Individual conscience vs. institutional authority: an excerpt from an essay by Margaret Renkl

I had a question. If God is all-merciful, how can there be possibly a hell? I could not imagine a sin so egregious that it was beyond the reach of my own capacity for mercy, and I was only a human being. I was certainly not God.

The priest did not point out that I was a little girl, intellectually ill equipped to question theology. He explained that God had given me a conscience and a good mind. In spiritual matters I must study church teachings and listen to the explanations of my elders and pray for discernment — and if I did all those things and nevertheless came to a conclusion at odds with my church’s position, I was not obliged to follow church teaching. In fact, I was obliged to do the opposite: to honor the moral wisdom of my own conscience over the teaching of my church.



Catholics today don’t hear much about the primacy of an informed conscience because many priests take the position that a conscience at odds with the church is by definition insufficiently informed. But the primacy of an informed conscience belongs as deeply to church tradition as the current brand of pastoral authoritarianism does. 

Margaret Renkl, How to Defy the Catholic Church, New York Times July 1, 2019.

I applaud Ms. Renkl for her concise and well-argued essay in today’s New York Times. I agree with her position that individual conscience takes priority over individual authority, especially when one’s position is arrived at after a careful process of study and personal discernment.

One question I have: what is the appropriate response of a religious institution to questions such as these? Is there room for a theology of “faithful dissent” in religious communities? What might that mean and what are its implications?

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