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.” 
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”.
“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.
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. People obeyed the Church’s moral obligations, however, “Fear of Divine Judgement loomed large among the motivational forces”. 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.
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.
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.
 Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations: Final Writings New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992 pg. 85
 Rahner, Theological Investigations: Final Writings
 Norman P. Tanner. “Papal Encyclicals Online” Kindle, Nook, EPUB: Last updated February 20, 2017, http://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum12-2.htm 21
 F. Stanley Lusby, Encyclopedia of Religion (Linda M. Tober; Detroit USA: Thomson Gale. 2005) 1941
 Catechism of the Catholic Church 1790
Ever since Pope Francis has been leading the Catholic Church, he has been surprisingly quiet and even it would seem, dismissive about the most grave issues of our time, Why is that? First let us look at what Pope Francis has said. Here is one of his quotes in an interview with an Atheist reporter,
‘Pope Francis tells me: “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the worst is that they don’t even look for them any more. They are being crushed by the present. You tell me: can you live when you are being crushed by the present? Without a memory of the past and without the will to go forward into the future to build something, a future, a family? Can you go on like this? This, I think, is the most urgent problem that the Church is facing.”’
Pope Francis is also quoted as saying that the church can become “obsessed with the abortion issue”.
Youth Unemployment and the Loneliness of the Old
Why would the Pope put these two issues on such a high pedestal? Young people not having jobs is obviously not as serious as abortion or euthanasia, or is it? I believe the Pope sees evil as a domino or ripple effect. Some sins can ripple out and get bigger and bigger creating more and more waves. A young girl gets pregnant from her boyfriend, she has a minimum wage job and lives at home, her parents kick her out when they find out she got pregnant. What is she supposed to do? Abortion, to her, seems like the only option! But if she had a decent job, she wouldn’t be living at home, she could afford to care for another human being and if she felt safe, stable, independent and thought her work was meaningful, she just might be more responsible when it comes to her sexual choices (this goes the same for the man although I realize it’s typically only the woman who has to deal with this issue) or if she gets pregnant she can choose to keep the baby since she is in a more stable position.
I would argue that youth unemployment makes young people feel stressed, depressed, hopeless, anxious and afraid. These feelings make it more likely that they would turn to more grave sins like suicide, high risk activity like drugs, binge drinking or unprotected sex, which leads to abortion. Similarly elderly people who suffer from Loneliness are more likely to feel these negative feelings as well and therefore more likely to turn to euthanasia. See how this ripple effect happened? We don’t think of elderly Loneliness as very serious or urgent, but we here a lot of talk about the consequence which is euthanasia.
The Wider Perspective of Pope Francis
I believe Pope Francis is being incredibly insightful and purposeful in his words. What he is trying to tell the world in the statement he made above, is that conversion happens in an order. Here is what we need to do, in this order, if we want to change an individual persons ethical choices…
- First, Take care of a persons practical needs
- Then, Take care of a persons spiritual needs
- Only then are they able to make good ethical decisions (no matter what their religion or belief system!)
A person is not open to the gospel message if they can’t make ends meet. If your in a cage with a hungry lion, you aren’t considering whether or not it’s right to kill animals… That issue is irrelevant to your situation at that particular time. Once people are stable and secure, then they can think about faith and their spiritual needs. How can we expect someone to be pro-life if they don’t understand the dignity of a human person or the theology of the body? And how can they care about any of it if they haven’t yet had an encounter with Christ? Many times Jesus himself helped someone before preaching the gospel to them. Heal the blind man, talk to the outcast… Only then did he preach to them and let that change their moral decisions. I can feel the Atheists rolling their eyes at me… But even from an Atheists perspective we can agree to first take care of people’s immediate practical issues, then they can philosophize about right and wrong, social constructs, all that fun stuff.
Now I want to criticize the Pro-Life movement, but it may just be the way things are shown in the media. Why aren’t we more focused on ways to prevent abortion or alternatives like adoptions? The Pro-Life movement seems to spend all of its energy on changing legislation. If we spent more time preventing abortion by fighting for social justice and taking care of people’s spiritual needs, I believe we would make much more headway in being pro-life from a wider perspective. Now I hear people saying, “we do those things!” But I’ve been to Pro-Life events, like the March for Life. The only thing I ever hear is that we need to change legislation and promote abstinence from sex and wait until marriage. I’m saying that those are both ethical actions that only apply to the already converted. As a Christian I believe we should be more concerned with a persons soul than with their personal moral decisions as grave as they may be. There is nothing so serious that God can’t forgive it right? But we don’t act as if that was true. Legislation cannot change people’s hearts, Jesus never passed a single law! He simply let people encounter him and then said sin no more….the rest was up to them.
Below is from a blog I read, the italics are my thoughts and the application in youth ministry, the rest is not mine. I only took the part about Adolescence because I think it is particularly important. They go through each age group. The bolded bullet points and underlining are done by me to draw special attention to them. To read the full blog, please click the link here, it is a great read!
- Friends will be more important than family. You’re still important, but there’s something they have to do – find who they will be when they step into the world as a healthy, independent adult. Just like you had to do at their age.
One of the best things a parent can do for their teen during this stage is give them opportunities to make and build good healthy friendships. The church is a great opportunity for parents to allow their teen freedom and independence while not having to worry about the risky behaviours that get mentioned below.
- What their peers think of them will be a source of stress to them for a while, peaking for girls at age 13 and for boys at age 15. They might go to extra lengths to try to fit in with their peers. This might involve making silly decisions or putting themselves in risky situations. Breathe. It will end.
- They will become more argumentative and will push against you more. This is perfectly in keeping with their adolescent adventure and their experimentation with independence.
Youth Ministers (both volunteer and a CYM) can be an excellent catalyst by simply listening to teens complain about their parents while reminding the teen not to be too hard on their parents. Well formed volunteers can be the stepping stone between parents and teens so that teens feel an adult is hearing them and taking them seriously but not joining them in blaming everything on parents. It is dangerous for people in youth ministry to take sides but important that teens feel they have an ally.
- May become more emotionally distant from you (don’t worry – they’ll come back but maybe not until they leave their teens).
- Might not want to be seen in public with you – however cool you are.
This is the most important point for churches to hear. According to the NSYR (National Study of Youth and Religion) teenagers said they want to spend more time with their parents. However it is important to note they do not want to be seen in public with their parents. This is key because we can promote family ministry without focusing solely on family events. Our desire to promote family ministry can cause us to do only “Family Events” which alienates teenagers. This is the exact reason why High School youth groups are still relevant, given the NSYR. If we are connected to a teen’s parents, if we encourage communication between teens and parents, then we are achieving our goal of family ministry without alienating teens by doing only “Family Events”.
- Will experiment with their image, their identity, and the way they are in the world.
- They may become sexually active.
- They might be impulsive and they might start taking risks. (For a full explanation of why they do this, see here.)
- They will be more creative and will start to think about the world in really interesting, different ways.
- They will act like your opinion of them doesn’t matter but it does – as much as ever.
- They will often misread your emotional expressions – reading anger, hostility or disappointment when you feel nothing like any of that (See here to understand teenage emotional flare-ups).
- Their sleep cycle will change. Their circadian rhythm will move them about three hours past where they were as kids. This means that they will fall asleep three hours past the time they used to and unless they are completely exhausted, it will be biologically very difficult for them to fall asleep earlier. They will need about 9-10 hours sleep so will need to sleep in for later.
- Will want to make their own decisions about the things that affect them.
What to do
- Don’t be judgemental or critical – they need your love and connection more than ever.
- Understand that they need to find their independence from you. Give them the space to do this. Over time, their values will be likely to align with yours.
Youth group is a safe space for teens to grow in their independence while under the supervision of responsible adults and in an environment that promotes positive values.
- Know that your teen isn’t rejecting you, but is finding their own way in the world – it’s an important, healthy part of being an independent adult – even if it feels bad.
- Let go of control and go for influence. The harder you fight to control them, the harder they will push against you. The truth is that when it comes to adolescence, we have no control – they will decide how much they involve you in their lives, how much they tell you, and how much influence you have. Make it easy for them to come to you when something happens or when they need guidance.
- Give them information, but don’t lecture.
- You may or may not know when they start to become sexually active, so it’s important that they have the information and guidance they need to stay physically and emotionally safe. See here for an age by age guide for what they need to know.
- Don’t buy into arguments – ask them to state their case and talk to you about the pros and cons of what they want. By nature, teens will overstate the positives and underestimate the negatives. Encourage them to tell you some of the cons – nothing is ever black or white.
- Be the calming force – breathe and wait for the wave to pass over you. It takes 90 seconds for an emotion to be triggered, to peak and to start to fade, provided you don’t do anything to give it oxygen.
- Help them to plan ahead and see around corners, but without judgement.
- Encourage their social connections and give them space to strengthen their relationships. An important part of their development is to decrease their independence on the family tribe and to do this. To do this, they will feel an increased need to strengthen their affiliation with a friendship tribe. Encourage and support this wherever you can.
Youth groups are a safe space for kids to strengthen their friendships and make new friendships. We would assume the friends they are bonding with, and new friendships, are with teens who have similar values and morals and are (hopefully) not going to lead other teens into risky behaviour. However there is never a guarantee that any friends they make will not lead them into risky behaviours. Don’t assume because a teen goes to youth group they are not into risky behaviour. With church events, teens can be one person at a youth group and another person outside of it.
- Help them find safe ways to take risks such as sports – competitive and non-competitive.
Meeting new people is a risk, a positive and relatively safe risk . Parents should encourage their child to make new friends, especially in a positive environment like a church youth group.
- Let them know you will always do whatever you can to collect them from any situation when they want to come home – regardless of the circumstances and how late or far away it might be.
- Let nothing be off limits when it comes to what they can talk to you about.
Many times parents don’t give teens the freedom to talk about anything or the teens don’t FEEL that freedom is there even if it is. Youth groups help to give them a safe place to talk about anything. If we are connected with parents and encouraging that type of “no limits“ communication with parents, the youth group can be a real asset in this area.
- Wherever possible, let them sleep in to catch up on sleep deficits.
- Listen more than you talk.
So after offering a new twist on the most common pro-choice arguments last week, I want to try and tackle the very best arguments in favour of making abortion an option. Usually after I explain my position and the other person explains their, it is clear that this issue comes down to one important question; when does person-hood begin? Notice it’s not when life begins, because organs are alive but we kill those, animals and plants are alive but we kill them. Person-hood is when something goes from simply alive, to a human person.
The Best Pro-Choice Argument
At the end of life we consider someone legally dead when brain activity stops. Therefore we shouldn’t consider life as beginning until there is brain activity. Therefore abortion should be acceptable up until there is brain activity.
This is a very strong argument for making (keeping) abortion legal. I don’t think pro-life people appreciate how valid this argument is, and how need to take arguments like this seriously and not brush them off. I will give my argument of why this is not sufficient reason to allow abortion. First I want to point out that if you subscribe to this argument and you are Canadian, there are no laws whatsoever regulating abortion. Brain activity usually starts at 6 months and you can legally have an abortion right up until birth. So if this is the reason you are pro-choice, you need to get out to the March for Life to lobby for laws against late term abortions.
That’s not the argument against this point though. I would suggest that there is a significant difference between end of life and beginning of life. At the end of life when someone’s brain stops working we consider them officially dead, but why? Why not the heart or lungs? Well, we are able to keep someone alive using a machine that replaces the heart or the lungs. As of right now when someone’s brain stops functioning we have no way to bring them back or even keep that critical organ from functioning properly, even in a minimal way. If we imagine a machine that can keep a brain moderately operational would we have to change the definition of death? Let’s say a machine keeps the brain active but the person can’t move because all their organs are not getting the right signals to keep them going. The persons body dies but the brain is still active, are they dead? This is the shaky ground that this argument rests on. When we get down to a cellular level it gets even more complicated, if you have time, watch this video to really get you thinking…
Here is the real problem though… When someone is dying, at some point, there is nothing we can do to stop it. If there was a way to prevent that brain activity from shutting down we would do it so they could live longer. When a person loses brain activity we know they are not going to come back, there is no other alternative. In the case of an unborn child, at even the earliest stage, we know that given the right conditions they will have brain activity and be alive at some point. I hesitate to use the term “potential person-hood” because that could be considered a sperm or an egg or even from an atomic level any atom! There is no doubt however, that a living human being naturally comes from this group of cells. In death we may not know the exact moment where a human person loses their person-hood, but it doesn’t really matter because we know there is nothing we can do. (Maybe they never truly lose their “person-hood”. But their “soul”, in Latin the word soul is “anima” or the thing that animates their body, is separated from their body for a time. This is important because we don’t really understand what animates the body… again watch that video above.)
Sometimes the Fertilized Egg Does Not Implant in the Uterus
Since we live in an imperfect world though, there is often complications (as Bill Nye points out in his video on abortion). So, naturally, the fertilized egg does not implant and that human being never has a chance to develop. This is not a moral problem for pro-lifers because it is a natural process with no intent to interrupt what is a natural process. This is critical because intent is everything in moral philosophy, except for Utilitarianism which is where our modern society gets its moral logic from. Utilitarianism says that all that matters is what happened and intent doesn’t mean anything. If you believe manslaughter and 1st degree murder are different then you are not a Utilitarian and you believe intent is important. Just because some people die at 27 doesn’t mean we can kill other people at 27 and just because some fetuses die in the womb doesn’t mean we can kill other fetuses in the womb.
Abortion is when we know that a life is coming and we consciously and intentionally do something destructive to interfere with a natural process. This is the reason for so many controversial teachings in the church. When we go to a doctor and get medicine or surgery it is meant to enhance the natural process of the body. That is good and considered acceptable according to the church. It is bad to control, change or stop natural processes from happening. It would be like cutting off a grizzly bears food supply because you want to save all the salmon from dying. You would mess with the whole natural ecosystem. Sometimes our bodies themselves act in an unnatural way like an autoimmune disease. In this case we give medicine that helps the body to do what it should naturally do. I think then the question becomes “what is natural?” For that we would need another blog, however I think you can see why we believe abortion is generally wrong in almost all cases (we can consider ectopic pregnancies another time). I think it is easy to understand how abortion can be seen as interfering with a natural process.
The Reality is…
What it comes down to is that there is a big difference between preventing something from living and declaring something dead. If you planted a bulb for a rose bush and someone put lye on the spot you planted it, you would be mad that they intentionally killed your plant! If it died naturally you might be upset but less mad because there wasn’t an intention of harm coming from another person. If it was withering and dead and someone dug it up you would be less upset since its end was inevitable. (We’ll discuss end of life issues another day too). That is basically the counter-argument, but I want to make it clear to pro-life people reading this that you need to take these arguments more seriously! These are valid concerns that we are ignoring to achieve a political agenda. Do not get sucked into caring more about getting what you want, than doing what is right.
* In a future blog I would also like to tackle Peter Singer’s argument for person-hood which may be even better than this one. However I don’t think many people subscribe to his argument since he argues that you should be able to kill toddlers…
I said Pander, not Panda! Although a picture of a panda is the perfect way to pander…
So what does it mean to pander? I was watching this comedian, Bo Burnham, making fun of the new “stadium country” music. (Warning, explicit language and subject matter!) He talks about how they just use buzz words that pander to country music fans even though they themselves are removed from anything resembling a “country” life.
“A Dirt road, a cold beer, blue jeans, a red pickup… rural noun, simple adjective.”
Pretty much everything in modern media is guilty of blatant pandering, especially advertising. Pandering is necessary in a certain sense. If you don’t care at all what anyone thinks of your thing, then no one’s going to listen. You have to, to a certain extent, give people what they want.
Historically, the Catholic Church does not pander, in fact I would say even to a fault. This has been good in some respects because it means the church is not compromising to cater to people’s waxing and waning opinions. The church doesn’t agree with everything that modern society deems acceptable. For this the church has been called “irrelevant”. Under Pope Benedict the church was accused of this constantly. Now, being called irrelevant (and rightly so in many cases) is not good for the church either.
Pope Francis is doing something incredible though. He is making the church relevant again without pandering to the opinions of the general population. Certainly there are certain people who do not believe this though, conservative Catholics that believe in fact he is pandering to popular opinion. Liberal non-Catholics are accusing him of pandering in a “words only” sort of way. Meaning that he is saying what people want to hear but, like a politician, those words don’t match up with his actions. So for example on homosexuality he says “Who am I to judge” but has no intention of changing church teaching.
There is some truth to both of these because he is giving people what they want. He is talking about the relevant issues and giving the most sensitive and compassionate answers. He is not saying no to anyone, instead he is open to conversation. So in some respects both are right, but really neither are right. Pope Francis is doing what Jesus did, entering into the sins of others in order to bring them out. He’s not concerned about his image, so he cannot be pandering. He is authentically having discussion and hearing the concerns of the people, which is making the Church relevant again. He is also not just giving lip service, because he is making significant changes, specifically right now to the divorced and remarried as well as the annulment process. These are real changes that are significant to many more people than other hot topics like women’s ordination or homosexuality.
I want to end by saying if you are skeptical of Pope Francis, good! You should be, mostly because having real, honest, authentic dialogue about these issues is unpredictable and can lead to real change. However do not be afraid! Trust that the Holy Spirit is working through the church right now. These are incredible times we are living in that will make a mark on the history of Catholicism, be a part of history with Pope Francis!