January 30th, 2017
One thing about the Maltese bishops’ document on Amoris Laetitia that does not seem, as yet, to have been sufficiently emphasized by anyone is the similarity of its argument to that put forward in the infamous Lambeth Decision of 1930 on contraception. In fact, the two statements, in justifying themselves, use almost identical phrases:
Our role is patiently to help them to form and enlighten their own conscience, in order that they themselves may be able to make an honest decision before God and act according to the greatest good possible (see AL 37).
[If]… a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (see AL, notes 336 and 351).
– From the Maltese Bishops’ Document, pages 3 and 7 respectively.
The bishops answer: “Each couple” must reach their own decision, keeping in view “the spiritual ends for which marriage is ordained” and with “the most careful and conscientious thought, and, if perplexed in mind, after taking competent advice, both medical and spiritual.”
– From the Report of the Anglican Bishops on Lambeth, 1930. The Living Church vol. 117, p. 12.
(with thanks to Dan Hitchens of The Catholic Herald; emphasis added)
The very fact that the same seemingly innocuous statements are used in Malta which led, in Lambeth, to what is now a total, irretrievable, unmitigated catastrophe, should in and of itself be cause for concern. Advising faithful Anglicans that their own consciences should serve as guides caused, in the span of a mere forty or fifty years, the total acceptance of sexual anything, the implosion of the Anglican succession with the distinction between “tainted” (having ordained women) and “non-tainted” bishops, ordination of homosexual clergy of both genders, near-complete desertion by the laity, and the now-famous unwillingness of Anglican clergy to make a definitive moral pronouncement on anything. Speaking merely empirically, “follow your conscience” is not an idea with a historical record of success.
But there are more arguments than the merely empirical. The great Anglican C.S. Lewis was well aware of the problems that contraception would cause. It was he who formulated, I think, the best answer as to why exactly an over-emphasis on individual conscience is supremely dangerous:
…No one could guess how familiar, and in a sense, how congenial to your soul these [evil] things were, how much of a piece with all the rest: down there, in the dreaming inner warmth, they struck no such discordant note, were not nearly so odd and detachable from the rest of you, as they seem when they are turned into words. – The Problem of Pain, p. 53.
For the great majority of people, “conscience” is easily confused with their own impulse or desire, especially when they are encouraged to look inward, not outward, in order to hear it. There is a certain specific way, as Lewis perfectly encapsulated, in which evil continually excuses itself; in which what we do, just because it is we who do it, doesn’t ever really seem as bad as it is. The continual warping tendency of our sinful, selfish nature confuses our conscience – the evil in our hearts actively fights to put us to sleep, to obscure our grasp of the truth.
When people only rely on their own “interior forum” for moral guidance, it is incredibly easy for them to talk themselves into believing that the right thing to do is what they really wanted to do anyway. This is, of course, even more pressingly true when people are in very painful situations where doing the right thing is hard and tragic – such as being in an illicit second marriage. How easy it will be, in the Communion line in the Malta cathedral, now that no external input is required, to sweat for a few minutes, look at the priest, and decide that one is feeling peace with God after all!
Fallen humans need reality checks to stay off the easy and otherwise inevitable road to Hell. This is what priests, and the whole Church, are for. In many cases, the only purpose and perceived effect of a “well-formed conscience” is to cling desperately to an external and absolute moral truth, against the raging desires of the individual. This is St. Thomas Aquinas’ “synderesis” conception of the conscience: not part of the person himself, but a window into heaven, into the sometimes difficult morality of God.
Such knowledge of one’s own propensity to evil requires self-awareness. This awareness is one of the first things experience teaches to anyone who makes a sincere and intelligent effort to be good. Given a presumption of good faith, it is surprising and sad that the Churchmen defending the “individualist” interpretation of Amoris Laetitia do not seem to know the fundamentals of the moral battle: that we like to sin with our own moral approval, that it is therefore easy for us to talk ourselves into sin, and that in hard cases the voice of conscience is not one of the little appealing voices of our heart but the voice of an external authority, commanding us to do our duty.