BILL MOYERS: What do you think the new pope would make of the CNN/USA Today Gallup poll a few days ago in which three quarters of American Catholics say they're more likely to follow their own conscience on, quote, "difficult moral questions," rather than the teachings of Pope Benedict?
JAMES CARROLL: Well, Pope Benedict probably would say that poll suggests one of the things that's wrong with American Catholicism. But I would say the opposite. American Catholicism has been a source for the Catholic Church as a whole of the discovery of the primacy of conscience. Every human being owes ultimate allegiance to his or her conscience. We also owe responsibly. We owe to the broader community the process of testing our conscience against what the broader community says. But finally, there can be no doubt that we have to do as our inner voice tells us. Now that -- that's a tradition that's powerfully out of the Protestant, American culture.
BILL MOYERS: Yes. The priesthood of the believer is what I was taught growing up.
JAMES CARROLL: Yes, it's true.
BILL MOYERS: That each of us has our own conscience that we honor, no matter what authority says.
Whether Carroll is right about the contributions of American Catholics, I won’t venture a guess. However, both Carroll and Moyers have a bizarre understanding of the Protestant teaching, "the priesthood of all believers." This doctrine has nothing to do with following inner voices or rejecting authority to follow our own consciences.
Drawing on the imagery from 1 Peter 2:4-10, the protestant reformers taught that the Church itself acted as a priesthood "that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." Protestant reformers understood that the priesthood of all believers was rooted in the high priesthood of Jesus Christ. Our reconciliation to God is dependent wholly upon Him. Jesus Christ alone is the mediator between God and humanity. As a result, there is no caste system in the church. Salvation is not dependent on popes and priests. Martin Luther writes,
"That all Christians are truly of the Spiritual Estate, and there is no difference among them, save of office alone. As St. Paul says, we are all one body, though each member does its own work, to serve the others. This is because we have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike; for baptism, gospel and faith, these alone make Spiritual and Christian people."
If spiritual authority does not rest in popes, where does it rest? Carroll and Moyers believe it lies with the individual conscience. I choose. I decide. In this, they recall a famous phrase from the Westminster Confession, "God alone is Lord of the conscience." However, again they miss the mark. Reformed Christians have understood that sin is pervasive. Even our best is tainted by sin’s stain. As a result, our conscience needs help. Here is the complete quote from the Westminster Confession:
"God alone is Lord of the conscience and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship."According to Westminster, Scripture provides the necessary check on our inner voices. Luther, himself under the rallying cry of solo scriptura, would certainly agree. Still, Luther even suggests that the Christian community itself has some claim to authority. While addressing the meaning of ordained ministry within the priesthood of believers, he writes,
"Because we are all priests of equal standing, no one must push himself forward and take it upon himself, without our consent and election, to do that for which we all have equal authority. For no one dare take upon himself what is common to all without the authority and consent of the community."Submitting to Scripture and to the voice of the Church under Scripture may be a messy process, but it is certainly superior to what occurred under the judges in Israel: "Every man did was right in his own sight" (Judges 21:25).
Ironically, Bill Moyers elsewhere has complained that conservative Christians are too individualistic, yet he embraces a view of authority which sees nothing higher than the individual. Moyers should know better.