We need to reclaim our consciences from this culture of post-modern relativism.
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This last week was distinguished in London by the pageantry and splendor of the State Opening of Parliament by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth. The elaborate ceremonial of this event marks the formal opening of the Parliamentary year with a speech setting out her government’s legislative intent. It is the only time when all three constituent elements of Parliament come together — namely the Sovereign, the House of Lords and the House of Commons.
The elaborate ritual, replete with the Guards regiments on parade, horse drawn carriages, the Queen wearing her Imperial State Crown, the scarlet and ermine-clad Lords, bewigged judges and prelates of the Church of England can be traced back to the fourteenth century and beyond. But, in its current form, it is a Victorian creation from 1852 when the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt after a terrible fire in 1834. The Queen even travels from Buckingham Palace in the same carriage (the Irish State Coach) that Queen Victoria first used to Open Parliament then.
However, the Mass in Westminster Abbey (which once preceded the event) has not featured since 1679, when Charles II feared assassination. This risk was made all too clear by the infamous Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes in 1605, on account of which the Yeomen of the Guard have searched the cellars of the Palace of Westminster the night before the State Opening ever since.
Added poignancy this year was given by the fact that, in the same week, King Juan Carlos of Spain was the latest European monarch to abdicate, following only months after Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, King Albert II of Belgium, and, of course, in a different category, Pope Benedict XVI.
Queen Elizabeth, by contrast, shows no sign of even considering such an action, preferring that the transfer of responsibilities should be strictly constitutional, or as one mischievous commentator put it, “over my dead body.”
In addition to her Coronation Oath, on the prior occasion of her twenty-first birthday, Her Majesty made a very specific promise, in a broadcast to the Commonwealth, which implicitly excludes this option. She stated then that, “I declare before you all, that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.” Such a level of commitment reflects her deep sense of duty, rooted in a strong Christian faith and her consequent sense of true vocation to be Sovereign, anointed and called by God to the service of her people for life.
In one of the many richly symbolic moments of her coronation in 1953, she was presented with the Coronation Ring (taken into exile by James II and returned in the will of the last Stuart, Cardinal York, to George III) “the Ring of Kingly Dignity, and the Seal of Catholic Faith” and the bond it symbolizes between the Sovereign and her Realm is one for God alone to sunder.
To live out an entire life in submission to this sense of vocation requires a confident and proper exercise of personal responsibility that ultimately rests in a well formed conscience. During the State Opening a prominent role is given to the Lord Chancellor who formally hands the Gracious Speech (which is actually written by her government) to the Queen to read. One of the historic titles of this senior figure, by virtue of an earlier historic judicial role in dispensing equity, is “Keeper of the Queen’s Conscience.”
One of the features of ceremonial is that it can serve to remind us of important things without having to rely on the whims and fancies of current or individual fashion, and conscience is a concept that is at risk, in our age, of being badly overlooked. Not only with regard to the moral quality possessed by our personal decisions, but also one’s position and responsibility before God, which inherently repudiates the modern temptation to assert absolute moral autonomy.
This latter point makes all the more curious, however, the recent trend in legislation to foreclose any claim to the exercise of conscience, in its yet further sense, of permitting a claim to legitimately considered moral dissent.
The seemingly inexorable rise of rights language has gone hand in hand with two interesting phenomena. On the one hand, there is an implicit belief in the development of rights, which allows for the discovery within them of substantive “new” content. Thus, things not evidently envisaged at one time are deemed to be included now, as is clearly happening in many places with regard to issues of sexual orientation and marriage. On the other hand, there is a tendency to absolutism about the new insights which rejects, as an affront to the presumed universality of human rights, any provision for conscientious objection even when the new insights contradict what would have been widely, or even generally, accepted in the past. This perspective fits well with the happy, if generally under-examined, belief in the inevitability of human progress.
An invocation of conscience to ground a dispensation from the enforcement of any particular rights claim is seen now as some kind of special pleading for an improper exceptionalism. Modern culture is oddly torn between a highly individualized understanding of human freedom, comprised of maximal choice, that wants to assert libertarian personal moral autonomy, while at the same time, an exceptionless code of rights is proclaimed which, despite its manifest evolution and change over time, is upheld as somehow absolute.
This represents a significant change from times past with highly practical effects. This was illustrated in the United Kingdom by the contrast between the way the law liberalizing abortion was first introduced, in the 1960s, and what would have happened now. Then, it was assumed as simply obvious that the conscience of medical practitioners should be provided for, so that they could not be compelled to act in breach of it. No such provision is found in newer legislation in morally disputed terrain. Thus, when Tony Blair’s government introduced legislation obliging adoption agencies to provide services for same-sex couples, no exceptions were allowed and the Catholic adoption agencies had to comply or close, which they duly did.
What needs to be recovered is an awareness that we need both sides of the thinking that conscience can enable.
When properly understood, conscience allows us to reject understanding it as a claim to mere personal autonomy. Rather, it opens to us the moral truths accessible to reason rooted in the way things are (which must reflect, to put it in grander terms, our metaphysical ontology or understanding of what there is and of the way things are in the moral as well as the physical universe) for, in the words of Benedict XVI “freedom without truth is no freedom at all.”
Conscience is thus, a phenomenon that calls us to do the good and live out our true vocation on the one hand, yet it can also, when properly formed and educated, ground a proper dissent from what is not right, however popular the error may be in a prevailing culture of post-modern relativism. To say this is merely to ask in the words of the Reverend Professor John Paris, SJ. of Boston College if, “there are some things that are so important,and so imperative, and of such value to an individual that as a society we would be willing to recognize that individual’s right to rescind from direct form of participation in that form of behavior?"
To be reminded, however obliquely, within the ceremonial splendor of the State Opening, of the challenges posed for each of us in living out our vocations in accord with the obligations of conscience, together with the need to address the hard questions that this must involve, is no bad thing for the Houses of Lords and Commons together assembled. It was all a very British event but the example offered in her own commitment to a lifetime of dedication and service is perhaps the truest jewel in the Queen’s crown.
The Rev. Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff is Senior Advisor to the King Abdullah Bin Aziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue and Director General of the World Dialogue Council.