by Charles Davis Harper and Row 1967

Library of Congress Number- 67-21556


Roman Catholics around the world were stunned when Charles Davis, Britain's leading Catholic theologian, announced his decision to leave the Church. The news broke just a few days after he had been made a member of a joint advisory commission for a dialogue with the Anglican Communion.

Why did Charles Davis make his momentous decision?

At the time, he said in a statement to the press,

He also said,

In A QUESTION OF CONSCIENCE, a dedicated Christian, splendid scholar, and brilliant writer describes with complete candor why he felt compelled in conscience to reject the Roman Catholic Church in order to remain faithful to Christ. This is a powerful and deeply moving testament of faith.

From leading periodicals:


COMMONWEAL [left-wing/modernist RC magazine]

AMERICA [Jesuit magazine]






The author: Charles Davis is Visiting Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. Formerly he was professor of theology at famed Heythrop College, editor of 'The Clergy Review', 'peritus' of Vatican Council II. He also taught theology at St. Edmund's College in England for sixteen years. He is the author of GOD'S GRACE IN HISTORY and other works.

Chapter 3 ........ pages 15-18

First, I have taken possession of myself by a radical decision.

Self-appropriation would seem to be fundamental to adult happiness. Happiness is not a quiescence gained by a narrowing of consciousness; it demands that a man accept the autonomy proper to him as a free person. A man has to take in hand his own becoming, decide what he is to make of himself and then carry out his decision. Just to follow what others do or say and wait passively upon events is to live a diminished personal existence. To insist in that way upon personal autonomy is, I think, compatible with belief in the working of the Spirit within us. The Spirit does not act by making us hear inner voices, but by enhancing the activity of our own intelligence and will. Nor does personal autonomy mean a refusal of external guidance or neglect of social factors and obligations. The free person is an intelligent subject, capable of recognizing his social existence with its implications. But to be fully a person does mean freely to take the decisions that determine the direction and growth of one's existence.

Every reflective Christian finds himself today in a confused and problematic situation. To think with honesty he has to face doubts and questioning that go deep and affect fundamentals. The Christian faith as a living, intelligent commitment no longer fits easily into the patterns that have been used to shape and define it. The temptation in this situation is just to drift to renounce a deliberate, personal choice and allow oneself to be carried along by what others are thinking, doing and saying. Such drifting leads many outside the Churches; not personal decision but the tide of opinion is the cause of their moving away. But a similar lack of self-determination keeps some within the Churches. People are afraid of freedom. They soon want to give it up when it becomes demanding. Continued submission to external authority is more comfortable than making personally a radical decision, and obedience can provide a respectable cover for the avoidance of personal autonomy, while verbal rebellion releases some of the tension caused by the failure to confront one's inner convictions. But the inability or refusal to be free eventually brings weariness of life, and it excludes genuine happiness. To endure the upheaval and discomfort of rending but truly personal decision is in the long run better.

I am not setting myself up as a model. In a sense I am talking to myself as I write. I am trying to weigh what I have done. Nor do I think myself more courageous than other men. The question of courage never entered my mind, until people wrote to me on that theme after I had announced my decision. What dominated my thoughts at the time was the sheer necessity for me of a personal choice. I had to confront my doubts, ask myself what I did in truth believe, and then act in harmony with my genuine convictions, whatever the consequences. Had I let things slide, balked the issue and refused to act decisively, with the vague hope that all my difficulties would eventually resolve themselves, I should have destroyed my real self and lapsed by default into a diminished existence, I felt that there could not be a second opportunity for appropriating my personal freedom.

Will Catholics reading this see it as expression of my fall by pride? This I can honestly say is not how it appears in my conscience. Vividly aware though I may be of the need to embrace freedom and not shirk its demands, I do not have the sense that I am my own, that I possess the ultimate source of my being as an intelligent subject and free person. I do not experience my free decisions as having their origin in some kind of will power, stronger in me than in others. For me freedom is bound up with seeking after the truth, with the dynamic expansion of consciousness that comes from loving the truth and following its light.

It is truth that frees, and to be pursued in depth truth must be embraced with love.

Here, however, in the realm of intelligent subjectivity where freedom is found, we meet what transcends ourselves. To act as intelligent and free subjects is to share in a reality greater than ourselves; for truth and love have not their ultimate source in us. The Christian names the transcendent as God and believes that God is within him. For me as a Christian personal freedom is a gift of God's grace. I did not see my personal decision, with the acceptance of freedom it demanded, as making me independent of God. What have I that I have not received? I never thought I could do more than share in his liberating truth and love. But I was convinced that God gives us that share by calling us to exercise our personal freedom and not shirk its demands.

People may opt to stay within the Roman Catholic Church by a truly free and personal decision. I am not for a moment suggesting that the only way for any Catholic to be free is to leave his Church though I should maintain that no freedom is possible without a fair degree of inner independence from its present structure of authority. But to remain within the Roman Church was not open to me personally without surrendering my integrity and freedom.

There were two reasons for this.

First, because, as I shall explain, I was no longer able to accept the Roman Catholic profession of faith, and my situation within the Church did not allow me to hide that fact or avoid publicly following out the implications of my disbelief.

Second, the Roman Catholic doctrinal system had so taken hold of my mind and permeated its fabric that once I had begun seriously to question and doubt it I could never have attained sufficient freedom from its oppressive influence without destroying its power to grip me by a radical break with the Church. I had to throw off the many-sided claim of the Church upon my ascent in order to think freely and with straightforward honesty. The struggle to conform with its distorting effect upon my vision had to stop if my mind were to liberate itself. I knew that even were I mistaken in my assessment of the Roman Church I could personally and intelligently recognise this only by first shaking off the irrational grip and emotional conditioning caused by my envelopment since childhood in a powerful authoritative system imposed with divine sanctions. Psychologically I could have reached a genuinely personal faith in the Roman Church only by passing through apostasy. That might seem an extreme paradox, but I think that a student of psychology would find it an understandable consequence of a system that tries to hold people back at a heteronomous stage of growth. I should perhaps add that since leaving the Roman Church I have as yet had no reason to reconsider my intellectual rejection of its claims.

I give, then, as a first cause of my present happiness the sense of a self-possession and spiritual expansion consequent upon a radical personal decision about my faith and the direction of my life.