A.C.T.S. No. 1545 (1969)
One of the challenges in everyday life evident among and
between young and old is the harmony, or lack of it, between Conscience
and Authority. This article is based on an address given at a
at the Christchurch University
in late 1968..
Mr. John Kennedy is editor of the N.Z.
Tablet. He is a journalist of
wide experience and has written here on a subject of importance in this
day and age.
In his latest book, "Is It The Same
Church?" the distinguished lay theologian, Frank Sheed, talks of
what he calls the myth of the
pre-conciliar Church. This is that the Second Vatican Council
altered everything and that the sooner we realize it the better.
Sheed agrees that there have been changes, but he wonders whether they
are as far-reaching, or as deep-seated, as many people imagine.
We could start by quoting one of the instances he gives to support his
contention that it is the same Church.
The instance I speak of concerns the first part of my subject,
Conscience. I quote:
People talk as if the Second Vatican
Council had introduced a revolutionary innovation called conscience.
But, in fact, the Council did not go an inch beyond what I - taught by
the Church - had been teaching for forty years [that's forty
years prior to the Council].
I remember vividly a lunch-hour
meeting in the twenties on Tower Hill, a few yards from the spot where
Thomas More was beheaded, I explained to a questioner that if I came to
believe that Christ was no more than a man of deep spiritual genius, I
should be bound in conscience to leave the Church, and might still find
eternal salvation - indeed, that my soul might be in more danger inside
the Church than out. The questioner said I was lying; the crowd agreed
with him. I got it from St. Thomas Aquinas.
It's not new
Conscience, or man's knowledge of it, is not something new.
But first let's define it. We can say simply that it is the faculty by
which a person is convinced that some actions are right and ought to be
done, some are wrong and ought not to be done, and others are
indifferent in their morality and may be done or not. It is present in
every person and it is the final subjective arbiter of his choice of
good and evil.
It is not something that began with Christianity. Nor is it something
the Church drummed up to make us toe the line. It stems from a primal
feeling in man that he is somehow responsible, accountable, for his
actions. No culture has yet been found in which it was not recognized,
though sometimes under different names.
The ancient Egyptians, for instance, referred to it as "the heart," as
in such texts: "The heart is an excellent witness; he must not depart
from its guidance." The Hindus see it as "the invisible God who dwells
within us," while Socrates, who died because he heeded its call, spoke
of it as "a divine monitor." Seneca, the Roman, had a neat term for it
- "a holy spirit dwelling in man, an observer, a watcher of good and
evil in us."
Freedom of conscience
We live in an age when freedom of conscience has become respectable,
though some of its manifestations, as we shall see presently, are not
always so. Even in ancient Greece there were limits on it in that
citizens were bound to worship civic deities even though they might not
agree with them.
Our Lord brought with him a keener appreciation. He rejected unduly
literal obedience to the law and insisted rather on a peaceful and
intelligent love of God and men. The first Christians, it is clear,
commonly held that by natural law all are free to follow their
consciences and that punishment for religious offences should be left
There was a shift on this later, when the Church gained its legal
freedom, and became, so to speak, part of the establishment. It came to
regard heresy and schism as social evils that should be punished by the
State. This is the view you find in such great doctors of the Church as
Augustine, Chrysostom, Jerome and Aquinas.
Conscience, the guide
St. Thomas did conclude that a man should always follow his conscience
and that an act resulting from an invincibly erroneous conscience was
free from guilt. But he believed that invincible error could arise only
in the most unusual cases. He excepted pagans and Jews, but he regarded
heretics and schismatics sourly. And we all know where this type of
thinking led - to the Inquisition and a lot of things we would sooner
Possibility of error
When the Reformation came, spawning a proliferation of creeds, it
naturally provoked considerable thought on this matter of conscience,
and many Catholics came to see that the possibilities of error in good
faith were much wider than they had thought previously. They accepted
the legitimacy of tolerance, but they were suspicious of it, if only
because the Protestants made so much of it.
Yet even in those days Catholics who knew their faith had no doubt of
the primacy that a man must accord his conscience before all authority.
Take that magnificent layman, Sir Thomas More. At his trial he spoke
thus of conscience:
You all must understand that in
things touching conscience every true and good subject is more bound to
have respect to his said conscience and his soul than to anything else
in all the world.
Thomas More, as a matter of fact, did recognize certain limitations on
the rights of conscience in regard to civil authority. In his "Utopia" he wrote that if a man had
opinions which went against the very foundations of the State he should
keep silent about them in public, though he might discuss them in
private with the learned. I'll wager there are a good many prelates,
policemen and politicians around the world who wish that more people
and priests these days would take a hint from "Utopia."
The Popes speak out
In the past 100 years or so the Popes have repeatedly referred to
liberty of conscience, stimulated, it is fair to say, in no small
degree by the fact that great portions of the world have come under the
sway of totalitarian, godless governments which exalt the State at the
expense of the individual. [Even in 2004 godless totalitarianisms or
other totalitarianisms still attempt to control the lives of millions
of the world's peoples.]
But they did speak. Pius XI, for example, talking on the Fascists,
condemned what he called "outrages against the wholesome and precious
freedom of conscience." And in 1931, in a letter to the Archbishop of
Milan, he set out a principle which is still very relevant.
Catholic societies, be said, did not engage in politics as such, but
they claimed the right to instruct men's consciences about them. That
still has an application because there is an obligation in conscience
on Catholics to help form correct social and political values, even
though it may not always please civil authorities.
Pius XII and John spoke strongly for it, too. And then along came the
Second Vatican Council to deal with it in two documents - that on "The Church in the Modern World"
and that on "Religious Freedom".
In correlating the Church's thinking on this issue in these two
documents, the Church was simply spelling out something that was
already clearly laid down in Canon Law, Article 1351: "Nobody may be forced to embrace the
Catholic Faith against his will."
If you leave a man free in conscience to decide his religion, you
reaffirm in no uncertain manner the primacy of conscience.
Basis of formation
But the matter does not end there. Implicit in all the Church's
teaching on conscience is the view that it is not merely enough to know
that you have a conscience; it must also be formed. How, then, is this
to be done? The answer to this is important because it touches on the
whole matter of the relationship of conscience towards authority,
whether civil or ecclesiastical.
There are certain basic points.
First, the human person, being limited, and exposed to the consequences
of original sin, is prone to ignorance and error. A realization of this
is imperative if he is to form his conscience properly.
It means that it is possible to err in making a judgement of
conscience, even when we make it in good faith. Hence the need to take
every possible step to ensure that the basis for the judgements we make
is as sound and as wholesome as possible.
The second basic point is that if a man is to be faithful to his
inherent dignity, then this matter of forming his conscience is an
obligation. And, once it is formed, it must be followed faithfully,
since observing it is the only condition on which man can achieve his
The third point is that we must never forget that man is a social being
and that this must be taken into account not only in the formation of
his conscience but also in the relationship between that conscience and
authority. We live in a society which includes other people. They, too,
have rights, and these must be respected. We can't exalt our own
conscience by trampling on those of others.
For the Christian, of course, Our Lord spelled out the only possible
basis for this social aspect - love of our fellow men. We have to
co-exist with our fellows, and Our Lord made it perfectly clear that
there is but one basis for that co-existence - love of God and love of
one's fellows. If these are present in our conscience, then our
conscience becomes the only guarantee and protection of a man in his
If love of God and love of man are present, then another love follows,
as day follows night. This is love of moral good, the desire to follow
the divine law.
Seen in this way a properly formed conscience is a positive thing which
can establish a working relationship with authority and which, in so
doing, contributes not only to the moral well-being of its subject, but
also to that of the society around him.
Freedom of conscience, seen in this light, can never be, as some people
seem to make it today - a cloak for moral indifference or selfish
individualism. What we have to do is to achieve as much freedom as
possible, bearing in mind the common good, our duties as Christians, as
members of Christ.
Authority of conscience
Now this leads inevitably to the question: How much authority has
conscience itself? It has never been better brought out than by
Cardinal Newman when he wrote in a letter to the Duke of Norfolk:
Conscience is the aboriginal vicar of
Christ, a prophet in its information, a monarch in its peremptories, a
priest in its blessings and anathemas. And even though the eternal
priesthood throughout the Church should cease to be, in it the
sacerdotal principle would remain and would have sway.
It is, in short, the supreme authority for a man. Vatican II saw it as
his most secret core and sanctuary, a place where he is alone with God,
whose voice, says the Council, echoes in his depths. John Henry Newman
put it somewhat more bluntly when he said that he would willingly drink
to the Pope, but first to conscience and then the Pope.
That does not mean that it is infallible. Like every other judgement we
make, it can be mistaken. There are many things done in the world by
people, whose consciences are not at all troubled, that are an affront
to God and man.
That this should be so does not mean that we tear down conscience; it
means, rather, that we build it and form it so that these situations do
not arise. And this is where the Church has a very special role.
There is but one final yardstick on this matter of the authority of
conscience, and that is the moral law that has been built into each of
us by our Maker. Frank Sheed puts it this way:
God did not make us and then impose
laws. He made us according to law. If we misuse an engine it begins to
creak, grind, make knocking noises. A disturbed conscience is the
equivalent of this when what we misuse is our own self.
How to know it
Cardinal Newman illustrates this problem of conscience coming to know
the divine law and its authority by using the analogy of the moon
reflected in a lake. When the lake is still we get a near perfect
circle of golden light. When a wind ruffles the surface the moon is
still reflected, but only in sparkles and flashes with blackness
If we want to know what the moon is really like we must look at the
moon itself because we should get a very odd idea of it if we saw it
only in a lake. If we want to know the moral law in all its clarity and
certainty, he goes on, to look at our own nature is not sufficient
either; we must look at the law in itself as God has taught it.
The authority of conscience comes from its role as the voice within us
telling us to follow the moral law. If we are to do that we must know
that law. And, since that law is divine, binding, in knowing it we bind
ourselves to follow the judgements our conscience makes on the basis of
its knowledge of that law.
No easy matter
It is not easy in this modern age to develop this sense of authority in
our conscience. We are exposed to pressures that our fathers never
knew. We live in a society where a large part of the mass media
actively propagates sentiments that are permissive, shallow;
self-righteous, indifferent and selfish.
We live in an age where more and more people seem to think that the
norm is that what is right for me is good and that what is not in my
self-interest is wrong. We live, moreover, in an age when these are
translated into powerful social and community pressures, an age in
which it takes great courage to stand against these pressures. That is
all the more so because they can be presented in such reasonable
colours, can be made to sound so plausible, so seemingly sensible.
Like a computer
How we resist these pressures depends upon ourselves. Sometimes I am
tempted to see conscience as a kind of great computer. It's not a bad
analogy. A data processor feeds into his MMH IBM computer a mass of
information. The computer sorts it, analyses it, and comes up with the
answer in a fraction of a second. And that answer must be right -
provided the machine has been properly programmed and provided all its
circuits are working correctly.
Now if we view conscience as a mental computer we can say that at any
given moment programmed into it are the spontaneous reactions of our
nature (which may not always be wholly sound), the moral standards
accepted by the society in which we live (and they can be a mixture of
good and bad), and whatever moral teaching we have acquired.
That's our data processing, and depending on how well it has been done,
we come up with an answer. If we are not programmed right, we don't get
the right answer. But in the circumstances it is the only answer we can
And since it is the answer of conscience we have to follow it.
Conscience and Ecclesiastical Authority
In the matter of conscience and ecclesiastical authority, the first
point to be made is to ask why Christ instituted the Church and why He
gave it its mandate.
The answer to that is simple enough - it was to teach the way He had
laid down, to teach it in His name and with His authority. And those
who heard it heard Him.
It is fair comment to say that any person who is a Catholic, that is to
say, any person who has made a judgement in conscience that this is the
true Faith, must also, in conscience, hearken unto what that teaching
authority that Christ established says.
If he finds himself in a situation where he disputes the doctrines it
lays down, then he opts out, of his own free will. There may be a clash
between authority and conscience here, but there is certainly no
infringement of conscience.
As Frank Sheed said, if he sincerely believed he was right and the
Church wrong, then he would be bound to follow his conscience. And he
could be in danger if he didn't.
Under the law
The next point to be made on this matter of ecclesiastical authority is
that we will find ourselves in a very barren situation if we just place
ourselves under a law that tells us what is commanded and what is
forbidden and leaves it at that.
And yet, to some extent, this was a position that applied to many
Catholics until recently. The Church had spoken; that was that. If you
asked them the why or the wherefore, they didn't know.
They failed to realize that a knowledge that a law is there is not
enough, that we must grasp it in its entirety, that we should know
instinctively that what it demands is in itself good or that the one
who commands is good, and therefore his commands are more likely than
not to be good, too.
Otherwise it would be rather like giving a man who didn't know left
from right a fast car and expecting him to give way to the right at the
first intersection be came to.
Many of you are probably parents. In this issue of conscience and
ecclesiastical authority the point will come across more plainly if I
say that it is my experience with children - and I have six of them -
that when they are very young they do what you tell them even though
they cannot always comprehend the reason why.
Trust is vital
Whether they do this depends in large measure on whether there is
trust, the feeling on the part of the child that his parents are good
and that what they want for him or from him will be good. And as they
grow they come to know why you want these things and they come to see
that they are right and reasonable.
Something the same applies in our relationship to the Church.
There must be trust, there must be the feeling that this thing that is
asked of us is good; in other words, like children, we must constantly
grow in knowledge and trust.
It is against this background, that we can see that part of the trouble
about conscience versus authority in the Church today stems from the
fact that many Catholics followed the letter of the law without
understanding its spirit. It was an attitude that you might find
exemplified in some of the old examination of conscience sections of
Now, however, the Catholic finds that the Church expects him to stand
fairly and squarely on his own feet. It is treating him like an adult;
his problem is to learn how to behave like one. To some extent in the
past, we turned in on ourselves; we can no longer.
There is no problem about the Church having authority. The injunctions
Our Lord gave Peter, the Apostles and those who came after them were
simple, clear and incapable of being misunderstood. "Go and teach all
nations" and "Behold I am with you all days," and so on. There is no
room for hair-splitting there.
That's why we admit the existence of the magisterium, the teaching
authority; that's why we accept the jurisdiction of the Pope and the
College of Bishops; that's why in our own dioceses we look for guidance
in faith and morals to our bishop, for he is Christ and the Church in
But while we give all this to the Church and to the Pope and the
Bishops, we also demand certain things in return. We expect that the
authority of the Church will create the necessary framework for order,
if the standards it insists on are to be observed. We expect that it
itself will observe that framework.
We demand that it shall be clear in its teaching, that it may erect a
bulwark of clear law so that we may be preserved from a blind,
unthinking obedience to it, an obedience that might disintegrate under
pressure because of ignorance or misunderstanding.
Church must listen
We have the right to expect that authority in the Church will listen to
us. This, of course, is set out specifically in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,
The laity have the right, as do all
Christians, to receive in abundance from their sacred pastors the
spiritual goods of the Church, especially the assistance of the word of
God and the sacraments. Every layman should openly reveal to them his
needs and desires with that freedom and confidence which befits a son
of God and a brother in Christ. An individual layman, by reason of the
knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which he may enjoy, is
permitted, and sometimes even obliged to express his opinion on things
which concern the good of the Church.
It was necessary that the Council Fathers did say this because
ecclesiastical authority is sometimes exercised in an arbitrary
high-handed way. And it does not always take kindly to being
questioned. Certainly if one is going to stand up to someone in the
Church, then one needs to know that not only has one the right, but
also the obligation if one feels sufficiently earnest in conscience.
Equally, that statement in the Constitution
on the Church also places an obligation on the Church, or the
officer of it concerned, to listen - and to listen properly and in
To some extent authority is an unfashionable word today, even in the
Church. Part of this stems from a confusion in the average Catholic's
mind as to where this ecclesiastical authority begins and ends.
He knows that he must, if be is to remain a Catholic, obey his bishop
in matters of faith and morals. But what about administrative
decisions? What about an argument over the design or cost of a church,
or whether a new hospital should be built or more done for the poor or
the Negroes (one of the burning issues in the American Church in 1967
What about a situation such as that in San Francisco where Archbishop
McGucken is pushing ahead with a $7,000,000 cathedral, even though
sections of his priests and people have protested that this is a
scandal when the city is full of stinking ghettos? Were the
seminarians, priests and laity who earlier this year  picketed
the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington in protest
against the spending over the coming years of some $30,000,000 on it,
acting in scandalous disobedience, or were they right in so far as they
followed their own consciences? [Were they also being iconoclastic?
What SHOULD be our attitude to building edifices to the glory of God?
Are our attitudes consistent with the faith that built the 13th century
marvels to the grandeur of God?] Can we respect authority if we see it
abused? And, if it is abused in one instance, does not this lessen
respect for it in others by creating doubts?
Need for discussion
Leaving faith and morals aside, for these are the undoubted prerogative
of the magisterium, there has got to be discussion in these other
matters. The phrase, "Oh, you'd better not say that or raise this, the
bishop wouldn't like it," is still too often heard. It is a dangerous
It not only reduces the people of God to a flock of mindless sheep; it
also deprives their shepherds of the very advice Vatican II was so
concerned that they should get.
Indeed, there should be nothing worse than being a bishop surrounded by
a crowd of yes-men, priests and laity alike, who do their darnedest to
prevent him hearing anything that might run counter to what they think
This sort of situation can and does exist in the Church, just as it
does in the world at large. If we honestly believe that there is
something that we must put to an ecclesiastical superior, then we are
obliged to put it. Vatican II is quite emphatic. It is a matter of
conscience. And it is certainly showing no disrespect for authority.
We lessen ourselves
And if we don't, if we get cold feet and take the easy way out, then we
lessen ourselves because we chip away some of the inherent dignity that
is in every man. Remember this - if there is one thing the Catholic
Church stands for, almost alone in this mixed-up world, it is this -
the tremendous dignity of each man, every man.
There will always be criticism in the Church. It would be an unhealthy
state of affairs if there were not. Father Haring, in "The Liberty of the Children of God"
warns against a superficial service of the law, both Church and civil,
To remain bogged down in a simple
knowledge of the law carries with it the danger of a dull lack of
criticism, or of a criticism proffered without love; both manifest a
lack of moral insight and of genuine moral effort. Lack of criticism
(he goes on) is indeed an indication of subordination, but it could
never be considered a true and dignified kind of Christian obedience.
One who never criticizes, whether he realizes it or not, is actually
guilty of foolishness and lust for power. He is a stone with which
dictators build their streets. If he is fortunate he will get a good
superior, but he will never be able to enter fully into the real moral
and religious aims of that superior. Who knows, whether or not the one
who is afraid to criticize, who today follows the ruler without any
problem, may perhaps tomorrow, thoughtlessly and without misgiving,
obey the unenlightened words of the spirit of the world?
Father Haring here has surely put his finger on the great danger that
faces us. It is simply that unless we form and know our consciences and
exercise them honestly, unless we know what authority is, then our
sense of the moral law will wilt to the point where we will find it
suits us best to go with the mob.
Let us but add one thing on this matter of criticism of authority. It
must be responsible. It must be rooted in the gospel law of freedom,
love, truthfulness and humility because these are the things the Church
is pledged to live by. And these are the things by which she should act
in meeting criticism.
Conscience and Civil Authority
When we come to the field of conscience and civil authority we must
remember that it is the mission of Government to promote the common
good, to establish a framework in which man may live and develop in
accord with his human dignity.
Catholics generally hold that civil authority is of God, not by any
specifically divine intervention, but by the fact that God is the
author of nature, and nature demands authority.
History shows us very clearly that few human societies or institutions
can survive for any length of time unless there is a firm and stable
principle at work. It is, except in the dreams of the anarchist,
indispensable for the common welfare of any society. The alternative is
In the achievement of this men accept certain restrictions or laws that
may even involve restraints even on freedom of conscience. One couldn't
have a situation, for example, where we went around beating up
Protestants simply because they disputed the Real Presence. And
similarly, we can't exact vengeance in kind from one who harms us. The
State attends to it.
These things are straightforward enough. In our modern society the
challenges to the Christian conscience are greater than they have ever
Consider the issues we face - abortion, euthanasia, family planning,
poverty, world hunger, the development of weapons whose use would
amount to collective suicide, the development of a mass media that
smothers morality, opinions and values.
Take abortion, for instance. How do we react here if the Government
proposes a law that goes against our conscience? Have we the right to
insist that our belief in conscience shall prevail when others in the
community, including some good Christians, approve it?
Our duty in conscience is clear - that we have to bring out Catholic
teaching, that we have to point to the consequences such legislation
may produce, that we must convince the legislators that what we say is
not something born of a blind religious prejudice but rather of a true
concern for the whole community.
We would do well, for example, to bring home to them the wisdom in the
teaching of St. Thomas who, in the name of morality, rejected laws
which, under the pretext of idealism, brought about greater evils than
But supposing the Government legislated. What then? Should we denounce
it as un-Christian, say it had forfeited our allegiance and reach for
our pea-rifles? The answer, of course, is that whatever the civil law
may or may not permit, we would be bound by the law of the Church and
in conscience to refrain from it.
What others did would be none of our business. That's their affair.
It's hard enough to look after one's own conscience without indulging
in self-righteousness about others.
This situation now applies in Britain, and there the Hierarchy has
reminded Catholics of the Catholic teaching and has set out guidelines
for Catholic doctors and nurses. What could be simpler? [In such a
short address Mr Kennedy had no time to draw out the implications of
the Law of Charity to our Neighbour when that neighbour is mistreated,
as happened when Slavery was legal, and similarly when my pre-born
neighbour has his life brutally ended under 'legalized' abortion.]
But let's get away from these matters, which are pretty
straightforward, and get on to such issues as civil disobedience,
protest marches, demonstrations in defiance of the law on political and
social issues, such as Vietnam? Where do we stand here? What, in
conscience, do we owe authority?
Things that are Caesar's
Our Lord Himself strengthened the authority of the State when He said
that man should render unto Caesar the things that were Caesar's and
unto God the things that were God's. The early Christians knew this
meant they were to be good citizens. And they were. But they drew a
sharp line, and died for it, when the State tried to move into God's
Those lines became somewhat blurred when the Church emerged from the
persecutions and when she became so much a part of the fabric of human
society that to break away from or challenge her teaching was seen as a
threat to the State, too. All that changed with the Reformation, but
there is still a very basic respect in Catholic teaching for the
authority of the State.
We see this most noticeably when a war breaks out. Catholics in each
country involved, usually with the full blessing of the hierarchies,
rally round the flag.
The most recent and most awkward of these was the Second World War.
For, whatever disputes the German Hierarchy may have had with aspects
of the Nazi programme, there is no question but that they exhorted
their people to fight loyally for the fatherland when Hitler launched
Most of them did. But a handful of priests and laity didn't - and they
were killed. Men like the Pallottine priest, Father Franz Reinisch, who
was executed because his conscience forbade him to take an oath of
allegiance to a regime which he regarded as Godless. And men, like
Franz Jaggerstatter, an Austrian peasant, happily married, father of
three, who died rather than go against his conscience.
In his case he told his bishop that his conscience forbade him to take
military service. His bishop, Dr. Fliessen, of Linz, told him that he
was not responsible for the temporal authorities or their actions,
that, on the contrary, he had an obligation to obey them, that in any
event his primary responsibility was to his family.
Jaggerstatter was not convinced; he stood his ground and was beheaded
in circumstances surprisingly similar to those in which Thomas More
He died because he believed he must follow what his conscience told him
even though the civil authority said otherwise, and even though his
family suffered. In his homeland today some revere him as a martyr;
more say he was a deserter and traitor and that the men who deserve to
be honoured are the men who answered Hitler's call, even though it was
to an aggressive war.
Martyr or deserter?
What do you think he was? Martyr or deserter? Right or wrong? Or is his
true position perhaps best summed up by Dr. Gordon Zahn in his book, War, Conscience and Dissent? I
It is part of the mysterious dynamic
of the Church that she brings forth saints suited to the needs of every
age. Given, for instance, a social order corrupted by sexual licence or
the pursuit of material wealth, there will suddenly emerge a holy man
or woman whose life is dedicated to Christian chastity or voluntary
In this day of the conformist, the
other-directed man, we need saints who will assert the right and duty
of the individual Christian to judge the demands of Leviathan.
We need saints who, when the occasion
arises, will refuse to render unto Caesar that which is not Caesar's,
even though such a refusal carry with it martyrdom.
Franz Jaggerstatter dared to pass
such a judgement. He made such a refusal and paid that price. We may
not canonize him. But we can tell his story and point to the lesson it
The lesson is simply this - that each of us in these troubled times
must reassess our own conscience's order of priorities to see how they
This, indeed, is more important than making any good resolution to
match his total commitment; for once that proper order of priorities is
there, the commitment will follow.
All of us are subject to pressures or obligations that we use as
pretexts for cutting moral corners. The commitment Jaggerstatter called
for was nothing short of spiritual perfection. And he saw this as a
goal, not for an exalted few, but one to which every Christian was
bound to strive.
In a world where uniformity, linked to unquestioning obedience to
orders of the secular ruler, has become ever more prevalent, it is good
to be reminded of the occasional need for opposition, and, in
particular, opposition inspired and maintained by religious commitment.
There can be greater dangers in giving an unquestioning first priority
to the will of a government.
You may say that I have drawn a long bow in mentioning Jaggerstatter.
Not so. There are Jaggerstatters active in the world today. I would
refer you to men like  Father Groppi in Milwaukee, who has been
fined and gaoled for fighting for justice for the Negro; to those whose
conscience has refused to permit them to go along with un-Christian
policies in countries such as Rhodesia, South Africa; to men like
Father Philip Berrigan, recently gaoled for six years for a Vietnam war
We Catholics must examine our consciences in these matters. It is not
so long since a band of Catholics spat on Father Groppi; bishops have
been picketed in America because they spoke up for the Negro. And they
weren't Protestant pickets.
There can arise social orders that are too evil for Christian support
and that there are situations in which prophetic disruption is to be
preferred to stable complacency. I don't expect you to accept that
unreservedly because prophets and martyrs have never been popular
people. They have a habit of focussing conscience on things it would
If we do get such a regime, the fault in the end lies with the people.
Because its very existence implies a corruption that could not help but
produce something evil.
Danger of compromise
We live in an age when the tendency is to seek compromise, that we tend
to judge courses of action not by their inherent right, but by whether
they are practical and likely to achieve their effect, that we suspect
that those who stand firm, especially on moral issues, are fanatics.
We look for excuses for accepting society's standards as the norm of
conscience because we know that if we can find a modus vivendi, life will be so much
more comfortable. There is tremendous danger here, a danger that is all
the greater because it is insidious and because people make it sound
reasonable. But that doesn't make it right.
The Church must provide clearer answers on some of these things than it
has done in the past. In Pope John's Pacem
in Terris, a statement foreshadows this, and crystallizes what I
have been saying:
If civil authorities legislate for or
allow anything contrary to that order and therefore contrary to the
will of God, neither the laws made nor the authorizations granted can
be binding on the consciences of the citizens, since God has more right
to be obeyed than man.
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