The Other I

February 28, 2013

Who is this speaking, please?

I felt a certain admiration for Pope Benedict as I listened to his final address to the public in St. Peter’s Square.  He seemed remarkably honest about the problems in the Vatican which he felt he no longer had the energy to deal with.  I’ve watched a lot of high-achievers unable to recognize that they have passed their peak, that it is time to step down, and I thought there was a courageous honesty in that shy smile.

At the same time, something else bothered me.  Benedict kept talking about his following the voice of God, and urging his listeners to do the same.

But the age-old question remained un-addressed.  The RC Church teaches that we must follow our conscience, no matter how isolated it may make us, no matter what authorities may say, no matter what the cost.  So it is no defense that some action may have been legal, if at the same time it was immoral.  It was not a defense to say that one was ordered to shove 14 million people into gas chambers during World War II.  Or ordered by one’s husband to beat one’s one child to death.  It is not a defense simply to follow custom, even if it is a religious custom.

The question, though, is how one knows if what one is listening to is the voice of God.  Cromwell was convinced he was listening to the voice of God.  The man who shot President Reagan believed he had heard the voice of God telling him to do it.  Men and women put to death by the Inquisition of the Church died because they believed they had heard the voice of God.  Today thousands of terrorists believe they are being called by God to be martyrs.  Our own military personnel often believe that they are doing the work of God.

I can understand saying that I hope I am responding to the voice of God.  But that’s not what the pope said.  He said he was responding to the voice of God.  That sounds like a kind of arrogance to me that makes me very nervous.

It’s that attitude that makes it possible for Church officials to exercise power by decreeing that disagreeing with them is to disagree with God.  It’s the grounds on which even today priests and nuns have been silenced or excommunicated for disagreeing with the Vatican about married priests, or the ordination of women, or the literal truth of the virgin birth of Jesus, or the right of divorced people who have remarried to receive the sacraments.



  1. From my perspective, I like to test things against the Word of God / Jesus – and test for compatibility – in a holistic kind of way.
    Romans 12 vs 2: “Do not conform yourselves to the world’s standards, but be transformed with the renewing of your minds, so you will be able to test and approve the will of God.”
    I give him credit – he has not conformed 🙂
    Seems to be a “good decision” all round.


    Comment by sanstorm — February 28, 2013 @ 10:35 pm | Reply

    • As I’ve already discovered, you a fundamentally not a fundamentalist! You don’t already have all the answers that you are declaring to everyone else. You’re listening. You’re searching. I’m not doing it within the same religious framework as you, but it is a stance that I too try to emulate. Thank you so much for sharing this. It is important to remember that it is not religious belief that necessarily makes one closed-minded and arrogant. From everything I know about early Christians, they did not think that salvation lay in doctrine, but in love for one’s fellow man (and woman, of course). Terry

      On Thu, Feb 28, 2013 at 10:35 PM, The Other I


      Comment by Terry Sissons — March 2, 2013 @ 10:05 pm | Reply

  2. There’s something in Catholic teaching called “forming one’s conscience.” That means adopting not one’s own moral view of a situation but the one prescribed by a moral superior. Following military orders would be, I guess, the secular equivalent.

    I think Huck Finn had the last the word on this when he decided he must regrettably go to hell because by helping the slave Jim to escape he was clearing doing the thing which his conscience was strenuously forbidding him to do.


    Comment by pianomusicman — February 28, 2013 @ 11:33 pm | Reply

    • Oh you are right! Thank you for the elaboration. I’d forgotten about that little caveat — you must follow your conscience, but if your conscience doesn’t agree with the Vatican, then it’s a poorly formed conscience and so isn’t something you should follow after all. So Huck Finn is undoubtedly burning in a literary hell.

      But joking aside, you are right. That is the RC version of “following one’s conscience” is a little like the secular version of following military orders. And of course, that just gets us back to square one again, doesn’t it? How does the pope etc. know that it is God who is speaking to him? Or maybe more to the point, how do you and I know that it’s God who is speaking to him? It just doesn’t sound like God’s voice to me most lot of the time.

      I don’t see how the RC religion is going to flourish in today’s world of scientific exploration and global communication without fundamental change. And I fear I don’t have high hopes of fundamental change. There’s too much power in Rome, and power, corrupts. Terry

      On Thu, Feb 28, 2013 at 11:33 PM, The Other I


      Comment by Terry Sissons — March 2, 2013 @ 10:00 pm | Reply

  3. Arrogance is exactly what it seems like to me, and arrogance is surely an immoral attitude. There are many good believers (as there are good non-believers), and there are doubtless some good believers who are helped towards their goodness by their belief (as there are good non-believers who are helped towards their goodness by their non-belief).

    But the closed loop of religious belief which you describe here has always seemed to me a fundamentally unethical position. The problem is that it is only from outside that loop that it appears unethical. If you are inside the loop then the God you believe in is the very source of goodness and therefore belief in that God cannot itself be subject to moral judgment.

    But I could be wrong 🙂


    Comment by Chris Lawrence — March 2, 2013 @ 8:41 am | Reply

    • Thank you for your stimulating comment. I have been trying to find out for years why some believers reflect this kind of closed arrogance we both find so fundamentally unethical and believers with less need for certainty that it is God whom they are listening to. Partly, I am sure, culture is important, especially in the past when people had little exposure to alternative ideas. But today in a world of global communication and higher levels of education, believers come in both versions – those who believe that salvation lies in dogma, in what they believe, and that those who disagree with them are on their way to damnation, and those, on the other hand, who believe that others may also have a hold on some aspects of the truth, even if it may appear to be radically different from their own beliefs. This group does not seem to have this drive to either convince everybody else that they are right, or to condemn them if they do not “convert.”

      Maybe it’s because I’m a psychologist that I tend to think that believers who need everyone to agree with them are actually tremendously insecure about their faith. Or maybe even about their own identities. Religious belief gives them some absolute certainty about themselves that people who are psychologically more secure do not need.

      Like you, it doesn’t seem to me that all believers are either good or bad, arrogant or not. Nor are all non-believers. As you no doubt know, I’m not a believer, but unfortunately, I can’t conclude that I’m also terribly good and never arrogant. Unfortunately.

      Thank you again. Terry



      Comment by Terry Sissons — March 2, 2013 @ 9:49 pm | Reply

    • “But I could be wrong” – Thanks for a motto to live by


      Comment by Ray Voith — February 4, 2015 @ 8:36 pm | Reply

      • Right! I don’t know about you, but I am now old enough to realize, occasionally with some anguish, that not only I could be wrong. I absolutely have been wrong. And I am sure that about some things I still am. Except I don’t know which things they are. It’s the human condition, isn’t it? We’re not infinitely wise. Or as Buddha put it, we’re incomplete. I just hope that in the end I manage to do more good than harm in the years allotted to me.


        Comment by theotheri — February 4, 2015 @ 9:01 pm

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