Ever since August 11, when 40 Roman Catholic leaders presented a 25-page letter to Pope Francis (a “Filial Correction”), the issue of Christian conscience has generated discussion. Conscience is recognized as the inner core of a person that identifies morally good and evil choices in accord with right reason and God’s Word.

The discussion, however, has opened a can of worms.

The word “conscience” appears several times in the document, which seeks to correct the pope’s recent statements on divorced Catholics. But it mostly does so in quoting Francis himself, who uses it to justify greater latitude regarding “irregular” situations in the church (“mortal sins,” and “heresies” according to other Catholics). Therefore, rather than merely evoking conscience as a means of inspiring obedience, the pope also claims it as a way of recognizing “what for now is the most generous response.”

The Issue

The specific issue is whether divorced and remarried persons are welcome to the Catholic communion table. Catholic teaching has long been clear that they are not, but Francis seems to be edging away from this view. And both his position and also his justification for it are mirrored by Cardinal Kevin Farrell, recently elevated by Pope Francis to lead the newly established Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life. Provocatively, Farrell describes the reception of communion by the divorced and remarried as a “process of discernment and of conscience.”

But most interesting is the use of “conscience” by the letter’s drafters, who nail Francis to the wall over his overtly filial expressions toward Martin Luther. They write, with deliberate or unintended irony,

[W]e feel compelled by conscience to advert to Your Holiness’s unprecedented sympathy for Martin Luther, and to the affinity between Luther’s ideas on the law, justification, and marriage, and those taught or favored by Your Holiness.

As Pope Francis and his conservative critics both appeal to conscience, a question arises: What supreme authority rightly governs Christian conscience, particularly in disagreement? In the face of this question, contemporary Roman Catholicism faces a crisis, the origins of which reach back to the 16th century.

Captivity of Conscience

In April 1521, Martin Luther appeared before Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, in the city of Worms to defend his teaching. The thought of standing before the emperor provoked such dread that Luther prayed through the night begging God for courage. It was the next day, when the gauntlet was thrown down before him, that Luther used the c-word:

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and council, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.

Luther’s defense was not a modern plea for the supremacy of the individual conscience or free will. It was, rather, an entreaty for Scripture’s supremacy. In short, Luther at Worms illustrates the authority of God’s Word as the rightful captor of our conscience. His Bible-centered vision of conscience may be compared with the Roman Catholic orientation expressed by Ignatius Loyola, who memorably put it this way: “What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines.”  Loyola’s conscience was captive to the hierarchical Church.

But what happens when the hierarchical Church is headed by a Jesuit who prefers shades of grey to black and white? What do Catholics do when their vicar of Christ and living symbol of unity is moving in the wrong direction? Can they really distance themselves from the pope without cutting off the branch on which they sit?  

Open Can of Worms

There are no easy answers to these questions. But there are insights worth remembering in conversation with each other. Here are three:

1. The Magisterium is not fully clear.

I can feel the ire of Catholic apologists fomenting as I write these words. But if the current brouhaha illustrates anything, it’s that hierarchical church teaching is not black and white. While Protestants debate the finer points of Scripture, Catholics debate over sacred Tradition. Submitting to the Magisterium settles neither dispute nor difficulty.

Here is how the late Avery Cardinal Dulles explains the situation in his book on the Magisterium: “The meaning of Magisterial decisions, in turn, has to be studied with reference to the way they are understood and interpreted by pastors, theologians, and the faithful. The study of the Magisterium, therefore, would be incomplete without some attention to the process of reception” (emphasis added).

The process of reception (whether from Scripture or tradition) is real and ongoing for Protestants and Catholics alike.

2. Pope Francis is not an evangelical ally.

A chief reason why Pope Francis frustrates Protestants is that we agree with him at some points, but he invariably lets us down where it matters most. For example, since we don’t regard marriage to be a sacrament (an ordinance that imparts redemptive grace, instituted by our Lord Jesus in the new covenant), it’s easy to resonate with Francis’s pastoral sensitivity toward those who have been divorced and remarried.

There is, in other words, some truth in the Filial Correction’s analogy between Pope Francis and Luther on the nature of marriage. But when it comes to the gospel—the message of salvation for those who personally repent of sin and trust in Christ—this pope seems incapable of cutting it straight. Francis is gifted at evocatively describing the existential needs of the human heart, but, as I’ve written elsewhere, when it comes to addressing the need for the gospel, he tragically lets the side down.

3. The Roman Catholic claim to catholicity is more fragile than the Protestant claim.

Luther’s defense at Worms was fairly straightforward. His conscience was constrained by Scripture, for he recognized Scripture alone to be God’s Word. He was quite clear that the Bible makes sense in the context of a believing community, and he was simultaneously adamant that the community—as in the Roman Magisterium—did not give the Bible its sense.

When the Magisterium exercises such constraining authority, an adversarial relationship emerges. In Luther’s case, it was between the hierarchy and Scripture’s teaching. But contrary to Roman Catholic claims ever since, adhering one’s conscience to the hierarchy does not turn dilemmas into unity, as the current case of papal innovation against long-established Catholic tradition amply demonstrates.

This conflict between an intransigent center and its diverse critics illustrates Rome’s arguably more fragile model of catholicity than the one found, across denominations, among Bible-centered Protestants. A document such as the recent Reforming Catholic Confession—signed by more than 1,000 theologians from a variety of Protestant traditions—is a good example of what Bible-centered catholicity may look like.

Gift of God’s Word

I’ve just returned from a thought-provoking public dialogue between a Lutheran and Roman Catholics on Martin Luther’s legacy. Afterward I got to chat with a sweet elderly woman who identified herself as a “conservative Catholic.” I asked how she feels about Pope Francis’s teaching.

She rolled her eyes and expressed consternation. “If you had asked me during the pontificates of John Paul II or Benedict XVI,” she explained, “whether I’d side with the (progressive) American Catholic Church or the pope, my answer would have been simple: the pope. But I’m now in a quandary. I find the pope’s statements deeply troubling, but I don’t know what to do about it.”

Because my new Catholic friend and I had just heard a lecture on Martin Luther at Worms—particularly about his conscience being captive to God’s Word—the response that rolled off my tongue came naturally: “I suppose that is part of Luther’s gift to the universal church. While popes and councils may contradict one another, we possess the gift of God’s Word—a Word that is always profitable ‘for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.’”