Wednesday, 18th July 2012
Biblical perspectives for living freedom of conscience
Christians are called to obey what is taught in scripture but are free to make up their own minds about "disputable matters", or areas not addressed in scripture either directly or implicitly. On such matters we are free to reach our own conclusions and must not judge others who may see things differently (Romans 14:1-13).
In his 1971 book Infallible? Catholic scholar Hans Kung discussed the controversial papal encyclical Humanae Vitae which formally proclaimed a ban on the use of ‘artificial' contraception.
He regarded the encyclical as a major error but noted that an unforeseen and unintended side-effect was a "widespread major examination of conscience about the meaning of the Church's authority in particular, its teaching authority."
Kung's observation has been relevant in the Irish context.
In his book, Ireland in the world: Further Reflections, Garret Fitzgerald attributed the erosion of church influence to "its overuse of authority rather than reason in promulgating its views on social morality." He suggested that after Humanae Vitae "many Irish Catholics began to do their own theology, so to speak, testing the Catholic Church's teaching against their own rational morality."
This issue raises important questions about the nature of authentic Christian teaching. Is a person obligated to obey the teachings of a papal encyclical? What is the place of individual conscience in such matters? Why pronounce on this when the bible does not directly address the issue?
The matter has led to silent revolution among many rank and file Catholics and many clergy have also expressed disquiet. Among the objectives of the Association of Catholic Priests is the recognition of the "primacy of conscience" and a "re-evaluation of Catholic sexual teaching and practice."
While Vatican II has prompted some fresh thinking on these areas insights concerning conscience and a balanced, biblical and humane perspective on sexuality principally stem from the recovery of biblical teaching in the reformation.
The bigger question is whether religious people in this country will consider the core principle of the reformation, scriptura sola. Those who recognise the exclusive authority of scripture can distinguish between what God calls us to obey and those areas where we have freedom of conscience.
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