Cardinals, bishops, priests and laypeople meeting in Rome to discuss how the church relates to young people appear to believe Catholic teaching on conscience deserves more attention.
A round of reports from the synod’s working groups was released on Tuesday, and some of the English-language groups suggested that young people will benefit from understanding Catholic teaching on conscience, while others seemed to worry that individual believers could be encouraged to rely on their own consciences even if they are at odds with church teaching.
The group moderated by Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago who was chosen by Pope Francis to be present at the synod, reported that it held a “substantial discussion” about the role of conscience, adding that it would like to see “a clearly Christian explanation, perhaps something that is both anchored in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and which is accessible to young people.”
Back in 2014 and 2015, when Pope Francis urged bishops from around the world to discuss issues important to families, the role of conscience was front and center, animating debates about Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and how church leaders should respond to the pastoral needs of L.G.B.T. Catholics.
Though the current synod appears to lack the sort of drama and high-stakes debates of the previous two, the role of conscience appears to be a common thread.
The group moderated by Cardinal Blase Cupich held a “substantial discussion” about the role of conscience.
Cardinal Cupich was present at the 2015 synod, and he made headlines for a press briefing during which he talked about meeting with Catholics who feel marginalized, including divorced and remarried and gay Catholics. He noted that he makes it a point to respect their consciences when it comes to their life in the church.
“The conscience is inviolable. And we have to respect that when they make decisions,” he said at the time.
Catholics believe that following one’s conscience is paramount—and that believers should do their best to form their consciences in the light of reason, experience, Scripture and spiritual formation, always with the help of church teaching.
Another working group, moderated by Cardinal Joseph Coutts, the archbishop of Karachi, Pakistan, reported that it “appreciated the emphasis in the [synod’s working document] on the respect for the freedom and conscience of the person being accompanied.”
“We would like these concepts to be more fully developed,” the group added.
That group also said that those providing “accompaniment” to young people “should also be free to offer ‘fraternal correction’ when necessary, without losing the respect for freedom and conscience.”
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop of Galveston-Houston and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is moderating another English-language group, which also includes Bishop Robert Barron, an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles.
While agreeing about the importance of conscience, which the group called an indispensable “ingredient in any act of vocational discernment,” it appeared to take issue with how the synod’s working document defines conscience, fearing that it may give the impression to young adult Catholics that they can simply live by rules they set for themselves.
The report from Cardinal DiNardo’s group said the group is “concerned that the language used in the document might give the impression that conscience is an individualistic affair, a matter merely of a given person’s feelings and will.”
“We felt that the introduction of the simple phrase, ‘a well-formed conscience’ might serve to hold off any concerns regarding subjectivism,” the report stated.
The statement appears to be a nod to the debate over whether Catholics have a duty to follow their conscience even if it tells them to act in a way that is against church teaching—or if such a conscience has not been fully formed.
The synod’s working document invokes Vatican II, which called conscience “the most secret core and sanctuary” of human beings, where they are “alone with God.” The document goes on to say, “the exercise of our conscience is a universal anthropological value: it challenges every man and woman, not just believers, and all must respond to it.”
During the 2015 synod, some bishops feared that the final document was being written in a way that allowed Catholics who do not follow all church teachings to cite Catholic teaching on conscience when deciding, for example, if they should take Communion. The final report from Pope Francis appeared to endorse that view, leaving open the possibility for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion after a period of a discernment with a spiritual director or pastor.