The dust-up over the “Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious” by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) provides an opportune moment to consider deeper questions about the nature and role of conscience.  It seems to me that one of the questions at the heart of this controversy is whether acting in conscience is primarily about being obedient to authority or about conscientious discernment.

In her excellent book, Confronting the Truth: Conscience in the Catholic Tradition (Paulist, 2000), Linda Hogan explained that there are competing understandings of conscience inscribed in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.   On the one hand, the council documents reflect a sense of the importance of the human person, subjectivity, and discernment.  On the other hand, the Council strongly affirmed the objective nature of moral truth and the important role of magisterial authority in helping individuals to know and to act in accordance with that truth.

As Hogan points out, both of these strands can be found in a frequently quoted passage on conscience taken from Gaudium et spes (#16):

Deep within  their consciences men and women discover a law which they have not laid upon themselves and which they must obey.  Its voice, ever calling them to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells them inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that.  For they have in their hearts a law inscribed by God.  Their dignity rests on observing this law, and by it they will be judged.  Their conscience is people’s most secret core, and their sanctuary.  There they are alone with God whose voice echoes in their depths. . . .  Through loyalty to conscience, Christians are joined to others in the search for truth and for the right solution to so many moral problems.

In the first part of this passage, the task of conscience is to submit to an objective law.  It is implied that right and wrong are clearly known and the task of conscience is to obey.  But in the concluding portion of this same passage, a very different task of conscience is in play – discernment.  It is implied that truth is not known definitively, but rather all of us continue to search in good faith for what is true and right.

The conflict between the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and the CDF can be understood in part as a clash of competing visions of conscience.  The LCWR seems to design programs and conferences that promote prayerful discernment.  The address by Sr. Laurie Brink, O.P. (much maligned by conservative commentators) clearly is designed to encourage discernment (she describes four possible visions or directions for the future of religious life and poses questions for small-group conversation and for personal reflection along the way, which are unmistakably moments for discernment).  For Brink, the task of conscience is to listen for God’s voice echoing in the depths; it is not merely to implement an agenda already clearly defined and known but rather to play a role in articulating what constitutes faithful discipleship and the authentic interpretation of divine law.

In contrast, the CDF’s “Assessment” implies that the primary task of conscience is obedience.  In the Assessment’s introduction, we read

“A distinctive aspect of ecclesial communion is allegiance of mind and heart to the Magisterium of the Bishops, an allegiance which must be lived honestly and clearly testified to before the People of God…”

Furthermore, we are told that an important feature of religious life is “obedience to the Bishops and especially to the Roman Pontiff.”  The main task for religious is to model obedience to Magisterial authority and to work hard to push for the implementation of the bishops’ agenda.  This becomes clear on page 3 of the Assessment where the LCWR is faulted for failing to promote the pro-life aspects of the bishops’ teaching with sufficient enthusiasm.  In short, it seems that there is little need for introspection or to probe the depths of one’s heart listening for the Holy Spirit, because it is the bishops exclusively “who are the Church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals”.

Cardinal Francis George recently emphasized the exclusivity of the bishops’ role as teachers, writing in Chicago’s Archdiocesan Newspaper:

“Perhaps this is the time for everyone to re-read the Acts of the Apostles. Bishops are the successors of the apostles; they collectively receive the authority to teach and govern that Christ bestowed upon the apostles. Bishops don’t claim to speak for every baptized Catholic. Bishops speak, rather, for the Catholic and apostolic faith. Those who hold that faith gather with them; others go their own way. They are and should be free to do so, but they deceive themselves and others in calling their organizations Catholic.”

This isn’t a novel claim.  We can find very strong support for it in Lumen Gentium, no. 20, for example.  However, I wonder whether the backlash against the bishops’ “Assessment” isn’t at least in part an objection to this sort of unequivocal identification of the true church with the bishops.

The following paragraph from the Assessment is quite telling in terms of the view of conscience, authority and ecclesiology operative in the document:

“Some speakers claim that dissent from the doctrine of the Church is justified as an exercise of the prophetic office.  But this is based upon a mistaken understanding of the dynamic of prophecy in the Church: it justifies dissent by positing the possibility of divergence between the Church’s magisterium and a “legitimate” theological intuition of some of the faithful.  “Prophecy,” as a methodological principle, is here directed at the Magisterium and the Church’s pastors, whereas true prophecy is a grace which accompanies the exercise of the responsibilities of the Christian life and ministries within the Church, regulated and verified by the Church’s faith and teaching office.  Some of the addresses at LCWR-sponsored events perpetuate a distorted ecclesiological vision, and have scant regard for the role of the Magisterium as the guarantor of the authentic interpretation of the Church’s faith.”

According to this framework, there is no possibility for the bishops ever to learn anything from the laity.  The bishops are never wrong; they don’t need any help.  Such a view collapses the tension we find in the Council documents which try to balance an affirmation of the importance and legitimacy of magisterial authority with the recognition that sometimes the Holy Spirit speaks authentically to the faithful in a manner that doesn’t pass through Rome – in the depths of their hearts.    The bishops are claiming that they alone are the true teachers of the faith and the keepers of the true church.  The insistence of so many that they have been brought to Christ, kept in the Catholic church, and taught the meaning of authentic discipleship from the inspiring witness of so many faithful women religious indicates to me that many Catholics think otherwise.