Lots of people believe those words, of course, so they are hardly news. Sadly, this lamentable bit of philosophical nonsense is part of the message of one Father Maurice G. McNeely, who is described in this press release as
a retired Catholic priest who has written a refreshingly honest book titled Catholicism Without the Guilt to address the inordinate amount of guilt, worry, and fear that he has witnessed for almost half a century in practitioners of the Roman Catholic faith. The result, he says, of what was taught in Catechism, religious education instruction, parochial school, or in the home continues to negatively impact the lives of so many. "I think that many of the clergy," Father McNeely writes, "and even our parents thought it was a good thing for us to have guilt. They were going to get us to heaven if they had to send us to hell to do it. That kind of argument just doesn't make sense, but we were too afraid to question such things."
My first thought is: Look out, Joel Osteen! My second thought: Look out, readers of Father McNeely's book! What constitutes an "inordinate amount of guilt, worry, and fear" among Catholics? And, really, how many Catholics are being weighed down by lengthy sermons and catechetical classes that unrelentingly talk about guilt, sin, fear, punishment, judgment, etc.? My guess: very few. The press release does contain a few more clues about where Father McNeely is coming from:
Questioning is what Catholicism without the Guilt is all about. It is Father McNeely's response to the requests for answers that he has received from his parishioners over the many years of his priesthood. Through his book Father McNeely addresses all sorts of issues facing the a Roman Catholic today, even those that might be considered "taboo." He speaks about other belief systems; about sex and sexuality; marriage and divorce; gambling, alcohol, and the use of profanity. His book is also a clearly written, loving effort to bring about a greater understanding of Catholicism and its sacraments.
"I love the Catholic faith with all my heart and soul," Father McNeely says, "and I would never intend any disrespect toward it. I hope Catholicism without the Guilt will reinforce the idea of God's unconditional love for each of us and to let us know that we can always question the Catholic faith without any form of retribution, that our personal conscience is supreme, and that we should feel free to follow it."
Questioning is one thing—and it is always a good thing when done with a sincere and humble desire to know the truth—but baldly stating error is another thing. So the Catechism does say, "A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience." But it then states:
If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed. This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man "takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin." In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.
Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one's passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct. (CCC 1790-92)
There are many who would simply say, in light of this, that such notions are simply the opinions of the Church, so don't bother trying to stuff them down my throat. But there is a basic, logical problem with saying that "our personal conscience is supreme," namely, that it inevitably leads to the conflict of different consciences and ultimately undermines any basis for common morality, thus leading to the erosion of the basic moral beliefs upon which society is built. In the words of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, from the newly published work, On Conscience:
It is, of couse, undisputed that one must follow a certain conscience, or at least not act against it. But whether the judgment of conscience, or what one takes to be such, is always right—indeed, whether it is infallible—is another question. For if this were the case, it would mean that there is no truth—at least not in moral and religious matters, which is to say, in the areas that constitute the very pillars of our existence. Thus there could be, at best, the subject's own truth, which would be reduced to the subject's sincerity. No door or window would lead from the subject into the broader world of being and human solidarity. (p 12)
Now, some readers might wonder: should I read Father McNeely's book or Cardinal Ratzinger's book? It is not, of course, my place to tell you what to do. I'll leave that decision to your properly formed conscience.