Conscience and the Roman Catholic Life

Examining how the Church and our conscience inevitably clash.

Not all Catholics agree with the Church all the time, and Thomas Reese, S.J., will tell you there is no point in denying it. Questioning is not, however, something most Catholics undertake lightly. These disagreements are often born out of conscience, of genuinely believing in the faith while believing equally something that is at odds with the accepted teachings of the Church.

Reese, the former editor of the Jesuit weekly magazine America, was a visiting scholar at Santa Clara during the 2005-06 academic year, and he delivered the commencement address to the Class of 2006. His message in June: “Before you are a lawyer or a business person or a doctor, you are a citizen.” As citizens, he told the graduates, “We have the responsibility to fix it. It is your city, go fix it. It is your state, go fix it. It is your nation, go fix it. It is your world, go fix it. It is your church, go fix it.”

Earlier this spring, in an April 26 talk cosponsored by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education, Reese outlined his strategies for Catholics who think, question, doubt and disagree. In a nutshell, they are:

1. Understand what the Church is actually saying. Is your question the result of a misunderstanding or a true disagreement?

2. That understanding should be inspired by sympathy, not sarcasm and cynicism.

3. Do your homework on the complex issues that face the Church today.

4. Know your history—the Church has 2,000 years of tradition and history. Things have been worse, things can get better.

5. Distinguish between law and doctrine. Laws can change, and you are not a heretic if you disagree with them.

6. Understand the level of authority of doctrinal positions, especially if you disagree with them.

7. Know how to interpret the words in doctrinal statements, which are influenced by historical and cultural context as well as the intended audience.

8. Realize that sometimes the Church uses words that are open to interpretation on purpose, to smooth over differences and maintain unity.

9. “Accept what the Church says or leave” is not the only way to deal with your doubts as a Catholic. Italians, for example, do not live their faith this way—they don’t question the Church’s authority publicly, they simply ignore it.

10. Recognize that there will always be disagreements in the Church because there have always been disagreements in the Church, dating back to the council of Jerusalem.

Though much of the attention today is on liberal Catholics urging the Vatican to allow female priests or birth control, questioning is hardly limited to one’s political alignment. From condoms to illegal immigration, the Church has taken many unpopular stands. Indeed, it would be hard for any organization with hundreds of millions of constituents in dozens of countries to be universally popular. Additionally, as Reese said, “a questioning mind is fostered by our education and the very culture we live in. It is part of who we are and we cannot run away from it.” That applies to all people, not just Americans, Democrats, reactionaries, or radicals.

Ultimately, Catholics are united in belief much more than they are divided by differences—belief not only in Christ, but in the power of love, reconciliation, and redemption. As Reese concluded, “Any survival strategy for thinking Catholics must be based on the virtues of faith, hope, and love.”

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