WHAT HAPPENED TO THE MORAL CONSCIENCE
OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH?
Mark Twain once said, “A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory”! He was being mischievous of course. His intention was not to utter a literal truism, but to say something that we all learn in childhood, sometimes painfully, which is that now and then “our clear conscience” is a matter of convenient, feigned memory loss to cover an inconvenient known truth. When I was a Boy Scout, getting caught up a tree trying to rescue a non-existent cat whilst in the act of “scrumping” apples was where I learned that lesson. The problem is, when it comes to “conscience” many people do not truly understand what it is and how we each came to have one?
What is a fundamental truth is that we were not born with an inherited “conscience”. There is no “conscience” gene implanted within us by an extraterrestrial “being”. The cerebrum, which is the inherited genetic organ of our intelligence, nevertheless, has a part to play in forming “conscience” because it is integral to the sense of our “consciousness” and gradually provides us with an awareness of “self” and “other” as we grow in early childhood. Our cerebral ability to observe and learn assists us in the assimilation of our environment, including our physical surroundings, our parents, extended family and the boundaries that exist in all interactions, both mental and physical during play, education and within society at large.
In the process we understand gradually what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior and what are the limits beyond which we should not go. The learning process is continuous and it includes the norms of behavior in a complete and complex culture – down to whether or not it is appropriate to drive on the right or the left hand side of the road. Abstract aspects of culture are also learned – as for example the necessity to tell the “Truth” – and that necessity comes from an awareness that you will not be accepted by society if you are unreliable. “Truth”, indeed, is so fundamental to co-existence and good order within a society that an individual or group will be rapidly and permanently ostracized from other networks of interacting individuals within a community if an act of lying or deception is exposed. Implicitly, therefore, each person’s unique conscience is a learned “rule book”. Of course, in different cultures with different social mores and religious norms – whole groups of individuals will have a distinct set of conventions that have a bearing on their collective “conscience”, but they will also have a more general code of conduct, influenced by universal humanity. That code has been specifically devised to ensure our essential adaptation as individuals to living within a safe and harmonious extended society. In this context, the conscience is not specifically a vehicle of moral discernment, but a guide to the essential needs of “survival” in a complex world.
The position of the Catholic Church on “conscience” is not at odds with the above as a “general” theory. St Thomas Aquinas said in his “Summa Theologiae” – if I can deduce anything he said to a few words – that conscience is the “learned habits of the mind”. The Church today regards conscience as a “remarkable and distinctly human facility of our reason”. However, they emphasise one aspect of “conscience” by suggesting that its function is primarily to enable individuals to make “moral” judgements – and it is thus a reminder to us of the difference between good and evil. The proof of that pudding, they claim, is that we have a “guilty conscience” if we knowingly choose what they consider to be the “immoral” option. The Catholic Church further believes that an already formed set of learned habits may be faulty, even immoral, and thus each Catholic, in his or her own way, must take dutiful steps to form a new “moral” conscience in the light of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the examples of the Saints and Martyrs. Individuals can do that by learning and taking to heart the “moral” law, as found in the authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church. This forms an objective “moral conscience”, they claim.
Currently, in the United Kingdom, the Government is endeavoring to increase the numbers of “non-faith” or “other faith” children within Catholic Schools. The Catholic Church’s current robust determination to maintain Catholic Faith Schools primarily for Catholic children – coupled with the historic priority they have given to teaching the Catechism – should be understood as a major part of the Church Hierarchy’s aim to ensure that Catholic “consciences” are specifically formed in the light of their teachings alone. The Catholic Hierarchy perceives, correctly of course, that exclusivity of Catholic children in their schools is the only way that they will be able to ensure each individual child’s continued membership in the Church in the future. If you are a sceptic – it will ensure their future financial support also. It would not be a surprise to learn that this is a model that the Catholic Church mirrors throughout the world. Being that children are unable to make a choice about their own schooling, the process is rightly described as “indoctrination” – but then the complete process of all choices of parenting can be seen in the same vein.
Conversely, I should of course note in passing, that if the moral habits of the mind can be learned, then they can also be un-learned – and replaced over time by what the Catholic Church would most probably describe as “immoral” or “evil” habits. In any such a process of transition there will be continuous inner conflict until one set of norms dominates the mind. Such conflict is manifest in the minds of many today, particularly the youth of this world, who seek to throw off the shackles of Catholic Church teachings in order to embrace their perceived or true, innate natures. Examples of individuals who, out of necessity need to embark on this process of painful conscience re-orientation, are homosexual gays and lesbians and transgender persons.
Now we are getting to the “nitty gritty” of this tome – and that is that there are many matters of universal concern where the Catholic Church and the Civil jurisdictions of this world appear to be polarized at the opposite ends of a spectrum on moral issues. This should not happen in an increasingly “joined up” intellectual and scientific world with global institutions that have clearly defined aims in the matter of Human Rights. Nevertheless, a case in point are the differences between how the Catholic Church and the civil institutions of this world manage, in practice, the grave matter of child sexual abuse. I say “manage in practice” quite deliberately because, despite what the Pope or Vatican might declare publicly, many Bishops and hierarchs of Religious Orders often manage such issues with blatant indifference – not just to the will of civil jurisdictions, but of the Pope also.
There are many examples I could give, but I state once again the most obvious example that relates to this blog. Namely, whereas Pope Francis states that there is no place for clerics who abuse children in the Catholic Church, the Comboni Missionary Order of Verona Italy have given sanctuary to and protected a known, alleged paedophile priest for two decades within their Italian Religious House at Verona – and have no intention of handing him over to the UK Civil Legal Jurisdiction – namely the UK Crown Prosecution Service – who want to question this cleric regarding his alleged crimes. Such arrogance cannot be classified as a “difference of opinion” on how to pursue the matter. The startling and profound disjunct in attitude of this Catholic Church Religious Order, with the expressed will of both Pope and State jurisdictions at every level from the UN Human Rights Committee right down to the civil law authorities, is bulldozing a growing chasm right within the Catholic Church itself. There, the relatively small Hierarchical, Clerical Church is at extreme odds with the vastly more numerous Lay Catholic Church.
The Clerics will always blame the “secularization” of the lay church for this upheaval, no doubt, but that is clutching at straws. To quote Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, an American psychologist who has been working with abused children for thirty years: “Church officials lied, denied and projected blame on victims, parents of victims, a sexually liberated and sexualized culture, bad apple priests, the ’60s, the media. They had seen the enemy and it was not them”. The unsurprising result of this sad state of “moral blindness” is that there is a profound mistrust amongst the Catholic Church lay community of the ability of clerics to “care for their kids” and appropriately deal with predator priests. This situation has provoked many lay Catholics into walking away from the Catholic Church. The growing “mistrust” of clerics – and not just those guilty of abusing children, but also the complicit superiors who have hidden the abuse from sight – has caused a rupture and a broadening “schism” between Catholic clerics and Catholic laity.
The distinction between the two groups (clerical and lay) of the Catholic Church is very much more fundamental than having been caused by the process of “secularization”. It comes back to the formation of “conscience” – and the conscience that drives the Catholic Hierarchical Clerical Church forward has become warped by an arrogant and immoral self-belief in their function, worth and stature within the Universal Catholic Church itself. They have literally “self-taught” themselves a “false conscience” by mutually reinforcing their perceived, but misconceived, unique status within the Church – and this has created within their consciences a false sense of impunity from all criticism. In their minds, they have become “above” the law.
St Thomas Aquinas, one of their undisputed Doctors of Church theology, if not the most significant, does not agree. Perhaps the modern-day clerics of the Church need to revise their knowledge of his “Summa Theologiae” in the light of his declaration that “due obedience is to be given to the civilian power when there is no moral issue that precludes so doing”. In the discussion of a moral issue in the case of child sexual abuse, the need to report the matter to the civil authorities is not a matter of debate, but an overwhelming necessity. The neglect so to do within the Catholic Church points to a lack of moral self-scrutiny within the Church regarding one of the most essential elements of universal harmony, which is the need to be open and to tell the “Truth”. Implicit within the process of telling the “Truth” is the process of providing “Justice” where crimes have been committed. The forgotten victims in this matter are the young, gullible, innocent children who were cruelly abused by subversive and powerful, adult, paedophile priests who continue to be given “Sanctuary” within the walls of Religious Orders and Diocesan Bishops’ domains.
The often-appalling lack of management by Bishops and Religious hierarchs of the criminal, clerical, child sexual abusers in their midst – their failure to accept the necessity to subject these criminals to the justice procedures of civil jurisdictions and their harsh and often belittling treatment of the Survivors of child sexual abuse are the root causes for the increasing lack of trust and alienation that the lay Church has for the Hierarchical Clerical Church. If it is a fact that “conscience is learned” – then it is starkly evident that the Catholic Church Clerical Hierarchy, as a whole, has been found to have substituted the Scripture’s moral laws of truth, humility, justice, charity and the cherishment of infants with their own brand of elitist, false morality – which is based on narcissistic impunity, arrogance and sometimes avarice too. This lack of “Truth” within the Church has ostracized the Hierarchical Clerical Church from the broader World Society. As I mentioned above, “Truth” is so essential to co-existence and good order within a society that an individual or group will be ostracized permanently if any untruthfulness or deceit is exposed. That goes for institutions such as the Catholic Church as well. So, how has the Catholic Church come to this miserable state of losing its “moral conscience”?
Well, if you think of the Catholic Church as the amorphous, top-down stucture that it is, then it opens up a number of possibilities for analysis. Firstly, the Vatican does not consider itself to be accountable to anyone on this earth. It is not a “trading nation”, but it has an unending source of money garnered annually from donations and from undisclosed, but significant worldwide investments in property and other portfolios. It is a closed and secretive establishment that makes all its own rules without having to rub off the hard edges in negotiations with other societies and individuals who are not members of its own elite institution. It has a dogmatic set of Rules that are to be obeyed implicitly by its followers. In effect, as it is without a process of open, two-sided litigation, it decides who is “in” and who is “out” by having a useful tool for those who do not fully agree with them – and it is called “excommunication”. In effect, at the top end, it is akin to an exclusive “rich men’s only” club in which the top job is put to the vote of a small number of just seventy or so male “Cardinals” – appointed solely by the whim of the previous Pope out of its global half a million exclusively male priest followers. The latter, in turn, administer the needs of a world-wide lay membership of some 1.2 billion adherents – who, somewhat surprisingly, if you think about it, have no say whatsoever. The perpetuation of such a “club” depends on absolute loyalty. When that loyalty is threatened, as it has been, by attempts to cover up the corruption within the walls of the Hierarchical Clerical Church by deceit – then the tail of that Church, (id est: the 1.2 billion laypersons), will either start to wag more and more furiously until the head wonders why – or they will simply hand in their membership cards.
For the moment, loyalty is ebbing away fast because non-clerical ordinary folk like me treasure our kids and our grand-kids – and we have scant regard for those who would abuse them. We have even less regard for those in the Hierarchy of the Church who would rather protect their criminal paedophiles and lie to us than do anything more positive about it. They do so at their peril, for like it or not, the 1.2 billion supporters of their extravagant lifestyles have already started to walk away from their Church doors – and they will keep walking, in the short term at least, because they hold out no hope of determined reform. Eventually, if they still see no change, they will readily pull the plug and stand by whilst the Church goes down the Vatican’s drain into the Tiber.
How did we come to such a moment? The answer is simple: the Catholic Hierarchical Clerical Church has failed in their ability to discern their moral conscience. Their pretence of having a “clear conscience” will not do. It is a moment for choices – and there is only one choice that will save them. That is to start the process to unlearn that “grotesque conscience” that they have acquired and which is devoid of any concept of Christian, Scriptural morality – and start the process of re-learning a “moral conscience”, based on the Gospels of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, all over again and from the very, very beginning.