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.
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!