If I assess your answer correctly I hear you saying the final word regarding our faith and practice comes from:
1. A rightly informed conscience
2. The church (I assume you mean Roman Catholic)
3. The bishops
4. The Pope
Again if I am interpreting your meaning correctly a conscience would not be rightly informed unless it conforms to the opinions of the remaining three.
I’ll quote myself (if you’ll excuse the hubris):
Each person has the responsibility and the blessing to follow what they think is good, right, moral, ethical, etc. However, the Church doesn’t leave it there. It should be a properly informed conscience that directs each person’s actions. "Properly informed" then becomes a catch-phrase that includes the following (not necessarily in order of importance): reading Scripture, listening to the teachings of the Magisterium of the Church (the Pope and/or a collective body of Bishops), praying for guidance from the Spirit on particular matters, listening to the stories told of our saints, discussing matters with trusted clergy/family/friends, and looking for guidance from secular authorities as needed (doctors, lawyers, psychologists, etc.).
So I would say that in my view of Catholicism one’s conscience is the ultimate arbiter of authority. In most cases (99% of the time), that conscience will agree with the teaching authority of the Church and our Scriptures. But there will be times when a person’s conscience will come in conflict with authority (the Spirit blows where it will) – in this case, our church affirms that in following your conscience you are following the still, small voice of the Spirit of God.
My belief, to state it briefly, is that the Bible, which I believe is God’s inspired word, is the final authority in all matters of faith and practice. My question was not intended to be misleading nor tricky. My point in the question is this, it is next to impossible to reach any consensus of belief unless we are both using the same standard to determine what we believe. The scriptures are the final word for me because I believe they are God’s word, the complete revelation of himself to us.
The Catholic position is that Scripture is indeed divinely inspired – but that doesn’t mean that every single word and punctuation mark is set down by God. Here in America we even argue over which translation to use. Not to mention that the bible’s we use are transliterations from 2,000 – 4,000 year old Greek & Hebrew . . . that’s why, for Catholics, Scripture and Tradition form the cornerstones of faith, not Scripture alone. Also, maybe a semantic note, we look to Jesus as the complete revelation of God – the Bible, as with any literature, is full of different modes of writing (biography, song, poetry, history, myth, gospel,
etc.), and we need to distinguish between the different literary forms to try and interpret it correctly.
Trying to proof-text a particular belief straight from Scripture is not always productive – I’ve previously referenced Matthew 25 where Jesus specifically states that it is our actions which determine heaven or hell – whatsoever you do the least of my people, that you do unto me. Jesus also warns that at the judgment there will be those who shout out "Lord, Lord" and are told: I know you not. Also, it would seem that since the Protestant community is so fractured, it’s impossible to say that there is one standard to determine belief – otherwise, all Bible-based Christians would believe the same thing – it still comes down to a matter of interpretation, except instead of a Pope and Magisterium leading the discussion you have countless individuals all trying to (ahistorically in some cases) figure out what particular passages mean.
Having said that, I do believe that an intimate relationship with Jesus is needed – we gain everything in establishing this relationship with our brother and savior. But I also believe that for the majority of believers, that relationship is lived out and nourished within the context of a community – Acts specifically states that salvation was found through Jesus, but that Jesus was found only in and through the early Christian community. In contemporary Catholic theological terms, we talk of the Church being a sacrament of Christ, meaning that the Church is the tangible, visible presence of Jesus in the world, as Jesus was the sacrament of God when he walked the earth, being the tangible, visible presence of God on earth.
Blessings & Peace,