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The Call of Conscience

The Call of Conscience

The dilemma of the Christian in a totalitarian church

by Michael Keane

from the BASIC NEWSLETTER, Spring 2003, pp. 9-12

The Reverend Michael Keane, a contemporary of the signatories to the Irish Bishops Pastoral, The Work of Justice, was recently reinstated after a 23 year suspension visited on him in response to challenges based on conscience......

2002 was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the issuing of the Irish Bishops’ Pastoral, The Work of Justice. It was signed on behalf of the bishops by Archbishops Dermot Ryan [Dublin], Thomas Morris [Cashel] and Joseph Cunnane [Tuam].

The following is an extract from that pastoral: “One of the effects of the new interdependence of people is that more and more decisions are now taken for individuals by their group leaders. People will often, in private, admit that they disapprove of actions decided by their organisation and deplore the harm it does to others. But still they go along with it. Private dissent does not dispense one from responsibility. Each one has his own conscience and must follow it. Each one is responsible, alone, to God. We cannot ‘pass the buck’ to others.”

“People today talk much about following their own conscience. Yet the strange thing is that this is the very time when so many people will follow with blind obedience in whatever direction their conscience is led by their group or movement or political party, their firm, or union, or professional organisation. We allow much of our moral thinking to be done for us by committees or by ‘headquarters’, or by the mass media. We need to inform and educate our conscience and have the courage to stand by it even if we stand alone. We cannot rest content with situations where we find ourselves as members of some organisation, doing things which personally we would never do and which privately we know to be wrong, or failing to say or do things we know to be our duty. As someone put it recently, ‘We must not allow governments, corporations and unions to do our sinning for us’. Selfish, sectional and unjust actions committed by my group are in part my responsibility. It is not enough, to examine my conscience about my personal behaviour, I need also to examine myself about actions of a group of which I am a member.”

“Since all have not the ability to speak persuasively in public or to carry influence at meetings, this responsibility is in practice limited by the rules and conventions of the organisation. Sometimes these rules and procedures are such as to inhibit free and open discussion and to pressurise conscientious dissenters. Members should then press for reform of the rules with a view to encouraging open and responsible discussion and the greatest possible freedom and the widest possible participation in the taking of decisions.”

God submits God’s very existence to our conscience. There are people who do not believe God exists. Some years ago it was being said by some, “God is dead.” Others reject false ideas about God: e.g. That God is a celestial policeman. There are agnostics who hold the view that they don’t know whether God exists or not. And then there are the believers. Hopefully atheists and agnostics will be pleasantly surprised when they pass on from this life and meet God face to face.

The quotation from the pastoral The Work of Justice at the head of the article is inclusive of all organisations, even the ‘institutional church’ - which people tend to follow with blind obedience - and which also might be counted among that group of organisations that we allow to do our ‘sinning’ for us. Though the temptation to allow our moral thinking to be done for us by ‘headquarters’ - the Vatican - is very strong and though the pronouncements of the Pope and the teaching of the Church must be given serious consideration, such items must be submitted to our conscience before we arrive at our personal conscientious decision. It is out of the collective of these personal conscientious decisions that the ‘sensus fidelium’ or the ‘insight of the faithful’ is established, that determines whether a teaching or pronouncement has been ‘received’ by the faithful, through which it ultimately becomes the full teaching of the Church.

Our silence and lack of action in certain circumstances can be sinful and we must become aware of that fact. I am reminded of a story told by an old parish priest. It relates to a time when people in Ireland had to go to an assigned place to pay rent to the bailiff of the local Landlord. Johnny went to pay his rent to the bailiff in Ballinlough, a small town in Co. Roscommon. There is a townland between Ballinlough and Ballyhaunis called Gorta Ganny, about five miles west of Ballinlough. Johnny, in the visiting house that night was telling his neighbours how he gave the bailiff a real telling off, calling himself and the Landlord a pair of low-down scoundrels. The neighbours were open-mouthed with disbelief. Pat said to him “surely you didn’t say that to the bailiff?” “Faith and I did” said Johnny, “but I was in Gorta Ganny when I said it!”

So often like Johnny, we sit at home criticising people for their actions and attitudes but fail to say anything in public against them or take action to counteract them. There is a social as well as personal aspect to conscience.

Conscientious dissenters are the bane of the Vatican and of those who play up to the Vatican. A few years ago a bishop addressed his priests on Holy Thursday in these unfortunate words “a dissident priest is like a boil on the body that must be lanced.” Those words were in sharp contrast to the words with which Christ addressed his apostles on the first Holy Thursday - “ will not call you servants but friends.”

One often hears establishment people using such phrases as “if you are in a club, you keep the rules” or “when you are in the army, you wear the boots.” That kind of talk is alright as far as it goes, but if the rules are inhibiting or limiting or pressurising, then there is an obligation on us to agitate for a change of those rules.

Christ said “by this you shall know my disciples, that they have love, one for another.” One would think that that sentiment might be incorporated into the ceremony of ordination for a priest. Instead the young priest is obliged to promise obedience to his bishop and to the bishop’s successors. And the successors are not yet known and are likely not yet bishops! And he promises obedience about actions, the contents of which he is not, at the time of the promise being made, aware! Is not such a promise rather rash? - not unlike the promise that Herod made to Salome? We cannot abdicate our conscientious judgement to any human being, no matter how exalted. In the words of the pastoral, “We cannot ‘pass the buck’ to others. Everyone of us is responsible to God, alone. Peter and John retorted to the Sanhedrin - as recounted in Acts IV: 19 in these words - ”Judge for yourselves whether in God’s eyes it is right for us to obey you rather than God." The promise of obedience should be replaced by a mutual expression of love between the bishop and the ordinand. That expression of love should encompass obedience to the bishop in all his reasonable requests. The promise of obedience is a control mechanism is a control mechanism by the church establishment which has turned the vast majority of priests into conforming robots to the detriment of the church of Christ. One of the old Roman emperors used to say “Oderint dum metuant.” which means “let them hate me provided they fear me.” Bullying type bishops in the past may have operated on a slightly changed version of the emperor’s attitude - “oderint dum obediant” which is “let them hate me, provided they obey me.”

Conscience is that “still small voice” that a discreet and self-effacing God permits in dealing with us creatures. A good, informed conscience is to the soul what health is to the body. St. Paul in his letter to the Romans outlines the struggle that goes on in the conscience of everyone of us “the good that I will, I do not; but the evil that I will not, that I do.” In his helplessness he cries out “who will deliver me from the body of this death?” He gives his answer, “the grace of Jesus Christ” That is available to us for the asking.

Every time we act conscientiously, we strengthen our moral sense and become better persons. The Czech writer and former President, Vaclav Havel’s credo runs thus “I simply take the side of truth against any lie, justice against any injustice.” Conscience is at the core of human dignity and integrity. It is the sanctuary where we are alone with God.

When Vatican officials decided to prohibit Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB., from addressing the Women’s Ordination Worldwide Conference in Dublin in 2001, they chose to use her religious superior, Sr. Christine Vladimiroff, OSB, to command the prohibition. After consulting her community of 128 sisters, all but one of whom said ‘No’, the prioress told the Vatican she would not issue any such mandate.

Joan Chittister spoke in Dublin. The Vatican had met a challenge from religious sisters who viewed obedience in a traditional Benedictine way. The Vatican did not comprehend. In November 2002, Sr. Christine received the prestigious ‘Call to Action’ award in the name of her community. Among the sentiments mentioned in her acceptance speech, she mentioned....

“........I accept this award for finding our voice and expressing in words what we felt in our hearts was the right thing to do. It was a quiet act of bravery by women who love the church.....it was an act of deep and abiding loyalty.... a gesture of profound love.... an act of fidelity to the Spirit speaking within."

“Yes, it was an act of conscience. It was an act of commitment to all women whose voices have been silenced in history, whose stories have never been heard, whose wisdom we have denied. We move through the pain to hope, willing to ”listen with the ear of our heart" as Benedict instructs us."

“These are dark days in our church and to name the moment we are in is an act of hope. We must be personally committed to show another way. In those instances when we withhold our truth, we silence ourselves. It is an act of leadership to instil hope and courage in the institutions and organisations in which we find ourselves. Cynicism is not a virtue. It is a violent act that destroys hope and creates the chaos that leaves people in despair of ever finding meaning. As a community we move into the future, accessing our personal power within an institution that denies us organisational power. What fuels my passion? I am convinced that things are not right, but equally convinced that we are capable, together, of setting them right.”

“The one who is different is to be offered Benedictine hospitality where guests are received as Christ. I have hope because I think religious women are taking seriously their role as gift to the Church... there is a seamless movement from prayer and community to action on behalf of justice that characterises our activity... with the same voice that chants the psalms, we will raise the significant issues in the halls of the powerful and be the advocate for the poor..... we continue as women in the

church, to lay claim to our capacity to answer the call to discipleship. Jesus has not excluded us. Gender does not diminish the power of Baptism in the church of Jesus. We will opt for dialogue rather than silence. We bring community and make it visible through the values of inclusion participation, mutuality, compassion, shared decision making and leadership as service. Individuals join communities to do together what they cannot do alone. It is through living and growing in community that we find the generosity of spirit, the consistency of commitment and the integrity of heart to change first what needs to be challenged in our lives personally, and in our commitment to community that will allow us to be a moral voice and a prophetic sign of hope to our world..... It is through our prayer and community that we find the passion of our convictions to be radically concerned for the welfare of others. Is that not the heart of the gospel message of Jesus?....... People’s life purpose and power is revealed in where they draw a line, where they take a stand, what they choose."

“It was with great fear and courage, with great confidence and doubt that we as a community stepped out into a new place. We were required to grow beyond the boundaries we had inherited and those that were established for us by our church..... what was important was that we struggled together.... we trusted ourselves to move into uncharted waters, and there in that liminal space we encountered our truth. It was not a ‘NO’ that was uttered; it was a ‘YES’ and therein we are all perceived as dangerous!”

Finally, the Pope, bishops, parish priests and others must realise that they only govern the people of God with the consent of the people of God ...... and the sooner that that dawns on them, the better for the Church of Christ.


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