Last June, in the Lower House of the NSW Parliament, a law was enacted to permit research on embryonic stem cells as well as forms of cloning using some human elements. This legislation was brought on fairly suddenly and little time was given to debate. Members of parliament were given the freedom of a "conscience vote" which meant they were not bound by the policy of their political party. (In passing one may wonder how it is all right for party whips to tell their party members how to vote, but not for anyone else.)
In response to the proposed legislation, the bishops of the province of NSW issued a statement urging parliamentarians to consider carefully, in conscience, how to cast their vote, asking them to remember that certain moral principles come into play in any legislation.
My name was attached to this statement and I made sure that MPs representing the constituents in the Diocese of Armidale received a copy of the statement. Some voted for and some against the legislation.
The media made a great fuss about Cardinal George Pell furthermore reminding MPs that their actions have consequences, as is the case for all people making conscience decisions.
It may be useful to look again at conscience decisions; how they are arrived at and the injunction to follow one's conscience. Here one can do no better than to consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church .
1795: "Conscience is man's most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths" (Gaudium et Spes 16, Vat II document).'
Conscience is not a funny little human capacity which tells us what to do, or not to do, into which we plug for an answer.
1796: Conscience is a judgment of reason by which the human person recognises the moral quality of a concrete act.
Another description of conscience reads that conscience is the proximate norm of morality; of the goodness or evil of actions and omissions. There are few occasions really when we have to rely on a conscience decision. After all, we have the Ten Commandments of God, as well as the rules of the Church, the beatitudes, the general exhortation to live by faith, by hope and by love. Daily life does not require repeated appeal to conscience. Over time we come to know which actions are morally good, or not.
1797: For the man who has committed evil, the verdict of his conscience remains a pledge of conversion and of hope.
Catholics are familiar with the practice of examining one's conscience, especially when preparing to receive the Sacrament of Penance (Confession). It is here that we are 'alone with God'; so there is no chance of deceiving oneself. Here also we become conscious of imputability, that is, am I guilty before God of sinfulness. Furthermore it becomes clear that some consequences of a conscience decision need to be attended to; either by restitution or repairing damage done, as far as is humanly possible. In prayer one can at least beg God to restore justice.
1798: A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. Everyone must avail himself of the means to form his conscience.
Everyone who has the use of reason is capable of making a conscience decision. When the use of reason is impaired, imputability dimin- ishes. Whereas in civil law ignorance of the law does not excuse, this does not apply with moral law and imputability before God.
1800: A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.
Sometimes the phrase, primacy of conscience is used. This can be misleading and is mostly not a helpful phrase. There has to be the certain judgment which implies an informed conscience. Further information (enlightenment through prayer and study) may bring about a different judgment next time around.
1801: 'Conscience can remain in ignorance or make erroneous judgements. Such ignorance and errors are not always free of guilt.'
Again, all conscience decisions have consequences, in one's personal life and/or in the life of others and the community. It will not do to say that you followed your conscience and therefore should be left alone. Often a simple niggling in the heart of things done or omitted can be a sign that all is not as it should be.
To return to a "conscience vote" of MPs. In April 2003 the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, joined a round-table discussion on the subject, "The commitment and behaviour of Catholics in political life", following the publication of a doctrinal "Note about some questions regarding the commitment and behaviour of Catholics in political life" from the Congregation.
In summary, the Note can be precised thus: "In this sense it seems that a certain link between faith and politics also enters: that is, faith can enlighten reason, can heal, cure a sick reason. Not in the sense that this influence of faith transfers the field of politics from reason to faith, but in the sense that it restores reason to itself, helps reason to be itself, without alienating it."
In brief, in all our actions or omissions we need to let faith play its necessary role. Therefore, the Church constantly urges its members to act in accordance with the practical decision of an informed conscience.
This is the edited text of Bishop Luc Matthys' Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of the Armidale Diocese.