I've been engaged in a discussion with Balbulican at StageLeft, (along with James Bow et al.) about issues revolving around personal conscience and being Catholic in public life.
I really appreciate the opportunity to have this discussion as very important points are raised.
However, StageLeft's blog seems to eat my responses. They're fairly lengthy, and I can see why that might happen.
I had a fairly lengthy response to James Bow's comment #40.
Here is my response in totality. James' comments are in italics.
James, you raise very important issues, ones that I am glad to be able to elaborate on.
So, despite suggesting that you are never in disagreement with the Magisterium, you are saying that there are moral decisions that you make based on principles within the Catholic Church “that you agree to”, suggesting that there are principles that you potentially do not agree with, and that you set aside when making your moral decisions. Which suggests that if the Magisterium applies those principles, you and the Magisterium could conceivably part ways.
That wasn’t so hard to admit, was it?
I don't think I was suggesting that there are moral principles within Church doctrine or Tradition that I disagree with. In fact, my whole point is that since I "signed on" with the Catholic Church, we do agree. The Magisterium and I, we think alike. If we did not think alike, speaking for myself, I wouldn't be Catholic.
The Catholic Church is a pretty big tent.
It can be, because the Truth is so vast, and we are in a never-ending discovery of it. But the tent isn't open to ideas that are strictly condemned. I don't want to get into a lengthy debate about the points you brought up. All that to simply to say that the Magisterium exists for a reason: to make clear what is and is not acceptable doctrine.
So I put it to you that moral decisions are ultimately personal, and that the church has the right to advise, but not to dictate.
All moral decisions truly are personal-- hence the need to follow one's conscience, which is the most fundamental law for anyone who wants to be a person of integrity. However, moral laws aren't the creation of personal conscience. They are discerned and internalized as something external to one's thought, not the product of one's thought. I hope that makes sense.
It may seem like the Church dictates moral laws, but that is not how faithful, educated Catholics perceive the Magisterium's role.
Catholic doctrine, in its substance, is not the fruit of the Church's mind. It corresponds to Divine Revelation, or notions implicit in Divine Revelation.
I realize you do not believe that, but I am simply speaking of how Catholics perceive it.
In its discernment and formulation, you can say that it is the intellectual and spiritual fruit of the Church-- after all, in contemplating truth,we're applying our own intellectual and spiritual faculties, and these faculties will naturally have a role in what is discerned and how these insights are formulated and propagated.
The Magisterium doesn't make up Divine Revelation. So in that sense, the Church doesn't dictate what is believed. It's not hers to make up, it's her role to contemplate and defend it.
The work of discerning the Church is not solely the work of the Magisterium. It's the product of all faithful, who contemplate the truths of the faith, based on what has gone before.
The Magisterium is inspired or fed, if you will, based on the faithful's correct application of moral and doctrinal principles on the truths. So in that sense the Magisterium doesn't dictate either.
All that to say that Catholic doctrine is not the product of one person-- the pope. It's not his doctrine. What he passes on is based on a collective understanding of what is true, again based on the correct application of moral and doctrinal principles.
That is why faithful, educated Catholics normally agree with the pope before he teaches definitively on a doctrine. He thinks like the faithful, and the faithful think like him.
The Papacy’s rarely exercised powers of infallibility aside, given that the Church was created and maintained by humans (even a human like the Apostle Peter), the Church is as fallible as the humans who maintain it.
The point that the Church would make is that the Church is as infallible as God makes it.
So, though you seem loathe to say it, it seems that if the Magisterium followed a path that you disagreed with at a moral level, you’d follow your conscience.
The thing is, I signed on to the Catholic Faith. So I agree implicitly, beforehand, on what the Church says.
Which is the path a number of Catholics have already taken in pursuing their own moral journeys as best as they are able.
But there's more to it than just following your own conscience. When you sign up to be Catholic (or agree to continue being one), you're agreeing to a set of philosophical and moral principles. Of course people are at different places in their particular cheminement, if you allow the French expression, and so some will be ignorant, and some won't understand how certain principles apply, etc (which is why we need the Magisterium). But you don't just become Catholic based on the fact that you're following your conscience. You agree, beforehand, to certain philosophical ideas. You also agree, a priori, to certain historical ideas. The combination of reason and fact (and I don't want to get into Catholic apologetics too deeply here) is what leads you to assent to the Catholic faith. That is core to being Catholic, and many Catholics are ignorant of this. When you agree to be Catholic, you are agreeing to certain philosophical ideas, certain historical facts which lead one to conclude that Divine Revelation (i.e. Scripture and Tradition) is authoritative. You don't just make it up as you go along. There are beliefs that are rudimentary to being Catholic,and if you don't get them, you don't understand what Catholicism is or how to think like a Catholic.
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