I watched in sadness as the Eighth Amendment vote in Ireland unfolded. While, like most Americans, I know people with familial connections to Ireland, I had no means to influence the vote in even a minimal way. Like a bad movie where the disappointing ending is telegraphed from the first act, the ultimate vote was tragic but sadly not unexpected.
Before proceeding on this contentious issue, I’d like to ensure my readers are familiar with Pope Francis’ words in Evangelii Gaudium.
Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenceless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defence of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. Reason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life, but if we also look at the issue from the standpoint of faith, “every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offence against the creator of the individual”.
But why this vote now? Matthew Isbell, a liberal political consultant, I think rightly points out “lost prestige” following the abuse scandals there with a graphic illustrating the rapid decline in weekly church attendance over the last few decades. When the 8th Amendment was originally voted into law, Catholics attending Church weekly constituted nearly 87% of the Catholic population. In 2011, that figure was around 30%. The Irish Catholic Church is also struggling to fill the gap soon to be left by an aging and retiring cohort of priests. This is in addition to the broader cultural trends that have diminished Catholic spirituality in many western nations.
Within this context, I point to the Irish Association of Catholic Priests. According to its website, the ACP is “an association for Catholic Priests who wish to have a forum, and a voice to reflect, discuss and comment on issues affecting the Irish Church and society today.” The ACP garnered attention during the 8th Amendment debate for its censure of fellow Irish priests for allowing others to speak on behalf of life at Mass.
The ACP statement which included this censure was disappointing. The statement was worded very poorly and implied that a person could decide in good conscience to vote intentionally for expanded abortion rights. That is to say, the statement explained that complex situations could lead to gray areas in matters of abortion. This was immediately followed by the priests’ suggestion that they lacked full moral authority on the issue of abortion because they were celibate men without children.
In contrast, I point to the statement made by Bishop Leo O’Reilly, who serves the Diocese of Kilmore in Ireland. Like the ACP, Bishop O’Reilly also encourages people to vote in accordance with their conscience, as all people must, but also provides education and pastorally-appropriate encouragement to vote for life. Bishop O’Reilly speaks authoritatively, not because of his standing in the Church or his lack of sexual activity, but because he speaks the truth, which he received from his parents, from scientific inquiry, and from the Church. He speaks the truth of the sanctity of all human life, including the unborn.
How often is the term “conscience” misused! By misunderstanding authentic freedom and the primacy of conscience, so many fall into the trap of believing that conscience is an authority unto itself, rather than subject to the truth.
As an example, the ACP misuses “conscience” here to suggest that a well-formed conscience could have chosen to vote “yes” on the referendum, the purpose of which was to delete the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution. That amendment read,
“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
The ACP statement says, “A vote cast in accordance with each person’s conscience, whatever the result, deserves the respect of all.”
Yes, the Church respects the inviolability of one’s conscience, the “judgment of reason” by which each person converses with God in one’s inmost self. We cannot realistically expect that all consciences will be adequately formed at any given time; nevertheless, we can never manipulate another’s conscience through the threat of violence or persecution. Succinctly, Pope Francis writes in Amoris Laetitia that we are called to form consciences, not to replace them. This is also the lesson of Dignitatis Humanae, which explores this aspect of conscience in relation to matters of religion and religious freedom
But further to the point, DH makes clear that religious freedom is not a space devoid of truth claims, where consciences can reign freely as each person wills for himself. Rather, within the context of religious freedom, the Church claims the sacred right and the duty to preach the truth.
In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church. For the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth. It is her duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that truth which is Christ Himself, and also to declare and confirm by her authority those principles of the moral order which have their origins in human nature itself. Furthermore, let Christians walk in wisdom in the face of those outside, “in the Holy Spirit, in unaffected love, in the word of truth” (2 Cor. 6:6-7), and let them be about their task of spreading the light of life with all confidence and apostolic courage, even to the shedding of their blood.
This is also the dynamic that Catholic pastors and those with the obligation to teach face: To honor and respect those in various stages of development, but never to cease from teaching the truth. To respect a free conscience, but also to admonish those who act in ways opposed to God’s mercy and love. Contrary to the ACP statement, not all actions, even those made in accordance with one’s conscience, deserve respect.
There are two positive (non-comprehensive) facets of conscience that are also worth exploring:
In one facet, a clear truth exists even in people’s complicated and messy lives. It is a beacon around which one can orient one’s life. As an example, abortion is evil no matter the circumstances and no matter the complications. A well-formed conscience is necessary for loving mother and baby in the best possible way and in no way can this entail intentionally causing harm to mother or baby.
In another facet, the Church’s teachings mark the destination, “the ideal” or “fullness of truth,” but do not clearly illuminate the whole path to that ideal. In these cases, a well-formed conscience is essential to navigating an authentic Christian life where the Church’s teachings cannot be wholly instructive. This is one area in particular where good pastors are indispensable.
As an example, there is the problem of divorced and remarried Catholics, who despite living in an “objective situation of sin” have varying degrees of subjective culpability for their situation. In these cases, priests have an obligation to help form consciences and move people to the full ideal of marriage, while also respecting limitations and various stages of personal development and discernment. This is just one of the lessons from Amoris Laetitia.
This is not a “gradualness of law” but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law.
But he also writes:
To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being.
In short, no matter the circumstances, conscience is oriented to the truth. “Conscience” must not be used by pastors as a crutch or as a smokescreen to obfuscate the truth or justify ignorance and sin. Rather, those in a position to teach must respect, educate, and form consciences in the truth in a pastoral way. We can see the differences in approach to conscience between the ACP statement and Bishop O’Reilly’s statement.
Ultimately, paraphrasing Francis in Amoris Laetitia, 307: to fail to present the fullness of the Church’s teachings out of a false respect for others’ consciences is indicative of “a lack of fidelity to the Gospel” and also indicative of a “lack of love.”