Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 23, 2015
English-speaking delegates at the Synod of Bishops on the family meet to discuss the working document at the Vatican, Oct. 19 (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano).

The role of conscience and its relation to the objective moral norm appears to be the most contentious issue in the draft final document of the Synod on the Family. This is what emerged clearly when some 50 synod fathers commented—in oral or written interventions—on the draft in the synod hall on Oct. 23, the penultimate working day of the synod.

The 270 synod fathers received the some 100-paragraph draft final text the previous afternoon, Oct. 22. They studied it that same evening, and returned this morning to the synod hall to give their comments and/or proposals for amendments.

There was general appreciation for the draft final text because the synod fathers recognized that it reflected faithfully what they had said in the group discussions.

Some 10 or more fathers, however, including Cardinals Caffarra, Ouellet, Sarah and Muller, also raised questions in their interventions regarding the role of conscience as it pertains to the moral norm, and the question of the internal forum.

They are concerned that the draft text as it stands opens the way to a different understanding of the church’s teaching on birth control, and to the integration of Catholics who have divorced and remarried into the life of the church and, perhaps under some circumstances, to the Eucharist. They and several other bishops want to exclude such possibilities. Some bishops told me afterwards told me that they detected a common thread in several of these interventions that could suggest a coordinated response on these issues.

This morning, too, several bishops spoke in favor of the draft text and some also referred in a positive way to the role of conscience such as Cardinals Marx (Germany) and Schonborn (Austria). The latter provided historical context for the issues being raised.

A special commission of 10 persons, appointed by the pope, has overseen the writing of the draft final text. This was done based on the reports from the 13 language groups and the 1,350 proposals for amendments to the original working document (“Instrumentum Laboris”) that these groups had submitted in these past two weeks.

Speaking about the draft final text yesterday, the Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias, who was a member of the special commission, told the press that they had sought to produce “a text that would give a pastoral direction, a text that would be acceptable.” He felt confident that it truly reflects the views of the synod assembly and, he revealed, “we voted unanimously on this draft.”

Cardinal Gracias provided a key insight into the draft final document. “It doesn’t have all the answers,” he said, “The questions will be clear, the answers no.” He explained that this final text “is not addressed to the world, it is for the Holy Father,” who will take it from there.

After this morning’s session, the cardinal joined the nine other members of the commission to decide how to deal with the 50-plus amendments presented today and to see if, and in what way, they may be integrated into the final text. The synod fathers will receive the definitive text tomorrow morning, Oct. 24, and will vote on it, paragraph by paragraph, that same afternoon. The only element of suspense surrounding the vote is linked to how the text has been amended in the light of today’s interventions and whether that revised version can gain the necessary approval.

A number of synod fathers told me that if the definitive text is not substantially different from the text they received last evening and gains the assembly’s approval, then it leaves the doors open for Pope Francis to address the synod’s unanswered questions in a magisterial text.

Tomorrow afternoon the synod fathers will vote on the final document and after that Pope Francis will speak. There is already great interest in what he will have to say.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
E.Patrick Mosman
7 years 5 months ago
It appears that many of the Synod attendees were either unfamiliar or chose to ignore then Cardinal Ratzinger address "Conscience and Truth",his 1991 presentation to the American Bishops in Dallas Texas. The full address can be found at: http://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/ratzcons.htm The following summarizes the conclusions; Cardinal Ratzinger touched on the correct understanding of conscience," "Conscience is understood by many to be sort of deification of subjectivity, a rock on which even the magisterium can founder. It claimed that in the light of conscience no other reason applies. Finally, conscience appears as the supreme level of subjectivity; but conscience is an organ, not an oracle; it requires growth, exercise and development." For those who hold that one's own subjective conscience is infallible, superior to all others and that the Church Authority cannot impose restrictions on those whose conscience brings them to decisions contrary to the Church's teachings, Cardinal Ratzinger points out the obvious error in this rationalization by the following "It is of course undisputed that one must follow a certain conscience or at least not act against it. But whether the judgment of conscience or what one takes to be such, is always right, indeed whether it is infallible, is another question. For if this were the case, it would mean that there is no truth - at least not in moral and religious matters, which is to say, in the areas which constitute the very pillars of our existence. For judgments of conscience can contradict each other. Thus there could be at best the subject's own truth, which would be reduced to the subject's sincerity." Cardinal Ratzinger describes the concept of the erroneous conscience as follows: "The erroneous conscience, by sheltering the person from the exacting demands of truth, saves him ... - thus went the argument. Conscience appeared here not as a window through which one can see outward to that common truth which founds and sustains us all, and so makes possible through the common recognition of truth, the community of needs and responsibilities. Conscience here does not mean man's openness to the ground of his being, the power of perception for what is highest and most essential. Rather, it appears as subjectivity's protective shell into which man can escape and there hide from reality. Liberalism's idea of conscience was in fact presupposed here. Conscience does not open the way to the redemptive road to truth which either does not exist or, if it does, is too demanding. It is the faculty which dispenses from truth. It thereby becomes the justification for subjectivity, which should not like to have itself called into question. Similarly, it becomes the justification for social conformity. As mediating value between the different subjectivities, social conformity is intended to make living together possible. The obligation to seek the truth ceases, as do any doubts about the general inclination of society and what it has become accustomed to. Being convinced of oneself, as well as conforming to others, are sufficient. Man is reduced to his superficial conviction and the less depth he has, the better for him." The erroneous conscience also would allow the false and utterly despicable conclusion, "Nazi SS would be justified and we should seek them in heaven since they carried out all their atrocities with fanatic conviction and complete certainty of conscience. There is no doubting the fact that Hitler and his accomplices who were deeply convinced of their cause, could not have acted otherwise. Therefore, the objective terribleness of their deeds notwithstanding, they acted morally, subjectively speaking. Since they followed their albeit mistaken consciences, one would have to recognize their conduct as moral and, as a result, should not doubt their eternal salvation." Cardinal Ratzinger concludes this section by writing "Since that conversation, I knew with complete certainty that something was wrong with the theory of justifying power of the subjective conscience, that, in other words, a concept of conscience which leads to such conclusions must be false. For, subjective conviction and the lack of doubts and scruples which follow therefrom do not justify man. Furthermore, "No one may act against his convictions, as Saint Paul had already said (Rom 14:23). But the fact that the conviction a person has come to certainly binds in the moment of acting, does not signify a canonization of subjectivity. It is never wrong to follow the convictions one has arrived at - in fact, one must do so. But it can very well be wrong to have come to such askew convictions in the first place, by having stifled the protest of the anamnesis(an inner repugnance to evil and an attraction to the good) of being."
Brian Parker
7 years 5 months ago
I'm trying to gather what exactly the role conscience plays in faith. Does it augment our basic principles and commandments ? Or does it seek to replace ? If it's the latter than surely the example of Hitler and the Nazi is valid. But if it's the former, then surely a well formed, faith based conscience helps each of us make sensible, faith based decisions in keeping with Christian values and the commandments.
John Campbell
7 years 5 months ago
Brian, parker I was always taught that it is the individual's responsibility to study, scrutinize and analyze any proposition or dictum that that person cannot simply accept. So Fr. Ratzinger's analysis presents too clear an either/-or choice, between 'subjectivity' and 'objective reality'. In the case of HV, reasonable alternatives to Pope Paul VI's conclusions result from analysis of his advisory commission's recommendation, current scientific understanding of human procreation, and the lived experience of most married people. So it is possible for a well-developed conscience to find that certain teachings are objectively wrong, no matter how much they may have reflected a then - valid interpretation of the truth. For although there can be only one truth, we do not always and forever know it in its entirety. Regarding the Holocaust, in contrast, like the atrocities of the Inquisition and the Crusades, those required not conscience, but rather blind obedience to an institution.
William Rydberg
7 years 5 months ago
Remember the term "Strict Mental Reservation"? It hung around for centuries until the Holy See condemned it. It showed up more recently again and again in conjunction with Child Abuse Cases. It's a scandal! The way the wealthy Germans are arguing for "Question of Conscience" - WHICH IS SIMPLY A THEOLOGICAL THEORY AND NOT BY ANY STRETCH DOCTRINE one would expect that the corollary to their Kasperian approach to be that FAITH is a necessary attribute of GOD. In my humble opinion ridiculous... (AND DOGMATICALLY UNTRUE - because Jesus never had Faith! - He is God) We need solid guys like Fr John A. Hardon SJ on the ground today. Fr John Pray for us! AMDG
7 years 5 months ago
Fr Hardon did nothing to help the current malaise in the US Church with regard to the hurt and pain of families. As I was part of Hardon's lay catechetical programs, attended seminars where he spoke (as well as Fr Mitch Pacwa, SJ, Joseph Fessio, SJ, and others), his programs were never accepted by the NCCB, nor was there any directive from the NCCB to adopt a formal lay catechetical program since it's up to each Bishop to decide which degrees, if any, they accept for formal catechists to be hired. Aside from leaving poor Fr Hardon alone and not creating the myth that he was some grand prophet who healed broken marriages and families (he was not), the Synod has been wonderful The Synod allowed for the first time for Bishops to come together, as intended, to speak freely and advice the Pope on issues he felt he needed input - aside from his consultation with the Cardinals The Synod has been a blessing to the Church and was marvelous and eye opening to see who are the Bishops to walk the talk, who are brave, who are moved by the Holy Spirit in matters of Faith and Reason, and those who are paranoid, fearful, anxiety ridden and have zero Faith in the Holy Spirit. They should be sent to Prisons, Hospitals and Nursing Homes to be Chaplains where they can do something worthy like distributing the Sacrament to those in need while we pray for the residents of those facilities! Oremus AMDG
William Rydberg
7 years 5 months ago
For a guy who on the outside seems to have a history of activism within the Church, I am puzzled by your comments. I have only read a few of the ferocious comments that you have from time to time posted to these pages. So I apologize in advance for giving you my first impressions. Take it or leave it. Firstly, I am pleased that the discussions have taken place and am optimistic about the result, although not in the way Fr. Martin seems to conclude, at least judging by his comments concerning the Italian Synod final document he made today on his Facebook page. But he is entitled to his opinion, I have read commentaries from other authoritative Catholic sources that deviate on one key point. But the men had a lot of issues to deal with. So I am OK overall. In my humble opinion Kasperism is wrong-headed Theology and I fear that the Jesuit tendency to codify deviations rather than deal with them in order not to “cause scandal” amongst Catholics weak in faith is not the right approach - As an aside, I notice that you don’t seem to have an issue about the Dogma that Jesus didn’t have faith. So you know your stuff. You keep talking about the need for “success” and “succeeding” in your efforts to deal with major existential problems that exist. Real ones, where people are hurting. To somehow “be successful” in meeting needs. I respect this, its how the Nation was built, how human progress in all the sciences has progressed. But that is not what following the Lord Jesus is all about, at least not in Religious life. Do you actually think that the guys over at Genesee in upper New York State, contribute one iota through their obedience to prayer and study? They live lives of obedience. Sure we know of the Apostles, Peter, Matthew, John, Thomas, but as for the rest of the twelve, we might know some things but to the world, these guys died without accomplishing much according to your scale. Yet millions today call themselves Christians, and much of the world Society has been exposed to the “seeds” of the gospel on doing good-think of the golden rule. All this is passed on through the Word in the Power of the Holy Spirit. So I wouldn’t be fast to assess a person’s works. I myself, never met the man, but managed to get his cassette tapes - his content was great, but delivery was like paint drying. Yet the Word was passed to me through him. God calls us to be faithful not successful - but I agree with you immediate success is more satisfying. You may have your opinions about Fessio and Pacwa, but their contribution will be God’s judgement of success or failure. Not ours. I often think of St Theresa the Little Flower - what did she actually do, I mean really. The only reason we have a record is that somebody decided to make her write things down. She was in a grave by 30. Let Jesus- God come in the flesh be the judge…

The latest from america

several protestors hold a sign that says justice is truth in action
On the final episode of this season of “The Gloria Purvis Podcast,” Gloria welcomes Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts to discuss the subject of anger and forgiveness.
the pope and a cardinal shake hands and laugh in a vatican hall
I have spent the last seven years working in the Roman Curia. My experience has been far from that of those who would claim that Pope Francis governs through fear.
Kevin J. FarrellMarch 28, 2023
Book with an apple core on one page and a snake on the other page
A Reflection for Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent, by Simcha Fisher
Simcha FisherMarch 28, 2023
Headshots of two Mexican priests
The death of the suspect, José Noriel Portillo Gil, “in no way can be considered a triumph for justice, or a solution to the structural problem of violence,” the Jesuit province in Mexico said in a statement.