A recent letter writer criticized the Rev. Roy Bourgeois for supporting women’s ordination, claiming it an “act of conscience.” When “faithful Catholics” discover their conscience in opposition to church teaching, their “conscience is misguided.” Her claim, I submit, has ignored the church’s fundamental principle, the “primacy of conscience.”
As a counsel at Vatican II, the Rev. Joseph Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI), explained: “One’s conscience … must be obeyed before all else [even] over the pope and ecclesiastical authority.” Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas insisted that when “ecclesiastical authority” offends a person’s conscience [he] should perish in excommunication rather than violate his conscience.”
That fundamental doctrine was tested after Paul VI upheld the ban against contraception in 1968, igniting an ecclesiastical rebellion among the faithful. Facing the crisis, several bishops’ conferences confirmed the papal teaching while asserting the primacy of conscience. As the Canadian bishops put it: “Whoever honestly chooses that course, which seems right to him, does so in good conscience.”
Indeed, the church’s moral code has been an evolutionary process, based on divine revelation and human reason. During its long history, many church thinkers were condemned for heresy only to see their ideas embraced by the church later: e.g., Galileo condemned for claiming the earth circles the sun; John Courtney Murray, S.J., silenced for endorsing separation of church and state during the 1950s, only to see his teaching be accepted by Vatican II.
Is it possible that Bourgeois, today, is on the cutting edge in a new stage in the church’s evolutionary history?