Why? The liberals in the Church don’t like what Cardinal Pell has to say on the issue of individual conscience.
I’m not surprised the liberals are upset. Cardinal Pell has done what the liberals would not have wanted him to do: he has identified the difference between a view of morality inspired by secular liberalism, and a Catholic view.
What is the secular liberal idea of morality? Liberals believe that we become human when we choose for ourselves who we are and what we do. Therefore, liberals generally make the assumption that there is nothing in our nature, or in the way the world is constituted, which might limit the choices open to us. We can inscribe on ourselves whatever seems best. As long as what we choose does not restrict the similar freedom of others it is permissible.
What matters to a liberal is more the fact that a choice is “self-authored”, rather than what is actually chosen.
This is a view which runs counter to the authority of traditional moral codes and that of church hierarchies, as these will both appear to a liberal to be external impediments to the self-authoring individual.
What does Cardinal Pell have to say about such ideas? A good place to find the answer is a lecture given by Cardinal Pell two years ago at the University of Cambridge.
In this lecture, Cardinal Pell argues against the idea that there is a primacy of individual conscience. Pell begins his argument by quoting and commenting on the following from John Paul II:
For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged (cf. Romans 2:-14-16). Naturally, though this law is written in our hearts, it is not our hearts’ law: it is God’s law.
This is not what a liberal would want to hear. This is not a view of man as being unbounded in his choices, but one which asserts the existence of a moral law (and therefore the possibility of right choices) and also the existence of a given moral nature in man (and therefore the possibility of a “right will”).
Our dignity as humans, in this view, depends on whether our will is aligned with our given moral nature. It is a perfection of will, rather than a “liberation” of will, which is important.
Later in the lecture Cardinal Pell observes that,
Unless all kinds of implicit Christian assumptions are made explicit, the claim to the primacy of individual conscience easily becomes in our cultural context the same as a claim to personal moral autonomy. Fine though autonomy is, in Christian hands this has tended to become code for “rationalisation of personal wishes” and there is no dignity in that, unless our wishes are for the genuine good. A wish isn’t dignifying just because it’s mine.
Again, this won’t go down well in the liberal heartlands. Cardinal Pell is explaining that in a liberal society, arguing for the primacy of individual conscience easily slips into the idea that there is no higher moral authority than ourselves as individuals, so that we can falsely dignify as “moral” whatever it is that we desire for ourselves.
Cardinal Pell develops this theme further when he notes that,
Most Western moral philosophers since the eighteenth century ... have followed Kant in advocating some form of moral self-legislation and government (autonomy) ... Kant would be appalled by contemporary autonomy liberalism. He believed in objective morality ... which autonomy gives us the means and opportunity to follow, never a self-made morality of private preference.
Finally, Pell discusses the views on conscience of Cardinal Newman. It seems that even in the 1800s, Cardinal Newman thought it important to distinguish a Catholic view of conscience from the secular liberal view.
First, Cardinal Newman emphasised that conscience was external to our own will: he termed it a “messenger from Him” or “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ”. That this placed Newman outside of liberal orthodoxy he well knew:
Newman carefully distinguishes this proper understanding of Christian conscience from its secular alternative, which is “in one way or another a creation of man”. “Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the 18 centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will ... It is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience.”
I won’t attempt a more detailed summary of Cardinal Pell’s arguments. All that I’ve tried to show here is the effort made by Cardinal Pell to separate the secular liberal view of morality from the Catholic one. Cardinal Pell is correct, I believe, in thinking it important to make this distinction at a time when the Church is suffering the effects of “the acid rain of modernity on our Catholic communities.”