The Church - the home of freedom?

            To the Christians of the first centuries, the Church, which was to them undeniably a source of authority, was also the home of freedom. And the pagan world was attracted to Christianity by the atmosphere of freedom which reigned within it and by the promise of freedom it offered.

            How is it that today, in a world no less eager to be free, the last place most pagans would look to, as 'the home of freedom', is the Catholic Church? And how is it - sadder still! - that so many Catholics seem to find more constraint than freedom in their life in the Church?

            To the pagan world of today, the Catholic Church - despite recent changes and reforms - remains an institution based on authority, and since authority and personal freedom are considered to be in irreconcilable opposition, current tensions in the Church are regarded as logical in a system where individual conscience and personal freedom are being constantly required to submit to authority.

            Far from being able to answer or satisfy the suspicions or criticisms of non-Catholics, we ourselves are often those most swayed by them. Let us consider some of the most basic criticisms in more detail.


            In the Catholic Church, it is said, one is forced to submit to a set body of teaching - which is a direct limitation of freedom of choice.

            In consequence, so the criticism continues, some Catholics find themselves in the intolerable position of being told one thing by their conscience and yet having to submit to the contrary because it is insisted upon by Church authority; and this is a much more serious violation of conscience...

            Now the first of these criticisms is nonsense. The second is partly nonsense, and partly based on a misapprehension.

The Church is a free system

            As to the first, one has to repeat the point (obvious though it should be) made above, that no one is forced to do anything in the Catholic Church. The Church is not a concentration camp. It is not a police state. It is a free system. No one is obliged to be a Catholic or to believe what the Church teaches. No one can force me to be a Catholic, any more than they can force me to belong to the Conservative or Labor Parties. I am a Tory or a Socialist or a Liberal - or a Catholic or a Protestant or a Moslem - because I choose, because I personally have been convinced by the particular principles in question. And if I am no longer convinced of their truth or validity, I drop them. I choose to be a Catholic, or I choose not to be a Catholic. No one forces me. Nothing could be freer.

Conscience in conflict witconflict h authority...

            But how about the situation of the Catholic whose conscience tells him one thing, while the Church's authority calls on him to accept something different? Is he not thereby being asked to steam-roll his conscience, to surrender his personality and freedom, and to live in a position of basic insincerity with himself? And is this not happening all the time in the Catholic Church? Are Catholics - especially as they grow in maturity and awareness - not being faced more and more with such conflicts of conscience?

            No one will deny that conflicts between conscience and authority occur in the Church. Yet I would suggest that real conflicts occur much less than might be imagined, that the sense of conflict which many Catholics seem to have today really derives not from greater awareness but precisely from a lack of true self-awareness, from a superficial understanding of what it means to be a Catholic, from a failure to grasp the freedom and self-determination of their own Catholic position.

            Let us consider the case where a real conflict between authority and conscience occurs; in other words, the case where authority (e.g. the teaching of Pope or Council) is ranged on one side, saying that a particular way of acting is seriously wrong and to be avoided, while the individual's conscience - the 'whole' of his conscience, i.e. the whole of his personal principles and convictions - stands solidly in opposition, saying that the same way of acting is right and to be followed. In such a case, of course, he would follow his conscience. He should follow his conscience, in fact, according to the traditional principles of Catholic morality. [1]

Rejecting the Church

            Naturally, the matter would not stop there. In solving this conflict of conscience so he would have fundamentally altered his position as a Catholic; he would have largely emptied it of its basic meaning, and almost certainly rendered it sooner or later untenable. The point (whether he sees it or not) is that, in resolving his problem of conscience in this way, he is rejecting the Church. He is rejecting the Church in effect, in its essence, even if he says he has no intention of leaving it. He is rejecting the meaning of the Church even if he claims he is not rejecting membership within it. The conclusion he has come to - which is really that in an important matter of its teaching the Church has not after all been upheld by Christ - is precisely to reject the Catholic concept of the Church and its Magisterium. The Catholic concept of the Magisterium - a teaching body guaranteed by God (cf. Lk 10:16) - has collapsed in his mind. [2]

            The man whose conscience can no longer tolerate a Catholic concept of the Church, may still in fact continue to live the practices of a Catholic; he may still frequent the Sacraments, for instance. But the heart will have gone out of his religion. His religious life can no longer have the dimension of joy it gives to know that one cannot be deceived about the Christian way of life on earth, about the road to Heaven... In actual practice, the whole of his encounter with Christ will become uncertain, for if Christ is not present in the living voice and teaching of the Church, there is no guarantee of his presence in the Sacraments, in the Eucharist, in the Mass... If a man concludes that Christ does not uphold the Church's teaching on birth-control, then he has no reason to put faith in her teaching about divorce or euthanasia or abortion or pre-marital sex. All these become open questions, as far as he is concerned, crossroads of choice without any signposts, where one man's preference is no more likely to be right than another's.

            There is no such thing any longer as a true Christian criterion in his mind. There is just human opinion, no more. He has not only lost grip on the rock of Christian truth, he has lost sight of it.

What it means to be a Catholic

            Many today would argue that one is entitled on grounds of conscience and in some fundamental matter, to choose a viewpoint contrary to that taught by the Church. Perhaps; but what one is not entitled to do, after such a choice, is to insist on regarding one's new position as a Catholic position. Such insistence is not to demand freedom; or if it is, it is to demand the freedom to empty terms and positions of any real meaning.

            To claim the right both to be called Catholic and to be totally subjective about what being a Catholic means, is a peculiarly modern phenomenon. It is a phenomenon that may not be due to insincerity, but then it must be put down to a lack of thought, to a failure to understand that to be a Catholic means to belong - voluntarily - to a Body that, where fundamental principles are concerned, thinks and teaches with the mind of Christ.

Self-induced conflicts

            Now I know that there are Catholics who feel that in certain cases their conscience tells them one thing, and the Church tells them another. In their dilemma, they follow the Church - but reluctantly, with a sense of coercion...

            My comment is that this sensation of conflict - between conscience and authority - is self-induced. It derives, as I have said earlier, not from a real collision, but from superficial thinking, from a lack of self-awareness, of grasp of one's own values.

            Such Catholics need only to reflect a little on their sense of coercion to realize that whatever force they are aware of does not come from outside...; the force comes from within. They are not being forced by the authority of the Church; they are being forced by their own belief in the authority of the Church. The teaching of the Church, after all, gains its force only from personal conviction. It holds sway only over the mind that is convinced of its truth. They are being forced, therefore, by their own free conviction, or whatever remains of their own free conviction, that the Church's teaching is divinely guaranteed. They are in effect being forced by their own conscience!

            This apparently paradoxical conclusion becomes all the more evident if one remembers that conscience is a deep-rooted faculty of moral judgment which judges in accordance with its own terms of reference, with the principles it holds and with the evidence it sees in each case. What happens to the Catholic, in the cases we are considering, is that his conscience may see evidence in one direction, on the one hand, and his same conscience sees evidence in an opposed direction, on the other. Let us suppose that the issue in question is that of artificial birth-control. On the one hand, he sees considerations which seem to argue that contraception is necessary and therefore permissible (demographic or psychological arguments, etc.) and his mind is swayed by these considerations. On the other hand, he sees considerations which argue that contraception is wrong (the traditional teaching of the Church, repeated in Humanae Vitae) [3], and his mind is also swayed by these considerations, but in the contrary direction. He must judge which evidence sways with him most. If he judges in favor of the Church's teaching, it is because his conscience still freely accepts that the Church is upheld by Christ.

            It is not true, in his case, to say that his conscience is in opposition to authority. Belief in the trustworthiness of the Church's authority is part of his conscience - because he has freely chosen to make it part. The whole point is that the Church's authority influences him only insofar as he FREELY accepts it [4].

            What we are discussing therefore is not so much a conflict of conscience, as a conflict within conscience... It is a conflict not between personal conscience and an external enforced principle, but between principles which personal conscience freely holds but finds hard to reconcile. If there is a conflict of conscience, it is precisely because conscience is divided against itself. It is not conscience against the Church, but conscience against conscience. The consequence is clear: if a man wishes to protest about an interior conflict brought about by principles which he has personally and freely accepted, he should really protest to no one but himself.

Freedom and trustworthy authority

            The two terms - freedom and authority - therefore are not necessarily in irreconcilable opposition. If authority is understood as arbitrary will, then it does clearly stand in opposition to individual freedom. But if it is understood - as it ought to be in relation to the Magisterium of the Church - as a competent source of reliable information, as an authoritative and therefore trustworthy guide to man's true life-goal, then it is seen to be not the opponent to personal freedom, but the key to its fruitful exercise.

Freedom is found close to Christ

            The first Christians were men and women who, after groping for long in the dark, had suddenly been offered an extraordinary goal to their life, and had seen - opened and signposted before them - the road to that goal. At last they had the freedom, not to wander aimlessly, but to go Somewhere! It is true that they would never have acquired this sense of freedom - the freedom to travel - if they had not originally been looking for some worthwhile goal to life. But the strikingly joyous character of their freedom was above all due to the absolute confidence they felt they could put in the indications of Him who had signposted the road they were following. He could not deceive them.

            The man to whom freedom means following the impulses or instincts of each moment might do well to ask himself if this is not the freedom to wander in the dark or, at least, to go round in ever-narrowing circles. To such a man, in any event, it is obvious that any voice from outside which claims to speak objective truth, and to set a goal to life that is valid and binding for all men, will appear as an enemy of his freedom.

            To those however for whom life is a road upwards towards a definite destination, and for whom in consequence freedom means finding that road and being able to follow it, the mere possibility that at a certain point along the line of human history someone arrived from that destination, so as to signpost the road for us, appears as electrifying. If, on checking this man's life and credentials, they become convinced that his indications are trustworthy, that what he has said is true - because he is the truth itself, because he is God! - then his indications appear not as restraints placed on man, not as burdens or obligations, but as immense rays of light - lighting up the way before each man, enabling him to see his way forward, so that he can travel it energetically, securely and freely.

            Close to Christ, one finds freedom. Listening to his voice, at last one sees one's way clearly. His authority does not oppress, because it merits confidence, because it is seen to be trustworthy. His authority teaches, as a signpost teaches, and a man is glad to follow it, and follows it freely.

            Those who do not believe in the truth, or do not believe in Christ - or those who, even if they regard themselves as Christians, cannot find Christ in the Church - will regard any exercise of teaching authority in the Church as a threat to freedom. Those who see reasons to trust the Church's authority - because they see in it the voice of Christ ('Anyone who listens to you listens to me; anyone who rejects you rejects me' (Lk 10:16), and believe that the voice of Christ does not deceive but speaks the truth - will regard the teaching authority of the Church as an ally of their freedom. 'You will learn the truth and the truth will make you free' (Jn 8:32).


[1] One should follow an erroneous conscience - unless one is aware of, or suspects, the error. The error here lies in failing to see Christ present in the teaching of the Church. As to the consequences of this error, cf. not only what follows in the text above but also paragraph (B) of note [2] in chapter 3.

[2] In speaking of the authority or the teaching authority (the 'Magisterium') of the Church, it should be clear that I refer to the teaching - in matters of belief or conduct - which the Pope or an Ecumenical Council, in the name of the mission they have received from Christ, present as true or binding to all the faithful. I do not of course refer to the teaching of any Church pastor, or group of pastors - however authoritatively put forward - which merely expresses personal or private viewpoints.

[3] Many people who are swayed by the apparent force of the human arguments in favor of contraception (e.g. the population explosion) also feel the counterforce of the human arguments against (e.g. the argument that if contraceptive sex is licit in marriage, one can show no clear or compelling reason why it may not be licit outside marriage; or the argument that a contraceptive sexual act is clearly a limited act of self-donation and surrender, so much so that one can no longer find in it the elements that could make it an adequate and unique expression of the unlimited and exclusive surrender proper to marriage). In the main text above, however, we are taking the extreme case of the person who has not considered or has not seen the logical objections to contraception, and is therefore left solely with what appears as a theological objection (if the Church has been wrong for so many years in her ordinary teaching about birth-control, then Christ has failed in his promises to his Church).

[4] In speaking of authority one may be speaking of political force which restrains the physical freedom of the individual. One should not confuse this form of coercive authority - which is particularly repugnant to the modern mind - with moral authority which sways the mind according to the persuasiveness of its principles. This is a truly free and democratic authority. Such is the authority of the Church.