The Tension Between Obedience and Conscience

Jamie Dance

Today, adult Catholics are hard pressed to find common ground between the expectations and demands of the hierarchical Church and their own commonsense reasoning on critical issues that beset modern life. When questions regarding contraception, remarriage of divorced Catholics, homosexuality and same-sex marriage, and therapeutic (life-saving) abortion are raised, they are generally met with a withering barrage by ordained naysayers for whom life’s most troubling issues have been reduced to an orthodoxy that denies the more subtle realities of life. Informed Catholics who desire full relationship with the sacramental Church find themselves in dire straits when met with an ethical dilemma that defies the certain confines of a hierarchically accepted tenet.

But living in the world, tossed about by the vicissitudes of life, is quite different from abiding in the hallowed halls of seminaries and curial offices. Everyday life has a way of making us face inconvenient truths that challenge traditional wisdom. It is in addressing these issues that our hearts and minds become engaged in struggles that force us outside our religious comfort zone and into a consideration of “What would Jesus do?” As the French Dominican theologian Yves Congar once wrote, “Experience and history have taught me that one must always protest when motives of conscience or conviction call for it.” Philosophically speaking, a religious or societal ethic is only effectual when its teaching has been received and accepted by those to whom it is addressed. Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae is a perfect example of such a case. The papal teaching notwithstanding, pastors across the world, beset by troubled couples, instructed women and men on the value of their informed consciences in issues related to family planning and familial well-being. Today, parents of homosexual children are using those same moral compasses in deciding to welcome partners and spouses into their children’s lives.

While the tension between obedience and conscience regarding church-related moral questions always will be present in the Catholic sensibility, people of faith, with good hearts, will continue to make their decisions based on the loving example of the Jesus who disdained the Pharisaical rubrics of his own day.

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