Well to stir up the hornet’s nest, let’s return to Father Martin and his “ten takeaways” from Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia. The issue today is the sovereignty of conscience. In forming our conscience we must pay serious attention to the teaching of the Church—but the teaching of the Church cannot take the place of conscience nor can we be expected to give blind obedience to the teaching of the Church as that would be equivalent to resigning our personal responsibility for making moral decisions. We need personally and seriously to consider the choices that face us in life. The Church provides guidance, but it must be our interior adherence to the Holy Spirit that sets our course.
2. The role of conscience is paramount in moral decision making. “Individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the church’s practice in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage” (303). That is, the traditional belief that individual conscience is the final arbiter of the moral life has been forgotten here. The church has been “called to form consciences, not to replace them” (37). Yes, it is true, the Pope says, that a conscience needs to be formed by church teaching. But conscience does more than to judge what does or does not agree with church teaching. Conscience can also recognize with “a certain moral security” what God is asking (303). Pastors, therefore, need to help people not simply follow rules, but to practice “discernment,” a word that implies prayerful decision making (304).
Where I think a lot of people go wrong in the process is that they take the teaching of the Church as one opinion among many and do not honestly wrestle with its authoritative angel. But it is important to acknowledge that at the end of the dark night of struggle, God does ot always grant the victory to the magisterial angel.
Franz Jäggerstätter was a farmer from Sankt Radegund in Austria. He was born illegitimate though he was adopted by his mother’s husband after her marriage in 1917 and took his family name. Jäggerstätter was not a religious, much less devout, youth and in addition to a life of general rowdiness, he himself fathered a daughter out of wedlock. However in 1936 he married Franziska Schwaninger, a very devout Catholic and himself underwent a personal conversion. He joined the Third Order of Saint Francis and undertook the duties as Sacristan in his local parish. He was the only citizen of Sankt Radegund to vote against the Anschluss (the union of Austria to the Third Reich) in 1938 and although he was conscripted into the Army in 1940, his work as a farmer gave him a deferment from service.
As the war progressed Jäggerstätter began to question its morality. He even had several interviews with his bishop whom he, Jäggerstätter, felt was avoiding the moral issues surrounding the War. When called up for active service he felt that he could not in conscious serve despite the assurances of both his bishop and parish priest that it was his responsibility to his family and his duty as a citizen. He was arrested and imprisoned and tried in a military court for the “undermining military morale” by his objections to the legitimacy of the War. He was executed by guillotine on August 9, 1943.
Even in death he was excoriated by the Church for his conscientious objection. Remember that in Jäggerstätter’s time the Catholic Church had established no criterion to justify conscientious objection. His parish priest told him that by putting himself in the position where he would be executed he would be neglecting his duty towards his wife and children. He died in disgrace and without the support of the Church. It was only in the 1960’s through the efforts of Gordon Zahn and Thomas Merton that his story became known and he was perceived as a hero of conscience. He was beatified in 2007 and his feast day is May 21.
I think today there is no Christian who would disagree with Jäggerstätter that the Nazi cause was sinful and unjust but that is not how it was seen at the time. To the contrary—the German and Austrian bishops and clergy supported the War and even the Pope was deliberately (and scandalously) vague, if not silent, about the atrocities of the Third Reich. Jäggerstätter determined his conscience contrary to what he was being told were Catholic principles.
A simpler example, though far less dramatic, is the one found in the Gospel of Luke (also found in Matthew and Mark) where the Disciples pick grain on the Sabbath to satisfy their hunger. They were in violation of the Law. Jesus could see, however, how the Law did not apply in their instance and reprimanded the Pharisees and scribes who criticize them. This is only one of many examples in the Gospels where Jesus himself sanctions—and even practices—a violation of the Law of Moses because the particular situation is complicated by extraneous factors that require a moral response distinct from strict literal obedience to the Law of God.