Cardinal Pell was giving a talk on St Damien of Molokai as part of St Patrick’s series of talks for the Year of Mercy. But he also reflected on Catholicism today. He said that while Pope Francis has “a prestige and popularity outside the Church” greater than perhaps any previous Pope, some Catholics are currently uneasy.
Later in his talk, the Australian cardinal, who has been asked to lead Pope Francis’s financial reforms and is a member of the Pope’s “C9” group of advisors, criticised some of the ideas about conscience which are now current in the Church.
Cardinal Pell said that emphasising the “primacy of conscience” could have disastrous effects, if conscience did not always submit to revealed teaching and the moral law. For instance, “when a priest and penitent are trying to discern the best way forward in what is known as the internal forum”, they must refer to the moral law. Conscience is “not the last word in a number of ways”, the cardinal said. He added that it was always necessary to follow the Church’s moral teaching.
The cardinal told the story of a man who was sleeping with his girlfriend, and had asked his priest whether he was able to receive Communion. It was “misleading”, the cardinal said, to tell the man simply to follow his conscience.
He added that those emphasising “the primacy of conscience” only seemed to apply it to sexual morality and questions around the sanctity of life. People were rarely advised to follow their conscience if it told them to be racist, or slow in helping the poor and vulnerable, the cardinal said.
His comments come after three years of debate on the Church’s teaching regarding Communion for the divorced and remarried. Cardinal Pell was among the senior figures who have publicly upheld the traditional doctrine repeated in Pope John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio – that the remarried should not receive Communion unless they are living “as brother and sister”.
But some prominent Catholics have suggested a different approach. For instance, Cardinal Blase Cupich has argued that someone’s conscience might tell them to receive Communion, and that “conscience is inviolable”. (Conscience must "always submit to revealed teaching and the moral law".)
Cardinal Pell quoted Blessed John Henry Newman’s writings on conscience, in which Newman rejected a “miserable counterfeit” of conscience which defines it as “the right of self-will”. He noted that Newman was defending Popes Pius IX and Gregory XVI, who in Cardinal Pell’s words, “condemned a conscience which rejected God and rejected natural law.”
The cardinal also paid tribute to St John Paul II’s “two great encyclicals”, Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae, which present the moral law as something binding in all cases.
Asked whether some Catholics’ unease about the state of the Church was related to false theories of conscience, Cardinal Pell said: “Yes, that’s correct.”
He added: “The idea that you can somehow discern that moral truths should not be followed or should not be recognised [is] absurd”.
“We all stand under the truth,” the cardinal said, pointing out that objective truth may be “different from our understanding of the truth”.
He also said that while doctrine develops, there are “no backflips”.
Cardinal Pell was asked about the letter to Pope Francis from four cardinals asking for clarification of the Pope’s recent exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The cardinals have asked the Pope to confirm that five points of Catholic teaching are still valid. These include the teaching that the remarried cannot receive Communion unless living as brother and sister, and the teaching that some moral absolutes have no exceptions.
The Pope has not replied to the four cardinals’ request, which was sent two months ago. The cardinals have taken this as an invitation to publish their questions and continue the discussion. The head of the Greek bishops has said that the four cardinals were guilty of “very serious sins” and could provoke a schism.
Asked whether he agreed with the cardinals’ questions, Cardinal Pell replied: “How can you disagree with a question?” He said that the asking of five questions was “significant”.