Conscience, Power, and Obedience: A Conversation Among Catholics

Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association

A quick round-up of “some things Catholic.” First, the American Catholic Council‘s Janet Hauter has a short reflection (see below) on the American bishops and power that illustrates the deep theological divide at the foundation of of post-Vatican II Catholicism and the current issue between the US Catholic bishops and the Obama administration. Hauter highlights David DeCrosse’s excellent NCR article on the “Bishops’ Conscience Model.”

Next, the newly formed Association of U.S. Catholic Priests (self-described “Vatican II priests“) will have its inaugural convention in June. This is part of a world-wide movement of priests forming their own associations, not under control of the bishops’ conference, in order to discuss issues happening within their churches and speak with a unique voice.

Third, keep an eye on Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, who was just listed as one of the “13 religious women to watch in 2012.” Keehan, arguably one of the Catholic Church’s most prominent female figures, is the CEO of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, the nation’s largest group of not-for-profit health systems and facilities. She was instrumental in garnering support for the Affordable Care Act in 2010, when CHA broke with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to publicly support the act. As a result, Keehan gave moral permission to legislators who were conflicted about supporting the bill. Last month, Keehan again publically broke with the bishops when she supported the Obama administration’s revision of an HHS regulation that broadens religious exemptions for religiously affiliated employers who do not want to include contraception in their health plans. The revised regulation requires their insurance companies to provide such coverage directly to their women employees.

Finally, there’s been another step in the case of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers ability to balance obedience and conscience within their community vis a vis Fr. Roy Bourgeois, who has publicly supported a conversation on the ordination of women in the Catholic Church. The Maryknoll leadership took a vote on whether they will dismiss Fr. Roy from the order. The outcome of the vote is still unclear. Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle, a noted canon lawyer who has been serving on Bourgeois’ behalf, said Maryknoll leadership told him that the order’s general council, which consists of its superior general and three assistant generals, had come to a split decision over Bourgeois’ removal. Doyle said two council members voted in favor of dismissal and three members abstained.

Here’s the short reflection from Janet Hauter on conscience, power, and obedience:

As long as I can remember, the Church has taught us to be sensitive to the voice within, the voice of conscience. That voice, we were taught, was God’s voice inviting us to a moral path. We then face a choice. I get that.

David DeCosse’s piece on the Bishops’ Conscience Model (National Catholic Reporter, 1/23/12) puts our bishops’ approach to conscience in full view. They see obedience as directly connected to moral law which they themselves develop. The controversy with the Obama Administration surely illustrates this point. They invalidate experiential and scientific reasoning. Their thinking is circuitous and challenges our past learning about the relationship between obedience and conscience.

I find this deeply disturbing. The article further states that the bishops favor obedience to moral law rather than appeals to practical reason. As Americans, we have been criticized because we live in a democracy and are accused of relativistic thinking and SIN, apparently making us incapable of attaining moral truth. Now, REALLY? Let’s mull on that thought for awhile.

It’s all about power, isn’t it? Power by its very nature assumes one entity is bigger, more knowledgeable, more powerful, while “the other” is smaller, less equipped and dependent. What if we looked at the issues of conscience and obedience in another way? Power in the institutional Church will be studied in ACC’s forthcoming  Institute for Nonviolent Action for Church Reform, mentioned further below. There are three principles that give insight (and hope!) to an analysis of power wherever it exists, including the institutional Church:

*All hierarchical structures depend on the obedience of another;
*Obedience is always voluntary;
*If enough of the governed resist for a long enough period of time, the structure will invariably change or collapse;

Perhaps in this season of Lent, this can be food for thought because if the Church is to change (and we have been told since Vatican II that we are the Church), then WE must change how we think, how we behave and how we live in relationship to the institutional Church.–Janet Hauter, American Catholic Council

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