Lesson 3b: Conscience and Truth
Consistent with and in continuity with the whole of Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul considers "Conscience and Truth" (VS, 54-64) at some length as he did with "Freedom and Truth" (VS, 35-53). The relationship between human freedom and the truth about the good is lived most deeply in the heart of the person, in his "moral conscience" (VS, 54).
The way in which one conceives the relationship between freedom and truth, freedom and law, is intimately connected with the proper understanding of conscience. As above, some try to oppose freedom and law, with freedom so exalted that a so-called "creative conscience" conquers all (VS, 54). Some others tend to reduce conscience to the application of 'general' moral norms but not to concrete particular ones. This 'creative' and 'responsible' voice (sometimes called 'free and faithful') attends not to the precise observance of universal norms but to "the creative and responsible acceptance of personal tasks entrusted to him by God" (VS, 55).
These judgments are indeed 'autonomous', and for some, the sign of moral maturity, some go so far as to say maturity is inhibited by the excessively categorical position adopted by the Church's Magisterium.
For some (often the Proportionalists above) there is even a double status of moral truth (VS, 56). A separation, even opposition, is alleged between the teaching of a precept valid in general, and a particular norm of the individual conscience which of course makes the final decision about good and evil. Some may call this "pastoral," some may call it a "creative hermeneutic," but the result that the deciding subject determines the truth about the good (VS, 56).
VS, 57-59 takes the teachings on conscience in Scripture and through Tradition to elaborate the distinctions above (III:7) and the Catechism ##1776-1802. The dignity of moral conscience derives from the truth about the good:
"The judgment of conscience does not establish the law; rather it bears witness to the authority of the natural law and of the practical reason with reference to the supreme good whose attractiveness the human person perceives and whose commandments he accepts" (VS, 60).
"The truth about the moral good, as that truth is declared in the law of reason, is practically and concretely recognized by the judgment of conscience. . . Consequently, . . . 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 judgments . . . are not measured by the liberation of 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).
"In any event, it is always from the truth that the dignity of conscience derives. . . It is never acceptable to confuse a 'subjective' error about the moral good with the 'objective' truth rationally proposed to man in virtue of his end, or to make the moral value of an act performed with a true and correct conscience equivalent to the moral value of an act performed by following the judgment of an erroneous conscience. It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good" (VS, 63).
Just as freedom must be rooted in the truth and geared toward the good; so the same linkage is essential for a correct conscience and a correctly formed conscience -- it must conform to and reflect the truth about the good. The unrelenting theme of Veritatis Splendor is, of course, the truth.
Over 100 years ago, John Henry Cardinal Newman in his famous Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (Dec. 27, 1874) makes the point that I consider prescient since in the last century he repudiated a favorite distortion of conscience now reigning in this century.
(This Letter of Newman is cited in VS, n.34, footnote #59, and while not cited in VS 58, it makes the same point, as does the Catechism #1778, footnote #50). Newman's thought deserves careful study:
"The view of conscience, I know, is very different from that ordinarily taken of it . . . It is founded on the doctrine that conscience is the voice of God, whereas it is fashionable on all hands now to consider it one way or another a creation of man" (p.247).
"The rule or measure of duty is not utility, nor expedience, nor the happiness of the greatest number, nor State convenience, nor fitness, order, and the pulchrum. Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, Who, both in nature and grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives" (p.248).
"When men advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humor, without any thought of God at all. They do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand, what they think is an Englishman's prerogative, for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one's leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer, unutterably impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition, if he likes it in his own way."
"Conscience has its rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a license to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again, to go to church, to go to chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them. Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self will" (p.250).
J.H.Newman, Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching (London: Basil Montagu Pickering, 1876) in a Letter to the Duke of Norfolk on the occasion of Mr. Gladstone's Exposition 1874; esp.#5 "Conscience" pp.246-261.
Highly recommended reading: J.Cardinal Ratzinger, "Conscience and Truth" (Braintree, MA: Pope John Center, 1991) 38 pp.