Pope Francis made headlines once again in recent days after writing an open letter to the founder of Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, Eugenio Scalfari, stating that non-believers would be forgiven by God if they followed their conscience.
For theologian René Camilleri, the message being driven home by the Pope is that the Church often does not allow its followers to make up their own minds.
“What the Pope is saying is that, fundamentally, sin is when a man goes against his beliefs. Unfortunately, the Church often expects to lead people like children without giving them the freedom to decide.
“The Church says: ‘this is the doctrine, you have to abide by it’… But it does not take into account the circumstances people are living in,” Fr Camilleri told The Sunday Times of Malta.
Like Fr Camilleri, commentator and university lecturer Fr Joe Borg stressed that conscience was not a Catholic prerogative, but a human one. Even non-believers had to come to terms with it.
“Following it brings them near to God. Refusing to do what it directs is a sin. When, and if they realise, that they acted wrongly and are contrite they merit the mercy and love of God,” he said.
Gozo Bishop Mario Grech drew a distinction between different types of non-believers.
The Church often expects to lead people like children without giving them the freedom to decide
Some non-believers were “negligent thinkers” who dismissed the idea of God. But others were passionately struggling to find the truth of God.
“Unfortunately most of our Christians do not aspire to achieve reflective faith. Faith can no longer be founded on a simple inheritance or connected to a sort of fideist enlistment without implicating a personal work of verification,” he said.
Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna said Catholics also needed to follow their conscience which they had the duty to form in line with Catholic teaching.
“The Catholic furthermore enjoys the support of a large family of believers – the Church – on his or her pilgrimage. When he or she falters, God’s mercy and forgiveness is there to offer the healing embrace of grace,” he said.
Recently the subject of conscience also cropped up in relation to the use of contraception in the UK – when Bishop of Arundel and Brighton Kieran Conry argued that it was up to Catholics to follow their consciences over the issue.
His remarks contradicted the Bishop of Portsmouth Philip Egan who said that the rejection of the Humanae Vitae – the 1968 papal encyclical by Pope Paul VI that forbade the use of artificial contraception – led to human trafficking and the legalisation of gay marriage.
Fr Borg said that when the Humane Vitae was published there were bishops who stressed its basic principle: that the procreative and unitive aspect of the conjugal act should not be split.
“Other bishops who tried to propose pastoral advice to couples who felt that in their concrete situation leaving the marriage act open to life would clash with the other morally binding norm of parental responsibility. In such situation, these bishops said, these couples should make a decision in conscience as to how they should behave,” he said.
Fr Borg believes Mgr Conry’s views are “pastorally more sound” and he quoted the late Cardinal John Heenan who said: “The teaching of the Church is very clear. A man is bound to follow his conscience and this is true even if his conscience is in error... Now it’s the duty of a Catholic to inform his conscience.”
Cana Movement director Joe Mizzi said there was an alternative for those Catholics whose conscience was torn between the use of contraception and parental responsibility.
The Church advocated parental responsibility through the use of natural family planning. When looking at the procreative dimension of the conjugal act, he said, the Church said it must incorporate the physical, psychological, financial and social aspects.
“The Church proposes being responsible in all spheres of life, including sexual relationships,” he said.
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