|01-25-2012, 09:24 AM||#1|
Joined: Sep 2010
From: United Kingdom
Conscience vs dogmatic authority
"Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after dinner toasts...I shall drink - to the Pope, if you please, - still to Conscience first, and to the pope afterwards...I wish for the intellect to range with the utmost freedom, and religion to enjoy an equal freedom...Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise...[Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ..."
- Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, (1801 –1890) from his letter to the Duke of Norfolk quoted by Pope Benedict XVI in, "Conscience and Truth"
[PS The Pope is called the "Vicar of Christ" in Catholicism, Newman calls conscience his "Vicar"]
This post is in response to some thoughts that were provoked in my mind over the recent debate on another thread, in which Ahanu voiced his legitimate right to disbelieve in the virgin birth, and a dispute erupted between CP and Sen, that has (Thankfully) been resolved in a loving, peaceful and forgiving manner by all parties. I want to take this opportunity to say that the forgiving, and utterly selfless way in which the Baha'is of this forum huddled around to support CP when he apologised for some statements he had made, was truly a testament to the sublime sense of morality and humanity which the Faith of Baha'u'llah has proven itself able of inspiring in people. It was actually a very beautiful thing, and I was touched by it very much.
There are elements of this thread which have played on my mind since, and I have decided to voice them.
Its about Conscience vs Dogma.
"...Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one's own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. The conscience of the individual confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church. In all activity man is bound to follow his conscience… It follows he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor…to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious...”
- Pope Benedict XVI, Commentary on the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, in vol.5
"...We must guard against any temptation to view doctrine as divisive and hence an impediment to the seemingly more pressing and immediate task of improving the world in which we live..."
- Pope Benedict XVI, Papal Visit to Australia 2008, address to Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist religious leaders
Is conscience to be given primacy over the authority of religious institutions as the Pope suggests above?
By this I do not suggest "anarchy" in any way (ie everybody dictating), one needs order and core values and doctrines to cement unity around common truth in any religion. If so I would not be a Catholic - which is about as hierarchical and authority based as a religion can get - and I faithfully adhere to the dogmas of my faith, and would not ever challenge the legitimacy of the Pope or Magisterium. To do so would also be to reject the concept that one's religion is divinely inspired and that God can positively define certain morals and beliefs as being "true" for human beings. In other words it would contravene the idea of Divine Revelation and cause religion to lapse into new age style mysticism where everything is accepted and there are no "hard teachings", no struggles, no deep soul searching attempts to remove ones prejudivces or to allow oneself to be positively changed by one's religion, and for personal growth in humble obedience to a higher law, rather than serving one's ego. However the standard I use to judge anything, including the teachings of my faith, is the voice of God within my heart, as he reveals himself to my conscience and this guides me to be receptive and obedient to the truth, from whatever source I find it. I do not blindly accept the doctrines of the church, and I certainly don't believe everything the Pope says or any other human being. I question everything, and if my conscience honestly would not allow me to accept even a teaching of my Church, then I would not accept it. I would follow my conscience, because it is God's natural law as revealed in my heart, my most intimate and sacred possesion, the Temple where I commune with the Holy Spirit and find reflected therein the splendour of Jesus Christ, who lives in all who believe in him. There is no higher law than the law of God, the natural law, revealed within one's very own conscience which is the true temple of the Divine Spirit. If I had to choose between my conscience and the Pope or teaching authority of the Church, as with Blessed John Henry Newman and Pope Benedict XVI, I would follow my conscience without any hesitation. Thankfully, such a situation has not arisen and I pray it never will, because at present my conscience, as interpreted through great study and deep reflection, leads me to accept the Church's teaching on all the essential areas, although I naturally have reservations about some lesser non-dogmatic/clearly infallible teachings and have been quite vocal in this respect.
In my religion, the Pope exercises authority when he speaks ex cathedra on faith and morals (extraordinary magisterium), as do all the Bishops of the entire world when they speak in unison on a given issue pertaining to faith and morals (ordinary magisterium) or through the medium of a legitimate Ecumenical Council such as Vatican II (extraordinary magisterium).
And so this doctrine of the primacy of individual conscience fascinates me, since it is to be given respect even over infallible authority, and even if objectively wrong, the person must follow the dictates of conscience whether it leads him to question teachings of faith or to even leave the faith, because to him/her it is subjectively true and it would thus be a sin to go against his/her conscience - indeed it would be to reject God, who gave the gift of conscience to guide us into the truth. In this regard the Church can infallibly reveal something that is objectively true and divinely inspired and yet, given the limited human intellect and condition in this life, a Catholic may not personally attest to this belief because his conscience leads him to reject it, and so although it is objectively true it is not subjectively true for that person and he/she is thus under no compulsion to accept it. Such is the case with the priest Hans Kung. He rejects openly the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility. And yet he is still a priest and is certainly not a seen as a heretic in any way, and he does attest to other key dogmas of the faith. He even had a pleasant, friendly luncheon with Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican a few years ago and co-authored a book with him. Although Küng is not officially allowed to claim that some of his teachings are valid Catholic theology, neither his bishop nor the Holy See have revoked his priestly faculties. He is still a Catholic. And yet he rejects an important doctrine. If you are licensed as a Church theologian it is expected that what you say about Catholic beliefs conform to Church teaching. Hans Kung had such a license, meaning the Church endorsed him as qualified to explain Catholic doctrine. When he insisted on publishing ideas contrary to Catholic doctrine, the Church (more specifically Cardinal Ratzinger) revoked his license. And yet He was not excommunicated, and he is still a priest in good standing and respected by even the Pope, despite some of his beliefs being contrary to Catholic doctrine. He still teaches theology at university. The same goes for Leonardo Boff. In fact Boff questions the legitimacy of the Church’s hierarchy. He questions the divinity of Christ. He questions the validity of the sacraments. But without these things, there is no Catholicism. And yet they are still Catholics, and Hans Kung is still a priest and a Catholic in good standing. Sometimes I am amazed at the tolerance of the modern Church but I understand why it is so tolerant because it recognises in these two men not dirty heretics - as often fallible men in the Church did in the past centuries - but sincere seekers after truth who are following their conscience. Fr. Kung is still a priest in good standing and is still able to teach theology. His scholarship and participation at the Second Vatican Council is still highly respected among Catholic theologians and he continues to be an influence in the life of the Church.
What does the Baha'i Faith have to say about "conscience" and following one's conscience? Does it also teach, like the Catholic Church, that conscience must be followed at all costs and that it is sinful not to follow one's conscience even if it leads one to question teachings of the Baha'i Faith (which would I believe fall under independent investigation of truth)?
In this I do not intend "covenant-breaking" which in my understanding, Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi described as the attempt to create schism and break the unity of the Baha'i religion, and create another artificial tier of authority than the one established, according to Baha'i understanding, by God (ie rejecting the authority of the Universal House of Justice or Shoghi Effendi). I am speaking simply about teachings, as in the case of our dear brother Ahanu who rejects the virgin birth. I was intrigued by the debate over the virgin birth, since it highlights one of the problems I see with religion in general: It often subordinates individual conscience to dogma.
Now, all religions need dogma and hierarchy. And all believers in various religions should aim to orient their conscience towards their beliefs, most crucially in the essentials of faith. However there will arise times, such as with our dear brother Ahanu, when the individual conscience of a person just quite simply cannot accept or come to terms with a certain religious teaching, one perhaps on the "peripherary", not an essential dogma of faith but a lesser doctrine such as the virgin birth in the Baha'i Faith which in no way equals the rank of say belief in the Manifestations.
What is the Baha'i Faith's view of such situations?
Cicero once famously said ‘if conscience goes, then everything collapses around us.’ He saw the importance and the value of the human conscience, and his belief is echoed in the Christian New Testament and in the Baha'i writings, where I have seen conscience referred too. However this raises the question of what should be done if the informed conscience disagrees with the teachings of one's own birth religion, in my case the Roman Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church teaches that if we fail to follow our conscience, it is at this point that we sin, even if the conscience is objectively wrong. (BTW I do not disagree with my Church and its teachings I'm simply hypothesising!).
Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) believed that it is wrong to not follow your conscience, as you are denying what you know to be true. Even if your conscience is misinformed, it is essential to follow your conscience in order to be true to yourself and to your creator. And so, according to this mighty theologian, it is sinful not to follow the subjectively right but objectively wrong conscience. And so a person is obliged to follow one’s conscience if one believes the judgment of one’s conscience is true, even if that judgment is objectively speaking incorrect. Aquinas said that as long as you apply the moral principles that your conscience has shown you, then you are following the correct course of action.
Similarly, Blessed Cardinal Newman believed that the conscience does not create truth, but it does detect truth that already exists and that is the responsibility of a person to intuitively decide what truth God is guiding them towards.
In my own religious tradition, we thus have a doctrine of the primacy of conscience, which is why I'm asking since I'm interested to know the views of other religions on this. Roman Catholic teachings’ say that if we fail to follow our conscience, it is at this point that we sin, even if the conscience is objectively wrong.
I know of at least two quotes of Abdu'l-Baha on this subject and I've used these quotations outwith the forum when discussing the subject of following conscience because I love them:
"...These are effectual and sufficient proofs that the conscience of man is sacred and to be respected; and that liberty thereof produces widening of ideas, amendment of morals, improvement of conduct, disclosure of the secrets of creation, and manifestation of the hidden verities of the contingent world. Moreover, if interrogation of conscience, which is one of the private possessions of the heart and the soul, take place in this world, what further recompense remains for man in the court of divine justice at the day of general resurrection? Convictions and ideas are within the scope of the comprehension of the King of kings, not of kings; and soul and conscience are between the fingers of control of the Lord of hearts, not of [His] servants. So in the world of existence two persons unanimous in all grades [of thought] and all beliefs cannot be found..."
—Abdul-Baha, A Traveler's Narrative
"This is a goodly temple and congregation, for--praise be to God!--this is a house of worship [Central Congregational Church in Brooklyn on 16 June 1912] wherein conscientious opinion has free sway. Every religion and every religious aspiration may be freely voiced and expressed here. Just as in the world of politics there is need for free thought, likewise in the world of religion there should be the right of unrestricted individual belief. Consider what a vast difference exists between modern democracy and the old forms of despotism. Under an autocratic government the opinions of men are not free, and development is stifled, whereas in a democracy, because thought and speech are not restricted, the greatest progress is witnessed. It is likewise true in the world of religion. When freedom of conscience, liberty of thought and right of speech prevail--that is to say, when every man according to his own idealization may give expression to his beliefs--development and growth are inevitable. Therefore, this is a blessed church because its pulpit is open to every religion, the ideals of which may be set forth with openness and freedom."
—Abdul-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 197.
Does this not say say it all? lol I was amazed by the Wisdom in this, especially the part, "So in the world of existence two persons unanimous in all grades [of thought] and all beliefs cannot be found". THIS IS SO TRUE!!!!
It is also amazing to me how one incident can cause a person to reflect deeply.
Last edited by Yeshua; 01-25-2012 at 02:19 PM.
|01-25-2012, 06:28 PM||#2|
Joined: Jun 2006
As far as dogma goes I think you may be overlooking something at least as far as it goes for Baha'is.. and that is that we are not built so much on creeds as Christians are ... and what do creedal statements imply? dogmas. So in the long history of Christianity you have people who who were persecuted, ostrasized or executed for their beliefs by other Christians..
In the case of Baha'is.. Someone who doubts the virgin birth is not ostrasized or having to change their beliefs. Belief in the virgin birth does not weigh in as much for Baha'is..as it does for Christians.
For (the) Baha'i Faith has no clergy, no religious ceremonial, no public prayers; its only dogma is belief in God and in his Manifestations (Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus, et al., Baha'o'llah).
~ Abdu'l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu'l-Baha v1, p. vii
We must preserve the identity and purity of the Faith, without restricting it to a rigid and exclusive dogma.
(Shoghi Effendi, Extracts from the USBN)
The relationship of Baha'is to church creeds and dogmas was elucidated by Shoghi Effendi I think here:
We, as Bahá'ís, can never be known as hypocrites or as people insincere in their protestations and because of this we cannot subscribe to both the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh and ordinary church dogma.
The churches are waiting for the coming of Jesus Christ; we believe He has come again in the Glory of the Father. The churches teach doctrines - various ones in various creeds - which we as Bahá'ís do not accept; such as the bodily Resurrection, confession, or, in some creeds, the denial of the Immaculate Conception.
In other words there is no Christian church today whose dogmas we, as Bahá'ís can truthfully say we accept in their entirety - therefore to remain a member of the Church is not proper for us, for we do so under false pretences. We should, therefore, withdraw from our churches but continue to associate, if we wish to, with the church members and ministers.
Our belief in Christ, as Bahá'ís, is so firm, so unshakable and so exalted in nature that very few Christians are to be found nowadays who love Him and reverence Him and have the faith in Him that we have. It is only from the dogmas and creeds of the churches that we dissociate ourselves; not from the spirit of Christianity.
~ Shoghi Effendi, The Light of Divine Guidance v I, p. 122
In terms of conscience and how that relates I think it is at least manifested in a principle that is we do not practise deception, dissimulation or hide our Faith if asked...this practise of taqiyyih was a means whereby those who were threatened could survive..by verbally denying their faith... Actually this practise is very ancient and recorded in some of the scriptures. For Baha'is taqiyyih is forbidden...
Dissimulation of one's faith which is a form of lip-denial had been practised among Shí'ah Muslims for centuries and was regarded as justifiable at times of peril. The Bábís often resorted to it also. It is, however, against the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh to dissimulate one's faith.
~ Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha'u'llah v 2, p. 111
So today in Iran Baha'is when questioned are required to be truthful to the beliefs and not dissimulate even when faced with imprisonment and persecution...
The souls whose consciences are enlightened through the light of the love of God, they are like unto shining lights and resemble stars of holiness in the heaven of purity.
~ Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'i World Faith - Abdu'l-Baha Section, p. 365
It's also true that much is "left to the conscience " of the believers such as
In the meantime, the Assemblies and
individuals are counselled not to make an issue of these
matters and to leave it to the conscience of the individual
~ Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 237
The offering of the Huququ'lláh is a spiritual obligation,
the fulfilment of which has been left to the conscience of
~ Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 218
|01-27-2012, 05:15 PM||#4|
Joined: Aug 2010
From: Leiden, the Netherlands
At least one other quote is relevant:
What I miss in your treatment is the individual's understanding: we are not agreeing or disagreeing directly with the church's teachings, or the teachings in the Bahai Writings, but rather with our understanding of them, which we know are partial and evolving.
In the Bahai Faith today, unlike most other religious communities, we do not have any living person or institution authorised to interpret the scripture authoritatively or define what the Bahai teachings are. The changes the situation, not necessarily for the better. On the one hand, no-one can say with authority to a Bahai that their personal understanding of the Bahai teachings is wrong; on the other hand, many Bahais do say that to other Bahais, and there is no authority on doctrine in the community who can make a definitive ruling and stop it.
|01-27-2012, 06:10 PM||#5|
Joined: Sep 2010
From: United Kingdom
Thank you brother Sen!
I agree that aspect was missing in my treatment, although I think on reflection that it was what I was trying to get at (that is "infer")- not the rejection of a church/Baha'i teaching per se but of a "common" understanding of it, perhaps, as endorsed by the Magisterium/hierarchy or other believers.
In this respect one can consider the current Catholic teaching on artificial birth control, which some more extreme-minded Catholics have elevated in their own imaginations to "infallible" status. Certainly all papal encyclicals dealing with the issue from the 70s have been strongly against contraception, however there are many Catholics who - on grounds of conscience - believe that there is nothing wrong with artificial contraception, despite the teaching of the magisterium in this regard. Now it is Catholic dogma that sex is "sacred" and should be "open to life". The current hierarchy of the Church understands this as meaning a complete no-no to contraception. Individual theologians have questioned this, saying that its legitimate as a family planning tool.
In this respect I would say that individual conscience, if sincere, should be followed by that person and that this should be upheld by his/her faith community.
This tension is clear within the Catholic Church. Bishop Kicanas captures it. Here’s an excerpt from his recent address to the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities:
"...Clearly there needs to be room in an academic community for disagreement, debate and a clash of ideas even in theology. Such debate and engagement can clarify and advance our understanding. In discussions with local bishops, faculty need to be able to disagree and question with mutual respect. However, the bishop is the authentic teacher of the faith and, in union with the Pope and bishops, responsible to interpret the faith..."
Church history shows that the hierarchy can be wrong and that voices from outside the power structure can have a lot to say to a hierarchy that has gotten too involved with itself (think Francis of Assisi, Joan of Arc, Catherine of Sienna).
Example? Pope Innocent IV’s bull Etsi animarium (November 21, 1254) required “a partial dissolution of the apostolic groups of the mendicant orders.” He died two weeks later and his successor, Alexander IV, reversed Etsi animarium by issuing Nec insolitum on December 22, 1254.
You always have a tension between theology that starts from above and theology thats starts from below – think of the on-going debates around “liberation theology”; the use of condoms, etc. Classic understanding would suggest that catholic theology is both/and – it considers/reflects the reality of the groun and seeks to understand/incorporate this into the more structured theological reflections.
I find the views of Fr Allan MacDonald intriguing in this respect (he is a Catholic priest on the blogosphere):
"...For a Catholic to make the moral decision to use artificial birth control which is not endorsed by the Church, that in making a decision of conscience the person should read Humanae Vitae, consult with their priest or someone in the Church, with their spouse or family members, pray about it and then make a decision of conscience. If the decision is to use artificial birth control, it should be the person’s decision, not a permission that has been granted to them by a priest, deacon or any official of the Church. They should be told some where in the counsel given them that not to follow the Church’s teaching, even after making a decision of conscience that they should presume God’s judgment and pray for God’s mercy. But it should be clear that the decision made was made by the person and not made for them and that they and no one else will be judged by God who is merciful when mercy is invoked and who understands the decisions of conscience made by God’s people in difficult life situations...Certainly one cannot make a decision of conscience that leads to the death of another person, such as abortion, or active euthanasia. However, in marital situations, one could make a decision of conscience within the context of sacramental confession, concerning a marriage not recognized by the Church–if the external forum is exhausted, the person believes that the marriage not recognized by the Church is a good marriage and no scandal is given to the faithful..."
Last edited by Yeshua; 01-31-2012 at 12:25 PM.
|10-27-2012, 09:17 PM||#6|
Joined: Sep 2012
From: New Zealand
As usual I take the stance of non-extremism on this issue. If we make decisions based solely on our own conscious, we are mislead to easily by our own dillusions, but if we make decisions based solely on doctrine, we are mislead by misinterpretation, incorrect teachings, out of date teachings, and simplification.
The balance is modified by our level of understanding and the effectiveness of the doctrines that we live by.
Last edited by Timothy248; 10-28-2012 at 12:32 PM.
|10-27-2012, 11:08 PM||#7|
Joined: Apr 2011
There must be a balance between the two. The apostles left Bishops, priests and deacons for the guidence of the churches. They did not leave a single book which they said was to be the sole source and authority of the Christian faith. So the writings of those who followed the apostles, and a consistent tradition from those times are very much important.
There are many great examples of flawed authorities within Christendom, but this does not negate the church or its central place as the body of Christ. Saint Maximos the confessor was tortured by the patriarch and teh emperor, and he is revered as a saint, this shows that the authoirites are not always right.
But Clement of rome, wrote to the corinthians that they should not abandon their ordained clergy. This shows that there clergy are spiritual fathers and have an instrumental place, put by God, despite what any false prophet might claim, be in Montanus, muhammad or Ali Nuri.