Cardinal Wuerl on Fluke Flap: 'Opinion' Isn't Truth

Amid partisan spin and vitriolic attacks arising from the HHS mandate controversy, Washington’s archbishop defends Catholic teaching on conscience.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl
Cardinal Donald Wuerl (photo: CNA photo by Michelle Bauman)

WASHINGTON — In the wake of Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Georgetown Law School student Sandra Fluke, the university’s president, John DeGioia, issued an “open letter” that noted her “sincerity” and adherence to civil discourse as she advocated on behalf of the contraception mandate before a group of House Democrats on Feb 23.

“Sandra Fluke … was respectful, sincere, and spoke with conviction. She provided a model of civil discourse. This expression of conscience was in the tradition of the deepest values we share as a people. One need not agree with her substantive position to support her right to respectful free expression,” stated DeGioia in his letter.

But in a March 11 address, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington used DeGioia’s letter as a point of departure for a penetrating and sustained reflection that contrasted a modern, subjective view of conscience with Catholic teaching on man’s capacity and obligation to correctly choose between good and evil.

“The statement, ‘I am sincere’ is confused with the reality of being right. Everyone can have an opinion, but that does not make it right. ‘She was sincere and spoke with conviction’ does not equate with ‘She was right and her position is correct,’” noted Cardinal Wuerl as he delivered the John Carroll Society Lenten Lecture before a crowd at the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, Md.

The cardinal’s remarks may constitute the first time a Catholic leader has publicly addressed the latest chapter in an increasingly acrimonious and partisan debate over the Obama administration’s decision to approve a new federal law that requires private employers — including Georgetown University — to provide contraception services in their health plan.

On Feb. 23, during videotaped testimony before House Democrats, Fluke attacked Georgetown’s refusal to include these services in its student health plan, reporting that many female students struggled financially to access contraceptives by other means. Asserting that university employees experienced similar difficulties, she opposed two bills before Congress that would broaden exemptions for institutions and individuals that opposed contraception and related services on moral or religious grounds.

Subsequently, radio talk-show host Limbaugh ignited a furor when he ridiculed Fluke’s demands,  suggested she wanted taxpayers to cover the cost of her sex life, and described her in derogatory terms. Limbaugh later apologized for this remarks after corporate sponsors of his show suspended their advertising.

Cardinal Wuerl did not address the details of the case. Rather, he took a different tack, examining how a culture of moral relativism and reliance on opinion polls has resulted in a confused understanding of the human conscience. Even many Catholics cite public acceptance of immoral behavior, such as premarital sexual activity, to challenge consistent doctrinal teaching.

Indeed, in recent weeks the cardinal has struggled to clarify Church teaching on both contraception and same-sex “marriage” amid in a deeply politicized media environment.

In late February, The Washington Post carried a front-page story reporting that a lesbian had been denied Communion at the funeral Mass for her mother by a priest at a suburban parish in Gaithersburg, Md., who knew of her sexual orientation.

UPDATE: Canon lawyer Ed Peters responds to the latest developments in the case involving the Maryland priest: In the Light of the Law.

The archdiocese quickly apologized for the priest’s action, while challenging the assertion that any given individual had a “right” to the Eucharistic.

Subsequently, in a March 9 letter, Auxiliary Bishop Barry Knestout confirmed that the pastor had been placed on administrative leave, citing “credible” reports of “engaging in intimidating behavior toward parish staff and others that is incompatible with proper priestly ministry.” The letter said nothing about the incident at the funeral.

Local Christian leaders are gearing up for a referendum on same-sex “marriage” in Maryland, and the headlines about the denial of Communion were thus viewed as politically motivated. But the archdiocese’s decision to place the priest on leave has since ignited a firestorm on Catholic websites — though all the details of the case have not been brought to light, as canon lawyer Ed Peters noted in a March 12 post on his blog.

After his March 11 address, Cardinal Wuerl was asked to explain when Communion should be denied to an individual, and he repeated his earlier position that only in extremely rare cases after an individual has been publicly excommunicated.

In his prepared remarks on the Catholic understanding of conscience, the cardinal sought to clarify its divine origins, its proper function and its proper impact on a person’s moral choices.

“Conscience is that sure orientation of the human heart and mind, our human nature, towards the good and the right. It is sometimes described as the quiet voice of God within our hearts,” stated Cardinal Wuerl.

In Scripture, conscience underscores man’s close relationship to God, listening to his word and accepting his will, combined with “an inner awareness of one’s own position and responsibility before God and an awareness of the divine judgment.”

“Although the term for conscience is not found explicitly in the Gospels, the teaching of Jesus moves the emphasis from external action to the heart, to interior dispositions and the need for purity of intention,” he said, noting that Jesus did not retreat from public opposition.

Citing the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, the cardinal stressed that the proper role of conscience is more than an intellectual judgment. Rather, the movement of the conscience arises from an integrated personal choice, combining mind, will and heart, oriented to the loving will of God.

Noting the contributions of Blessed John Henry Newman to the development of Catholic teaching, the cardinal challenged secular definitions of the human conscience that approached moral judgments in a spiritual and moral vacuum, giving more weight to “feelings” and unexamined “opinions” than reasoned deliberations and a humble adherence to moral absolutes.

“Conscience … is more than a mere psychological or sociological phenomenon; it is intricately bound to the Creator and his law, and any notion of conscience which does not recognize and accept this was meaningless to Newman,” he stated.

In the wake of the U.S. bishops’ public opposition to the contraception mandate, Democrat supporters of the federal rule have cited statistics suggesting that a large majority of Catholic women have used contraception, thus substituting opinion polls for a reasoned critique of Catholic teaching and of First Amendment rights.

Similarly, the gender of an individual speaking out on an issue is often given more weight than the substance of their position. Thus, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., attacked the credibility of an all-male panel of representatives from Catholic, Baptist and Lutheran churches at a Congressional hearing on religious liberty. 

Meanwhile, self-identified Catholic individuals and groups have argued that the bishops’ defense of Church teaching on contraception rejects the new understanding of conscience affirmed by the Second Vatican Council.

Cardinal Wuerl countered this persistent charge by referencing the Council document Dignitatis Humanae, which affirmed the role of Catholic faith and morals in the proper formation of the conscience.

“In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church. The Catholic Church is, by the will of Christ, the Teacher of the Truth,” states Dignitatis Humanae.

The widespread use of opinion polls also marks an increasingly common belief that moral truth is elusive and cannot be substantiated, but the cardinal rejected this stance.

“Moral norms can in themselves be known,” he said.

The cardinal’s hour-long address offered a thought-provoking departure from the often distorting media sound bites that have accompanied and even fueled the national debate on the contraception mandate.

But it is a measure of the quality and limitations of that debate that his well-informed and measured reflections are likely to receive no more weight than the “sincere” convictions of a Georgetown law school student who has challenged the free exercise of Church-affiliated institutions.

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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