Conscience and the ‘both-and’ of the marriage amendment

| Father Tom Knoblach | July 18, 2012 | 0 Comments

A recent YouTube video titled “Why Catholics Can Vote No” on the proposed amendment defining marriage in the Minnesota Constitution has created a predictable stir. As an alternative attempt to influence thoughts and attitudes of Catholic voters, the video contains some incomplete and thus misleading statements.

I focus here on what the author himself presents as the key claim of the video: “this amendment violates an important principle of Catholic teaching … that seems to have been forgotten by some who are supporting the amendment. The issue I am talking about is ‘Freedom of Conscience.’ ”

The author goes on to quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“1782. [The human person] has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. ‘He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters’ (“Dignitas Humanae” 3, n. 2).”

This quotation is accurate, but incomplete. Human conscience is far from an infallible guide; it must be informed and enlightened in its moral judgments so that it may adequately discern the voice of God’s truth from the many other voices that demand our allegiance.

Numbers 1783 to 1802 of the catechism describe this formation of conscience, including openness to Scripture, advice of others, and being “guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church” (n. 1785); these para­graphs are well worth reading to understand this nuanced teaching. It is indeed true that:

“1790. A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. . . .”

This is simply to assert that humans do not have an immediate and always accurate intuition of what is right; we must rely on the discernment we make after reflection, open to revealed truth and human experience, and then act with integrity.

However, this paragraph goes on:

“. . . Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.”

This more complete presentation of the catechism’s teaching on conscience does not in itself indicate how to vote on a social issue, but it does clarify an important point: Appealing to one’s individual conscience might make you certain, but it won’t thereby make you right.

Adding our voice

The centrality of conscience is invoked by the author to oppose what he characterizes as the church’s attempt “to force its moral teaching on others outside our fold. When the religious beliefs of any particular religious group become the law of the land, we run the risk of violating everyone’s freedom to believe and their freedom of conscience.”

This is a common misrepresentation of the Catholic Church’s role in matters of public interest. It bears repeating that the current question of the definition of marriage arose from legislative proposals and lawsuits challenging state law, and that the amendment arose from the legislative process. The Catholic Church did not create or ask for this difficult moment in our social life.

That said, it is not really surprising that the church would take a position in favor of the received definition of marriage, rooted in the sexual difference of the spouses with the inherent natural capacity to bring forth new life.

Advocacy for marriage is no different from advocacy for economic justice, humane immigration policies, respect and protection for vulnerable human lives, access to health care and a host of other social issues. As members of the larger society, Catholics are concerned not only with their own internal denominational matters, but have an active interest in the good ordering of public life for both current and future generations.

False dichotomy

We cannot demand that all agree with the positions we advocate — no worries there — but we have a legitimate right to add our voice to the debate on crucial social questions. People certainly “can” vote no on the amendment; we are simply asking that voters consider if this is the most prudent approach to public policy on the definition of marriage and its importance for the family, children, and the rest of society.

An unspoken premise in the video is that support for the amendment depends on surrender of one’s freedom to the authority of the church — that those who would vote for the amendment do so because they are not free to think or decide for themselves. However, it is a matter of record that people of many faiths, and those of no particular faith, reach the same conclusion as the Catholic bishops have articulated, but quite independently from them. Just as it may be an exercise of freedom to disagree with a position, it is also an exercise of freedom to affirm it.

We rightly need to consider how better to manifest loving respect and acceptance of persons with same-sex attraction, recognition of their basic goodness and their contributions to the human family, and sincere desire for their happiness. The tense and at times bitter exchanges around this issue show we have much to do in this regard; discussions that purport to be about love but which end up fostering fear and derision are clearly flawed.

I suspect that much of the tension around the issue has to do with the sense that we are faced with a dichotomy, an “either-or” proposition: The terms of the debate often suggest that one must either support gay persons or value marriage, but that one cannot do both. It is implied that these are mutually exclusive options, and so people can feel torn.

It is commendable that no one really wants to be guilty of benighted views that lead to hatred, discrimination, oppression and the denial of rights. If honest self-reflection reveals that one’s attitudes are formed by prejudice, disrespect, injustice and contempt, the voice of conscience rightly insists on repentance and conversion. But the question before voters is not about who persons with same-sex attraction are, or whether or not we affirm their worth and value as children of the same God. It is, rather, about how the state will legally define marriage.

Regardless of the outcome on Nov. 6, the deeper issues of the need to strengthen marriage and family, and to build a more respectful society for all, will both remain. I do not believe that one must choose between these two goods. Good will and social acceptance of all persons does not logically require that the legal definition of marriage be changed for everyone.

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