John Paul II’s New Vision of Human Sexuality, Marriage and Family Life(6)

Formation of Conscience (Veritatis Splendor)

F. Formation of Conscience (Veritatis Splendor)

In discussing the sexual sins, we applied the truths about the dignity and value of the human person and the truths about love to specific acts. Implicitly, we accepted the truths of the Church's teaching, including the commandments, about certain human acts. How is this attitude towards truth and the commandments reconciled with the Church's teaching that our consciences are to judge the rightness and wrongness of our acts?

It is absolutely true that all of us are to follow our consciences in judging specific acts, but conscience is "to apply the universal knowledge of the good in a specific situation and thus to express a judgment about the right conduct to be chosen here and now." (See Pope John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth, Veritatis Splendor, no. 32.) In other words, it is necessary to relate the general norms of morality (the truth revealed in Christ and taught by the Church) to our own specific acts. This task is performed by our consciences. Since judgments are made by our intellects and our consciences make judgments, the human conscience is a function of the human intellect.

"God provides for man differently from the way in which he provides for beings which are not persons [e.g., the animals]. He cares for man not 'from without' through the laws of physical nature, but 'from within', through reason, which by its natural knowledge of God's eternal law, is consequently able to show man the right direction to take in his free actions." (See Pope John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth, Veritatis Splendor, no. 43.) Animals, plants and inanimate creation cannot know and choose their own acts. Instinct and physical laws replace knowledge and choice for the animals, plants, and inanimate creation. But persons have intellects and wills. We can know and choose. Therefore, God, acknowledging our dignity and value as persons with minds and wills, allows us to know and choose our own acts. But He also allows us to know what is good and what is evil. "The role of human reason [conscience] in discovering and applying the moral law . . . calls for that creativity and originality typical of the person, the source and cause of his own deliberate acts. . . . At the heart of the moral life we thus find the principle of a 'rightful autonomy' of man, the personal subject of his actions. The moral law has its origin in God and always finds its source in him: at the same time, by virtue of natural reason, which derives from divine wisdom, it is a properly human law. Indeed, as we have seen, the natural law 'is nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided. God gave us this light and this law to man at creation.' The rightful autonomy of the practical reason [conscience] means that man possesses in himself his own law, received from the Creator." (See Pope John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth, Veritatis Splendor, no 40.) Thus, Pope John Paul II answers the question posed above about the relationship between truth and the commandments.

All of us need to appreciate the almost incomprehensible gift God extended to us in allowing us to participate through our consciences in His role as Creator. He established the laws of the universe. But, these are not imposed on us as they are on the animals. Rather, through our consciences, we can know what these norms of creation are and then we legislate them for ourselves and further, we choose whether to follow them. Far from violating freedom, the role of our consciences preserves freedom because the law we follow is one we give to ourselves!!! Of course, God could have simply imposed His law on us as He did on the animals, plants, and inanimate creation, but that would have destroyed us as free beings. We would have been reduced to the level of non-persons. As it is, we know the truths of creation through our reason and we ourselves are our own lawgivers. Then, we choose to follow this law or not. In this fashion, God respects the intellects and the free wills He gave us. "God willed to leave man in the power of his own counsel." (See Pope John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth, Veritatis Splendor, no 38.) The moral norms, the truths about human dignity and love, as well as the commandments, are written "not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts." (See Pope John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth, Veritatis Splendor, no 45.) Therefore, on the basis of God's revelation of His own acts, the human conscience evaluates each human act.

It is vital to note that conscience does not determine what is good and evil. If our consciences could determine good and evil, we would be equal to the Creator. The Creator establishes the way things are. We do not. Certainly, our consciences do not establish what is good and evil, what is right and wrong. "The judgment of conscience does not establish the law. ...'Conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil. Rather there is profoundly imprinted upon it a principle of obedience vis-a-vis the objective norm which establishes and conditions the correspondence of its decisions with the commands and prohibitions which are at the basis of human behaviour'." (See Pope John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth, Veritatis Splendor, no 60.)

Conscience cannot be the source of truth. If that were the case, each of us would establish our own reality, our own set of norms. In the end, this leads to a radical subjectivism where nothing would be right or wrong, good and evil, for everyone. Each person would determine for himself or herself what is right and what is wrong. If someone's conscience establishes slavery as a good, then for him or her, that would be good. Even if it were determined by the slave that slavery was evil, it would not matter as long as the one who thought slavery was good had the greater power. In other words, a radical subjectivism which allows each one to determine what is right and wrong from moment to moment leads to a world where "might makes right." There could be no laws at all expect insofar as they were forced upon us by a powerful force--a dictator or even a mob. In other words, civil laws would not be right or wrong, but only the will of the lawgiver, the dictator or some other power. We might have a different sense of right from wrong (from the dictator--because our consciences might establish a different set of good and evil acts), but we would be powerless to enforce it against the greater power of the dictator. The rule of law presumes that there is a standard for all, that there is an established right and wrong which we can come to perceive, but cannot change. This is what Thomas Jefferson meant when he wrote in the Declaration of Independence that "We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . ." There is a God-given reality which includes the great moral truths. We perceive these truths and through our consciences "legislate" them for ourselves, but we do not and cannot establish them or alter them.

It follows from what has been said that we must form our consciences. In other words, we have an obligation to come to know the truth. "Conscience has rights because it has duties." (See Pope John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth, Veritatis Splendor, no 34.) The dictates of conscience "could not have the force of law [within us] unless it were the voice and interpreter of some higher reason [i.e., the reason of the divine lawgiver]." (See Pope John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth, Veritatis Splendor, no 44.) Where do we learn the moral truths established by the Creator? From Christ Who speaks through the Church.

"In forming their consciences the Christian faithful must give careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. Her charge is to announce and teach authentically that truth which is Christ, and at the same time with her authority to declare and confirm the principles of the moral order which derive from human nature itself." (See Pope John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth, Veritatis Splendor, no 64. See also Second Vatican Council, Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, no. 14.)

" '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 a king. This is why conscience has binding force.' ... Conscience is the witness of God himself, whose voice and judgment penetrate the depths of man's soul." (See Pope John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth, Veritatis Splendor, no 58.) This is true because conscience is to form itself with the very truths of God.

We are always obligated to follow a certain conscience, but it must be informed with the truths of Christ. However, it is possible for our consciences to be in error. If we are certain at the time we act, we must follow our conscience. If we later discover that our conscience was in error, that does not change the act. In other words, if we honestly judged an act morally acceptable and did it, and then later discovered it was morally unacceptable, the goodness of the act we did does not change. But in the future, we must avoid this act, having reformed our conscience in accordance with the truth.

The other case which sometimes arises is that we know the truth, e.g., we know that the Church teaches a certain act to be immoral, and yet we cannot understand how that can be. Our consciences might tell us that the act is either not immoral or even good. In other words, our practical judgment differs from the Church's teaching. We must conform our consciences to the objective norms as taught by the Church. (Otherwise we would be in the position of assuming the prerogatives of God Himself.) If we cannot conform our judgment to that of the Church, we must suspend our evaluation of the particular act, not do it, and try to come to a greater understanding of the Church's teaching. We also must pray about it. Usually, with good will, we will in the end be able to conform our consciences to the teaching of the Church, either through a greater understanding of the Church's teaching or through the action of grace (obtained through prayer) which enables us to conform our intellects to the Church's teaching. Of course, usually both study and prayer, greater knowledge and grace, lead us to form our consciences properly.

Sometimes our consciences are unable to make a determination. We are not bound to follow an uncertain conscience. However, we should always seek certitude. Since a doubtful conscience can sometimes be attributed to a lack of knowledge, we are obligated to provide our consciences with the proper information so that they will not be doubtful or uncertain. On other occasions, a doubtful conscience results from an apparently insoluble conflict between two or more divine norms. Sometimes these apparent conflicts can be resolved by seeking advice from moral theologians, priests, and confessors who are faithful to the Church.