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A brouhaha is brewing in the Great State of my beloved North Dakota at the moment. Bishop David Kagan, my ordinary here in Bismarck, and also apostolic administrator of the vacant Diocese of Fargo, has composed a letter concerning conscience and citizenship as Catholics in North Dakota prepare to participate in the election two weeks’ hence. The letter was delivered to parishes and is to be read this Sunday in Mass. Although under embargo until then, the letter has been leaked, and one of our state senators, Tim Mathern of Fargo, a practicing Catholic and a Democrat, has published Bishop Kagan’s letter on the web with his own scathing reply accusing the Bishop of engaging in partisan politics and threatening the non-profit status of the Catholic Church thereby. The long and the short of it, I think, is that Senator Mathern feels Bishop Kagan is implicitly telling Catholics to vote for GOP candidates, while the North Dakota Catholic Conference has called Mathern’s claims “irresponsible.”

The situation is sad. By all accounts, Senator Mathern is a sincere Catholic believer, truly dedicated to Christ and the Church, and informed Catholics faithful to the Church’s teaching regard his voting record as nearly flawless. Senator Mathern is not in my opinion a candidate for Canon 915 , and one hopes that after the sound and fury of the election die down he will have occasion for more sustained reflection on Church, State, and conscience.

As Bishop Kagan’s letter is still under embargo, I won’t link to copies of it at this point; neither will I link to Senator Mathern’s reply, which presents Bishop Kagan’s letter in full. (I may address these matters in detail after the public reading of Bishop Kagan’s letter on Sunday.) But I will address the issue of conscience in general, as Bishop Kagan’s letter concerns the proper formation of the Catholic conscience and as Senator Mathern accuses Bishop Kagan of “damag[ing] the bounds of personal conscience.”

Moderns believe every one’s conscience belongs to one’s self, that conscience is a matter of subjectivity, that an individual is subject only to his conscience and his conscience to him. Thus, “conscience” becomes a warrant for one’s own wishes and desires, and any external authority is perceived as a threat.

But in Catholicism, the human conscience is not an autonomous repository of feeling. Rather, it is a human faculty that must be formed to conform to Truth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings. (§ 1783; cf. §§ 1776-1802 )

I can do no better than Pope Benedict, who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, delivered a masterful talk on conscience in 1991 , much of which is dedicated to John Henry Cardinal Newman’s concept of conscience. Ratzinger says:

When the subject of Newman and conscience is raised, the famous sentence from his letter to the Duke of Norfolk immediately comes to mind: “Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing), I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please,—still to conscience first and to the Pope afterwards.” In contrast to the statements of Gladstone, Newman sought to make a clear avowal of the papacy. And in contrast to mistaken forms of ultra-Montanism, Newman embraced an interpretation of the papacy which is only then correctly conceived when it is viewed together with the primacy of conscience, a papacy not put in opposition to the primacy of conscience but based on it and guaranteeing it.

Ratzinger’s point is that both authority (here, the Papacy) and conscience are subject to Truth, and when they subject themselves to Truth, they are in harmony. But Ratzinger observes that modernity opposes subjectivity (and thus conscience) to authority:

Modern man, who presupposes the opposition of authority to subjectivity, has difficulty understanding this. For him, conscience stands on the side of subjectivity and is the expression of the freedom of the subject. Authority, on the other hand, appears to him as the constraint on, threat to and even the negation of, freedom. So then we must go deeper to recover a vision in which this kind of opposition does not obtain.

Ratzinger sees Newman, living fully in modernity, presenting Truth as the key:

For Newman, the middle term which establishes the connection between authority and subjectivity is truth. I do not hesitate to say that truth is the central thought of Newman’s intellectual grappling. Conscience is central for him because truth stands in the middle. To put it differently, the centrality of the concept of conscience for Newman is linked to the prior centrality of the concept of truth, and can only be understood from this vantage point.

It’s not only the Pope and Catholics who have (or should have) this view of conscience. Here I present to you Martin Luther. Many see Luther as the first modern man of conscience, who followed his own conscience at the Diet of Worms instead of submitting to the imperial and ecclesiastical authorities who demanded he recant the teachings contained in his many works. Having thought and prayed through the night, Luther addressed the Imperial Diet thus:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. God help me. Amen.

Luther, Newman, and Ratzinger stand in formal agreement, though many moderns miss this. Luther’s words are often adduced to support the modern, subjective conception of the autonomous conscience. But observe what Luther says: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Materially, the Luther of Worms has in his conception of sola Scriptura a different source of Truth than the Catholic Church. But formally, he too here agrees that the conscience is not autonomous but must be formed subject to Truth.

Many in Luther’s Reformation times on all sides of confessional divides were men and women of conscience, giving their lives to and for what they saw as the truth. Ratzinger finds in Luther’s contemporary Sir Thomas More an example of the man of conscience:

A man of conscience is one who never acquires tolerance, well-being, success, public standing, and approval on the part of prevailing opinion at the expense of truth. In this regard, Newman is related to Britain’s other great witness of conscience, Thomas More, for whom conscience was not at all an expression of subjective stubbornness or obstinate heroism. He numbered himself, in fact, among those fainthearted martyrs who only after faltering and much questioning succeed in mustering up obedience to conscience, mustering up obedience to the truth which must stand higher than any human tribunal or any type of personal taste.

Or any — and I mean any — political party. The playwright Robert Bolt also saw Sir Thomas More as a paradigm of the man of conscience and presented him as such in his acclaimed play and film A Man for All Seasons . Therein the character of Sir Thomas More asks the man whose testimony sent him to his martyrdom, the conniving, treacherous, and ambitious Richard Rich: “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . but for Wales?” Mutatis mutandis we could ask the same of Senator Mathern.

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