Conversations with ‘Their God’

The episcopal wars over Catholic faith and morals have only just begun. Much of the current debate turns on theological abstractions far distant – or so, at least, it seems – from the daily duties of most Catholics. A single word, however, captures the gist of the controversy swirling around the recent arguments of Cardinal McElroy, for instance, who is anxious to crown conscience (of a kind) as king of our moral lives.

Cardinal McElroy implicitly declares “conscience” as godly because, in his judgment, our perspective on right and wrong, noble and noisome, virtue and vice, reigns supreme. We have become gods, knowing good from evil. (cf. Gn. 3:5)

He would no doubt contend that I have caricatured his position. He knows and preaches that one’s conscience must be formed: “As Pope Francis has stated, the church’s role is to form consciences, not replace them. Categorical exclusions of the divorced and remarried and L.G.B.T. persons from the Eucharist do not give due respect to the inner conversations of conscience that people have with their God in discerning moral choice in complex circumstances.”

The single word that discloses the cardinal’s heterodox belief here is the simple possessive adjective their. “The inner conversations of conscience that people have with their God.” This clearly suggests that we do not simply belong to God; rather, in some unspecified sense God belongs to us.

St. Paul taught something quite different: “You do not belong to yourselves but to God.” (1 Cor 6:19; cf. 7:23) Similarly, the Catechism reminds us that “The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are. . .tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.” (#1783; cf. #2526)

Cardinal McElroy’s view about consulting our own god is analogous to the contemporary nostrum, “What would Jesus do?” in this or that circumstance. Surely, we will all follow the right, noble, and virtuous path. But how is it that this asking ourselves about the Lord’s Way seems so often to result in full approval of what we already wanted to do or say anyway?

At an even deeper level, this harks back to an earlier heterodoxy – the contextualism or situation ethics of Joseph Fletcher (1905-1991).

In 1952, Pope Pius XII condemned situation ethics. He pointed out that proponents of moral leniency erroneously hold that “the Church, instead of fostering the law of human liberty and of love, and of demanding of you that dynamics which is worthy of the moral life, instead bases itself almost exclusively and with excessive rigidity, on the firmness and the intransigence of Christian moral laws, frequently resorting to the terms ‘you are obliged’, [or] ‘it is not licit.’”

Sound familiar?


In Veritatis Splendor, Pope St. John Paul II addressed this question of “complex moral circumstances” (pace McElroy)  and “The importance of this interior dialogue of man with himself” (58) even more fully:

Saint Bonaventure teaches that “conscience is like God’s herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God’s authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king. This is why conscience has binding force.” Thus it can be said that conscience bears witness to man’s own rectitude or iniquity to man himself but, together with this and indeed even beforehand, conscience is the witness of God himself, whose voice and judgment penetrate the depths of man’s soul, calling him fortiter et suaviter to obedience. . . .”In this, and not in anything else, lies the entire mystery and the dignity of the moral conscience: in being the place, the sacred place where God speaks to man.”

And he adds that conscience “formulates moral obligation in the light of the natural law. . . .The universality of the law and its obligation are acknowledged, not suppressed.” (#59).

Cardinal McElroy and those whose emphasis on conscience results in de facto situational ethics, whatever their protests to the contrary, ignore or traduce the natural moral law and divine positive law, holding that God’s path is outdated or onerous. Their approaches constitute, we might say, the Magisterium of Mirror, reflecting our taste, our temptation, our “truth.”

Cardinal Robert Sarah has bewailed the absence of leadership, or its corruption, among those who are anointed and ordained to speak truth to power from the pulpits of Christ’s Church: “The real scandal,” he points out, “is not the existence of sinners, for mercy and forgiveness always exist precisely for them, but rather the confusion between good and evil caused by the tergiversations of Catholic shepherds.  If men who are consecrated to God are no longer capable of understanding the radical nature of the Gospel message and seek to anesthetize it, we will be going the wrong way.”

Cardinal Sarah does not quote from Lamentations, but he might well have, for it is there that we find this cri de coeurabout false prophets: “Their preaching deceived you by never exposing your sin. They made you think you did not have to repent.” (2:14)  “It is the duty of priests,” admonished Malachi, “to teach the true knowledge of God. . . .But now your priests have turned away from the right path. Your teaching has led many to do wrong.” (2:7-8)

The theological complexities of episcopal debate may be abstruse, but the main questions in play are as timeless as they are crucial to the salvation of souls.  Whom do we follow? Whose authority do we trust? Who is Dominus, the Lord? Shall we accept the moral leadership of. . .ourselves?

Or shall we humbly and gratefully accept the counsel and command of Scripture, of Tradition, and of the settled Magisterium of the Church?  “Trust in the Lord with all your hearts. Never rely on what you think you know.” (Proverbs 3:5)


*Image: The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise by Giovanni di Paolo, 1445 [The MET, New York]

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Anthony Esolen’s Priests Are to Be Watchmen

Fr. Paul D. Scalia’s The Gospel Welcome

Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of numerous articles, books, essays, and reviews. He has taught at Notre Dame, Auburn, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has also served as “Distinguished Visiting Chair of Character Development” at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He is incardinated in the Diocese of Charlotte.