You knew, when Benedict announced his resignation, that everyone and his brother would comment, and that some of those comments would be really goofy. The conservative Anglican website Stand Firm has started a series on what the writer calls “Papal Malarkey Syndrome” — my thanks to William Tighe for pointing me to it — and the first entry comes from the writer Mary Hunt.
Writing for the Religion Dispatches website, she points to Benedict’s explaining that he had examined his conscience before God and decided he could not continue as pope. And then:
Conscience, Benedict reminds us today, is still primary for Catholics. Examination of conscience: that is just the formula millions of us use to explain why we use birth control, enjoy our sexuality in a variety of ways, and see enormous good in other religious traditions. Conscience is the ultimate arbiter, and the Pope relied on his. Good on him, and good on the rest of us.
There has been a lot of fudging on the matter of conscience in recent decades. The post-Vatican II hierarchy has claimed that conscience is primary if, and only if, it is informed as they see fit. But Pope Benedict XVI is giving conscience a new lease on life. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander—the appeal to conscience cannot be denied now that the Pope himself has had recourse to it.
Oh. The pope examines his conscience to decide whether he should do what he is allowed to do and Mary Hunt finds this reason for doing what she wants to do under an entirely different — and exceedingly vague and expansive — understanding of “conscience.” Even if her version of Catholicism were the real one, Benedict’s action gives no support for it. Invoking him is a little smarmy.
As is her idea that someone, meaning those bad old post-Vatican II hierarchs, has been “fudging” the idea of conscience by insisting that the conscience be exercised in obedience to Catholic teaching (or “informed as they see fit,” as she puts it). The Church has reflected on this matter for a very long time (see this for a simplified explanation of Aquinas’ teaching and this for Newman’s most famous writing on the subject). It is a subtle one, but the “fudging” has come not from those who explore the relation of conscience to authoritative Church teaching but those, like Hunt, who reduce it to personal choice exercised (inevitably) in open rebellion against Church teaching.
For more on this, read Conscience and Truth, an address delivered in 1991 by one Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.