Administrator urges priests to teach about conscience

CHARLESTON — The recent media maelstrom over a letter from Father Jay Scott Newman to his Greenville church has resulted in confusion between theology and public opinion. The letter stated that parishioners who voted for President-elect Barack Obama should refrain from receiving Holy Communion until they had received the sacrament of reconciliation.

Msgr. Martin T. Laughlin, administrator of the Diocese of Charleston, has written to priests urging them to educate their congregations on the matter.

In his Nov. 18 letter, released to The Miscellany, Msgr. Laughlin stated: “I urge you as pastors to instruct your congregations on how to form a good and true conscience, how to correct an erroneous conscience, and above all, what is conscience. I am sure you will consult with the ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church’ (1776-1802), and good moral theologians. It is important that we teach according to the Magisterium and mind of the Church Universal.”

His letter included a rallying call to diocesan priests.

“While I wish to acknowledge and thank the priests for their dedicated ministry in serving God’s people, I remind them that in order to do so, we must stand in communion with the faith. If we are divided, we cannot effectively fulfill our ministry. As we work to reconcile the people to God, we must do the same for each other,” Msgr. Laughlin wrote.

He stated that it was his responsibility as diocesan administrator “to protect the church from any semblance of partisan politics and focus on the objective teachings of the church, though admittedly moral issues often have a political dimension.

“Making the recent furor over voting and communion an internal partisan issue will only result in the church being a less credible witness to Christ and the unity we profess,” he said in the letter.

“Let us all commit ourselves to prayer and sacrifice for the good of our flock, the church of Charleston and the entire body of Christ.”

The public controversy arose from the Nov. 9 bulletin at St. Mary Church, where Father Newman stated that “voting for a pro-abortion politician when a plausible pro-life alternative exists constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil, and those Catholics who do so place themselves outside of the full communion of Christ’s Church and under the judgment of divine law.”

Father Newman wrote, “Persons in this condition should not receive holy Communion until and unless they are reconciled to God in the sacrament of penance, lest they eat and drink their own condemnation.”

The letter was picked up by international media. In a statement released by the diocese on Nov. 14, Msgr. Laughlin quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church to explain the responsibility of conscience: “ ‘Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions.’ The Catechism goes on to state: ‘In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path; we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the church.’ ”

The diocesan administrator said Christ gave people the freedom to explore their conscience and make decisions following God and the teachings of the faith.

“Therefore, if a person has formed his or her conscience well, he or she should not be denied Communion, nor be told to go to confession before receiving Communion,” Msgr. Laughlin said. “The pulpit is reserved for the Word of God. Sometimes God’s truth, as is the church’s teaching on abortion, is unpopular. All Catholics must be aware of and follow the teachings of the church.”

He also urged Catholics to support the president-elect and all elected officials “with a view to influencing policy in favor of the protection of the unborn child. Let us pray for them and ask God to guide them as they take the mantle of leadership on January 20, 2009.”

To read the full text of Msgr. Laughlin’s statement, visit