All last week, the horror in Haiti made it well nigh to impossible to notice anything else. And, sadly, as predicted, a fifth horseman of the Apocalypse, Chaos, has come to torment that tormented island.
Still, there was an article by Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco that was very worthy of comment and kudos. Niederauer was replying to an interview in which Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi tried to explain how she reconciled her commitment to pro-abortion legislation with her Catholic faith, invoking the idea of free will. The Speaker, of course, is not a theologian, and her explanation overlooked certain essential points in reasoning, but she is a public figure and so her words garner attention. Niederauer is her bishop and it is his place to correct Speaker Pelosi and, in this instance, it was appropriate to correct her publicly because she had spoken not simply about a political issue but about her understanding of Catholic teaching.
The archbishop’s article is noteworthy first and foremost for what it does not say. It contains no nastiness. It contains no invective. There are no threats. It does not put Speaker Pelosi down, nor question her integrity, nor devalue her commitment to her faith. From start to finish, Niederauer’s words are the words of a pastor, someone concerned that one of his flock is going astray, eager to find the words that will bring them back, eager to teach the rest of the flock how not to go astray. For example, Niederauer begins his criticism of the Speaker’s comments by noting, "These misconceptions are widespread both within the Catholic community and beyond. For this reason I believe it is important for me as Archbishop of San Francisco to make clear what the Catholic Church teaches about free will, conscience, and moral choice." Instead of attacking the Speaker, as he had been urged to do by certain fringe rightwing groups, Niederauer concedes that many, many Catholics, as well as non-Catholics, share the Speaker’s misunderstand.
"Freedom of conscience" means something in the Church, and something more, than it does in the constitutional order. Yet, no single concept articulated in the documents of Vatican II was more generally misunderstood. As early as 1968, the popular movie "The Shoes of the Fisherman" has a newly elected Pope defending heresy on the grounds of "freedom of conscience." A Catholic, by reason of being a Catholic, accepts certain data that must inform his or her conscience. For us, Revelation is data. Put differently, it is like the difference between a course in theology and a course in religious studies. A non-believer can teach religious studies, examine the behaviors and attitudes of religious people, argue about the cogency and coherence of this or that doctrine, but a theologian works from within the Church, a theologian addresses God in the second-person, a theologian does not read the Scriptures only as profound and important historical books but as living and true testimonies about the nature of God.
Indeed, the good archbishop does more than clarify Church teaching about the formation of conscience, he elevates the idea of conscience above the current cultural norm, pointing out that freedom and conscience are rooted in the Imago Dei, an idea that Vatican II returned to the heart of Christian anthropology. Our freedom flows from our covenant with God. Our freedom manifests our dignity as persons created in the divine likeness. Our conscience is the avenue that leads us to communion with the divine and, just so, it is to be cherished beyond measure, carefully tended and thoughtfully informed. These ideas and concepts are not easy to teach in our fast-paced, materialistic culture, but Niederauer does a fine job explaining them to his flock.
Archbishop Niederauer stands out as one of the leading members of the American episcopate at this time, not only for his intellect, but for the way he brings that intellect to the service of his flock, gently but firmly, welcoming all and demeaning none, in short, Niederauer acts like the Good Shepherd. In this current article he deploys his authority not as something to be lorded over his flock but as something, like all gifts human and divine, that should be employed to build up the Body of Christ.