Thursday, January 21, 2016
The almighty conscience
There has been a lot of talk about conscience these days. The ELCA held up the idea of bound conscience to deal with those who disagreed with the CWA 2009 determinations on homosexuality and church and the clergy. If someone really believed something is so far afield from their beliefs (because surely the Word of God could not be clear or tradition, for that matter), then one can appeal to conscience as the final arbiter of truth.
But of course the ELCA probably learned this idea from the Swedes when they introduced the novelty of the ordination of women and allowed individuals for whom conscience prevented them to be ordained separately from women and individual dioceses to dissent from the practice. For a time, anyway. That was back in 1958 and it seems there are no conscience clauses allowed now more than 50 years later. There is an expiration date on conscience, it seems.
I do not recall much of that talk among the Missouri kind of Lutherans, though perhaps there was among those who decided to ordain Seminex grads in violation of Synod rule and practice. Anyway it did not get much traction here -- though it might in the future. We still have conflicts over a number of issues and they show few signs of peaceful resolution.
But Rome has picked up the idea again. If you cannot get a Synod or a Pope to do what you want, you can leave it up to the almighty conscience. At least that is how Archbishop Cupich of Chicago (a less than worthy successor to Francis Cardinal George, at least so far). He has suggested that whether divorced or remarried or gay and coupled (legally or not), it is on the conscience of the individual to determine if they are worthy to commune. Worthy here is not in the sense of righteous or holy apart from Christ but rather in a state of grace -- without unconfessed/unrepented sin.
Whatever you think about open vs closed communion and/or the communion of those living in opposition to church teaching (such as communion of the divorced or partnered gay as in this case with Rome), the appeal to conscience represents the ultimate triumph of humanism and the enlightenment and is not at all consistent with the Christian faith. Individual conscience may have been the ultimate fruit of the Enlightenment but it was not what Luther had in mind and it is not at all consistent with Scripture and the catholic tradition. Elevation of reason or conscience over Scripture and the catholic tradition represents a slap in the face to truth that is objective and larger than the person and the moment. This is a dead end for orthodoxy and the triumph of a relativism in which the faith and the church is ultimately only one person wide and deep.
Cupich is being disingenuous to his own religious tradition and is applying the most modern standard of truth to what is a question facing the whole church. The role of conscience is not to define or deliniate Church teaching, but to conform to it. Properly speaking, conscience is not an appeal to self or to reason or to feeling but the informed conscience, the domain of the Spirit who teaches, guides, and instructs the heart to faith and obedience. Worthiness does not mean those without sin but those who are not living in grave sin, without repentance, for whom the sacrament would bring harm and not blessing to them (as St. Paul describes in I Corinthians). Just as the individual must be rescued from the failed conscience that no longer warns them of their sin, so also the church must be rescued from the public scandal of implying those who flaunt basic doctrine and moral teaching are good to go when it comes to approaching the Lord's Table.
Cupich is not being pastoral in allowing this confusion to reign and deferring to the almighty and individual conscience to discern and define truth and righteousness outside the magisterium of Scripture and the catholic tradition. Neither are Lutherans being pastoral in turning a blind eye to those who commune and leaving it up to the individual conscience to answer who should and should not be at the rail. Again, this has zero to do with whether or not the person is a sinner and everything to do with whether or not that person is in a state of grace, has faith, and is repentant.