How do you reconcile the bible, church authority, and conscience?


Church authority is the power to make administrative and doctrinal decisions, e.g. about the ordination of women or married men, or about the evil nature of abortion and homosexuality. Such decisions are often based on biblical interpretations.

The Bible is open to contradictory interpretations; there is no universal agreement about the interpretation of basic texts. The bible can be used in favor or against slavery, creationism, or traditional gender roles.

Conscience is said to be the voice of God deep down oneself, where “man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey.” This beautiful view is generally not true empirically. Millions of people have participated in genocides and the violences of war, and millions in Eastern cultures see nothing wrong with abortion. Concretely, conscience is the product of one’s personal and one's social history; conscience is swayed by the mass media and one’s environment. Only exceptionally does conscience hear the voice of God within.

The problem: church authorities often cover themselveself with the mantle of the Bible. Since the 1960s conscience has often taken an anti-establishment posture. Dissent is often repressed in churches and society. The technical scientific interpretations of the Bible are often of little help for spirituality. How can you balance the claims of authority, conscience, and biblical interpretations?

+           +           +

Here is how I see the problem in the Catholic Church.

        In the Catholic Church, bishops swear obedience to the papacy and not to the gospel because the papacy is expected to be the true voice of the gospel; in case of conflict, however, they are likely to side with the papacy. The bishops are not accountable to the faithful but to the papacy; in case of conflict, they are likely to ignore the wishes and needs of their flock and side with the papacy.
             As a counter-weight, Vatican II recognized the importance of conscience. Even if not “properly formed” the conscience is, as a matter of fact, the ultimate decision-maker. Vatican II also recognized that there is a hierarchy of truths. In the absence of an officially defined such hierarchy, people make their own choices, thus leading to a de facto pluralism.
            Because pluralism tends to weaken a centralized authority, the hierarchy has only two options: greater centralization and control (the prevailing tendency since Trent), or an ecclesiology of dialogue and leadership – which is what Pope Francis is promoting (with not much success).

1. By divine institution and canon law, the pope "enjoys supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the church." (c. 331). Is this a convincing argument for those who question papal infallibility?
2. Protestants enjoy pluralism and the freedom of individualism and subjectivism because they have no church authority. Yet most evangelicals, Baptists, Pentecostals, etc. speak the same language due to a unidimensional interpretation of the bible and social pressure to conform to it. If so, what could they do to overcome unidimensionality and religious conformism?

How can you balance the claims of authority, conscience, and biblical interpretations? (Avoid lecturing about generalities)


Comment by Dee Christie:

Spirituality, the Bible, Church, and Conscience, a Multi-valent Question

Do church authorities really “cover themselves with the mantle of the Bible,” or do they more often augment what they write with biblical cherry-picking? Rigorous and scholarly integration of the Bible into church teaching is fairly recent. Certainly Catholic scholars were Johnnies-come-lately to serious biblical study. Likewise, before Vatican II the church rarely paid attention to “the signs of the times” when it spoke. Revelation was considered complete and unchanging, so development of doctrine and novelty in moral teaching were embraced only reluctantly.

Vatican II restored the excitement of the early church: God reveals in the now, surprise and novelty in the evolving world. God’s revelation cannot be bound by Guttenberg or anyone else. But, as Richard Gula observed, written revelation is one of reality--God’s offer of unfettered and forgiving love. Generally, the Bible does not offer specific morality, but rather impressionistic sketches of the ideal (the Beatitudes and the Golden Rule, for example). Moral norms are ongoing derivatives, open to interpretation and to alteration over time as human understanding progresses.

Vatican II highlighted a second element: that the integrity of conscience is the final judge of the good here and now. Since we are unique persons, pluralism is not only allowable but essential. This statement demands qualification. A priori, the conscience of the “human person adequately considered” is capable of knowing and doing the good. It is an empty set, an operating system if you will, that needs “programs” with content: human wisdom (including church teaching) and wisdom from unique personal experience. Gaudium et spes reminded us that a person is historically situated and vulnerable to the evil around him or her, and therefore needs both counsel and community, persons and place to test the authenticity of his or her gathered insights. Part of that community is church teaching. Was the great idea I had last night to become a missionary or an ax murderer God’s call, or was it the result of the fact that my father abuses me? Test that light bulb in the community!

Church teaching is not the final word, however, and even the authority of the pope’s iterations is frequently misunderstood. The pope’s freedom to swing his arm authoritatively ends at the nose of inherited doctrine, biblical and credal. Probably this is why significant church documents often include phrases like “as we have always taught.” Particularly in morals--where the church has never spoken infallibly--there remains a tendency to claim unchangeable truth for pronouncements of the ordinary magisterium. Infallible teaching is rare, but many use the concept as a club to beat upon those who think differently. As Francis Sullivan noted, while infallibility designates teaching as an inerrant guide to point the serious believer to God, it is not the only reliable path.

The two concepts described above (the limits of church authority and the primacy of conscience) are scary ideas. Responsibility is incumbent on the person. What is one to do? First, imbibe the singular message of the Bible: God so loves us that God became us. Second, respond to that love and to the command to love others as self. This is spirituality. A well-integrated person acquires a set of values and virtues that help discern the good from the dross. Virtue is the fiber of character--who I am--that guides my actions. If one wants to become virtuous, one lives and prays within the message of love and with those who love. This message is found in the scriptures. If we allow ourselves to be touched by God’s word, we too will love

Good homilies help. The institutional church, if it is doing its job, spends more time training its ministers to understand the scripture both in a scientifically true way (exegesis) and in an applied manner (the minister’s living spirituality). The homilist has a greater responsibility than to glance at a text as he (or she?) walks onto the altar. Homilists must understand the exegetical truth, read over, pray over the text on which they preach, so it becomes a living word passed to the congregation through the living reality of the homilist. True spirituality in the preacher spawns spirituality in the listener. We should feel what the Emmaus’ disciples felt, “Were not our hearts burning within us as he explained the scriptures . . .?” (Luke 24) and “We no longer believe because you tell us but because we have seen for ourselves.” (John 4)

If motivated, we too will read the scripture critically and prayerfully, digest its fruits and become  the incarnate Christ to others. What is the future of the Bible as spirituality? Well, maybe we need to believe in grace. And maybe we need to care.