Truth and Conscience

Posted in A Report on the Sinsinawa Dominicans Today

Truth and Conscience

The first half of this article gives some context and background knowledge in regards to the teaching of the Catholic Church and the Dominican Saints. I go on to point to some of the sources of the currently prevalent thinking of Dominican Sisters about “liberation” and conscience, then cover in the latter part of the article a selection of what contemporary Dominican sisters apparently see as conscience issues. Finally, I describe the content of a video titled “A Matter of Conscience” which was made as a collaborative effort by several like-minded congregations of Dominican Sisters in response to the LCWR Doctrinal Assessment, and which Sinsinawa Dominicans were asked to view by their prioress. This video attempts to justify dissent by reference to Vatican II, the USCCB, Canon Law, personal experience, and even a quotation by Joseph Ratzinger, taken seriously out of context.

I also want to simply provide concordance links to the New Testament references to truth and to conscience, which I have not surveyed here, but which is very relevant.

Catholic Teaching

I shall begin by quoting some major Catholic Church documents that provide essential context for reading and interpreting the Sinsinawa Dominicans’ comments about conscience. The teaching of the Vatican II document on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, on conscience and the formation of conscience, is important in our day and repeatedly referred to by sisters as the basis of their beliefs about conscience.

[T]he highest norm of human life is the divine law-eternal, objective and universal-whereby God orders, directs and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community by a plan conceived in wisdom and love. Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever more fully the truth that is unchanging. Wherefore every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, under use of all suitable means.[…]

Moreover, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it.

On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life.[…]

In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church. For the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth. It is her duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that truth which is Christ Himself, and also to declare and confirm by her authority those principles of the moral order which have their origins in human nature itself.

Orthodox Catholics do not believe that something is true because the Catholic Church says it is true, but rather that the Church, by a charism from the Holy Spirit, does teach truth with certainty and authority. “The Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth,” wrote Saint Paul [1 Timothy 3:15]–and further on in this article you will see Father Mazzuchelli quote that, too. At times, Vatican II was even more straightforward about the obligation of Catholics to be guided by Catholic moral teaching, for instance in regards to marriage, conjugal love, and parenthood. From Gaudium et Spes, which upholds these things to be great goods:

[I]n their manner of acting, spouses should be aware that they cannot proceed arbitrarily, but must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church’s teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel. That divine law reveals and protects the integral meaning of conjugal love, and impels it toward a truly human fulfillment.

You will see some of the sisters I quote in the second half of this article saying that it is a matter of “conscience” for them to dissent from some of this teaching–though some other sisters, it should be made clear, disagree with those. Soon after the Council, Pope Paul VI re-stated and explained quite prophetically the moral illicitness and harm of artificial contraception in Humanae Vitae.

At least a few sisters say their conscience leads them to dissent even from the moral teaching protective of the lives of unborn children–though officially as a congregation the Sinsinawa Dominicans have upheld Catholic teaching about this. Abortion, of course, which is materially murder, has been understood to be wrong even from the very first surviving extra-biblical Christian text, the Didache, which says “you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.” Pope John Paul II renewed and extensively commented on this perennial moral teaching in light of the situation in our time, in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which talks a good deal about conscience, for instance:

It is at the heart of the moral conscience that the eclipse of the sense of God and of man, with all its various and deadly consequences for life, is taking place. It is a question, above all, of the individual conscience, as it stands before God in its singleness and uniqueness. But it is also a question, in a certain sense, of the “moral conscience” of society: in a way it too is responsible, not only because it tolerates or fosters behaviour contrary to life, but also because it encourages the “culture of death”, creating and consolidating actual “structures of sin” which go against life…. When conscience, this bright lamp of the soul (cf. Mt 6:22-23), calls “evil good and good evil” (Is 5:20), it is already on the path to the most alarming corruption and the darkest moral blindness.

And yet all the conditioning and efforts to enforce silence fail to stifle the voice of the Lord echoing in the conscience of every individual: it is always from this intimate sanctuary of the conscience that a new journey of love, openness and service to human life can begin.[…]

Faced with the progressive weakening in individual consciences and in society of the sense of the absolute and grave moral illicitness of the direct taking of all innocent human life, especially at its beginning and at its end, the Church’s Magisterium has spoken out with increasing frequency in defence of the sacredness and inviolability of human life. The Papal Magisterium, particularly insistent in this regard, has always been seconded by that of the Bishops, with numerous and comprehensive doctrinal and pastoral documents issued either by Episcopal Conferences or by individual Bishops. The Second Vatican Council also addressed the matter forcefully, in a brief but incisive passage.

Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

1898 student art from the magazine of Saint Clara Academy, Sinsinawa, The Young Eagle.

1898 student art incorporating the Dominican motto, from The Young Eagle, the magazine of Saint Clara Academy girls’ school, Sinsinawa.

Again, it is very clear that Catholics do not believe that the fact that the Catholic Church teaches something is what makes it true. Catholicism is not fideism, a belief that unaided human reason cannot know religious truth and so it can only be taken “on faith” or else regarded skeptically–in fact, humans have a true capacity for this spiritual truth in the rational faculties of the soul made in God’s own image. And Catholicism is not “traditionalism” in that condemned, heretical sense in which the fact something is “traditional” is held to be the chief criterion and guarantee of its certitude–though there is another sense in which Catholics must be traditional and uphold a continuity of the Faith handed on to us, increasingly developed but not in essence changed, from the Apostles. Although the fact that the Church solemnly teaches something is not what makes it true, we do believe that the Church has a charism of infallibility. Turning again to Vatican II, Lumen Gentium taught that:

This Sacred Council, following closely in the footsteps of the First Vatican Council, with that Council teaches and declares that Jesus Christ, the eternal Shepherd, established His holy Church, having sent forth the apostles as He Himself had been sent by the Father; and He willed that their successors, namely the bishops, should be shepherds in His Church even to the consummation of the world. And in order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, He placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion. And all this teaching about the institution, the perpetuity, the meaning and reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible magisterium, this Sacred Council again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful. […]

And this infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded. And this is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith, by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals. And therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment. For then the Roman Pontiff is not pronouncing judgment as a private person, but as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom the charism of infallibility of the Church itself is individually present, he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith. The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops, when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter. To these definitions the assent of the Church can never be wanting, on account of the activity of that same Holy Spirit, by which the whole flock of Christ is preserved and progresses in unity of faith.

This applies just as much to the teaching on the grave wrongness of contraception in Humanae Vitae in 1968, to the the teaching on the Church’s absolute incapacity to ordain women as priests, in Pope John Paul II’s 1994 Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, and teaching on the very grave wrongness of abortion in Evangelium Vitae in 1995, to mention only a few matters on which I have observed efforts to assert exercise of “conscience” over and against definitive Catholic teaching, by some Sinsinawa Dominicans. It is not clear what percentage actually support a right to have a direct abortion, but belief in the possibility of “women’s ordination” is very clearly held by most of them. I saw that with my own eyes in January of 2013, and for instance Sister Patty Caraher wrote on SinsinOP in 1999, “Very few of us believe that God has only called men to be priests.” The great seriousness of the matter in terms of damaging ecclesial communion makes it important to lay out adequately here what Ordinatio Sacerdotalis says:

 Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church’s judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force.

Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.

Subsequently, because some wanted to claim this was “not definitive” or “not infallible” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarified that it indeed is:

Dubium: Whether the teaching that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women, which is presented in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis to be held definitively, is to be understood as belonging to the deposit of faith.

Responsum: Affirmative.

This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium 25, 2). Thus, in the present circumstances, the Roman Pontiff, exercising his proper office of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), has handed on this same teaching by a formal declaration, explicitly stating what is to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of the faith.

The Sovereign Pontiff John Paul II, at the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect, approved this Reply, adopted in the Ordinary Session of this Congregation, and ordered it to be published.

Rome, from the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the Feast of the Apostles SS. Simon and Jude, October 28, 1995.

Joseph Card. Ratzinger

Only recently, unknowingly echoing the words of Sister Francis Assisi Loughery on this topic years ago on SinsinOP, which angered some: “Roma locquta, causa finita,” Pope Francis said to an interviewer: “The Church has spoken, and said no. John Paul II, in a definitive formulation, said that door is closed.”

In 1907 Pope Pius X authored an encyclical letter titled Pascendi Domenici Gregis, in regards to the heresy of Modernism. Modernism is more or less the idea that that may have been true enough then, but this other logically opposed idea is true now, because doctrine has not simply developed but evolved, and must be helped along to evolve in keeping with what the modernists say their conscience tells them. This is opposed to the Catholic understanding of the way of conscience formation expressed in Dignitatis Humanae of Vatican II, which is not at all the “thumbs-up” to Modernism some have wanted to read it as: “under the gentle disposition of divine Providence, [one] can come to perceive ever more fully the truth that is unchanging.” Pope Saint Pius X asked, “can anybody who takes a survey of the whole system be surprised that We should define it as the synthesis of all heresies?” The program of the Modernists he described continues to sound very familiar:

[T]he Modernists express astonishment when they are reprimanded or punished. What is imputed to them as a fault they regard as a sacred duty. Being in intimate contact with consciences they know better than anybody else, and certainly better than the ecclesiastical authority, what needs exist – nay, they embody them, so to speak, in themselves. Having a voice and a pen they use both publicly, for this is their duty. Let authority rebuke them as much as it pleases – they have their own conscience on their side and an intimate experience which tells them with certainty that what they deserve is not blame but praise. Then they reflect that, after all there is no progress without a battle and no battle without its victim, and victims they are willing to be like the prophets and Christ Himself. They have no bitterness in their hearts against the authority which uses them roughly, for after all it is only doing its duty as authority. Their sole grief is that it remains deaf to their warnings, because delay multiplies the obstacles which impede the progress of souls, but the hour will most surely come when there will be no further chance for tergiversation [according to Miriam-Webster: “evasion of straightforward action or clear-cut statement; desertion of a cause, position, party, or faith”], for if the laws of evolution may be checked for a while, they cannot be ultimately destroyed. And so they go their way, reprimands and condemnations notwithstanding, masking an incredible audacity under a mock semblance of humility. While they make a show of bowing their heads, their hands and minds are more intent than ever on carrying out their purposes. And this policy they follow willingly and wittingly, both because it is part of their system that authority is to be stimulated but not dethroned, and because it is necessary for them to remain within the ranks of the Church in order that they may gradually transform the collective conscience – thus unconsciously avowing that the common conscience is not with them, and that they have no right to claim to be its interpreters.

One particularly obvious modernist theology of today is called “the universe story” or “the new cosmology” and has been promoted heavily by the LCWR up to the present day with an August 2013 talk on this subject by Sister Ilia Delio, OSF at their annual Assembly, and made strong inroads into Sinsinawa. “The universe story” was taught for instance at the 2009 Sinsinawa Community Days gathering. I discuss it also in my review of the 2009 book Awakening to Prayer by Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Clare Wagner, an afficionado and sometimes teacher of “the new cosmology.” It is based on a pantheistic or panentheistic re-imagining of religions in light of Tielhard de Chardin and a notion of “cosmic evolution”; the major exponent and promoter of this new-agey, science-flavored ideology today is Dr. Brian Swimme, who has been a past LCWR speaker. As far as I have ever seen, and as best as I can sincerely try to understand, adherents do not seem to necessarily believe their religion of origin is uniquely true, but that all religions emerge or evolve essentially from human experience, and even basic morality and core religious doctrines can and should change, particularly in light of new scientific understandings.

Some sisters seem to not feel bound “literally” to basic truths of the Catholic Faith anymore, as reflected in the August, 2013 words of Sister Patty Caraher: “One of the challenges I experience with our creed is that for so many years I have taken it literally.  I now find myself translating the creed in my mind and often saying my own creed.” She says she is “very taken with [new cosmology enthusiast Franciscan Sister Ilia] Delio’s thinking:  ‘Christianity needs a new direction, one pointing not upward but forward, not toward ‘heaven above’ but to a new future of healthy relationships in the cosmos, a new heaven on earth, which is what Jesus prayed for….'” But at least one sister, Ann Marie Mongoven, spoke up to quote Pope Francis as voicing her own view: “The faith is as we say in the Credo, the whole faith, without subtractions, without reductions, without compromises.”

In the documentary film Band of Sisters which I viewed at Sinsinawa Mound in January of 2013, perhaps the most striking line for me was Monroe IHM Sister and former LCWR president Nancy Sylvester, who from her statements was clearly a pantheist or panentheist, saying that in the new cosmology, there’s not a three-level universe anymore, there’s no heaven or hell. I was stunned by her apparent willingness to regard Christian doctrine as if it were no more or less than a pre-scientific misconception of the cosmos in need of “correction,” and there seemed to me no other reasonable way to interpret her belief system but post-Christian. This film was a wake-up for me that there were some sisters who now believed something very substantially different from the Catholic faith.  And the hundreds of Sinsinawa Dominicans present seemed to love it. That may have been the most surreal thing I ever experienced.

Pope Pius X knew all about it in 1907. The common conscience of the Catholic Church is not with the modernists, and no quantity of opinion polls showing that they’ve undermined the Church’s teaching from within and converted erstwhile Catholics to their way of thinking, could ever make those beliefs true, or truly Catholic. Father Samuel, do not forget your kindness and affection for your sisters, or the good purposes you hoped they would fulfill, but pray for us.

Truth and Conscience according to the Dominican Saints

I was interested to know what the Dominican Saints say. This was far and away the most refreshing and spiritually helpful section of the “Report on the Sinsinawa Dominicans Today”, for me to write, so I hope the reader will not be too quick to gloss over it.

Saint Dominic, detail from "The Mocking of Christ" by Fr Angelico

Saint Dominic, detail from “The Mocking of Christ” by Fra Angelico

Saint Dominic was launched, bare-footed, peaceful, joyful of heart, a man of the Gospel, on his mission of the Holy Preaching in response to the Albigensian or Cathar heresy. This taught a dualistic idea that matter was created by a devil and was evil, and spirit created by God and good, therefore the Albigensians were given to extremes of asceticism that the spirit might somehow free itself from the flesh, even to rejection of marriage and motherhood, and even fasting to the point of death. The heretics formed their own parallel church imitating the Catholic Church, but without sacraments (because matter was, to them, evil). Ideas have consequences, and Albigensianism was not just untrue but harming its practitioners, causing strife, and even leading to violence and death. Dominic preached the goodness of the material creation and the beauty of the Incarnation, finding powerful support for this preaching by prayer of the Rosary.

Because Albigensianism spread particularly among the noblewomen of southern France, nine of Dominic’s women converts became, in 1206 in Prouille, France, the first religious foundation of what would become the Order of Preachers. Their form of preaching against the heresy was by the living witness to the truth of the orthodox Catholic Faith manifested in their monastic community of nuns, where they spoke of the Faith to those who visited them, and also educated children. Later on, the mendicant Friars Preachers were founded with Papal approval. This was a novelty since all religious life had been monastic, and in that era of poor clerical education, normally only bishops preached. The good the friars did, and their dedication to the study of sacred truth by means of the then-new Scholastic theology, which became the basis for improvement in education of all clergy, assured that this new idea was here to stay.

The earliest account of the life of Dominic is in the Libellus of Blessed Jordan of Saxony, who told this story of the Saint’s willingness not simply to die for the truth, but his love for the truth was such that he would prefer the death to be especially dreadful:

Some time later, as he neared a place in which he suspected traps had been laid for him, he started to sing and walked by fearlessly. When the heretics learned of this, they marvelled at his courage and asked him, “Aren’t you afraid of death? What would you have done if we had captured you?” His only answer was, “I would have asked you not to kill me all at once, but to cut me up member by member, so as to give me a lingering martyrdom. Then, before you plucked out my eyes, I would ask you to hold before me each part you had cut from my body. After all that, you could let the rest of my body roll about in its own blood or you could kill me altogether.” Astounded by these words, the enemies of truth no longer laid snares for him or hunted for the soul of the just man whom they would help rather than hurt, if they killed him. But, with all his power and zeal he continue to busy himself winning as many souls as he could for Christ, since his heart was filled with an admirable and almost incredible desire for the salvation of all men.

And “[t]he joy which shone in his features bore witness to a clear conscience.” Saint Dominic liked to read Cassian or the Desert Fathers, whose teachings on the eight vices helped him to form his conscience for growth in virtue. “Along with the help of grace, this book refined the purity of his conscience, intensified the light of his contemplation, and raised him to a high level of perfection.”

Saint Thomas Aquinas, by Fra Bartolomeo.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, by Fra Bartolomeo.

In the Summa Theologiae of the “Angelic Doctor” Saint Thomas Aquinas (on which I am no expert, but trying my best), in the First Part under Question 16, I learn that what is true and consonant with reality, is logically prior to what is good. Although truths regarding various things and residing in various people’s intellects are many, “yet the truth of the divine intellect is one, according to which all things are said to be true.” And in the divine intellect, truth is immutable. As to what is good, (First Part, Q. 6, Art. 2) “there is something that is absolutely being and essentially good, which we call God…. Everything is therefore called good from the divine goodness as from the first exemplary, effecting, and final principle of all goodness.”

Saint Thomas thinks about conscience differently than you or I or Vatican II. He uses (in the First Part under Q. 79 Art. 12) a term unfamiliar to most of us, synderesis, meaning according to the Catholic Encyclopedia “the habitual knowledge of the universal practical principles of moral action,” which by definition “inclines to good only.” For Saint Thomas, conscience is specifically not a capacity, but rather a pronouncement of the mind on the goodness or badness of something we have done or intend to do, as he explains in Art. 13. Conscience is formed by habits that depend on synderesis, the knowledge of first principles. That is the only thing at all that he says about formation of conscience. Saint Thomas doesn’t appear to have been thinking in terms of conscience as an authority that must be obeyed (perhaps one should reflect, our mind could be pronouncing wrongly on the goodness or badness of acts), rather, he understands good acts to be, in a more direct sense, guided by the habit/virtue of prudence, “the knowledge of what to seek and what to avoid.” Theologian John Lamont’s analysis seems probable and rings very true in relation to the spiritual life:

According to Aquinas’s understanding of prudence, identifying the formation of conscience as the way to moral improvement is a mistake, if such formation is understood as an attempt to first improve one’s capacity for arriving at true speculative judgements about the rightness or wrongness of actions, in order then to be able to act upon this improved knowledge. On Aquinas’s view, this will not work. The natural way to get better at knowing what it is good to do is principally by doing what is good. One can acquire knowledge about the goodness or badness of actions through speculative investigation rather than through practice, but only in a subsidiary and introductory way.

The way most of us for the last several centuries, maybe particularly as a result of the Ignatian examen prayer or examination of conscience, have conceived of conscience is actually distinctly different. Vatican II taught that “On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life.” Theologian Germain Grisez explains how to connect Vatican II and Saint Thomas:

As used by Vatican II, “conscience” refers at once to awareness of principles of morality, to the process of reasoning from principles to conclusions, and to the conclusions, which are moral judgments on choices made or under consideration. St. Thomas uses a particular word for each: “synderesis” for awareness of principles, “practical reasoning” for the process of moving from principles to conclusions, and “conscience” for the concluding judgment only (see S.t., 1, q. 79, aa. 12–13; 1–2, q. 94, aa. 2, 6).”

Saint Catherine of Siena, in the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena, by Andrea di Vanni, one of her disciples

Saint Catherine of Siena, fresco by Andrea di Vanni, one of her disciples, in the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena

When Saint Catherine of Siena, the Order of Preachers’ other glorious Doctor of the Church, speaks of truth she speaks usually of Jesus Himself, whom she calls often in her letters la prima dolce Verità, “First Sweet Truth,” or “Sweet Primal Truth,” and this truth, Jesus, is also at the same time the Way, whom she speaks of with a metaphor of a bridge which is the only way to cross over the water without drowning, and as Life.

Saint Catherine speaks of conscience most memorably as an inner alarm against wrong acts. She writes of “the worm of conscience” gnawing at sinners during their life, and even, agonizingly, after the damnation of the impenitent. Treating of priests and the need for their reform, she uses a vivid extended metaphor of conscience as a shepherd’s dog, which if it is not nourished with the blood of the Lamb (practically, the person’s memory needs to be nourished with the blood) , cannot bark as it ought to warn of danger to the flock. One is reminded of a key symbol of the Dominicans (in Latin it sounds like Domini-canes, the “Lord’s dogs”) that came from a dream Saint Dominic’s mother had, of a dog with a torch in its mouth–which would come to seem a symbol of his preaching. The image appears in her letters too. This is from her Dialogue, trans. by Sr. Suzanne Noffke, O.P., Racine:

In other words, the remembrance of the blood sets the soul afire with hatred for sin and love for virtue, and this hatred and love cleanse the soul of the stain of deadly sin. This so invigorates conscience that it stands guard, and as soon as any enemy of the soul, that is, sin, wants to gain entrance (and not only the will but even the thought of it), conscience barks like a dog, excitedly, until it rouses reason.

The historic shield of the Sisters of Third Order of Saint Dominic, of the Congregation of the Most Holy Rosary, of Sinsinawa, as it appeared in The Young Eagle, magazine of Saint Clara Academy, in 1899. What might at first glance seem to be a lamb, is a dog with a torch in its mouth, a symbol of Saint Dominic and his preaching. The top motto: "TRUTH," and at bottom, "to praise, to bless, and to preach."

The historic shield of the Sisters of Third Order of Saint Dominic, of the Congregation of the Most Holy Rosary, of Sinsinawa, as it appeared in The Young Eagle, magazine of Saint Clara Academy, in 1899. What might at first glance seem to be a lamb, is a dog with a torch in its mouth, a symbol of Saint Dominic and his preaching. The top motto: “TRUTH,” and at bottom, “to praise, to bless, and to preach.”

Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, painted from life at age 17 at the insistence of his family, while he studied in Rome for the priesthood.

Samuel Mazzuchelli, by Francesco Podesti. In 1825 the teenaged Dominican was painted from life by an excellent artist, at the insistent request of his family, while he studied in Rome for the priesthood. In his left hand he holds Saint Augustine’s The City of God, a reference to the religious name he had been given, Augustine. “The artist wished me to make the gesture you see because he considered it very significant and expressive,” he explained to his dad.

Venerable Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, founder of the Sinsinawa Dominicans, spread truth to Indians and frontier settlers of the Upper Midwest. Among his personal books preserved in the little museum at Sinsinawa Mound is The Imitation of Christ, which one might think of when he says in his Memoirs that “Such should be the mien of him who preaches the truth confirming it with the brightest example: charity, zeal, disinterestedness, piety, modesty and patience should make of him a living image of his Divine Master, Who set example before precept. ” He did not hesitate to address the Holy Preaching to unlearned people, for “Christ’s doctrine is intelligible to all mankind to some degree, and therein differs from human teachings.” Therefore he is confident in the Indians’ capability of knowing the truth and becoming perfect Christians.

The Catholic Priest preaches the truths of the holy Religion of Jesus Christ to the Indians as he would preach them to the most learned persons of the world; without reference to their ignorance or their knowledge he only announces the spotless, unalterable Faith in which he himself has been instructed and which all the Catholics of the world have believed from Apostolic times. And in truth, such is the command of Jesus Christ: “Go ye into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be condemned.” (Mark XVI, 15.) By this means the most simple minds receive all Christian truth, without the aid of books, and Biblical studies, for which the greater part of humanity is unfitted either from natural incapacity or the laborious circumstances of their lives.

In some ways the mission to the Indians was simpler than the mission to the white settlers in the religiously pluralistic milieu of the frontier, where religious controversy with protestants was a regular occurrence. “It is a truth from the mouth of Truth itself: ‘He who is not with Me is against Me.’ So religious hostility can be avoided in no way except by the adoption of the same belief, or by the indifferentism which is a culpable abandonment of every Christian truth.”

Father Mazzuchelli, a great apostle of God’s mercy through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, draws on Saint Catherine’s image of the “worm of conscience” in the course of commenting on Calvinist anti-Catholic sermon that decried Confession.

Nature herself, even without the light of the Gospel, suggests to the man fallen into sin the remedy of a humble confession, and conscience seems to leave him no respite nor to promise him peace of heart except at the cost of a confidential declaration of his own fault. The worldly live slaves to the secret but stern reproaches of a guilty conscience which they cannot hush even in the silence of night, while Christians are called by the Holy Faith to lay down the grievous burden of their sins with their vicious attachments at the feet of him who represents upon earth the Divine Mercy. There they exchange the restless, cruel, deadly worm of conscience for that peace of soul and of heart that the world could never give. It was for our Redeemer to provide the necessary remedies for the spiritual ills of fallen humanity, and therefore did He say to His disciples: “Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” (John XX, 22, 23.) Why will the Christian deny to his Saviour the power of communicating His graces through the ministry of men?

Father Samuel Mazzuchelli's confessional at Saint Augustine's Church in New Diggings, WI. He's on the other side of the grill waiting for you to come in.

Venerable Samuel Mazzuchelli’s confessional at historic Saint Augustine’s Church, built by him in New Diggings, WI, several miles from Sinsinawa.

In his writings, Father Mazzuchelli depicts pioneers and Indians alike responding in a Christian way to the promptings of conscience and the awareness that we cannot justify ourselves, by seeking Jesus in His Sacraments. He baptized hundreds, celebrated Mass in wigwams erected specially for the occasion, or in churches he built himself, and inspired many Christian souls to be reconciled to God. I beg your indulgence for a longer than usual quote from this dear and very holy man:

Safe and comforting would it be for sinners to imitate the conduct of that aged man who in 1832 went from Pointe Saint Ignace to the Church of Mackinac to lay down the burden upon his conscience; for more than forty years deprived of the Sacramental Grace of Confession, Mr. N. with the intent of ending the gnawing at his heart said with the prodigal son, “I will go to my Heavenly Father’s house: Why should I defraud myself of the inheritance of the children of God? The moving words of life which I heard last Sunday from the mouth of the Priest pierced my heart, they seemed to be aimed at me. I am a true son of the Church who made strange misuse of the gifts of Heaven received in my youth. Lo my soul for many years lives in direst poverty and is dying of hunger!” Moved by these thoughts which softened his heart, he makes ready and leaning upon his staff crosses over upon the ice which in winter joins his place of abode to the Island. Like the leper of the Gospel, he shows himself to the Priest manifesting the clearest signs of a true contrition in the accusation of his faults of more than forty years. He blots out his sins with his sobs, he washes them with floods of tears in the merits of Christ, and provides for the welfare of his soul which he wills to save at any cost. Rising then from the tribunal of Penance with a deep sigh from his very heart, he said: “My father, I seem to have laid down from my shoulders the weight of a mountain !” Such was his gratitude to God’s Mercy that he could never afterwards speak of his confession without tears of tenderness.

Not only the white pioneers, but, “Guided by the dictates of conscience, the Indians recognize Confession as the most natural effect of a true repentance.”

Father Mazzuchelli resoundingly approves of the American principle of religious freedom, as a consequence of which Catholic missionary work was able to be carried out freely even in these majority protestant lands. What he says brings this article full-circle back to Dignitatis Humanae, the Vatican II document on Religious Freedom, because what Vatican II says on the matter is pretty much exactly like what Father Mazzuchelli wrote 120 years earlier:

For the same reason and in the same sense that every government in the world does not interfere with its subjects in indifferent matters, but merely protects them, as for instance in the cultivation of their own farms, the form of their dwellings, the color of their garments, etc., just so in the United States are the citizens protected in whatever is mere matter of conscience. Even when religious practices conflict with the laws in a way, if these practices are not in themselves immoral, unjust or detrimental to one’s neighbor, they are respected by the laws; for as they concern the conscience alone of the individual, they are held as entirely free of the governing authority. But should the religious practices of any citizen whatever turn to the prejudice of good order, of administration of the law, or of the rights of a third party, then the secular power can and must interfere and must correct the delinquent, not as guilty of following a false doctrine, but as convicted of an act which violates the law or the rights of other parties.

His downright patriotic American point of view gently showed the lie in the scaremongering American anti-Catholicism of the day, for instance that of Lyman Beecher, and particularly Samuel F.B. Morse, author of an 1834 book called Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States. But every bit as surely, Father Mazzuchelli avoided the heretical “Americanism” that would be condemned several decades later in the 1899 encyclical letter of Pope Leo XIII, Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae:

The underlying principle of these new opinions is that, in order to more easily attract those who differ from her, the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions. Many think that these concessions should be made not only in regard to ways of living, but even in regard to doctrines which belong to the deposit of the faith. They contend that it would be opportune, in order to gain those who differ from us, to omit certain points of her teaching which are of lesser importance, and to tone down the meaning which the Church has always attached to them.

Father Mazzuchelli writes repeatedly in his Memoirs against the religious “indifferentism which is a culpable abandonment of every Christian truth,” an error to which people were tempted as a means of maintaining social peace in the religiously pluralistic environment, and which he identifies above all as an effect of “the spirit of Protestantism.” The attitude of “majority rule” even in determining religious doctrine, which he saw emerging among Protestants, would later infiltrate the Catholic Church, for instance through such dissident groups as Call to Action, which was founded specifically on that principle. For Sinsinawa’s involvement in CTA, see my article on “Relationship with the Institutional Church.” Father Mazzuchelli wrote of the alarming situation he saw, wherein such error was so much more predominant than Catholicism that one “who understands the position of our holy Religion in America cannot but tremble for its future”:

Every human institution naturally is influenced in some degree by the character of the society and times in which it finds itself, and in the United States, less than elsewhere, does Protestantism depend upon the authority either of history or of its own theologians; the freedom of the individual decides everything. In the sectarian councils, regardless of the beliefs of their predecessors, the points wherein they differ are decided with the utmost freedom not to say, indifference. The idea of a constant, unwavering interpretation of the Bible can have no weight in their decisions and any argument whatever resting upon tradition would be rejected with contempt. In fine, the political principle that the majority ought to rule, is the same as that which regulates in religious matters. To perceive clearly the position of all the sects in this country, the reader must apply these facts to all the Protestant denominations and to all the local associations that compose them, and lastly, must recognize in each individual the unlimited exercise of that maxim, “I am free” in a much wider sense than in its political signification. So strange an individual freedom is the source of innumerable intellectual vagaries, which are indirectly protected by the civil laws, for these never put any hindrance to the public preaching of the most extravagant religious doctrines.

“This new awareness and the ethics that flow from it”

Some principles apparently forming modern feminist sisters’ conscience are referred to by Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Kaye Ashe in her 1997 book The Feminization of the Church? : “A feminist approach to ethics… deplores women’s continued subordination and seeks to eliminate it…. This new awareness and the ethics that flow from it can be couched in the vocabulary and founded on the principles of various political traditions: liberal, socialist, Marxist, radical.” This, she says, is “a corrective to traditional ethics.” Feminist ethical norms “avoid the kind of abstract universals or rigid absolutes that have characterized traditional ethics,” Sister Kaye explains.

Discarding the Christian understanding of objective morality founded on the immutable truth that abides in God is not without consequences. “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires,” said Cardinal Ratzinger, in a homily to the conclave that would elect him Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Francis affirmed the same just after his election: speaking first of the problem of material poverty, he continued “But there is another form of poverty! It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the ‘tyranny of relativism’, which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples.”

"Quid est Veritas?"

“Quid est Veritas?”

It is not difficult to imagine that the meaning of Vatican II when it says that “every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience” may be interpreted very differently by feminists operating from a “liberal, socialist, Marxist, radical” and modernist perspective, than by Catholics who interpret the Council in continuity with the Catholic Tradition.

Pope Leo XIII said long ago in Quod Apostolici Muneris, his 1878 encyclical letter on Socialism:

For, indeed, although the socialists, stealing the very Gospel itself with a view to deceive more easily the unwary, have been accustomed to distort it so as to suit their own purposes, nevertheless so great is the difference between their depraved teachings and the most pure doctrine of Christ that none greater could exist: “for what participation hath justice with injustice or what fellowship hath light with darkness?” Their habit, as we have intimated, is always to maintain that nature has made all men equal, and that, therefore, neither honor nor respect is due to majesty, nor obedience to laws, unless, perhaps, to those sanctioned by their own good pleasure.

Pope John Paul II called compromise between Marxism and Christianity “impossible,” in his social justice encyclical Centesiumus Annus. But in the United States it made significant inroads with some Christians, perhaps first of all those committed to the important cause of Black Civil Rights, who questioned why Christians had for so long tolerated terrible injustice against blacks.

James Cone, the chief architect of Black Liberation Theology in his book A Black Theology of Liberation (1970), develops black theology as a system. In this new formulation, Christian theology is a theology of liberation — “a rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the gospel, which is Jesus Christ,” writes Cone. Black consciousness and the black experience of oppression orient black liberation theology — i.e., one of victimization from white oppression.

No one could deny that the Civil Rights movement righted some grave wrongs. But in hindsight, the introduction of liberation theology into the movement, according to Dr Anthony Bradley, author of the passage quoted above, “may have actually hurt many blacks by promoting racial tension, victimology, and Marxism which ultimately leads to more oppression.” The same principles and methodologies were soon applied to the women’s movement, actively encouraging women to see themselves as victims of male oppression.

I believe the sister in these images is Margaret Ellen Traxler.

I believe the sister in these images is Margaret Ellen Traxler, SSND, circa 1965 in Selma, AL.

The most significant sister leader who moved from the Civil Rights and “racial apostolate” scene into the women’s movement with a strong liberation ideology, was Sister Margaret Ellen Traxler, a School Sister of Notre Dame. Amy L. Koehlinger’s book The New Nuns: Racial Justice and Religious Reform in the 1960s states that through their experience in “proximity to African-Americans, sisters in the racial apostolate also learned critical vocabularies to describe their experiences of oppression and gendered inequality within the Catholic Church.” After intense formative experiences on front lines of the Civil Rights movement in the march from Selma to Montgomery, AL,  Margaret Traxler became the founder in 1969 of the National Coalition of American Nuns, dedicated to “pushing the envelope” by making bold statements on dissident issues like abortion and “women’s ordination,” and opposing interference of males in sisters’ affairs (“we hope to end domination by priests, no matter what their hierarchical status,” she once explained), then in 1974 started the Institute of Women Today, “to explore the historical and religious roots of women’s liberation” by a praxis that involved helping women in prison and in crisis, and in 1984 became a signer of the controversial 1984 New York Times Catholic “pro-choice” ad, which is discussed in my article on Sister Donna Quinn, who had many connections with Traxler and her legacy, was once the Director of the Institute of Women Today and continues to be a coordinator of NCAN. “God gave us free will,” said Sister Margaret. “Free will is guided by conscience…. A woman will answer to God for one thing: Has she followed her conscience?… It’s nobody’s right to tell her what her conscience said to her.”

Some Sinsinawa Dominicans knew or worked together with Margaret Traxler, and thought much like her. Sinsinawa Dominican feminist college professor Sister Albertus Magnus McGrath, also of Chicago, wrote in her 1972 book What a Modern Catholic Believes About Women (click to read my review of it) that “Especially, the influence of the Black Liberation Movement has been great” on the feminist movement. Her last chapter is titled (and without the asterisk I have inserted): “Women as the ‘N*ggers’ of the Church”; she calls this “an almost inescapable comparison.” Sister Albertus Magnus seems to have regarded ordination of women as necessary for justice.

My sense is that the “liberated” mentality of the late  60s and 70s formed sisters to see figures like Sister Margaret Traxler as conscience heroes. Sister Theresa Kane, an LCWR president who seized an opportunity to speak to a vast 1979 media audience in the presence of Pope John Paul II to call for opening all ministries in the Church to women (ie including the priesthood) became another one. This January I saw for myself the warm support of Sinsinawa Dominicans for a dissident film Band of Sisters which included footage of Sister Theresa Kane’s famous speech and interviews with her; my concern at not being able to find any sisters present who disagreed with the film about the possibility of “women’s ordination” (or who seemed to disagree with it about anything else, actually) was a significant part of what motivated the project you are reading. In recent years, some Sinsinawa Dominicans have cited other high profile dissidents such as the intransigent supporter of homosexual behavior Sister Jeannine Gramick (who has even been the subject of a documentary film, prizewinner at homosexual film festivals, entitled In Good Conscience), and “School of the Americas Watch” organizer and “women’s ordination” activist Roy Bourgeois, as conscience figures. And some Sinsinawa Dominicans seem to have regarded their own Sister Donna Quinn, most famous for her unqualified support for abortion rights, as a conscience figure.

Many sisters seem to have been fully persuaded that a new emphasis on personal responsibility in the Church meant, regardless of what Vatican II actually said, not needing to “attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church” very closely in forming conscience. And heavily influenced by the dynamics of liberation theology, it seems that they began to take everything about obedience and humility with a big grain of salt, in favor of the victim mentality, and commitment to resistance against what they saw as structural oppression, by every tool available to them. Rejection of male language for God, circular, non-obediential and nonhierarchical notions of governance, support for “women priests,” etc, all seem to have been elements of the “praxis” by which they hoped to transform the Church to “liberate women”.

My feeling is that many sisters have themselves so tangled up at this point that there should be a certain compassion toward them, while also calling them to fidelity, which this project earnestly and even affectionately aims to do. Their whole project is, to them, “a matter of conscience.” Their level of formation in the liberationist feminist belief system is such that their conscience tells more than a few of them either to keep working to overthrow “male domination” in the Catholic Church, or else to leave the Church. That this perspective is not coherent with the Catholic Church’s teaching is self-evident. Many other Catholic women, such as myself, fundamentally disagree that the Catholic Church is oppressing women. And we do not feel conflicted about looking to Catholic teaching of truth as a guide for forming our conscience. We hope for all sisters to be open to that, too, by God’s grace.

Opposing racism continued to be a commitment of the Sinsinawa Dominicans, by the way, and I like that, I just hope care is taken for it not to be from a Marxist type of perspective. In recent years dozens of sisters have taken “Anti-Racism Training” courses. A sister described the experience in 2004: “It was an oportunity to become not only better informed (factual information) but also, as the Liberation Theologians teach, conscientized(the awakening of the conscience) to racism in our society and how it impacts our lives and the decisions we make.” Some of this seems to have to do with sensitizing participants to a phenomenon of “white privilege” and ways of alleviating ongoing economic and educational disadvantages suffered by racial minorities.

Truth and Conscience on SinsinOP

Unsurprisingly, some of  what flows from “this new awareness” and its revisionist morality is far from Catholic. This is regularly asserted to be based on freedom of conscience. But it is important to note that one should not assume they all espouse all of the things mentioned below, as “conscience” issues.

The reading material chosen by Sinsinawa Dominicans and forwarded to their email discussion list, SinsinOP, seems to have regularly presented beliefs at odds with Catholic teaching as a matter of conscience.

An article posted to the Sinsinawa Dominican email discussion list SinsinOP in September of 1999 by Sister Kaye Ashe, which she thought “might be interesting to many,” describes a sociological study specifically of women who think they are called to priestly ordination. Besides disagreeing with the Church on the matter of ordination, according to the article, “they want to revamp church teachings on sexuality and reproduction, end mandatory celibacy for priests, and enact policies that show profound respect for individual conscience.”

A post in May of 2000 quotes a statement of Catholics For a Free Choice (ie to have an abortion): “We are not motivated by anti-Catholicism; we are motivated by a love of the church and a commitment to a vision of church that respects the conscience of every individual. These truths cannot be silenced.” On this occasion, a voice of reason and authentically Catholic conscience was raised in objection, that of Sister Francis Assisi Loughery, a good and true soul who passed away in 2002; her story is recounted in a full article as part of this project. Her words are worthy of a longer than usual quote:

What a sad contrast between Archbishop designate Edward Egan’s pledge of loyalty and obedience to the Holy Father, and the oxymoronic phrase, ‘loyal opposition’ to the Church, adopted by Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

A number of years ago the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued their Statement on the Formation of Conscience.  It read in part: “For a Catholic, ‘to follow one’s conscience’ is not…simply to act as his unguided reason dictates.  ‘To follow one’s conscience’ and to remain a Catholic, one must take into account first and foremost the teaching of the Magisterium.  When doubt arises due to a conflict of “my” views and those of the Magisterium the presumption of truth lies on the part  of the Magisterium.”

Lumen Gentium #25 explains why: “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ, and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent of soul.  This religious submission of will and of mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra.”

[…] If we are called to proclaim the Gospel through the ministry of preaching and teaching, then the hallmark of our authenticity is our fidelity to the official teaching authority of the Church.

After the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a Notification regarding Sister Jeannine Gramick’s refusal to assent to Catholic teaching on the morality of homosexual acts, and attempted to restrict her from continuing to minister to same-sex attracted persons, her continued disobedience was repeatedly cited as a heroic exercise of conscience. In September of 2000 a sister wrote: “We are seeing a woman refusing to be silent about an action oppressive to her conscience, a woman refusing to collude with a structure whose main purpose is to control, not to set free.” Another concurred: “Being silent about it perpetuates the mental and spiritual imprisonment that women of conscience can suffer within the Roman Catholic Church when their thinking disagrees with its teaching.” In regards to this, too, Sister Francis Assisi upheld the Church’s point of view, posting the Notice in its entirety, in segments.

Another frequently referenced “conscience” issue was civil disobedience at the School of the Americas protests in Fort Benning, Georgia, an international military training center which they hold culpable for the deaths of innocent people, including religious sisters and priests, in Latin America at the hands of militants who received training at the school–even though the school itself did not direct anyone to kill innocent noncombatants. A sister who attended the 2003 trial of Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Kathy Long and several sisters of other orders arrested for trespassing described: “Each sister, ranging in ages from the 50s to the late 70s, gave prepared speeches to the judge and to the court.  I felt that each speech was masterful.  Each sister explained why she crossed the line and how her conscience and her faith led her to do so.” Sister Kathy continued to feel strongly that her civil disobedience was an act of “solidarity with the victims of violence and torture in Latin America from a faith perspective as a theology of resistance,” was convicted and spent a little while in prison. While I am not completely persuaded that the school was to blame for the terrible deaths of innocents, I do not object to the School of the Americas protests in the way that I object to other things they cite as “conscience” issues, that are in more specific opposition to Catholic beliefs.

The organization School of the Americas Watch was founded by Father Roy Bourgeois, the Maryknoll priest who has also famously been a public “women’s ordination” supporter, and was laicized in 2012 for participation in an “ordination” ceremony of a woman. Catholic belief is that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women. He has also been cited as a conscience figure for this, and in his own public letter to the CDF, forwarded to SinsinOP by Kathy Long herself in 2009 (in 2011 she also wrote in favor of Franciscan Jerry Zwada, another SOAWatch associated priest who also faced canonical consequences for “women priests” activities. Sister Donna Quinn replied to her: “Kathy This always reminds me of the Holocaust and the silence that prevailed….”), Roy Bourgeois wrote:

Conscience is very sacred.  Conscience gives us a sense of right and wrong and urges us to do the right thing.  Conscience is what compelled Franz Jagerstatter, a humble Austrian farmer, husband and father of four young children, to refuse to join Hitler’s army, which led to his execution.  Conscience is what compelled Rosa Parks to say she could no longer sit in the back of the bus.  Conscience is what compels women in our Church to say they cannot be silent and deny their call from God to the priesthood.  Conscience is what compelled my dear mother and father, now 95, to always strive to do the right things as faithful Catholics raising four children.  And after much prayer, reflection and discernment, it is my conscience that compels me to do the right thing.  I cannot recant my belief and public statements that support the ordination of women in our Church.

In February of 2010, Sister Donna Quinn invited SinsinOP members to a Chicago event with Father Roy Bourgeois, who, in her unique phrasing, “has been excommunicated by the Hierarchical Vatican Church”: “He will speak on A Life Lived From Conscience as he shares his personal faith journey during his 38 years of priesthood and the importance of resisting injustice in conscience. Many of you know Roy from the School of the Americas Watch and hearing him speak at Call To Action. Whenever I needed an injection of Courage during my journey this year Roy was a Person of God with whom I spoke.”

And accordingly, some sisters referred to the women themselves who sought “ordination” as people of conscience. A sister thanked Sister Donna Quinn in June of 2012 for “the information about the ordained Women priests.  I have had many connections with six of them through CTA [ie, the dissident group Call to Action]. And have spoken with two of the FIVE Women Bishops. I have great respect for these women who followed their conscience to a God-given call.”

In 2006 there was a controversy on SinsinOP after someone posted a petition opposing conscience rights for pharmacists not to have to sell the “morning after pill,” which can work as an abortifacient by preventing a newly conceived baby’s implantation in the womb, causing the tiny new person to be flushed out when the mother has her period. “It’s the morning after pill that kills the fetus! Their pharmacists in their own conscience do not want to aid in abortion,” protested another member of SinsinOP. But one sister replied in chilling opposition to this conscience cause: “What is the difference between pharmnacists [sic] who refuse to sell legal products to their customers and restauranteurs who refuse to serve  African Americans?” This is an astonishing and doubly disturbing comment, especially since unborn black children are four or five times as likely to be aborted in America, as unborn white children, according to the Planned Parenthood-aligned Guttmacher Institute, a fact profoundly shaping the racial makeup of our country. Effectively, a hidden genocide is occurring.

A few years later, April 2009, one sister did forward a message from a group of Catholic OB-GYNs urging opposition to the Affordable Care Act’s “HHS Mandate” to provide contraceptives, abortifacient morning-after pills, and sterilization. In contrast, in fall of that year a forwarded email from NETWORK Lobby, a national religious sisters’ political lobby closely associated with the LCWR, began with stark apparent rejection of Catholic conscience concerns as irrelevant compared with passing the law: “You know the number one issue: Healthcare Reform…. All must come with this principle and obligation in mind ‘Access to affordable, quality health care is a basic human right and no one in conscience can deter its fulfillment’.” On the same day NETWORK Lobby’s Nuns on the Bus tour stopped at Sinsinawa Mound last year, I asked Sister Simone Campbell, the group’s leader, whether she opposed the Obamacare HHS contraceptive mandate. She said “it’s complicated” and did not want to talk to me. Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Donna Quinn was not only in favor of the HHS mandate for employers to pay for contraception, but straightforwardly advocated in a 2010 post against the federal ban on government funded abortion, and that “A national health care reform bill must include Medicaid funding for a woman on Medicaid who through the primacy of her conscience and as a valid moral agent chooses this legal medical procedure.” In 2012 she again can be seen advocating for federal abortion funding. In the mind of Sister Donna, “If this Health Care ‘Reform’ does pass we all know that gender discrimination was necessary to do so.” The next month this obviously-confident abortion advocate sister forwarded, of all things, a LifeSiteNews article quoting then-Archbishop Raymond Burke, who is spot-on:

“Who could imagine that consecrated religious would openly, and in defiance of the bishops as successors of the apostles, publicly endorse legislation containing provisions which violated the natural moral law in its most fundamental tenets – the safeguarding and promoting of innocence and defenseless life, and fail to safeguard the demands of the free exercise of conscience for health care workers?” Burke questioned.

But these concerns mean little to Sister Donna, who shows little or no sign of holding unborn human lives as sacred or worthy of protection, and who has said she remains in religious life “for the sisterhood.” She wrote in 2011: “If I live to be a thousand I will never understand the attention to and rejection of a woman’s moral judgement or primacy of conscience regarding the center of her being  – her womb.” In September 2012 she forwarded an article from that month’s New England Journal of Medicine emphatically promoting the idea that “conscience compels abortion provision.”

Many sisters did not take kindly to the bishops who tried to help form consciences for faithful citizenship by cautioning that saving the million-plus annual victims of abortion is the gravest issue at hand, with no other social justice issue quite proportionate to that in gravity, and voting for pro-abortion-rights politicians is a form of cooperation in abortion. Ahead of the 2004 elections, one sister wondered on SinsinOP: “Should there be a public, collective response to Bishop Sheridan from the theological community?  Or is it more appropriate to wait and let opposing statements from other bishops make the case that Catholics can in fact vote for whomever their conscience dictates without putting their souls in mortal danger?” Another said, “if there was any message from Vatican II it was a validation of the human conscience. Follow yours and let no one tell you how to vote!” Sister Donna Quinn, famous for her support of abortion rights, shared an NCAN message on the topic: “The National Coalition of American Nuns is profoundly saddened as cafeteria bishops try to toll the death knell for conscience.” On the other hand, a talk titled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which is the name of a document from the US bishops, was presented by a sister at Sinsinawa Mound in 2008; what she said is unknown to me. On SinsinOP, the same sister who had opposed conscience rights for pharmacists wanted to contrast the fact that, although the bishops had tried to clarify in a new introduction that a candidate’s support for abortion may legitimately lead voters to disqualify them from receiving support, the main body of the document says “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position.”

The media often frames listening to conscience as being opposed to listening to Catholic teaching–certainly not the perspective of the Second Vatican Council. A sister who posted to SinsinOP in 2005 had no objection, though. She said: “Today we have a large number of educated Catholic adults with a mature faith and spirituality. It was interesting the poll on CNN the other evening. The question put forth to Catholic adults was: ‘In the times of decison do you rely on Church teachings?’ The poll results were:  76% I rely on personal conscience; 19% I rely on Church teachings.”

An example of framing of conscience as opposed to listening to “the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church” (to use Vatican II’s phrase) is a 2008 message forwarded by Sister Donna Quinn, (link goes to my full article about her) from the Women-Church Convergence, of which she is a coordinator. WCC gives a litany of “conscience causes”: 1. Sister Louise Lears, member of a different order but the same St Cronan’s parish in St Louis attended by some Sinsinawa Dominicans, had been interdicted by Cardinal Burke for supporting “ordination” of women, described by WCC as “retribution for an  act of conscience.” 2. Roy Bourgeois was also facing penalties for his “women’s ordination” activities, “This contradicts freedom of  conscience” in the view of WCC. 3. Pro-abortion-rights politicians have been “threatened with excommunication. These are attempts to politicize a Catholic’s right in conscience to receive the  Eucharist.” In fact universal canon law requires denial of Holy Communion to persons obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin, such as pro-abortion-rights politicians. “Women-Church Convergence urges all  Catholics to resist the  hierarchy’s intrusions on conscience. Women-Church  creates and supports communities in which conscience is respected. The  Convergence is made up of representatives of twenty-six Catholic-rooted feminist  groups and organizations.” Among these member organizations is the Sinsinawa Women’s Network, which has its own page on the Sinsinawa Dominican website and is clearly an official group within the congregation. Similarly, in October of 2009 the Sinsinawa Women’s Network sent a message of support to Sister of Charity Louise Akers, who had been barred from teaching catechetics in Cincinatti and who “stated that to rescind her support of women’s ordination ‘would go against my conscience.'” Everyone on SinsinOP was invited to sign on to it.

The national Congress of another notorious dissident group, the “American Catholic Council,” covered the topic of “Celebrating the Spirit of Vatican II” in 2011, and although if you’ve been reading this article you know that the actual documents of Vatican II pull the rug out from under the dissidents who claim to stand on them, a sister who attended reported back to SinsinOP: “Three common threads that came through the different presentations were the need to:  commit oneself to understanding and living the Council Documents;  insist on the primacy of conscience;  claim an inclusive Catholic Church;  commit to a nonviolent resistance to the absolutism of the Vatican and many Bishops.”

Finally, there was a good deal of talk about conscience in regards to “the institutional church” in the last few years, and whether to be part of it considering how “patriarchal” and “oppressive” they considered it to be, or how to stand up to it, a subject I’ve written a whole article about, so in this article I will simply let one of the relatively more reasonable of today’s sisters briefly introduce the topic:

The only way I know of that we can reform the institutional Church is to speak out when our conscience calls us to do so, knowing that we may be punished for speaking out.  We need to be willing to accept whatever just or unjust punishment we are given, not as martyrs but as truth-seekers.  And I think that no one of us can speak for the entire Sinsinawa congregation because a single policy, unless accepted by the congregation, seldom if ever represents the entire congregation.

“A Matter of Conscience”: A video to inform Dominican sisters’ response to the LCWR Doctrinal Assessment

In 2012 a major event for US sisters was the release of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, on April 18. It upset many, and sisters began mulling what to do. The next month, some Sinsinawa Dominican leaders “joined leadership teams from 12 other Dominican congregations in a conference call concerning the Doctrinal Assessment,” their second on that topic. “Some were interested in further research on the formation of conscience and how the magisterium works today.” The Sinsinawa congregation leadership

began to work with other Dominicans to gather women among us with the relevant professional expertise to reflect together on conscience – its history in Church teaching, its formation, and its exercise in our lives.  The result is a 30-minute DVD, “A Matter of Conscience,” featuring Sisters Arlene Flaherty OP (Blauvelt), Anneliese Sinnott OP (Adrian), and Lucy Vazquez OP (de’ Ricci), who offer necessarily brief but rich insights to stimulate further thought, personal reflection, and discussion.

The video was also posted in a streaming format on the congregation website, protected by a password. Prioress Sister Mary Ellen Gevelinger asked everyone to view the video either on DVD or online, and reflect on several questions about it. The same video is also on YouTube, posted there by the Dominican Sisters of Peace:

One local community of Sinsinawa Dominicans that viewed “A Matter of Conscience” together in January of 2013 “agreed that the DVD is well-done and is both thought-provoking and enlightening, with at least one somewhat surprising statement.” This would have been right around the time that I visited Sinsinawa Mound to view the film Band of Sisters and both I and my friend were told by sisters, in fact I was told separately by two different sisters, in response to my concerns about their belief in the possibility of “women priests,” that “you have to follow your conscience.” I said to one sister that I was a believer in Vatican II, which says we need to form our Catholic conscience in keeping with Catholic teaching. She looked at me, and did not seem to have any idea what to say. A viewing of “A Matter of Conscience” reveals that the instruction their congregation was supplying to them put a really different “spin” on Vatican II and conscience.

“A Matter of Conscience” consists of three carefully prepared presentations by Dominican sisters.

The first is by Adrian Dominican Sister Annaliese Sinnott, Adrian Dominican, on “conscience formation before and since Vatican II.” She claims that conscience formation before Vatican II was like a one-legged table, whereas now there are four legs: the Magisterium, the truth that emerges from the world around us, Christian tradition, and “our individual consciences formed through our own prayer, reflection and experience.” What I have always heard is that Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium are the sources of what we believe as Catholics, and this is precisely what the Vatican II Constitution on Divine Revelation says; factual knowledge of the world etc is also relevant to forming our ability to apply moral principles to specific circumstances (Saint Thomas also says this, I think). But this was the Catholic understanding prior to Vatican II, as well as since, so I am not clear about what she means that it was a one-legged table before. And I am confused what she means about our own consciences being a source of conscience formation, though prayer does play a role. She quotes, out of context, naturally, a 1968 commentary of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, on Lumen Gentium: “Over the Pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there still stands one’s own conscience which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. Conscience confronts the individual with the supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church.” This quote is especially dear to dissenters. But in context, of course, he is not saying quite what they wishfully interpret. Ratzinger knows conscience is capable of erring, while the Church has (and this is also a teaching of Vatican II) a charism of infallibility from the Holy Spirit, and later in the same text this greatest theologian of our times says: “The doctrine of the binding force of an erroneous conscience in the form in which it is propounded nowadays, belongs entirely to the thought of modern times.” In other words, he doesn’t agree with that.

Sister Annaliese’s concept of the process of how doctrine is defined culminates with: “Following the issuing of an authoritative statement traditionally has come a period of conversation and dialogue with the larger church that leads either to reception, acceptance of that particular teaching, or rejection, non-acceptance.” One thinks painfully, for instance, of  that most prophetic and most rejected Cassandra of documents, Humanae Vitae! Sister is neutral about the possibility of non-acceptance. And to defend her noncommittal attitude toward Catholic teaching, she cites the US bishops! She had to go back many years to catch the bishops saying something quite so open to being abused, but this was a real document that really had a sub-heading “Norms of Licit Theological Dissent”: “In November 1968 the American bishops issued a pastoral letter entitled ‘Human Life in Our Day‘ in which they affirm the doctrine of dissent under three conditions: the reasons are serious and well-founded, the manner of dissent does not impugn the teaching authority at the church, and the dissent does not give scandal.” She does not mention that the document means this only in regards to noninfallible doctrine. The truth as taught by the Catholic Church on common dissident “conscience causes” like abortion, contraception, homosexual acts, and “women priests” is actually infallible by the ordinary magisterium, and not at all subject to ever actually being changed, even if the Pope and most of the bishops wanted to. “Human Life in Our Day” says:

When there is question of theological dissent from noninfallible doctrine, we must recall that there is always a presumption in favor of the magisterium. Even noninfallible authentic doctrine, though it may admit of development or call for clarification or revision, remains binding and carries with it a moral certitude, especially when it is addressed to the Universal Church, without ambiguity, in response to urgent questions bound up with faith and crucial to morals.

Sister Annaliese contends that “the official Church seems to be in certain issues moving back to the model of the one legged table.  Many of the problems which people grapple with today, immigration, life in all its stages, poverty, fair wages, war, sexuality, and sexual identity, are also often the dividing issues in our Church. Amid these tensions in the Church today we ask where is truth? Is there truth on all sides of the division?” I refer you to the picture up above,of Jesus and Pontius Pilate, who had a very similar question.

The second presentation in the film “A Matter of Conscience” is by Sister Lucy Vasquez, a Dominican of Saint Catherine de’Riccci and canon lawyer, who spoke on “what Canon Law does and does not say about conscience and dissent.” She notes that “While the Code does not specifically refer to conscience or to intellectual dissent,” the section on the rights and obligations of the Faithful is relevant, for instance:

Canon 218 says that those “who are engaged in the sacred disciplines enjoy a lawful freedom of inquiry and of prudently expressing their opinions on matters in which they have expertise, while observing due respect for the Magisterium of the Church.” Respect, not agreement.

Another canon says the Faithful have a right or sometimes a duty to manifest their opinions in matters for the good of the Church and the good of souls; Sister Lucy emphasizes: “Please note that neither canon speaks of any of this being done with blind obedience. As a matter of fact that whole section of canons never mention said any of this has to be done what blind obedience.” And this is true enough, and is also the basis on which I am doing my own project that you are reading, and with Canon 1752 at heart.

Sister Lucy says that “through the centuries, numerous theologians were condemned, only to be later exonerated, everyday usually centuries later. Every one of them was speaking to the Church. The role of the Magisterium, on the other hand, has been to speak for the Church.” The sisters see it as their business to speak to the Church–prophetically, in their opinion, or as an alternative magisterium with a different teaching, as some critical commentators have said.

The third speaker on the video, Sister Arlene Flaherty, a Dominican Sister of Blauveldt, spoke on “her lived experience of exercising conscience.” This sister surprised me by apparently disagreeing with Saint Catherine of Siena’s (and Father Mazzuchelli’s) inner alarm type characterization of conscience: “As a child I was taught and subsequently thought of my conscience as an inner alarm that would go off warning me, ‘be careful, treading on thin ice here.'” But Sister Arlene is mature now and not a little child: “As an adult, however, I’ve come to understand conscience more as the process through which I sift and discern decisions with others, in order to promote the best possible good in what are increasingly complex and nuanced situations that I encounter everyday in my life.”

Sister Arlene refers to a book (actually a Marquette University dissertation) by another Dominican Sister, Judy Schaeffer, The Evolution of a Vow, Obedience as Decision Making in Communion (perhaps based on this dissertation), to allude to the changed understanding and practice of obedience among the modern-type religious sisters, but particularly the importance of communal discernment praxis in their communities. “In the struggle we need to be clear that the criterion of dialogue and discernment is essential to the mutual search for truth, the search for God. Without it, community is reduced to authority, and conscience to conformity.” Feminism has been a source to the sisters of “analytical tools to see understand an address systemic injustices,” which also include the concerns of the poor and of the Planet Earth. Sisters clash with the Vatican because they are not so absolute in their interpretations of morality, a reality which she says is not born of political correctness but is “probably because of their encounters with God abiding with women who have had to make difficult decisions about their pregnancy, with gay couples seeking to give God thanks for the gift of love, or with couples who know they must use a contraceptive so as to better provide for the children they have, or, to better provide for a child in the future.”

As a younger lay woman who has lived deeply in the midst of this complexity and seen and experienced and thought deeply how sexual immorality and abortion harm people, I disagree that this type of “editing” of the moral law helps people or is any kind of mercy. I do precisely agree with the Church and all the Saints that the natural moral law has to do with what is truly good, and not just abstractly or notionally or “from the point of view of male hierarchs.” And I do not see this true good as oppressive; absolutely the opposite.

Sister Arlene likes a book by a sister titled Liberating Conscience, which according to a reviewer on Amazon critiques the Christian “preoccupation” with chastity, quoting the book as saying it fosters “disrespect for embodiment and for female humanity… and the elitism resulting from the rhetoric associated with clerical and religious celibacy.” Again I must respond personally as a lay woman privately vowed to celibate chastity for life in single-heartedness for God, that I could not disagree more, and the idea of chastity as “disrespectful for embodiment” could hardly be more preposterous. What Sister Arlene herself quotes from the book, which does not make much sense to me, is: “absolutistism is theologically problematic because all values are relative to God, and is morally problematic because of the effect it has on the common good.” To Sister Arlene, we live in times of new discoveries and new scientific understandings, and we can’t remain stuck in the “medieval” past; Dominican sisters should be “preaching truth through communal discernment, and identifying and transforming contemporary manifestations of the heresy of dualism.” What she means by the latter statement, she does not explain; if she means by “dualism” what the author of Liberating Conscience meant by calling belief in chastity “disrespect for embodiment,” then her thought does not really cohere with Christianity, nor with the good or the dignity of women or men.

One way to describe “A Matter of Conscience” is as an instructional video on turning off the inner alarm of conscience.

Another sort of “conscience” theatre was first previewed at the Call to Action Conference last year, and apparently presented even to the public in Chicago: “The Conscience Monologues,” which Chicago’s Eighth Day Center for Justice created by “Drawing on the methodology of the Vagina Monologues,” and has been advertised repeatedly on SinsinOP. I am not sure how closely Sinsinawa Dominicans were with the creation of this, but they are sponsors of the Eighth Day Center for many years. Women-Church Convergence seems to have been involved in promoting it, so it is not at all likely to be faithfully Catholic.

Conscience Monologues presents women’s stories of conscience and provides a space for women to share their lived experiences within the Church. The stories are transformed into theatrical monologues lifting up the still small voice within each person – a soul voice that speaks from our essence and guides our lives.

As I look back across the great Dominican tradition, I am struck by how very beautiful and rich it is, and how much good it has done. I am also struck by the sense that some sisters today have wanted to kill the barking dog of conscience, poison the worm of conscience. And it seems to me the devil’s favored battlefront today is against women’s integrity in sexual matters, and against motherhood. He sure seems happy when people mess around with the liturgy, too. Will these things liberate? Really? And is this the spirit of Vatican II? Certainly not according to the texts. In order to bark, the dog of conscience must be nourished by the blood of the Lamb, Saint Catherine says, thereby explaining well the connection between the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the right worship of God, and the moral life. Doctrinal and moral truth, the sacramental and liturgical life, women and men both in the sweetness of their complementarity, all the different members and orderly structures of the Body of Christ, all the pieces fit together in a marvelous and mysterious way that inspires our love and admiration. O quam dilecta tabernacula tua, Domine virtutum! May no one tamper with it any more!

The lamb from the center of the Saint Clara Convent Chapel altar, which for some reason they dismantled and this is now in their museum.

The lamb from the center of the Saint Clara Convent Chapel altar, which is now in their museum.