caring above all for the common good", whether we be laity, priest, bishop, cardinal or even pope. Let's continue to form and inform our consciences, knowing that wise bishops will often make no claim to have the answers. In deciding what to do in the world, laypeople can be well inspired by models like Thomas More "to have respect to (my) said conscience and to (my) soul than to any other thing in all the world besides."


[1] G Pell, Catholicism and the Architecture of Freedom, Centre for Independent Studies, 1999, p.11; cf John Henry Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk in which he says that were the Pope himself “to speak against Conscience in the true sense of the word, he would commit a suicidal act. He would be cutting the ground from under his feet.” (Quoted in I Ker, John Henry Newman, Oxford University Press, 1988, p 689)
[2] Dignitatis Humanae #3.2
[3] J H Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, quoted in I Ker, John Henry Newman, Oxford University Press, 1988, p 689; see also discussion by G Brennan, “Australian Values” in Discerning the Australian Social Conscience, Jesuit Publications, 1999, pp 15-17
[4] Gaudium et Spes #16


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