The episcopal wars over Catholic faith and morals have only just begun. Much of the current debate turns on theological abstractions far distant – or so, at least, it seems – from the daily duties of most Catholics. A single word, however, captures the gist of the controversy swirling around the recent arguments of Cardinal McElroy, for instance, who is anxious to crown conscience (of a kind) as king of our moral lives.

Cardinal McElroy implicitly declares “conscience” as godly because, in his judgment, our perspective on right and wrong, noble and noisome, virtue and vice, reigns supreme. We have become gods, knowing good from evil. (cf. Gn. 3:5)

He would no doubt contend that I have caricatured his position. He knows and preaches that one’s conscience must be formed: “As Pope Francis has stated, the church’s role is to form consciences, not replace them. Categorical exclusions of the divorced and remarried and L.G.B.T. persons from the Eucharist do not give due respect to the inner conversations of conscience that people have with their God in discerning moral choice in complex circumstances.”

The single word that discloses the cardinal’s heterodox belief here is the simple possessive adjective their. “The inner conversations of conscience that people have with their God.” This clearly suggests that we do not simply belong to God; rather, in some unspecified sense God belongs to us.

St. Paul taught something quite different: “You do not belong to yourselves but to God.” (1 Cor 6:19; cf. 7:23) Similarly, the Catechism reminds us that “The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are. . .tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.” (#1783; cf. #2526)

Cardinal McElroy’s view about consulting our own god is analogous to the contemporary nostrum, “What would Jesus do?” in this or that circumstance. Surely, we will all follow the right, noble, and virtuous path. But how is it that this asking ourselves about the Lord’s Way seems so often to result in full approval of what we already wanted to do or say anyway?

At an even deeper level, this harks back to an earlier heterodoxy – the contextualism or situation ethics of Joseph Fletcher (1905-1991).

In 1952, Pope Pius XII condemned situation ethics. He pointed out that proponents of moral leniency erroneously hold that “the Church, instead of fostering the law of human liberty and of love, and of demanding of you that dynamics which is worthy of the moral life, instead bases itself almost exclusively and with excessive rigidity, on the firmness and the intransigence of Christian moral laws, frequently resorting to the terms ‘you are obliged’, [or] ‘it is not licit.’”

Sound familiar?

In Veritatis Splendor, Pope St. John Paul II addressed this question of “complex moral circumstances” (pace McElroy) and “The importance of this interior dialogue of man with himself” (58) even more fully:

“Saint Bonaventure teaches that ‘conscience is like God’s herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God’s authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king. This is why conscience has binding force.’ Thus it can be said that conscience bears witness to man’s own rectitude or iniquity to man himself but, together with this and indeed even beforehand, conscience is the witness of God himself, whose voice and judgment penetrate the depths of man’s soul, calling him fortiter et suaviter to obedience. . . .’In this, and not in anything else, lies the entire mystery and the dignity of the moral conscience: in being the place, the sacred place where God speaks to man….’”

Full story at The Catholic Thing.