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The Question of Conscience and Freedom
“Conscience is like God’s herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God’s authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king. This is why conscience has binding force (VS 2:58).”– Saint Bonaventure
Is there such a thing as an erroneous conscience? How do we distinguish a right conscience from an erroneous conscience? How does conscience conform to the moral law without losing its freedom? These are some of the questions answered by Saint John Paul II in Chapter Two of Veritatis Splendor [The Splendor of Truth], relying as always upon the unchanging truths of Scripture and Tradition.
The “place” of the conscience is the “heart” of the person (CCC 1777). The Bible describes “the just man” with these words: The law of his God is in his heart (Ps 37:31]). “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 (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Second Vatican Council, 16).”
Saint Pope John Paul II does not hesitate to draw quotes from the rich Tradition of the Church throughout all of his writings, including the teaching of the Saints and Doctors of the Church, such as Saint Bonaventure quoted above, the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, and especially the teaching of his predecessor Popes. There is in his teaching no breakage with the Tradition as established through centuries of guided leadership. Rather, there is a deep humility and spirit of gratitude for the contributions of God’s true witnesses, impelled to speak and to teach in obedience to God. Calling himself “the servant of the servants of God,” the Saint does not take upon himself the power and authority of his office without submitting himself to the Spirit of Truth as established first by Christ, sealed by the authority of the Holy Spirit Who promised through the lips of Christ to establish His Church as a Rock that would not be overcome by error: “I am with you always, even until the end of time (Mt 28:16).”
History testifies to the fact that there have been times when the Church was “rocked” not by the motherly hand of the Holy Spirit of unity and truth, but by the divisions imposed by erroneous teaching, such as the various heresies that characterized the first several centuries of her existence concerning the humanity and divinity of Christ, heresies that were hammered out persistently, particularly by the Fathers of the Church, not without persecution and fierce opposition. But after all, Jesus never said it would be easy.
“If you love me, says the Lord, keep my commandments.” First Antiphon of Daytime Prayer, Thursday of Week IV, Psalter
I am discovering that a recurrent theme in The Splendor of Truth is the necessity of exposing the errors of our times, so plagued by moral confusion. Like a true Shepherd, our Saint applies a deep understanding and respect for the human person to the various errors that are influencing people’s actions. For example, he states that “The Church has always taught that one may never choose kinds of behavior prohibited by the moral commandments expressed in negative form in the Old and New Testaments …. Jesus Himself reaffirms that these prohibitions allow no exceptions: ‘If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments …. You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness’ (Mt 19:17-18).”
He goes on to say, “The great concern of our contemporaries for historicity and for culture has led some to call into question the immutability of the natural law itself and thus the existence of ‘objective norms of morality’ valid for all people of the present and the future, as for those of the past. Is it ever possible, they ask, to consider as universally valid and always binding certain rational determinations established in the past, when no one knew the progress humanity would make in the future? …. The Church affirms that underlying so many changes there are some things which do not change, and are ultimately founded upon Christ, Who is the same yesterday, today and forever (VS 52-53).” On the other hand, he says, there is a need, in the context of different cultures and changing times, of making these universal moral norms understood and authentically interpreting their truth.
“This truth of the moral law – like that of the ‘deposit of faith’ – unfolds down the centuries (VS 53).”
The unfolding of the moral law is the flowering of the deposit of faith, the seed of Tradition,and is rightly understood as unchanging.
According to Saint Pope John Paul II, it is possible to have an erroneous conscience: “Conscience, as the ultimate concrete judgment, compromises its dignity when it is culpably erroneous, that is to say, ‘when man shows little concern for seeking what is true and good, and conscience gradually becomes almost blind from being accustomed to sin (Guadium et Spes, 16).’… ‘The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness’ (Mt. 6:22 -23)!” The words of Jesus just quoted also represent a call to form our conscience, to make it the object of a continuous conversion to what is true and to what is good (VS 63-64).”
Personal Conscience and the Moral Law
I have purposely included this long and exact quotation from The Splendor of Truth because I recognize in these words some of the conflicts and divisions that are currently plaguing the leadership of the Church.
“According to the opinion of some theologians, the function of conscience had been reduced, at least at a certain period in the past, to a simple application of general moral norms to individual cases in the life of the person. But those norms, they continue, cannot be expected to foresee and to respect all the individual concrete acts of the person in all their uniqueness and particularity. While such norms might somehow be useful for a correct assessment of the situation, they cannot replace the individual personal decision on how to act in particular cases. The critique already mentioned of the traditional understanding of human nature and of its importance for the moral life has even led certain authors to state that these norms are not so much a binding objective criterion for judgments of conscience, but a general perspective which helps man tentatively to put order into his personal and social life. These authors also stress the complexity typical of the phenomenon of conscience, a complexity profoundly related to the whole sphere of psychology and the emotions, and to the numerous influences exerted by the individual’s social and cultural environment. On the other hand, they give maximum attention to the value of conscience …. In their desire to emphasize the ‘creative’ character of conscience, certain authors no longer call its action ‘judgments’ but ‘decisions:’ Only by making these decisions ‘autonomously’ would man be able to attain moral maturity. Some even hold that this process of maturing is inhibited by the excessively categorical position adopted by the Church’s magisterium in many moral questions; for them, the Church’s interventions are the cause of unnecessary conflicts of conscience.
“In order to justify these positions, some authors have proposed a kind of double status of moral truth. Beyond the doctrinal and abstract level, one would have to acknowledge the priority of a certain more concrete existential consideration. The latter, by taking account of circumstances and the situation, could legitimately be the basis of certain exceptions to the general rule and thus permit one to do in practice and in good conscience what is qualified as intrinsically evil by the moral law.
“A separation, or even an opposition, is thus established in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid in general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision about what is good and what is evil. On this basis, an attempt is made to legitimize so-call ‘pastoral’ solutions contrary to the teaching of the magisterium and to justify a ‘creative’ hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept (VS 54-56).”
It seems that God has prepared us for these times of confusion regarding the moral issues of abortion and contraception, adultery and divorce, homosexuality, pornography, beginning and end of life issues, etc., by giving us the clear teaching of a Saint.
Conscience: A Sanctuary of Truth
The Saint affirms the validity and the value of the human conscience, drawing mainly from the Scriptures and the documents of the Second Vatican Council, calling it “a dialogue of man with God, the author of the law, the primordial image and final end of man (VS 57).”
“The judgment of conscience is a practical judgment, a judgment which makes known what man must do or not do, or which assesses an act already performed by him. …
“Whereas the natural law discloses the objective and universal demands of the moral good, conscience is the application of the law to a particular case; this application of the law thus becomes an inner dictate for the individual, a summons to do what is good in this particular situation. Conscience thus formulates moral obligation in the light of the natural law. . . . Man must act in accordance with it. If man acts against this judgment or, in a case where he lacks certainty about the rightness and goodness of a determined act, still performs that act, he stands condemned by his own conscience … (VS 58-60).”
Pope JPII further states that, even when a person sins by violating his conscience,“the verdict of conscience remains in him also as a pledge of hope and mercy; while bearing witness to the evil he has done, it also reminds him of his need, with the help of God’s grace, to ask forgiveness, to do good and to cultivate virtue constantly (VS 61).” St. Teresa of Avila’s vision of hell comes to mind here. She saw the soul in hell as tearing itself to pieces. [see The Book of Her Life Chapter 32: 1,2,3, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriquez, ICS Publications, Washington, DC]
THE LINK BETWEEN FREEDOM AND TRUTH
“Consequently, in the practical judgment of conscience, which imposes on the person the obligation to perform a given act, the link between freedom and truth is made manifest. Precisely for this reason conscience expresses itself in acts of ‘judgment’ which reflect the truth about the good and not in arbitrary ‘decisions.’ The maturity and responsibility of these judgements – and, when all is said and done, of the individual who is their subject – are not measured by the liberation of the conscience from objective truth, in favor of an alleged autonomy in personal decisions but, on the contrary, by an insistent search for truth and by allowing oneself to be guided by that truth in one’s actions (VS 61).”
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