Karen, I hear you. Here is where I would press you for further clarity. You’re talking about the capax dei exclusivley with reference to the conscience, then saying that the conscience requires institutions for its formation. I think that’s insufficient, because you make the conscience an intermediary between the capax dei and institutions. Without relating the capax dei to institutions directly, you’re unable to provide an answer for how to resolve conflicts between individuals and institutions when they arise.
For every Thomas More, there’s a Martin Luther. “Conscience requires institutions for its formation” has become quite a slogan in some quarters. Whenever I hear it, I ask people what they would have told Luther to do. Suppose he submits to institutions at Worms instead of taking a stand for conscience. When he stands before the eternal judgment seat, what’s he supposed to say? “Well, you see, Lord, the human self is situated in a dense web of relationships and institutions that constitute its personhood…”
I think we can’t establish the need for freedom of religion alongside freedom of conscience without confronting this problem. Although Luther and the 16th century Reformation did not represent a revolt against institutions, they did put the problem of relating institutions to conscience front and center. Romantic individualism rose to prominence by exploiting this opportunity. As long as every individual has an unlimited-use trump card, we’re not going to solve this problem.
We need to press the point even further – get even more radical – and locate the capax dei in action rather than just in contemplation. Aristotle was right that the contemplative life is insufficient by itself; action and contemplation must be integrated. God is the God of truth and beauty and goodwill and rest and the beatific vision, but he is also the God of justice and abundance and marriage and battles and skyscrapers and little screaming babies that poop their diapers. The biblical narrative begins in a garden and ends in a city; God did not create the universe in its final state but in an initial state. It was always supposed to grow and develop. That was the original plan.
The late church fathers absorbed from their Neoplatonist rivals the pagan idea that the good is eternal and unchanging, so motion and change are bad. (It’s actually a pretty common problem in theology – theologians battling unbelievers on some major point will absorb their thinking on some of the more minor points in order to meet them on their own ground, then those compromises fester and stink within the theological tradition until later theologians root them out.) On this basis they instilled in Christian theology a view of creation and history and ethics that privileges contemplation over action. We are still struggling today to get over this problem. This discussion is only one example.
If we locate the capax dei in action as well as contemplation, institutions themselves become direct expressions of the capax dei alongside individual belief and behavior. Now you’re prepared to wrestle with the question of how individuals and institutions relate. How the conversation goes from there will depend on other factors we don’t have time to get into, but without acknowledging the capax dei in institutions you’re never going to get on the right track.
By the way, what I’m advocating here does not imply a compromise of the Reformation understanding of the sovreignty of the conscience. Far from it – in my view, what I’m saying here is implied in Luther’s claims and actions. If the capax dei is located in institutions, then institutions are accountable to God. This by itself does not get you the whole Reformation doctrine, but it is at least a necessary part of it. On this view, the individual and the institution are equally subordinate to God, so neither one is subordinate to the other. Individuals and institutions must learn to coexist symbiotically rather than one demanding that the other submit. Luther treated Rome as though he thought it ought to be an expression of the capax dei, and was failing in that capacity, and could legitimately be held to account. Whereas it seems to me that the attempt to solve this problem without relating the capax dei directly to institutions (“the conscience requires institutions for its formation”) really arises out of Catholic attempts to answer the challenge of Protestantism by subordinating the individual conscience to institutions.