Freedom of Conscience

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Freedom of Conscience is an important part of religion and is regularly overlooked. The job of the Church’s teaching office is to outline truth. When it comes to ethics and morals this means defining what is right and wrong. The church does this well, however, Karl Rahner says,

“The Church’s teaching office can provide this pure presence of the truth of revelation in the Church, but it is not in a position to supervise the conformity of the individual’s specific faith with the Church’s doctrine.” [1]

While the Church sets guidelines for morality, it is the responsibility of the individual to use their freedom of conscience to discern where and when to apply those rules. Rahner goes on to say,

“In respect to the individuals faith, when this faith takes on tangible form in society, the teaching office can only ascertain that this particular expression of faith does not contradict the universal faith of the Church”.[2]

“Ascertain” means to find something out for certain. Rahner is saying that the job of the church is to say with certainty whether or not a particular act goes against Goodness itself.

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The Catholic Church has not always been supportive of the freedom of conscience in its members. The Fourth Lateran Council made it obligatory to confess sins once a year in 1215 and then issued the states secular authorities to enforce excommunication.[3] People obeyed the Church’s moral obligations, however, “Fear of Divine Judgement loomed large among the motivational forces”.[4] Moral obligation expressed only as “Fear of Divine Judgement” is often minimalistic; i.e. People perform the minimum amount they feel obligated to do and no more. This use of fear and secular authorities contradicts the primacy of freedom of a person’s conscience according to the Catechism.[5] 

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Now, this is not to say that we do not need the Church’s teaching office. As I stated earlier, it is necessary to have the boundaries of right and wrong set for us. However, laying out what the boundaries are is very different from supervising the conformity of an individual’s faith. As soon as you enforce the rules, you set yourself as opposed to anyone who does not follow every rule. The coercion into conformity is the basis of almost every argument against the Church. From Nietzsche and Karl Marx to the modern high school student; each one has a problem with the act of forcing conformity to a certain way of living. Moral theology is about determining what a person ought to do and communicating it with people. What good does it do people to use guilt, fear, coercion or state imprisonment as a way of forming someone’s conscience?

This has doomed the Catholic Church especially. We have people who are members of the Church, yet they feel as if they are also enemies of the Church. The role of the Christian church should be to help people understand why the rules exist so they can see that God desires their ultimate happiness. The church needs people who follow God’s will because they love God and because they trust that God knows and wants what is best for them. If they feel as if they are in opposition, they become consumers. They are Consumers of Sacraments, consumers of prayer and worship. Consumers do not volunteer, they do not fully engage in prayer and worship and they are quick to complain. This leads to a culture of whining. Consumers complain about inefficiency, volunteers complain about the non-volunteers, the fully engaged complain about the unengaged, the choir blames the people, the people blame the music, and the Church leader complains about everything.

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We need to build a culture of trust. Just as the teaching office needs to trust Christ, the people of God need to trust the teaching office of the Church. People need to be able to trust Church leaders and Church leaders need to trust people to judge themselves. This means we need to teach, as Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 11:31, that if we are “more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment”. If people do not trust the Church it is the Church who has failed the people and it is the Church who must work to earn trust back.

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[1] Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations: Final Writings New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992 pg. 85

[2] Rahner, Theological Investigations: Final Writings

[3] Norman P. Tanner. “Papal Encyclicals Online” Kindle, Nook, EPUB: Last updated February 20, 2017, http://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum12-2.htm 21

[4] F. Stanley Lusby, Encyclopedia of Religion (Linda M. Tober; Detroit USA: Thomson Gale. 2005) 1941

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church 1790

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