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Cardinal's "Primacy of Conscience" comments still drawing flack

Despite having more carefully nuanced his controversial comments of a few years ago on "primacy of conscience", Cardinal Pell's controversial proposal to overturn this element of Catholic teaching is still drawing flack. Fr Frank Brennan SJ delivered a paper to the Australian Catholic Movement for Intellectual and Cultural Affairs on 10th June challenging the Archbishop's point of view.

The Archbishop first aired his thoughts at a seminar at Latrobe University some years ago and these were picked up and published in The Bulletin magazine. More recently at an address to the Catalyst for Renewal Bishop's forum on 31st May last year he was even more forthright in calling for this element of Church teaching to be overturned saying "In the past I have been in trouble for stating that the so called doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be quietly dropped. I would like to reconsider my position here and now state that I believe that this misleading doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be publicly rejected.".

That particular address led to considerable discussion in academic and intellectual circles in Australia and a strong article by Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ, published in Eureka Street challenging the proposition put forward by the Archbishop.

Subsequent to that, Cardinal Pell delivered an address in Philadelphia where he seemed to more carefully nuance his comments saying:

"My basic object is twofold: a) to explain that increasingly, even in Catholic circles, the appeal to the primacy of conscience is being used to justify what we would like to do rather than to discover what God wants us to do; and b) to claim that conscience does not have primacy. One should say that the word of God has primacy or that truth has primacy, and that a person uses his conscience to discern the truth in particular cases. Individual conscience cannot confer the right to reject or distort New Testament morality as affirmed or developed by the Church. To use the language of Veritatis Splendor, conscience is 'the proximate norm of personal morality' whose authority in its voice and judgement 'derives from the truth about moral good and evil'"

Unfortunately the copies of the full addresses the Archbishop made are no longer available on the Sydney Archdiocesan website.

Fr Frank Brennan has now renewed the debate with an address on "A Catholic Social Conscience: Can it be Reclaimed in Our Time?" where he argues "Presently, there is a conflict in the Australian Catholic community about the primacy of conscience. It may simply be a difference of perspective, some seeing the glass half-full and warning against the limits of conscience in coming to truth, and others seeing the glass half-empty and espousing the potential of conscience in living the truth."

Fr Brennan goes on to argue: "The Church teaching on conscience gives no consolation to the uninitiated thinking they can simply do their own thing. But neither does it accord religious authorities the liberty of insisting upon wooden compliance with their instruction or view of the world. Good conscience must always be accorded primacy even by bishops who would act differently in the circumstances, bearing in mind John Henry Newman's observation that 'conscience is not a judgment upon...any abstract doctrine ... but bears immediately on something to be done or not done'."

Some might argue that this has been the most interesting, stimulating, and possibly invigorating debate to go on in the Catholic Church in Australia for more than forty years.

ACMICA/UNIYA – A Catholic Social Conscience: Can it be Reclaimed in Our Time? Symposium, ACU, North Sydney, 10th June

Eureka Street – Debates about primacy of conscience illustrate the necessity for a passion both for truth and for freedom
ACMICA website

Unfortunately the Cardinal's addresses no longer seem to be available online.

16 Jun 2004