Conscience more than a GPS: Bishop Fisher

Speaking prior to a major international conference in Rome on Christian conscience and the right to life, Sydney Bishop Anthony Fisher said that conscience is not like a new car's street navigator telling a driver to turn here or stop there.

He also said conscience is not simply a gut feeling but a natural perception of moral principles applied to the particular circumstances about what is to be done.

However, he said, "by the 1960s, conscience had come to mean 'strong feeling' or opinion".

Bishop Fisher, who is the Sydney Episcopal Vicar for Life and Health, made the comments before a media conference prior to an international congress entitled "Christian conscience in support of the right to life," due to be held in the Vatican on 23-24 February under the auspices of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

"Too often in recent years those desperate for moral education or guidance have been fobbed off with 'follow your conscience' or 'do whatever seems right to you'" without being helped to understand what a correct conscience is and how it is formed, he told reporters.

But a real conscience is based on a recognition that objective moral truths exist and that some actions are always right or always wrong, he said.

Bishop Fisher said, "Catholics, as much as anyone else today, are subject to pressures" in society that tell them either that one opinion is as good as another or that tolerance requires them to act as if everyone's opinion is equally valid.

"But conscience must be both well-informed and well-formed," Bishop Fisher said, citing "the authority of the Church as a moral teacher and former/informer of conscience".

Bishop Fisher also addressed the question as to whether there can be a conflict between the Church as teacher and the individual conscience and how is this to be resolved.

Dealing with "the problematic of those who oppose conscience to Magisterium," Bishop Fisher identified "two helpful strands of contemporary thought: the communitarian call to think with one's moral community and the 'practical reason' approaches to maturation of conscience. On these views the Magisterium is not some external source of moral thinking with which private conscience must grapple: it informs conscience much like a soul informs a body, giving it its shape and direction from within."

Sydney Catholics have been at the centre of a debate over the primacy of conscience in recent years, which culminated in a decision by a group of prominent Catholics to bring a complaint before the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog about Cardinal George Pell's teaching on the issue.

The group claimed in February last year that Cardinal Pell's denial of the priority the church gives to conscience in individual moral decisions places his public views "outside the mainstream" of Catholic doctrine.

Christian conscience in support of the right to life (ABC News, 21/2/07)
Vatican official says Christians need correct, certain consciences (Catholic News Service, 21/2/07)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney | Bishop Anthony Fisher OP
Pontifical Academy for Life
A Catholic Social Conscience: Can it be Reclaimed in Our Time? Symposium, ACU, North Sydney (ACMICA/Uniya, 10/6/04)
Australian Reforming Catholics

Jesuit calls for rules of engagement for religion in politics (CathNews, 31/7/06)
Judge reasserts primacy of conscience (CathNews, 23/2/06)
Pell derides 'dissenter' complaint (CathNews, 20/2/06)
Cardinal's "Primacy of Conscience " comments still drawing flack (CathNews, 16/6/04)


21 Feb 2007