The National Catholic Review

How do you “recant” and begin to believe something you don’t believe?The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or CDF, is ordering Father Roy Bourgeois M.M. to recant his belief and support for women’s ordination. If not, he will be excommunicated in thirty days.

But does the CDF have some secret formula or operating instructions for going against one’s conscience when ordered to do so?

I understand how Vatican authorities might solve their problem of dissent by simply expecting people to lie, if you just say the right words all will be forgiven. Inconveniently of course, lying and bearing false witness (even against yourself) has been forbidden since Sinai, so that option is out.
 
Perhaps the Vatican is really simply aiming to impose silence, so the troubling issue can be ignored. Admittedly in certain situations choosing strategic silence can be a moral option if it staves off harmful consequences to self or others. St. Thomas More took refuge in silence until his conscience no longer allowed him to do so.

The CDF, however, seems to be demanding something more than external behavior, since they command Bourgeois to recant his belief and committed conviction. So how do they think he can manage to change his conscience and belief on demand?

It appears to require extreme conditions like those in the Gulag or a Chinese reeducation prison in order to brainwash or actually persuade people into believing and confessing things on command. Given enough prolonged torture, sleeplessness, isolation and psychological manipulation, persons can make up false memories and new beliefs that conform to their inquisitor’s plan for some show trial, or public submission. But then again, torture and physical coercion while incarcerated in monastery cells have also long been repudiated by the Church.

So the problem remains. A mentally stable and mature person’s Christian conscience cannot be coerced or evaded. In fact, a person cannot renounce a settled conscience since it is the sacred core of the person’s whole identity. A self cannot will to deny one’s own self or repudiate mind, heart and life experience.

I fear that Vatican concepts of conscience and human psychology are based on the old idea that an abstract isolated act of the will can mechanically change a person’s belief.  With such an over-rationalized reductive psychology, abuses of authority can become frequent. Attempts at coercion give the lie to Vatican II’s great affirmations of the freedom and dignity of conscience.

Well, perhaps I am wrong on the matter of conscience.  If so, I’d like to be enlightened forthwith.  The next Synod should take up the questions of human psychology that underlie so many current Church disputes involving conscience, dissent, contraception, celibacy, women, homosexuality, divorce and abortion. In the meantime, perhaps the CDF can send along by express mail another letter, this one explaining how Christians are supposed to recant.

Sidney Callahan

Comments

Anonymous | 11/14/2008 - 3:02pm
Actually, we have no idea what the CDF is actually demanding of Father Bourgeois, if anything. The ''recant your belief'' phrase comes from a letter WRITTEN BY FATHER BOURGEOIS HIMSELF, which he claims is a response to a letter he purportedly received from the CDF. Isn't it curious that Fr Bourgeois would only release the text of his own letter, and not the CDF letter itself? Anyone who is even remotely familiar with Fr Bourgeois knows that his entire clerical career has been little more than one big publicity stunt, so I don't think it is too much to ask for Ms Callahan to verify what the CDF said before she publicly attacks them in print.
Anonymous | 11/14/2008 - 4:24pm
I so appreciate Sidney Callahan's comments. Over a lifetime she has brilliantly integrated psychology and theology in her work, especially in her writings on conscience formation. She once wrote on "emotions and conscience formation" indicating the positive and energizing place they hold in the process. Roy B. is a prophetic individual in a precarious time. I admire his courage in the actions of faith he takes. I would love to see a Synod on psychology and church positions on vitally important moral concerns. Thanks Sidney! I hope such a desire sees fruition. Mary Ann Flanagan, Ph.d
Anonymous | 11/14/2008 - 2:16am
"I fear that Vatican concepts of conscience and human psychology are based on the old idea that an abstract isolated act of the will can mechanically change a person’s belief." Ummm...I don't think this is exclusive to the Vatican. it works in sports, in health, in many areas. You could call it "visualization technique" if you want a hip term. But the fact remains that human nature can be modified. We can submit our will and eventually we will experience a change of heart. This is called "conversion" or a turning towards the Lord. It takes time, but recanting, i.e. rejecting our sin, is the first step in distancing ourselves from wrong belief and availing ourselves to the truth. This priest knows better; the claim that his beliefs are being violated is a canard. The real issue is pride; he does not take seriously his vow of obedience, and his ego needs to be put in check. What better medicine could there be than having to submit like the recalcitrant child he is? Is any one of us unlike him, when we're really being honest? We've all had to 'fess up and change our evil ways. That's part of being in the family of God. It's part of showing God that we love, that we care, that we're willing to listen and learn = obey.
Anonymous | 11/13/2008 - 5:59pm
This is not a very difficult issue. The Catholic Church settled the issue concerning whether women can be ordained to the priesthood. They cannot ever be ordained. If you are Catholic and you do not believe this then you have two options. 1. Change your mind; 2. Find another religion. This is not the Gulag. One can leave if they so choose. One can also say that I do not understand. I pray to one day understand. Until then I submit to an authority greater than me. That would be the humble thing for a Catholic to do.
Anonymous | 11/14/2008 - 4:39pm
For my part, I agree with the good Father. Women should be ordained to the priesthood and to the diaconate (as they are in Greece). This is what the CDF is afraid of. Nothing good can come from such fear.
Anonymous | 11/14/2008 - 2:56pm
This ultimatum from the CDF goes against #2 of Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Liberty). And the status of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is theologically unclear with respect to its "infallibility." I respect Roy Bourgeois' "Here I stand, I can do no other." With regard to the guy who says this issue "will never change" --I refer him to Vatican II which changed a hell of a lot of things (i.e. "Jews killed Christ," "no salvation outside the Roman Catholic church" etc.). Must be nice to know exactly what God is thinking about everything.
Anonymous | 11/14/2008 - 9:19am
Masculinity is an element of the nature of the Catholic priesthood, so a woman can't be made a priest any more than a tree can be made a stone. The Church "has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women[and]this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful,” JPII wrote. For Fr. Bourgeois to continue to agitate for such a thing publicly despite this definitive statement is scandalous. He might consider that it is possible, indeed, that his conscience is leading him astray.
Anonymous | 11/13/2008 - 7:26pm
A little bit of humility is called for. What one does is to realize one's smallness. It goes like this: The Catholic Church has held a position about___ for nearly 2,000 years based on theological arguments that I don't understand. Therefore, my view based upon sociological arguments which I broadcast to all the world by outlandish words and actions needs to be put in perspective. From my point of view I am right, but am I such a prophet and preacher that I can really ignore the time honored wisdom of the Church? Or, can I admit that my limited view is justified as a personal view, but needs to be balanced against many other very weighty views. Can I say I could be mistaken due to my own limitations and therefore I wish to withdraw my public comments and actions. That is, I recant what I have done because in good conscience this is the wise thing to do.
Anonymous | 11/13/2008 - 3:53pm
Great question for the CDF to explore! And while they are at it maybe they could ponder the ethical dimension of pressuring human beings to deny their most deeply held beliefs, and look to their own institutional history for some vivid examples of virtuous aims sought through vicious courses of action. Spiritual bullying is no better than the rack and rope.