“Any form of inquisition, however subtle, not only harms the development of a sound theology, it also causes irreparable damage to the credibility of the church as a community in the modern world,” - Nijmegen Declaration (1968) co-signed Joseph Ratzinger
It is now evident that former Cardinal now Pope Benedict has completely reversed his stance on dissent from Church teachings by calling for total obedience to church teachings as God's will. Catholics today are faced with overwhelming number of religious issues ranging from birth control to euthanasia. At the same time we are being told that to deviate from Church teaching is a grave sin. Can we know for certain who is right and who is wrong? The answer to that question for some will be a definitive ‘YES’ and for others an equally definitive ‘NO’! Confusing? Not really.
It is important to note Benedict’s warning equates ‘dissent’ from Church teachings as a direct disobedience to God. This kind of dogmatic reasoning completely ignores the primacy of individual conscience. Remember even Jesus deferred to the Father (John 8:28). Church teachings, except for declarations about Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Bodily Assumption, are and never have been infallible. Ultimately we must learn to rely on our relationship with God and the teachings of the Church. However, when there is conflict between the two we must obey one or the other.
Today there are those who seek safety in their faith by submitting to a strict obedience to Church teachings. However there are also those who have matured beyond the need for ready answers. Jesus reminds us that “no one can be a slave of two masters; he will hate one and love the other; he will be loyal to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money”. (Mat. 6:24) In either case God, through his unconditional love for humanity will respect the basis for our individual decisions. The role of the Church is to reflect that unconditional love and bring us to a mature understanding of our faith. As adults we are called to take personal responsibility for the growth of our faith. Anything else merely keeps us dependent on the opinions and decisions from people we probably do not even know or understand. In modern terms this is known as a co-dependency! This cannot bring us to a healthy relationship with God or with ourselves. Jesus recognized this problem when he said “No pupil is greater than his teacher, but every pupil when he has completed his training will be like his teacher”. (Luke 6:40). The Church at times has been an excellent and very necessary teacher, but like any good parent, the time comes when it needs to let go and let God. Perhaps this point is best illustrated when Catholics begin to understand the Sacraments as a starting point rather than a destination. The rest is the responsibility of the individual adult.
Confirmation (Latin confirmare, make firm) is the sacrament of initiation through which baptized Christians receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit which strengthens them in their faith. Accordingly this is the time an individual commits or awakens his or her self to the Divine Indwelling, a.k.a. the ‘Internal Guidance System’, or the ‘True-Self’. Traditionally this is the point at which the ‘confirmed’ take full responsibility for the future growth of their faith and marks the beginning of the formation of the individual conscience. The primacy of the individual conscience was clearly recognized by Vatican II and therefore part of todays church teaching. It can be found in PastoralConstitution on the Church in the Modern World, Par. 16.
At this point we need to learn to rely and trust in our ‘Internal Guidance System’ whenever an emotion resonates be that positive or negative. Whenever we are responding positively, we can know that we are in alignment with our True Self/Guidance System. Alternatively, if we find ourselves responding negatively to a situation/question, we can know that we are out of that alignment. The greatest affirmation we can receive is God’s promise that “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, will teach you everything and make you remember all that I have told you” (John 14:26). While God set us free, our ego or ‘False-Self’ can easily deceive us and cause us to chose wrongly or out of alignment. There certainly have been times in Church history that it too was out of alignment. But Benedict’s silencing of dissenting voices may also shut out the voice of the Holy Spirit at a time when it is needed most.