Conscience and Authority: The Protestant Dilemma

by Dr. Jeff Mirus, October 24, 2007


After writing last week’s column (Authority and the Logic of Revelation) I was distressed to read Gilbert Meilaender’s article in the November issue of First Things, entitled “Conscience and Authority”. Meilaender is a learned and deeply religious man who teaches Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University. But Meilaender is also a Lutheran and, on Protestant grounds, the task of explicating the relationship between conscience and authority is not merely Herculean. It is impossible.

The Protestant Solution

The article looks squarely at three imperatives which Meilaender takes as givens: the need for the “Church” to speak with authority in order to preserve and transmit Christianity; the need for the individual Christian to respect that authority; and the need for the Christian to form his conscience ultimately through a direct personal relationship with God. As the author rightly notes, these givens necessarily create a tension which cannot be completely resolved. After struggling for some 5,000 words to maintain both the authority of the “Church” and the primacy of the individual conscience, Meilaender concludes that when the individual Christian feels bound to disagree with the “Church”, he may do so only while acknowledging that he cannot claim “Church” authority for his decision.

In one sense, the author has struck a blow for integrity. For example, he would have no patience with Catholics who use their authority as representatives of the Church to teach something the Church does not approve. But in the end he strikes this blow purely on the level of sociology. His case and his conclusion for the “Church” are indistinguishable from any intelligent case and conclusion for the State, or for any other body claiming human authority in the context of a tradition. Unfortunately, this leaves an enormous hole in the argument. For it is perfectly permissible for us to work for change in the principles of any organization. Whether we can ultimately claim the authority of that organization for our ideas depends solely on whether we win an internal battle for control. We ought not to dishonestly claim any organization’s authority to promote something contrary to its official position, but we are perfectly free to attempt to influence the organization to change its position. If we succeed, we can then claim its authority for promoting what we had all along asserted it should say.

The reason Gilbert Meilaender cannot do any better than this is that Lutherans, like all Protestants, lack a coherent idea of “Church” (hence my quotation marks). Not only do they have no way to guarantee the rightness of private conscience, but neither can they establish the rightness of the “Church”. Because Protestantism has no adequate notion of “Church”, the Catholic Church (without quotes) refers to Protestant groups as sects. In fact, Protestantism consists of multiple ad hoc groups of individual believers who attempt, sociologically, to rally around Scripture in the context of what they individually conceive of as the Christian tradition. In this way, they attempt to retain something of a corporate Christian core, with many bodies pointing in various imperfect ways to a central idea. The “Church” is either a specifically structured human organization representing this tradition or the entire body of Christians taken in their connection to it. Meilaender is clearly right to recognize that, to be intelligible, Christianity must have a corporate identity. He is therefore certainly right to face the inevitable puzzle of “Church” authority. But he will be incapable of solving this puzzle until he understands how Christianity’s corporate core is constituted.

Conscience Formed by Authority

As I have said several times in the past, the only solution is to recognize the force of Newman’s famous dictum that there cannot be so great a difference in dispensation between the first Christians and ourselves as that they had a living infallible authority and we have none. In other words, any attempt to conceive of Christianity without a living infallible authority is precisely the same as saying that there have been three covenants: the Old Covenant before Christ; the New Covenant when Christ was alive; and the Newer and More Confused Covenant thereafter. The lack of a living infallible authority on earth after Christ’s Resurrection is a radical change in the New Covenant. It is, in fact, a deal breaker.

Fortunately for us, the deal wasn’t broken. Unlike all other authorities, the Church’s claim to authority is based on a divine guarantee. The guarantee consists in the historical facts that Christ gave Peter the power of the keys and the power to bind and loose; that Christ prayed for him that he might not defect in faith; and that Christ commissioned him to feed his sheep and confirm his brethren. The early Church consistently acted on the understanding that this power was conveyed to Peter’s successors in the office of the papacy. Indeed, as Newman and many others have pointed out, the contrary belief breaks the deal: it is ecclesiologically untenable. For this reason popes are called vicars of Christ. Christians are obliged to believe what these vicars of Christ have formally taught and do continue to teach about faith and morals, and in precisely this measure Christians are guaranteed that what they are taught will be certainly and unquestionably true.

Thus the resolution between conscience and authority in the Church is achieved by forming one’s conscience according to the Church’s teaching authority without exception. The only possible conflict of conscience with the Church occurs when one must resist particular fallible churchmen in order to defend what the Magisterium requires Catholics to believe. Such a conflict is not at all a crisis. The conscience must always be formed by the Church’s Magisterium; only then may it be properly pitted against the sinful or unfaithful demands of Catholics in positions of authority who fail to respect that same Magisterium. One fights such a battle of conscience, in the rare cases when it occurs directly, precisely by claiming the authority of the Church. Magisterial authority does not weaken the Catholic conscience; it strengthens, perfects and guarantees it.

Personal Decisions

If a matter of dispute has not yet been settled, then there is no authority to be claimed, and so there is no breach of Church unity in going one way or the other. There was a time when good Catholics could disagree over whether Mary was immaculately conceived. Thomas Aquinas himself chose the wrong side. But now that the Church’s Magisterium has made the matter clear, Catholics form their beliefs according to this assured doctrine. The same is true of moral teachings. Once the Church has made it clear, for example, that in vitro fertilization is immoral, we are guilty of improperly forming our consciences if we elevate any personal concerns, contrary authorities, or prayer experiences above that single unassailable fact. For those successfully following the divine scheme, a true crisis of conscience is always the result of misunderstanding or sin. It may happen, but it never happens necessarily. Such a crisis cannot arise, as it does for Meilaender, as a result of a flaw in God’s design.

In this we see that the relationship of personal conscience to the Church is fundamentally unlike its relationship to any other authority. The Church has been precisely and deliberately constituted so that her teaching authority provides the sole certain path to eternal life. Her authority is not merely a handy guide to be measured in the crunch against what we learn from other sources or from our own private relationship with God. Honesty about the source of our opinions is laudable. Indeed, it is sadly lacking in our own age. But sincerity, however refreshing, cannot justify the opinions.

This is why I was distressed when I read Gilbert Meilaender’s article. Not because of any inclination to attack Meilaender: to the contrary, I both respect and appreciate his consistently deep and intelligent commitment to Christian witness. Even in this current effort, he has much to say about what it means to accept authority. But on the title question of his article he was defeated before he began. Without a Catholic understanding of the Church, the problem of conscience and authority cannot be solved.