After much free and honest talk—what Pope Francis in his final address to the Synod on the Family last October praised as “a spirit of collegiality and synodality”—and the revelation of significant divisions among the world’s bishops, we now await the ongoing discussions in preparation for the second session of the Synod on the Family in October. Unfortunately, none of the synod fathers sought to defend the long-standing Catholic way to make a moral choice, namely, individual conscience, the “law inscribed by God” in human hearts, “the most secret core and sanctuary of man...[where] he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depth. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor” (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” No. 16).
The Rev. Joseph Ratzinger, who at the time was a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council, commented on this passage: “Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. Conscience confronts [the individual] with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church.”
Thomas Aquinas, in his book of Sentences (IV, 38, 2, 4), established the authority and inviolability of conscience in words similar to Father Ratzinger’s: “Anyone upon whom the ecclesiastical authorities, in ignorance of the true facts, impose a demand that offends against his clear conscience should perish in excommunication rather than violate his conscience.” For any Catholic in search of truth, no stronger statement on the authority and inviolability of personal conscience could be found, but Aquinas goes further. He insists that even the dictate of an erroneous conscience must be followed and that to act against such a dictate is immoral.
Seven hundred years later, the last hundred of which saw the rights of individual conscience regularly challenged in the church, Vatican II’s “Decree on Religious Freedom” embraced Aquinas’s judgment on the inviolability of conscience: “In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience faithfully, in order that he may come to God, for whom he was created. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious” (No. 3). In the 1960s, such words were seldom heard in Catholic magisterial circles, but the undoubted reality is that they are ideas that are deeply rooted in the Catholic moral tradition and, indeed, are constitutive of it.
From Aquinas we learn that conscience is related to reason. Reason distinguishes humans from all other animals, and together with the will is deeply involved in the process of coming to truth. All knowledge begins with experience and proceeds through understanding to judgment and decision, which is actualized in action. Conscience is the rational act of practical judgment that something is right or wrong, to be done or not done. It acts in two ways. It directs us to do or not to do something; and, if some action has been done, it tests whether that action is right or not right.
Two Approaches to Conscience
In a church that is truly catholic or universal, we find different theological approaches to many noninfallible teachings. Here are examples of two major approaches to conscience through the teachings of two well-known moral theologians. The theologian Germain Grisez holds that the only way to form one’s conscience is to conform it to the teaching of the church. “In morals,” he writes, “a faithful Catholic never will permit his or her own opinions, any seemingly cogent deliverances of experience, even supposedly scientific arguments, or the contradictory belief of the whole world outside the faith to override the church’s clear and firm teaching.” For Professor Grisez and theologians who agree with him, including St. John Paul II, conscience is ultimately about obedience to church teaching. John Paul’s apostolic exhortation “On the Family” is wholly rooted in the truth of sexuality and marriage as taught by the church and the obligation of the laity to make that truth their own and to obey it, a position he strongly reinforced in his encyclical “The Splendor of Truth.”
The revisionist theologian Bernhard Häring, C.Ss.R., is diametrically opposed to that stance. In the context of his overall approach to moral theology, which stresses God’s summons to all women and men to goodness and each individual’s response of a moral life, conscience, “man’s innermost yearning toward ‘wholeness,’ which manifests itself in openness to neighbor and community in a common searching for goodness and truth,” must be free and inviolable, and “the church must affirm the freedom of conscience itself.” Church doctrine is at the service of women and men as they use conscience in their search for goodness, truth and Christian wholeness; conscience is not at the service of doctrine. “It staggers the imagination,” Häring writes, “to think that an earthly authority or an ecclesiastical magisterium could take away from man his own decision of conscience.”
An important, and sadly oft-ignored, corollary flows from the foregoing. One lone theological voice does not make a tradition; and if a sincere and right conscience is inviolable, then the sincere and right consciences of theologians like both Grisez and Häring are inviolable. Both stances must acknowledge this broad Catholic conscience-tradition and open themselves to mutual dialogue in the search to expand and deepen their own and the diverse Catholic understandings of moral goodness and truth.
What Pope Francis writes in “The Joy of the Gospel” is profoundly pertinent here: “Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology, and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word. For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But, in fact, such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel.” We hold with Aquinas that the moral life and the spiritual life are not separate. The Christian moral life is also the Christian spiritual life, and the strategy of ethics and moral theology, according to Aquinas, “is not primarily to assist us in making good decisions or to help us in resolving problems of conscience,” still less to win points in debate. No, in response to God’s call, its goal is “the total transformation of ourselves into people who can call God’s kingdom their home.”
The judgment of conscience, then, comes at the end of a rational process of experience, understanding, judgment and decision. This process includes a natural, innate grasp of moral principles that Aquinas calls synderesis. He never makes these principles clear anywhere, for he believes they are self-evident and indemonstrable. To make a right decision of conscience on a moral question involves both a grasp of first principles, like “good is to be done and evil is to be avoided,” and the gathering of as much evidence as possible, consciously weighing and understanding the evidence and its implications, and finally making as honest a judgment as is humanly possible that this action is good and to be done and that the alternative action is evil and to be avoided. A moral action is one that comes as the outcome of such a process.
Since conscience is a practical judgment that comes at the end of a rational, deliberative process, it necessarily involves the virtue of prudence, the virtue by which right reason is applied to action. Aquinas locates prudence in the intellect along with synderesis and conscientia. Synderesis provides the first principles of practical reason; prudence discerns those principles, applies them to particular situations and enables conscientia to make practical judgments that this is the right thing to do on this occasion, with this right intention. Prudence, therefore, needs to know both the general moral principles of reason and the individual situation in which human action takes place. It is the task of prudence to monitor the process of deliberation and judgment to ensure, for instance, that this is the right occasion, the right person and the right intention for reaching out in compassion toward the poor. Prudence is a cardinal virtue around which all other virtues pivot, integrating agents and their actions.
Unfortunately, in the human condition all judgments, even the most prudential practical judgments of conscience, can be in error. Ethicists note that there are two poles in every moral judgment. It is always a free, rational human person or subject who makes a judgment, so one pole of the judgment is a subjective pole; but every judgment is made about some objective reality—poverty or sexual activity, for instance—so there is always also an objective pole. The subject arrives at his or her judgment either by following the rational process outlined above or by negligently shortchanging that process.
If the rational error of understanding and judgment can be ascribed to some moral fault, taking “little trouble to find out what is true and good” (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” No. 16), for instance, then the wrong understanding and practical judgment of conscience flowing from it are both deemed to be vincibly ignorant, and therefore culpable, and cannot be morally followed. If “the reason or conscience is mistaken through voluntary error, whether directly or from negligence,” Aquinas posits, “then because it is a matter a person ought to know about, it does not excuse the will from evil in following the reason or conscience thus going astray.” If the error cannot be ascribed to some moral fault, then both the understanding and the practical judgment of conscience flowing from it are deemed to be invincibly ignorant and non-culpable and not only can but must be followed, even contrary to ecclesiastical authority. Subjects are bound not only to conscience but also for conscience—that is, they must do all in their power to ensure that conscience is right.
There is one final consideration to be added here. The morality of an action is largely, though not exclusively, controlled by the subject’s intention. A good intention, giving alms to the poor because the poor need help and to help them is the right and Christian thing to do, results in a morally good action. A bad intention, giving alms to the poor because I want to be seen and to be praised by men (Mt 6:2, 5; see Lk 18:10-14), will result in a morally bad action.
To Know Together
A decision of right conscience is clearly a complex process; and although it is an individual process, it is far from an individualistic process. The Latin word conscientia literally means “knowledge together,” perhaps better rendered as “to know together.” It suggests what human experience universally demonstrates, that being liberated from the confining prison of one’s individual self into the broadening and challenging company of others is a surer way to come to right knowledge of the truth, including moral truth, and right practical judgment, including moral judgment, of what one ought to do or not do. This communal search for truth, conscience and morality builds a sure safeguard against both an isolating egoism and a personal relativism that negates all universal truth. The community-relatedness of consciences has been part of the Christian tradition since Paul, who clearly believed in the inviolability and primacy of conscience and who wrote to his beloved Corinthian Christians that the “stronger” members of the community in conscience should be sensitive to and careful of the “weaker” members, whose consciences might easily be “defiled” by the stronger conscience’s most conscientious actions (1 Cor 8:7-13).
At this point a final and sometimes pressing question arises. Among the communities to which Catholics belong is the Catholic Church. Though that statement appears obvious, when we try to clarify it further by asking what is specifically meant by “church,” it actually becomes less clear, for there are several distinct meanings of the word in contemporary Catholic theology. For our purpose here, we focus on the two major ones: church as institution and church as communion. Between the two Vatican councils (1870 -1963), the dominant understanding of church was the institutional, hierarchical one. In 1964, with the publication of Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” a new model, or more accurately a renewed model, became available—namely, the model of church as a communion of the “people of God” (No. 9-17).
The ecclesiologist Yves Congar, O.P., demonstrated that the communion model of church effectively prevailed in the West during the first 1,000 years of Christian history, whereas the hierarchical model dominated only between the 11-century reformation and Vatican II. These two models continue to be available to anyone who asks about church teaching and conscience and they confuse the answer to a final question here: How are Catholics to behave in conscience when their understanding of a noninfallible teaching of the magisterium differs from that proposed by the magisterium—as the majority of Catholic faithful now do, for instance, on contraception and Communion for the divorced and remarried? Congar points out that when the church is conceived as a hierarchical institution, obedience to church authority is called for; when it is conceived of as a communion, dialogue and consensus are called for. These same two answers to our question continue to be offered in the church today.
The holy people of God, “The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” teaches, share in Christ’s prophetic or teaching office. “The body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. Thanks to a supernatural sense of faith which characterizes the People as a whole, it manifests this unerring quality when from the bishops down to the last member of the laity, it shows universal agreement in matters of faith and morals” (No. 12). The Holy One referred to is, of course, the Holy Spirit of God, “the Spirit of truth” whom Jesus first promised (Jn 14: 16-17; 15:26) and then sent to the apostles and to the entire church (Jn 20:22). That sending is both signified and effected in the Catholic Church by the anointings in the sacraments of initiation. Each and every Catholic, therefore, carries within herself and himself the Spirit of truth to lead her and him into all truth, including moral truth. Therefore, as John writes to the faithful of old, “The anointing that you received from [Christ] abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you...his anointing teaches you about all things” (1 Jn 2:20, 27).
The International Theological Commission, an arm of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, recently taught (“Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church,” 2014) that the faithful “have an instinct for the truth of the Gospel, which enables them to recognize and endorse authentic Christian doctrine and practice and to reject what is false.” The “instinct for the truth” the commission refers to is the “sensus fidei” so emphasized by the Second Vatican Council. “Banishing the caricature of an active hierarchy and a passive laity,” the commission continues, “and in particular the notion of a strict separation between the teaching church (ecclesia docens) and the learning church (ecclesia discens), the council taught that all the baptized participate in their own proper way in the three offices of Christ as prophet, priest and king. In particular it taught that Christ fulfills his prophetic office not only by means of the hierarchy but also via the laity.” The attainment of moral truth in the Catholic tradition, therefore, involves a dialogical process in the communion-church in “a spirit of collegiality and synodality” from the “bishops down to the last member of the laity”; and when that process has been conscientiously completed, both the highest bishop and the last member of the laity are finally “alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths” (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” No. 16) and has to make that practical judgment of conscience that this is what I must believe or not believe, do or not do.
To repeat the opening of this essay, no Catholic is “to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor...is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious” (“Declaration on Religious Freedom,” No. 3) or moral. Joseph Ratzinger pointed out that “not everything that exists in the church must for that reason be also a legitimate tradition.... There is a distorting as well as legitimate tradition.” The long adherence of the church to teachings on the taking of interest on loans, slavery and religious freedom are well-known examples of distorting moral traditions that it now rejects. Father Ratzinger concluded to what is obvious: “consequently tradition must not be considered only affirmatively but also critically.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and places both the council’s and the church’s teaching beyond doubt: women and men have “the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions” (No. 1782). In his homily at the synod’s closing Mass, Pope Francis told the assembled bishops that “God is not afraid of new things. That is why he is continuously surprising us, and guiding us in unexpected ways.” The authority and inviolability of a well-informed and therefore well-formed conscience is not among those new things; it is the long-standing Catholic way to choosing the true and the good.