Contemporary narcissism has inured us to the excesses of life, and if I thought that the collective insanity of the current political year is not proof enough, I listened to a recent NPR program during the morning drive time about legalizing the industry of prostitution that confirmed the worst. It would have been an amusing dialogue about carnal delights, if it were not so outrageously on the outer fringe of civil rights. To have such a pseudo discussion on Nation Public Radio - undoubtedly to be defended by First Amendment devotees - seems morally implausible.
To those who would say that an open dialogue about this “sensitive topic” is the essence of a free society, I would point out that a dialogue about this “common topic” is just a bad argument with its hair combed. As a Catholic, I try to see my world in the context a different set of values than “whatever I want it to be.” In the modern juxtaposition of arguments for the “rights of free will” and the “rights of conscience,” maintaining true values is the ongoing challenge of these competing principles.
In 1875, Blessed John Henry Newman wrote a lengthy document in response to severe criticism of the Church by then Prime Minister, Mr. W.E. Gladstone. Gladstone had questioned the role of Catholics who, after Vatican I, were thought to be too tied by moral conscience to the rule of the Pope to be loyal British subjects. In the response, Newman differentiated between the ideals of the “rights of free will” and the “rights of conscience.” Conscience, he explained, is “the divine reasoning of God, commanding the observance of, and forbidding the disturbance of, the natural order of things. Conscience is planted within us before we have knowledge; it is a constituent element of our mind, an internal witness of both the existence and the law of God.”
Newman held that the rule and the measure of conscience is neither utilitarian, nor expedient. Nor is it the happiness of the greatest number, nor the convenience of government, nor the legislation of State, nor even common order. Conscience instead is a stern witness in our lives, giving us rights as well as duties to choose wisely.
This view of conscience is very different from that shaped in today’s society by media and public opinion. Newman believed conscience to be the voice of God, whereas the modern error of the narcissist is to think of it as a creation of man. It is not the right to think, speak, write and act according to our own judgment or whim, without any thought of God, because there is no moral boundary if the demand is for the individual to do whatever it wants. In narcissism the stern witness of the “right of conscience” is replaced by a fake, the “right of free will.”
Newman noted that Catholics, as Gladstone mistakenly feared, are not bound to the Pope’s personal character, but to his formal teaching. His role as the champion of moral teaching and of conscience is his reason to be, and we are called to respect the wisdom of the Magisterium as he presents it. However, if in the normal course of being Catholic we find ourselves opposed to the authority of the Pope - because “the Pope Says so” may not always be a compelling argument - let it be based not on the illusion of free will, but on a genuine and prayerful conscience properly formed through God’s grace and the Church’s wisdom.
Ted Furlow is the Director of Pastoral Planning in the Diocese of San Bernardino.