Conscience and the ‘Internal Forum’

I have been somewhat amused by the apparent discovery by some members of the Synod of Bishops of the notion of the ‘internal forum’, or ‘conscience’. It is a measure of how damaging the last thirty or so years have been to our Church. When I was studying theology in the late sixties and early seventies we were directed by the writings of Bernard Haring, which always encouraged the notion of people being able to make their own conscientious decisions, taking account of the particular circumstances of their lives. Indeed, our Redemptorist founder, Alphonsus de Liguori, was also clear on this in his writing in the eighteenth century. And this approach helped and guided us greatly in dealing with the trauma around the teaching on artificial contraception. All of my generation of Redemptorists spent many hours in confession rooms/boxes helping people to make their own decisions, and to have confidence in the decisions they made. It did create conflict between us and some of the Church authorities of the time, but I would say that all of us are happy with the position we adopted then, as being the true and best Gospel stance. Indeed I would suggest that the period of the nineteen seventies was the best and most courageous period of the Redemptorist presence in Ireland.
I know that I, and I think many of my colleagues, found it difficult to accept that what we were ordered to say in public was in stark contrast to how we spoke and listened to people in private. I am glad to see that now some of the bishops are recognising that this notion of having two very different approaches in the ‘external and internal forum’ doesn’t work any more — if it ever did. It comes across now as hypocrisy, which I always believed it was.

If the primacy of individual conscience had been given its proper place in the teaching of the Church during these last years, then all the fuss and drama about people in second relationships coming to the sacraments would not exist. The Church would be treating the people as adults, and as a consequence the people would behave as adults, and we would have a much healthier Church. But one of the consequences would be that the ‘powers that be’ in the Church would have less control of the individual, and some would be very unhappy about that.