The Archbishop’s dictionary

Archbishop Dolan, having defined “freedom” as “doing what I think you ought to do,” now defines “conscience” as “voting the way I tell you to vote.”

Last week, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, in arguing against the idea that marriage equality conferred freedom on gay and lesbian people to marry, offered a definition of “freedom” straight from the Newspeak Dictionary: freedom is doing what the Church tells you you ought to want to do.

This week, arguing in the same – thank God! – losing cause, Dolan also redefined “conscience” as meaning “voting the way I tell you to.”

I’m particularly disappointed in that, once again, the terribly illogical heresy of “personally opposed but have to do this” seems to be dominating some of our Catholic politicians. How in the world, as I said on the feast of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, you could have some Catholic politicians say they’re following their conscience. The heroes of conscience are people like John Fisher and Thomas More. You bet they followed their conscience — a properly formed conscience in conformity with divine revelation and the teaching of the Church. Everybody follows their own conscience. Pol Pot followed his own conscience. We’re talking about a properly formed conscience.

Note that it’s not enough for the good Archbishop to claim that those who disagrees with him are wrong. He needs to deny them any virtue at all; if “conscience” is a virtue, then they mustn’t have it. He cites Fisher and More; by his standard, Ridley and Latimer did not die for conscience. Feh.

(I think he threw Pol Pot in just to see if anyone was still awake.)

The claims get more and more bizarre. Dolan casts the Catholic Church as David against the Goliath of the gay-rights movement, and himself – certainly among the hundred most important people in the state – as the victim of “the elites.” As to the fact that the view he fought so hard to maintain as a matter of law is now a minority view in New York, he simply denies it:

They … claim to speak for the overwhelming majority of people, but they wouldn’t accept my invitation: perhaps to go to Staten Island and visit some backyard barbecues and sense what the people really believe.

But perhaps this is merely a bit of high comedy, or at least High Palinism; bored with church administration, Archbishop Dolan may be looking at a second career in stand-up.

Footnote Yes, I know those peculiar definitions of “conscience” and “freedom” aren’t peculiar to Archbishop Dolan; he’s just quoting the party line. But I’ve always found old jokes to be the funniest.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

10 thoughts on “The Archbishop’s dictionary”

  1. As a wavering Catholic, I have to say that arguments like Timothy Dolan’s sicken my in their lack of charity and their downright dishonesty, as in: “Yes, of course you can have freedom of conscience, but only if your conscience is formed exactly as mine is.” You’re right — this is entirely illogical. And it’s mean! Why can’t these people accept that honest, thoughtful, well-meaning people can hold a different opinion? I was always taught that Catholics should follow their OWN consciences, however that conscience might disagree with the Catholic position. This is a basic tenet of Catholic thought. With the RCC unfortunately becoming more conservative and reactionary, this ancient teaching, once upheld by Thomas Aquinas, has been thrown out the window. We have too many intellectual lightweights in the RCC who believe all Catholics absolutely have to, whether they like it or not, follow the teachings of the Catholic church EXCEPT that of freedom of conscience. It’s contradictory, and, quite frankly, I find it maddening. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “invincible ignorance” is not an excuse for an ill-formed conscience. So, according to that logic, everyone who holds an opinion different from that of Dolan and co. is “invincibly ignorant.” How insufferably arrogant! And what an intellectually vacuous argument because so easily made and so equivalent to childish name-calling. Sorry … I’m blowing off steam at seeing what my church has become. I’ll get down off my soapbox now.

  2. If nothing else, the Archbishop demonstrates, by using More and (especially) Fisher) a remarkably tin ear–or else, and more likely, that he doesn’t get out much, intellectually speaking. He could have said “early Christian martyrs” and gotten a vague nod of assent from a lot more people. It is telling that he instead brought up two who died not so much over doctrine as over power and the rulership of the Church.

    And I can’t resist a response to the previous comment; as the sign at every parish says, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you”. Just because of the commonalty of doctrine and liturgy, there is a steady flow of disgusted Roman Catholics into the Episcopal Church–and another steady flow of hypertraditionalist Episcopalians in the other direction.

  3. Margaret, as an atheist interested in intellectual honesty, I thank you for your clear explanation of Catholic doctrine on conscience (as opposed to the tendentious distortions spoken by members of the church hierarchy).

  4. “I was always taught that Catholics should follow their OWN consciences, however that conscience might disagree with the Catholic position. This is a basic tenet of Catholic thought.”

    Uhhh, since WHEN?
    Not at the time of the reformation.
    Not during the 19th century while Popes are railing against democracy, liberalism and female voting.
    Not during the early 20th century, when Italy falls to Mussolini because the Pope forbids the Italian Catholic Party (yay, we’ve now vaguely reconciled ourselves with democracy) to compromise with the two other large Italian parties (oops, I guess we don’t really understand how this democracy thing works after all).
    They may have been a brief window of letting a thousand flowers bloom between Vatican II and John Paul II, but that’s hardly a “basic tenet of Catholic thought”.

  5. Further on the complete tone-deafness of referencing Thomas More: yes, he stuck to his conscience against Henry VIII, but he also had protestants burned for following their consciences during his tenure as Lord Chancellor.

    I’m afraid I have to echo Maynard’s question – when exactly was the Roman Catholic church in favor of freedom of conscience?

  6. Forget the Church–when did any useable moral system not distinguish between “following conscience” and “if it feels good, do it?”

  7. Is there a handbook or a rule for Catholic politicians issued by the church or the Vatican? Has there ever been?

    Generally Mark seems to leap at the opportunity to criticize the Catholic Church. But since Mark clearly doesn’t like the Church and finds it contemptuous he is not a very powerful critic of it, because he doesn’t understand it well enough to realize how truly silly its hierarchy often is. The most disingenuous thing about Dolan’s comments aren’t really about individual conscience (as commentor SamChevre clearly understands). It is the implicit idea that Catholic politicians only now are violating the wishes of the Vatican, as if this hasn’t been happening since the Papacy has been asserting itself since the 1000s. It’s not clear why NY State recognizing gay marriage is any less doctrinally legitimate as NY State’s recognizing heterosexual marriages outside of the Church. The problem with Dolan isn’t that adherence to Catholicism requires adherence to several formal beliefs (although a generous interpretation of required adherence would be limited to certain essential doctrines and dogma) upon which appeals to conscience can not legitimately be made. It’s that the Church hierarchy is slowly turning itself into a lobbying organization and making itself look ridiculous. You’d think Mark would applaud the bishops actions in making their pronouncements irrelevant to their own followers.

  8. SamChevre: Huh? What about, “I’d actually rather not do this, but whatever my superiors say, my understanding of justice compels me to do it?” What about, “Though this bring down the vials of wrath on my head, this is what I must do, and its upshot I will abide?” What about, “I think I am passing the limit as to how much of my Church’s doctrine I can or should impose on my unwilling constituents here: I was not, nor would ever have been, elected on a platform of Whatever the Vatican State Says, Timbo?” You may judge any or all of these invalid; I don’t see how any of them map to “if it feels good, do it” half as closely as His Grace’s demand for a properly formed conscience maps to “a still small voice that says whatever your superiors, such as me, teach it to.”

    I have to agree with Mark: our man has been pure comedy gold lately. I could react otherwise to such utterances, but that reaction would be less… charitable to him, and far more disagreeable to myself, and altogether I prefer to turn lightly away from it.

  9. It is quite natural for most of us, when we hear of someone being praised as a hero of conscience, to think that the person is supposed to be a hero of freedom of conscience. These are very different things. Thomas More is a perfect example. He was certainly a martyr of conscience, but only of his own conscience. He was not a martyr of freedom of conscience. Quite the opposite. He died, as he had lived, in service of the view that the King could not coerce conscience but that the Church could. And when he got the chance to do some serious coercing on the side of the Church, he had an unholy zest for the job.

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