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Updated Monday February 20, 2006 at 8:37 a.m. CST

Australia's Pell raises furor over conscience
Truth not conscience is primary, Pell says

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Twenty-four Australian Catholic liberals, including five priests, known as fierce critics of Sydney's Cardinal George Pell, have charged the conservative prelate with being "outside the Catholic mainstream" for his views on conscience, and have asked the Vatican to rein him in.

Though the chance of Vatican action on the complaint is virtually nil, the contretemps offers a reminder of what a polarizing force the tall, hard-charging Pell, 64, represents in the normally laid-back Australian church.

In essence, Pell has argued in a series of widely circulated lectures and essays that a moral obligation to follow one's conscience, sometimes called in Catholic tradition the "primacy of conscience," cannot be invoked to justify dissent from church teaching; his critics say his position is inconsistent with the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The group went public with its protest on Monday, saying a letter sent on November 13, 2005, to American Archbishop William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's doctrinal agency, had received no response. A copy of the letter is available here: Letter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The group includes Paul Collins, a writer and former commentator with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation who left the priesthood in 2001 after a Vatican investigation he attributes to Pell's influence; and Loreto Sr. Veronica Brady, a strong progressive in the Australian press on issues such as women in the church.

Academics, parents, a civil judge and a trade union official, along with five priests, are among the other signatories. Australian sources said that aside from Collins and Brady, most of the others are not especially prominent.

In recent lectures and essays, Pell has said that it's a mistake for the church to talk about "primacy of conscience," since truth, not conscience, is actually primary. Too much talk about "conscience," he has warned, risks legitimizing moral relativism.

"I believe that the mischievous doctrine of the primacy of conscience has been used to justify many un-Catholic teachings, ranging from denying the divinity of Christ to legitimizing abortion and euthanasia," Pell said in a May 30, 2003 lecture.

In the May 2005 issue of First Things, an influential American Catholic journal, Pell blames emphasis on the primacy of the individual conscience following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) for generating "suspicion of religion and distaste for moral norms, the refusal to accept any doctrine that is personally inconvenient, religious indifference and sexual indiscipline."

The group of 24 critics argue that such assertions are inconsistent with Catholic teaching.

"His approach to this issue is, at best, not true to the Catholic tradition, although it is being disseminated as an accurate statement of Catholic belief," they write.

"We believe the authentic Catholic tradition is that conscience holds primacy in the process of moral decision-making," the group says. "Certainly we accept that Catholics are bound to take biblical and church teaching as a central and integral element in moral discernment, but that in the end conscience is the ultimate norm of each person's moral action."

The group asked Levada to insist that Pell restrict himself to the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states that even though the conscience can make mistakes, "a human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience."

Australian sources told NCR Feb. 19 that Pell's arguments on conscience have generated wide discussion, with many Catholics of a more center-left temperament taking exception.

In a Feb. 16 panel discussion at Sydney's Notre Dame University, for example, Jesuit Fr. Frank Brennan, a well-known Australian author, challenged Pell, suggesting that Catholics "in good conscience" could have voted either way on a recent bill regarding RU486, the so-called "abortion pill," before the country's parliament.

Looking directly at Pell, who was in the audience, Brennan said: "I know Cardinal Pell would disagree with me on this."

Brennan is a widely respected author and speaker who has been named a "living treasure" by Australia's National Trust for his work on social justice and human rights.

In that light, Australian church sources said it was striking that there weren't any prominent center-left figures such as Brennan among the signatories to the letter released on Monday.

Pell told the Sydney Morning Herald that he found the complaint to the Vatican a "real hoot."

"There never has been a traditional Catholic teaching of the primacy of conscience," Pell said. "The Word of God remains supreme no matter how uncomfortable this is for the loyal opposition, for Catholic dissenters."

[John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Vatican correspondent. His e-mail address is]

February 20, 2006, National Catholic Reporter

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