Wednesday, August 3, 2011

CONSCIENCE VERSUS AUTHORITY? a second look at a prophetic editorial

I was perusing in the library of the St. John the Evangelist School of Theology (SJEST) here in Palo (owing to the time in abundance that I have in my hands) when I came across this editorial from the January 1969 issue of the Boletin Eclesiatico de Filipinas, which is an official interdiocesan publication made monthly by the University of Sto. Tomas. 1969 was a year characterized by a lot of social upheaval in various parts of the world. Within the Catholic Church this was very true, it being the year after the publication of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI's landmark Encyclical on the Regulation of Births, which,in a nutshell, pronounced the use of contraceptives as morally inadmissible. Its publication raised up a frenzy of reactions all around the world. It touched off a lot of issues as well, one of which was the role of authority and conscience. Forty two years later virtually the same issues is resurrected, at least in the Philippines, due to the Reproductive Health bill debates.

In my earlier rant I had commented on Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago's speech which mentioned her opinion that there shouod be a recognition of the primacy of the individual conscience in Catholic theology (or whatever she meant by that). With relation to this, I would like to share and post this very interesting editorial courtesy of the Boletin Eclesiastico de Filipinas, January 1969 issue, which proved to be prophetic, forty-two years since it was published (the words boldly emphasized are mine):

The Pill controversy is now entering a new phase and unearthing an old issue: the right of conscience against the claims of authority. We are made to watch a seemingly purely conceptual bout, yet so real that we feel nothing less than that our salvation is at stake. 
This development would have been rather interesting, even welcomed, were it not for a dangerous assumption lurking behind this dramatic picture. It is the assumption that conscience and authority are conflicting notions, so that one can only hope to flourish and prosper at the expense of the other.
Here again, as in so many cases, the real culprit is theological imprecision. Conscience and authority are too delicate to be treated lightly. The location involved, its limits, and conditions must be stated always with sufficient precision, sincerity and objectivity.
 It is theologically incorrect to take authority as always devoid of love, obsessed with power and oblivious of the human dignity. For authority is service, and service is the budding forth of love. Neither is it acceptable to view conscience as merely the right of thinking, speaking, writing and acting according to one’s judgment or humour, without any thought or regard to the rights of God nor the duty to Him.  Both understanding will naturally lead to the unfortunate conclusion e have mentioned above.
We are aware that there are those who would tell us that the unsteady conscience seeks a sturdy norm. But yet, in the same breath, they deny the existence of such a norm, telling us that man must seek it bravely with the torment of his conscience, learning to live with the darkness on every side. This is, we believe, an unpardonable affront to the wisdom and mercy of God.
God did not and does not leave man to himself but has entered history through the Word which is “the true light that enlightens all men” (John 1:8). The Word speaks to us now and enlightens us through the Church’s doctrinal and jurisdictional authority.
In this perspective, conscience and authority are not conflicting notions: within the divine ecclesial plan, each has its own place and function. Conscience is our awareness of the moral imperatives in life towards truth and virtue, our fellowmen and our God. Meanwhile, religious authority is the sufficient norm of our conscience, seeking not only our religious welfare here on earth, but also our ultimate salvation hereafter.
 If then we wish to find our bearing during this second phase of the Pill controversy we should avoid opposing one to the other. It is not by contrapositing conscience against authority that we can resolve the nagging moral problems of our times. No amount of discussion premised on this supposed conflict will lead us to truth and virtue. 
It is only when we take them as two friendly inseparable guides, distinct but complementary, can we ever hope to find our way through the ever increasing confusions regarding the Pill controversy.

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