I do, in closing, want to come back to the relationship of respect for the mature and settled conscience of the neighbor to theological principles. In an essay titled "On the Origins of Freedom," Karl Rahner objects to the teaching of nineteenth-century Roman Catholic theologians that "only truth and goodness have rights, but not error and evil." He argues that "it cannot be the duty of individuals or society to take away the sphere of freedom, even in the case of wrong decisions, from other human beings. This would always be an attack on the dignity of the person and his or her freedom, which is not a means to an end (in this case the compulsory realization of something good), but part of the meaning and goal of the human person."7 In this essay he is talking not about conscience but about "the enlarged sphere of freedom" brought about by "a pluralist social order."8 But to the extent that one understands human freedom to have its origins in God and understands God to be the "infinite horizon" of our freedom, as Rahner does, one might in fact argue that profound respect for the conscience and moral integrity of one's adversary, while not itself a theological principle, is directly justified by theological principles as well as secular ethics. Whether Paul, Luther, and contemporary Lutheran theology would agree or disagree with Rahner's theological analysis of freedom is, however, a discussion that must be left for another time.
Diane Yeager is Associate Professor and Thomas J. Healey, C'64, Family Distinguished Professor in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University.
1. I have quoted the text of Resolution 3-05 from the LCMS website which also records that the resolution passed by a vote of 934 to 18. I am not, however, absolutely certain that there were no amendments to the language introduced prior to the vote. The page that gives the vote contains the disclaimer that "information presented here is preliminary" and refers the reader to Today's Business, but I cannot find the final text of the resolution in Today's Business. See: http://www.lcms.org/includes/convention/resolutions/res3.html
2. It is perhaps worth noticing that Luther's distinction between the bound and the liberated conscience is not what is at stake in the references to the bound conscience in these texts. Laurie Jungling's fine article, "Conscience-Bound or Conscience Liberated: What's Best for the ELCA?" in the July 2005 issue of JLE and Scott H. Hendrix's equally helpful contribution, "Homosexuality, Conscience, and the Reformation," in the July/August issue of Lutheran Partners should have prompted us to be clearer about this. In speaking of the "bound conscience," the task force documents reference what philosophical ethicists often call the "critical conscience" — that is, the conscience of persons who have undertaken serious study of the issue, have entered into probing conversation, have listened to the criticism of others, and have arrived, after careful, informed consideration, at a firm moral commitment against which they feel that they cannot act without violating their own moral integrity.
3. The task force was very clear about its own internal divisions and dissents concerning both the social statement and the recommendations on ministry policies. The documents therefore represent the views of the majority of the members of the task force and not all the members.
4. Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust (Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2009), 20-21.
5. Two collections of essays that I particularly recommend are Conscience, edited by John Donnelly and Leonard Lyons (Staten Island, N.Y.: The Society of St. Paul, 1973) and Integrity and Conscience, edited by Ian Shapiro and Robert Adams (New York: New York University Press, 1998). Part 4 of the volume edited by Donnelly and Lyons, offers especially valuable essays exploring "The Authority of Conscience" by P. H. Nowell-Smith, A. Campbell Garnett, John T. Granrose, and William Earle.
6. There is much to suggest that those who have been most distressed by the decisions made at Churchwide 2009 are those who would completely disagree with the task force assessment of the situation in the church as a conflict of informed and settled consciences, believing instead that the situation in the church is one of clear and obvious religious lapses, grounded in plainly identifiable faults, which the ELCA has failed to properly discipline.
7. Karl Rahner, "On the Origins of Freedom," in Karl Rahner: Theologian of the Graced Search for Meaning, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 125.
8. Ibid., 124.
© December 2010
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 10, Issue 12