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Let conscience go

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The whole notion, which shows up with dogmatic insistency in A Brutal Unity, that conscience is something that can and should be sacrificed will appear to many Christians as an incomprehensible foreign intrusion into what we take to be the very essence of Christian existence. What do we have if we do not have our conscience? Conscience, after all, names the ineffable reasoning that underlies all ecclesial commitment, does it not? Have I not been told by pious friends, time and again, when contemplating whether I should swim the Tiber (or walk Pope Benedict’s gracious bridge), that conscience should be my guide? Have not we all, on some level, embraced the appearance of conscience as the mediating factor in post-Reformation ecclesial division, as the thing that justifies, rationally or not, our personal decisions to be where we are, to do what we do?

Today, in fact, conscience is probably more questionable than ever. The recent public debates about “religious conscience” and its role in health regulations, only underline the inherent instability and difficulty of the whole concept, especially vis à vis the public authority of the state. And lest we imagine, in a flight of conscientious fancy, that conscience is something to whose refuge only conservative or traditionalist minds flee, Ephraim Radner suggests, almost in passing, that conscience has become for us “voracious of the self,” and it thus stands, without remainder, as the core conceptual framework of all modern identity politics, neo-tribalism, and so forth.

But, Radner tells us, conscience can and must be sacrificed, and not simply to the “solidarity” of secular social causes larger than the self (to the nonce group conscience, as it were), but to the body of Christ, which is the site of sacrifice and of unity. What exactly this means I am not sure, but the key negative implication is that we must give up the “schismatological” description of Church unity, defining the Body in reference to error, in preference for the absolute primacy of Christ. Division, sin, heresy — all wounds to the body — are not definitional, even if, contrary to traditional ecclesiology, they do in fact, according to Radner, inhere to the Church herself. What grounds our unity is Christ, and this means that he, not our inviolable consciences, must form our ecclesial identity. The violation of conscience, contrary to what we want and need in a Church grounded elsewhere than Jesus, must be suffered.

Among the many challenges of this book, it is this moral one that struck me the most from our seminar. I am still not entirely sure what it might mean, or whether it is really true, but it haunts me as I consider the ways that my own conscience feels tested in pastoral ministry, and the ways that I may be called to suffer its violation for the sake of unity.

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