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The Autonomy of Conscience and Subjection to Truth
Orvieto, 27 May 1994

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The “fate” that has befallen conscience in Christian ethical thought has been a singular one, as it has moved from what I would not hesitate to call a secondary position to an increasingly central one. It would not be difficult to provide an analytical demonstration of this historical fact, indeed, some research has already been carried out in this respect. However, I do not propose to provide such a demonstration, as this would require historical expertise that I do not possess (1). I will therefore restrict myself to stating three facts: two that are difficult to contest, a third that is less obvious.

The first fact. In his Summa, St. Thomas Aquinas dedicates in all three articles to the theme of conscience: one in the prima pars (q. 79, a. 13) and two in the prima secundae (q. 19, a. 5 and 6). If we now take St. Alfonso’s Theologia Moralis, we will observe that its general makeup comprises just two sections (tractatus), the first dedicated to conscience, the second to law.

In his introduction, the Church Doctor writes that by reflecting on conscience “aditus ad universam theologiam moralem aperitur” (2). This affirmation is theoretically sound: the doctrine on conscience enables us to enter into moral reflection. In other words, the doctrine of conscience is the keystone of the entire arch.

There is no doubt whatsoever that we are faced with a real theoretical change, a theoretical transformation within Catholic thought. The question arises as to whether it is what we might call an organic development, that respects the symphonic harmony of the whole, or whether it is a pathological development. We will leave this question unanswered for the moment.
The second fact is even more important and more difficult to interpret. We could summarize it as the uprooting of conscience from within the Church.
When I read the Church Fathers and the great masters of Christian thought, one of the things that strikes me most profoundly is their awareness of a certain identity between the “individual” and the Church. I will illustrate this using just two examples.

In his homily on the Canticle of Canticles (1. 7) (3), Origen can say, “I, the Church” and the whole of that page is based on this mysterious identification between the thinking subject, i.e. the person of the believer, and the Church. The Church is in the believer and the believer is in the Church In his Comment on the Canticle of Canticles (4) he is therefore able to write: “the bride, that is the church or the soul that strives towards perfection”. You will note that he says: “the church or the soul”. It has been observed again and again that this mystical identification constitutes the fundamental hermeneutical principle of the Holy Scriptures, which all speaks of Christ, that is, the Church, that is, every believer (5).

We also find this in the Middle Ages. One example will suffice here. The whole of St Bernard’s Commentary on the Canticle of Canticles is based on this mystical identification. “quae est sponsa”, he asks, “et quis est sponsus?” and he answers: “hiç , Deus noster est, et illa, si audeo dicere, nos sumus” (LXVIII, 1) (6). However, the page in which this experience is perhaps expressed most sublimely is in Sermon XII, 11. “Quod etsi nemo nostrum sibi arrogare praesumat, ut animam suam quis audeat sponsam Domini appellare, quoniam tamen de Ecclesia sumus, quae merito hoc nomine et re nominis gloriatur, non immerito gloriae huius participium usurpamus. Quod enim simul omnes plene integreque possidemus, hoc singuli sine contradictione participamus”. And he ends with this marvellous prayer: “Gratias tibi, Domine Jesu, qui nos carissimae Ecclesiae tuae aggregare dignatus es, non solum ut fideles essemus, sed ut etiam tibi vice sponsae in amplexos iucundos, castos, aeternosque copularemur” (7).

As we pursue our line of thinking, St. Bernard’s page proves most helpful. He says: “quod simul omnes plene integreque possidemus, hoc singuli sine contradictione participamus”. Our identification with the Church is therefore explained in terms of plenitude and wholeness — in other words, it is “catholic”. The individual shares in this plenitude and wholeness. He is all the Church, even if not totally so. The Church becomes the abode, in other words the ethos, of the believer.

This marvellous meeting of the individual and the Church begins to be a problem when the church begins to be seen as a reality that is extrinsic to the individual. The ecclesiastical body is no longer a constituent dimension of the individual, but a manifestation of God’s will that has no foundation in man’s individual existence. This results in an ontological separation and an attempt to overcome it through an effort of will (obedience to the Church).

We must now look carefully at another text, signed by three German bishops (Saier, Lehman and Kasper), concerning the pastoral letter on divorced people who remarry (July 10th 1993) (8).I refer in particular to the paragraph in which they affirm that in certain conditions, a Catholic can legitimately be allowed to take part in the celebration of Holy Communion, even if there is no reason to think that the first consummated marriage was invalid and even if he enjoys sexual union with the person he now lives with. The decision is to be arrived at on the basis of the judgment of conscience (cf IV. 4). This is an exceptionally serious state of affairs. For the first time in the Church’s history, the Church itself has recognized, through its ministers, that there is no objective sacramental structure that should not be submitted the final judgment of individual conscience. That there is no structure that should not be verified or cannot be falsified by the judgment of individual conscience. The Church must now recognize this verification and falsification as legitimate. Most important of all, the Church has always taught that the indissolubility of ratified and consummated marriage (ratum et consummatum) is based on Divine Revelation. The problem is that the three bishops’ document, despite explicit affirmations made in the document itself and certainly despite their intentions, may introduce into the Christian community the notion that this divinely-revealed teaching can be called into question on the basis of a judgment of conscience. In other words, the truth of a proposition taught by the Church as being based on the Revelation must ultimately be submitted to the judgment of conscience.

If we now compare the “starting point” with the “point of arrival”, we will see exactly what we mean when we talk about the “uprooting of conscience from the Church”. The separation of Church and conscience (that of its own subjectivity) has now gone as far as it can. Is there any relationship between the two facts I have stated so far? In other words, has conscience increasingly assumed the role of “keystone” in the moral edifice precisely because it has increasingly been uprooted from the Church? Put yet another way, are we now confronted with a further confirmation of the increasingly radical subjectivism that has characterized the historical event we know as modernity? I will leave this question unanswered for the moment, as I would now like to draw your attention to the third fact, which we have witnessed first-hand, and by so doing draw this long introduction to a close.

The third fact consists of the process known usually as postmodernity, during which the constructed “subject” has gradually been deconstructed. It is not necessary to describe, even briefly, the process by which “subjectivity” has been totally demolished (9).

I will just briefly outline the way in which this relates to moral conscience. Here, I will have to over-simplify somewhat. I have followed the debate on bioethics fairly closely over the last few years, mostly as a test of more profound changes (10) the first fact I have observed is that rationality based on utilitarianism and proportionality has now won pride of place in institutional circles (for instance, in the area of civil law), scientific research and individual spirituality. We know that the choice of this model of rationality means the complete destruction of ethics (as was rightly foreseen by Kant and even more profoundly by our own Manzoni (11). As the “weighing-up of each good” in this context is a technical type of judgment, individual conscience has no choice but to place its trust in the judgment of so-called “experts”. What I mean is this: eventually, conscience finds itself being gradually dispossessed of its hard-won autonomy.

I have said that I have used the debate on bioethics as a test of something more profound. Probably the most profound event is precisely this gradual emptying of conscience. It was Newman who foresaw that we would gradually destroy conscience in the name of conscience. One of the parables of the Gospel may provide us with an illustration of this phenomenon, too, in the story of the son who leaves the father to assert himself and ends up working as a swineherd.

Is it possible to find a single interpretative key to this tragedy in two acts? He abandons his home (the Church) in order to affirm his own autonomy (Act I) and ends up all alone in the countryside looking after pigs (Act II).
Is it possible to rediscover the path that will lead Christian subjectivity and conscience back home, so that they are once more one and the same thing?
The two sections of my address will seek to answer both these questions.


1. Diagnostic Reflection


The whole doctrine of conscience depends on the way in which we answer one central question. Which question? A human being is under no moral obligation unless he knows himself to be so. It is this act of reasoning that “binds” his freedom and this act is irreplaceable. No authority, whether human or divine, can constrain his freedom except by or through this act of judgment. If autonomy means the inescapable necessity of this mediation, then to deny it is to deny the existence of any moral obligation, indeed that of any morals at all. But the problem lies precisely in this inescapable mediation.

The sentence, “a human being is under no moral obligation unless he knows himself to be so” would seem to imply two different things: the state of being under an obligation and the knowledge that one is under an obligation. The central question to which I referred earlier is precisely this: what is the relationship between the fact of being under an obligation and the fact of knowing oneself to be under an obligation? The whole doctrine of conscience depends on the answer we give to this question.

The solution that modernity has gradually constructed has been simply to identify the two above-mentioned facts — a perfect identification achieved once and for all in transcendental idealism. The exact nature of this identity is the following: placing oneself under an obligation and recognizing that one is under an obligation are one and the same thing.

This identity has both a negative and a positive side. Negative, in that the moral obligation never precedes the awareness we have of it in any way. Positive, in that it is the act of realizing that one is under an obligation that brings into existence a moral obligation. It is not only the principium quo (fons cognoscendi), but also the principium quod (fons essendi) of moral obligation.

However, I do not propose to pursue this theoretical phenomenon into the realm of non-theological thought but into that of Catholic theology. It is obvious that this sort of identification could not pass just as it was into Christian theology, as the logically necessary outcome of this very identification is atheism and sheer amorality – as history has proven from time to time. In other words, modernity’s answer to this central question on the matter of conscience was in clear contradiction with faith. So what happened? The story is a complex one and its reconstruction and interpretation far from easy.

In the first place, as a great deal of historical research has shown (cf. studies by P. Pinckaers in particular) (12), legalism had profoundly pervaded Catholic ethical thought. There is no need to stop and give a rigorous definition of this concept. I will merely make two observations. Firstly, legalism involves the gradual expulsion of the concept of truth from the field of ethics: legalistic ethics are always, to a greater or lesser extent, bereft of truth. Indeed, the question of legalism is not: “which is good or evil”? (a question concerning the truth about good/evil), but: “is there a law pertaining to it?” (a question concerning obligation as such). My second observation is a consequence. In a legalistic context, the central question on the matter of conscience is this: “what is the connection between moral law and the recognition that one is under an obligation?”. Let me explain. Since it is the law that imposes the obligation and since the individual is not placed under any by the laws this obligation (by the law) unless he knows he is under an obligation, the central question is this: “what awareness of law places the individual under an obligation?” Formulated in these terms, the question had started down a theoretical road that would have led into a real maze.

Theoretical attention came to be increasingly focused on the subjective nature of the knowledge that the thinking subject has of the law: certain knowledge, doubtful knowledge, etc. The theme of true/false conscience was replaced by the concept of certain/doubtful conscience. The question, in other words, was this: In what conditions does the “recognition of being under an obligation” bind me? When is the judgment by which I recognize my obligation (=moral conscience) such that it really places me under an obligation (=takes away my freedom)? To grasp how profound this change was, even if it was a very subtle change, one observation will suffice. St. Thomas Aquinas would give the following reply to the above question: “per se, when the judgment is true; per accidens, even if — in certain conditions — it is false” (cfr. I-II, q. 19, 5 and 6).

Today, our reply is: “when it is a certain judgment”. In short, attention has shifted from the truth of the judgment (of conscience) to the certitude with which the thinking subject consents. Truth is a property of judgment and implies the referral of the thinking subject to being. Certitude is a property of judgment and implies the referral of the thinking subject to his own judgment. Indeed, certitude signifies by and in itself a subjective state only, that has no reference to existence: I can be absolutely certain about something that is actually erroneous and doubtful about something that is actually true. In this way, the doctrine of conscience has gradually acquired an increasingly subjective inspiration. The doctrine of conscience has literally become the doctrine of the thinking subject, insofar as it forms itself or does not form itself under the obligation of the law.

Before we go any further, let us pause for a moment to consider the concept of autonomy (of conscience). In a classic vision, autonomy means that only true judgment, i.e. only an act of reason, can guide freedom. Only truth (a false judgment is not an act of reason) can give us the freedom that leads to beatitude. Autonomy of conscience therefore means: “Follow only truth; be rational in your choices; do not let yourself be guided by anything other than truth”. And in actual fact, St. Thomas Aquinas’ demonstration of the existence of moral law in his contra Gentes (III, 114) is based wholly on this concept of autonomy. In the context of a doctrine of conscience centred on the problem of certitude, autonomy becomes a term with a different content. Autonomy now means the right of the thinking subject to construct his own certitude without anyone else being able to have a decisive say in the matter. We can now glimpse the insoluble difficulties that attend the problem of the relationship with the teaching authority of the Church, as we will see more clearly later on.

I would now like to resume our train of thought in order to reflect on the first change in meaning of the concept of autonomy.

The emphasis on the problem of certitude rather than on the problem of truth (of the judgment of conscience) led to the introduction into spiritual life of what we might call disorder in the relationship between the spiritual faculties. Let me explain. Despite all appearances to the contrary and despite the way in which the question has been handled, the problem of the relationship between will and reason is vitally important to human existence (13). Put another way, once reflection ceases to be based predominantly on the relationship of the faculties to the subject and becomes a discourse on man, on the existing individual who, as a thinking subject, decides on his own eternal existence, it ceases to be a purely abstract construction. Now, — and this has been noted by the finest interpreters of modernity — the leaning towards certitude is a voluntarist leaning. Assent in moral questions, which rarely rise to the level of incontrovertible evidence, is an act of will. Indeed, the whole of Christian teaching has always insisted on the need for “purity of the heart” in order to know the truth about good and evil. However, we now find ourselves in a different situation.

As the problem of truth is no longer central, it is no longer a question of an attitude or an openness to truth, where one is free from prejudice and simply has a disinterested desire to know. It is now a decision of conscience involving not truth itself but the certain opinion that something is true. The term and concept of judgment have been replaced by the concept of decision. “Wishing to highlight the ‘creative’ character of conscience, some authors no longer refer to its acts as ‘judgments’ but as ‘decisions’. Only by taking these decisions ‘autonomously’ may man attain his moral maturity” (Veritatis Splendor 55, 2). Perhaps it is now easier to see what I meant when I talked about the introduction into spiritual life of a certain disorder in the relationship between one’s faculties. Instead of keeping separate the planes of knowledge and will, the knowledge of truth has been emptied of its contents by the affirmation of the autonomy of the decision.

I would like to show you the implications of this by drawing your attention to a number of theoretical facts.

The first fact. Freedom of conscience means consciousness of one’s own freedom, indeed the two are identical. In fact, freedom of conscience means that the judgment by which the thinking subject “tells” himself whether the act he is carrying out is right or wrong is a decision that has no external basis. For this reason, freedom belongs totally to conscience and conscience totally to freedom, in the sense that conscience (= the judgment that is conscience) does not refer ultimately to anything other than the decision of freedom. This is proven by the almost total disappearance of the theme of prudence and its judgment from ethical reflection. There was simply no longer any point in talking about it — conscience had taken its place. However, I believe that others are going to reflect on this point today.

The second fact. As it is now a question of “decisions” rather than “judgments”, the true-false labels no longer have any real meaning. Conscience is always infallibly true. When it comes to decisions, there can no longer be any question of truth or falsehood. Indeed, B. Schüller writes: “Conscience cannot be mistaken when it comes to good and evil: that which it ordains is always and infallibly a moral good” (14). Instead of truth or falsehood, we should talk about authenticity and sincerity. We are each called upon to act according to our convictions, without having to ask ourselves about the truth or otherwise of these convictions. The individual simply places his trust in himself, in a sort of “self-basis” that seems the most perfect definition of despair, a truly mortal disease in contemporary man. True, some people still talk about the truth of conscience.

However, they talk about this truth (of conscience) as if it were a truth of one’s own character, with no universal value. Quite honestly, I cannot understand what all this can mean (cf Veritatis Splendor 56, 1).

The third fact. Radical “subjectivization”, in other words, the total inclusion of conscience in free decision, has made it impossible to find any basis for civil law. This is because it has destroyed the very fabric of human sociality. The destruction of the social fabric is easily demonstrated. Human sociality is built both in and through the participation of each person’s acts (15).

Each act is obviously that of an individual. However, through the judgment of conscience, it takes root in the truth of the common good (in the Augustinian sense) of man as such. And in this sense, Vatican II sees in the loyalty to conscience an event of profound social communion (16). If, as some have done, we deny that conscience is rooted in the truth of the common good, the affirmation of freedom becomes incompatible, as a principle, with the affirmation of any social construct that has not arisen from free negotiation. Free negotiation that is founded on the basis of its own usefulness. Neo-contractualism and utilitarianism meet up. Justice is born out of agreement.

However, I would like to dwell chiefly on the problems facing the Church. The newly-constructed doctrine of conscience has introduced into Catholic doctrine the anti-ecclesiastical principle per eminentiam. This, I believe, explains many of the Church’s current problems. We can explain ourselves by first of all saying that the anti-ecclesiastical principle is the anti-Marian principle. By “Marian principle” I mean obedient assent to Revealed Truth, in which freedom is born and exalts itself to the utmost (“he who remains in me will bear much fruit“). The newly-constructed doctrine of conscience leads to the affirmation of a rupture between the individual and the ecclesiastical mediation of Revealed Truth, a cleavage between two great entities - that of individuality and that of the mediation of the Church. Then comes the moment when the individual is alone, but in the sense of “self-basis“, as I said earlier. Logically, the Church can but recognize this decision, even if objectively it contradicts its own validity. I have referred to the uprooting of the individual from the Church. This doctrine of conscience is not immediately anti-Petrine, but because it is antiMarian it becomes anti-Petrine.

We can now bring to an end this first section, which I entitled “Diagnostic Interpretation”. To sum up briefly, the concept of autonomy that now predominates in the doctrine of moral conscience that actually generated this concept is the outcome of a secularist interpretation of Christian subjectivity. Of an attempt, in other words, to draw up a doctrine of Christian subjectivity that disregards the fact that it generates this very subjectivity. The Catholic theology of conscience has sought to introduce this interpretation into Catholic doctrine. In reality, it has introduced a foreign body that has ended up destroying that very same catholic doctrine, as Veritatis Splendor teaches us (17).


2. A Theoretical and Practical Proposition


I would like to begin my humble attempt to outline a positive proposition by returning to the concept of the “secularist interpretation” of Christian subjectivity with which I ended the first section. I would like to refer to a famous page in Hegel’s Geschichte der Philosophie in which he maintains that only “in the Christian religion has the doctrine that says all men are equal before God made any headway because Christ attached them all to Christian freedom”, but that when it comes to “the concept, the knowledge that man is naturally free, this science of the self is not an ancient one” (18). The meaning of this page is clear: only the principle of modernity has led us to examine Christianity fully in the light of its essential, anthropological core. Only the principle of modernity has been able to give us a full and thorough idea of subjective freedom, an exploit made possible only by the detachment of dogmatic objectivity. Hegel’s remarks only interest us insofar as they show us that the confrontation between modernity and Christianity has come about in the determination of this concept and in the experience of freedom.

However, we cannot ignore the fact that the process of modernity has already come to an end and has now been called into question from within. This process has led to the emptying or deconstruction of “modern subjectivity” and of the doctrine of moral conscience that had fed on it, as I have already pointed out in my introduction.

This end can therefore only be a beginning, in a radical sense: a reconstruction of the human subjectivity and the freedom destroyed by modernity and post-modernity on the philosophical side and, quite often, on the theological side. Only within this reconstruction, or rather foundation, can we find a true doctrine of moral conscience. Again in my introduction, I talked of a return to the home that had been abandoned in order to journey to a “faraway place“. The son’s first step is to “re-enter himself” and regain his freedom, to become once more in reality a thinking subject.

I would like to put forward very simply, a few thoughts on this kind of reconstruction.

Let us begin by thinking about the experience of Moses. You will need to use your imagination a little. Let us imagine we are with him at perhaps the most dramatic moment in his entire life. He finds himself trapped between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army. What is to be done? What possibilities are open to him? The first possibility would be to cross the sea on foot. It is ridiculous even to contemplate such an idea, as it would signify death. It is... an impossible possibility. The second would be to stand and fight Pharaoh. Absurd even to think of it — it would mean going to meet certain death. It is... an impossible possibility. The third would be to retrace his footsteps, come to terms with Pharaoh and return to slavery in Egypt. It is... the only possible possibility. Yet by becoming part of Egypt once more, he would see his own identity and therefore his own freedom destroyed. He must choose between pure possibility, that is akin to pure fantasy and illusion, and pure necessity, in the shape of unchanged reality. So how does Moses escape this dilemma? By believing that everything is possible for God, even the parting of the waves to allow his people to cross the sea. By his act of faith, Moses becomes free and builds a new people, begins a new story. We never think enough about the abyss this act of faith represents. What does “to believe that everything is possible for God” mean? Well, it means to be certain of three things: that God can do everything, that God knows how to do everything and that God wants to do everything for the one He loves. Man senses within himself the first stirrings of a project, of a story that is becoming possible: Moses leaves his entire existence in Egypt behind him. A feeling of necessity grows within man and he can no longer be other than thus: if necessary, God will even part the waves or bring the dead back to life. Human possibility is rooted in divine necessity and human necessity is rooted in divine possibility.

How does this synthesis of necessity and possibility come about? Quite simply, this synthesis is called faithful obedience to one’s own destiny, which also happens to be God’s Project.

Without this synthesis, no proper existence can be constructed. An existence devoid of possibility is a lifeless existence and an existence devoid of necessity is an empty existence. An existence devoid of possibility goes nowhere and an existence devoid of necessity has nowhere to go.

This synthesis belongs at the balance point of the two poles. If we abandon this balance point , we do so at the expense of either necessity or possibility. In the first case, the person leaves his own reality and enters into the realm of sheer illusion. In the second case, the person never becomes himself. Kierkegaard says most perspicaciously that we need both vowels and consonants to be able to speak. The vowels represent possibility, the consonants necessity. A man devoid of possibility is dumb, as consonants on their own are incommunicable. A man devoid of necessity utters only meaningless sounds, as vowels on their own do not constitute meaning (19) so when do we achieve this synthesis?

We now find ourselves at the core of human historicity, where human freedom and God’s freedom meet. This meeting, I repeat, is called faithful obedience. We now understand how it is possible to come up with three different radical definitions of human historicity. Human history is the unfolding of a “logical” (i.e. real and rational) necessity, in which each event is but one sentence of an entire discourse. Human history is the accidental occurrence of insignificant possibilities. Human history is the history of the conjunction of divine and human freedom. In the case of the first definition, the greatness of the individual lies in his awareness of the historical process that is unfolding. In the case of the second definition, the greatness of the individual has simply no meaning. In the case of the third definition, the greatness of the individual consists of saintliness.

It is in this context, at the crossroads of divine and human freedom, that the judgment of conscience belongs. It is not the decision of freedom. The judgment of conscience comes before the decision of freedom and judges it. Any confusion between “iudicium coscientiae” and “iudicium electionis” leads inexorably to the emptying of Christian and human subjectivity.

Still less can we say that the judgment of conscience disregards God’s freedom, which leads man to his ultimate destination in His Wisdom.

The judgment of conscience arises from the confrontation between an act that, in a given situation, presents itself as a possibility and the truth, goodness and dignity of man, such as he is loved by God in Christ for all eternity. This truth, goodness and dignity can be affirmed/denied, loved/hated, saved/lost precisely through man’s acts.

It is in this context that we can understand what moral law is, what conscience is and what the role of both is in the area of human and Christian subjectivity.

Let us deal firstly with the nature of moral law. Once again, we will start with an example. Man has an inclination or instinct for sexual intercourse with a person of the opposite sex and science has shown that sexuality is “designed” in such a way as to give birth to a new human being. Therefore, we can say that sexuality’s own specific purpose — and I stress the word “specific” — is sexual union in order to create a new life. Can we say that it is also its due purpose (debitus finis) and that sexuality’s specific purpose and sexuality’s due purpose are one and the same thing? We must refute this identity, but why?

Rational man understands that: a) being somebody is essentially different and more than being something; b) the body is a personal body and man is a corporeal person; c) sexuality, therefore, is personal sexuality and man is a sexual person (“man and woman He created them”). Man has gained knowledge of himself and, enlightened by the truth about himself, asks himself two questions. What exercise of sexuality and what sexual act will affirm this truth? What act will negate this truth? He arrives at the following conclusion: only an act of conjugal love open to the gift of life will affirm (i.e. realize) this truth. Any act other than this will negate (i.e. not realize) this truth. Once man has recognized this link between an act and the individual, he has discovered a moral law.

Therefore, in its essence, moral law literally means a judgment of reason that enables us to recognize the link between an act and an individual’s existence, insofar as it is realizable (perfectible) through an act freely carried out. Moral law is this judgment.

By analogy, though, besides formally meaning the rational judgment that enables us to recognize the relationship between the act and the individual, moral law can also mean the very relationship itself. It is what we might call “wholesome food”, in the sense of “food that brings good health”. We can now see why “specific purpose” is not the same as “due purpose”. Inclination as such is not moral law. Moral law constitutes itself through reason.

We must now look at the difference between the knowledge that we attain through the rational judgment that is moral law and the knowledge we attain through the rational judgment that is moral conscience. The first type of knowledge is universal and only potentially particular; the second is particular and only potentially universal. Let me explain. When moral law considers the act of a specific individual, it looks neither at the circumstances in which this act can be carried out nor at the individual’s intentions in carrying it out. Rather, it considers the act in and for itself, in its pure relationship with the individual as such, insofar as it can be the object of free will, and disregarding any other consideration contained in the desire to carry out this act.

It is easy to understand why this knowledge is universal: wherever we come across a man carrying out this act, the affirmations of moral law will hold good. It is also easy to understand why this knowledge is potentially particular and therefore only remotely practicable. The act, such as it is considered by moral law, does not exist in the real world, in that the real act always has more to it than the act considered in this fashion. The knowledge is not false, but it is limited and incomplete.

This is why we need knowledge acquired through conscience. Conscience enables us to get to know the act in all its particularity. What we are talking about here is an act of practical reasoning, a judgment that enables man to find out the moral quality of the act he can carry out or is already carrying out. However, in order to understand properly the nature of this judgment and the knowledge it enables us to acquire, we must remember the distinction we made earlier between it and the judgment of choice. The judgment of conscience is a judgment that is per se purely rational. It says: “this is the action that I must/must not take in this situation”. It is an appraisal of the action set in the context of its particular circumstances, yet still considered on its own merits, that is, independently of the individual’s desires and intentions. This is why this type of judgment is not immediately practical, as ascertained by the fact that it can be contradicted by free choice. And, indeed, choice springs from man’s will, desires and intentions.

Even though it is a particular judgment, the judgment of conscience also requires a degree of universality. That is, it has a justification of its own that is not based on references so personal as to be inexpressible and incommunicable. In the judgment of conscience, the individual says at the same time: “this is the action I must take” and “anyone in my position should take this action”. From where does conscience derive this capacity to be both a particular and a universal judgment? We will now turn to another important dimension of the judgment of conscience.

Reason formulates its own judgments according to universal and necessary laws. Conscience is a rational judgment, whose subject is an act looked at in the context of the greatest possible number of circumstances but judged in the light of the individual’s truth and dignity. When my conscience says “this is the action I must take”, it does so because it has seen that in this action the human being as such will be affirmed and fulfilled. I have deliberately said “the human being”, rather than “my self”, as conscience does not pass judgment according to that which pleases me or is useful to me, that which “tamquam privato sui ipsius amore desiderat anima” (20), St. Bernard would put it, following on from St. Augustine (Sermo 8, 9). It is in this that resides the greatness (but also the paucity) of conscience. Through it, man becomes aware of his truth as an individual, of the goodness inherent to his own personal being and of his singular preciousness as an individual, but only insofar as this truth demands here and now to be affirmed, not denied, this goodness demands here and now to be loved, not hated, and this preciousness demands here and now to be saved, not lost. As conscience sees the act as a means of bringing about this affirmation, love and salvation, the act is deemed to be right and proper. It is because of his conscience that man becomes “imprisoned” within his own truth, in that he is now constrained to be free and to make his own choices. In this sense, conscience sets man free. It sets him free because it subjects him to truth. It is because we are subjected to truth, writes St. Augustine, that we are free (21).

It is precisely this profound relationship between conscience, truth and choice, that enables us to explain in which sense we can and must talk about the autonomy of conscience.

The first sense, from which I believe all the others flow, is that man cannot make a free choice without the mediation of the judgment of his conscience. He can only make a free choice insofar as he follows the judgment of his conscience and because of the fact that is the judgment of his conscience. In this sense, then, man must always follow the judgment of his conscience, because quite simply he must act humanly, that is ti say, freely. To act according to one’s conscience and to act freely are like the condition and the conditioned.

Consequently, autonomy of conscience means that man must not let himself be guided in his appraisal by his passions and desires, but solely by his pure and disinterested desire to know the truth about the choice and the act that will affirm his personal existence. He must not be swayed by considerations of usefulness or calculations of any sort. As soon as he begins to look out of the corner of his eye at the useful or damaging consequences of his act, he says goodbye to autonomy of conscience.

Autonomy of conscience means not accepting the criterion of the greater number as a criterion of truth about what is good or evil and not following the opinion of the majority. Familiaris Consortio puts it marvellously: “By following Christ, the Church seeks truth, which is not always the same thing as the opinion of the majority. It listens to conscience, not power, and thereby defends the poor” (5, 2). Autonomy of conscience means the ability to arrive at a judgment free from the conditioning of popular opinion and free from one’s own passions and interests, solely in one’s submission to truth.

Given the nature of moral law and the specificity of the judgment of conscience and the relationship between the two, we are now at a stage where we can ask ourselves about the role it plays in human and Christian subjectivity. This is a very important point.

Let us go back to an example I mentioned earlier. It is clear that man feels a natural inclination, preceding his will, to have intercourse with a person of the opposite sex. Yet it is equally certain that this intercourse will only humanly come about if it can do so freely. Freedom is called upon to assume this inclination, as that towards which it inclines is a human good.

However, this is precisely the point: what does it incline towards exactly? Or, put another way, what specific good comes of sexuality? What does the goodness of sexuality really consist of? This is a rational question. In other words, reason must come up with an answer. In what sense must it? In the sense that man must explain this inclination to himself and within himself. In the sense that it is up to reason to come up with a picture of goodness that freedom will then use to move man to make his choices. Now, reason can find the good that is both possible (operabile) and due (operandum). “Due good” belongs to the rational will and the latter must choose it if it does not want to repudiate and destroy itself at the very moment it affirms itself. We now have the answer to the question we asked earlier: the role of moral law in human subjectivity is to bring to light each man’s due good. “Due” means: the original suitability in which good (indicated by moral law) and rational will belong to each other. This good is the person’s own specific good, to which rational will is oriented.

Moral law and conscience represent the two fundamental moments in which spiritual life is realized in the quest for the truth about individual good. They are two stages along the same path towards the knowledge of the truth about what is good. They are rooted in the spiritual attitude that the Ancients called “synderesis”, i.e. the innate capacity of the intellect to apprehend goodness and generate within itself the notion of good and the supreme principles of moral order. And they are rooted in man’s spiritual reach towards the plenitude of existence that moves him to search for a means of attaining freedom, that is, to search for the truth about what is good. It is to this purpose, which is shared by conscience and by moral law, that I would like to draw your attention.

If, assisted by descriptions of all the great masters, from Plato to Newman, we become sufficiently aware of the spiritual event that is ethical experience we will see that the latter is the experience of a goodness that demands to be recognized and loved by us — not because we are us, rather than other people, but because we are rational subjects. It is the rational will as such that is called into question. It is the rational will as such that is called into question, therefore every rational will is called into question, whether it be that of God or that of a creature, angel or man. Ethical experience is the perception of an order that is intrinsic to existence as such, a Measure that transcends every existence and is immanent to every existence.

However, ethical experience is not only this. It calls on our uniqueness, which means nobody can take the place of another. It is through a choice of my very own making that I am asked to recognize and love the good and the order that are intrinsic to existence.

Ethical experience is this conjunction of universality and singularity, of eternity and temporality. It is the breath of eternity in time. This is why the knowledge of good comes to us through a vision (=moral law) of an order that must take shape in our very concrete choice and through a vision (=moral conscience) of the specific good of this concrete choice in the light of the order of existence. It is like a circle that initiates itself in the life of the spirit.

When does this “circle” break up? When we set conscience and moral law against each other? It is precisely this internal disarticulation that has taken place over recent years.

The break in the relationship occurs when the concept of truth is expelled from ethical reflection. This expulsion means that the human heart’s demand for happiness can no longer receive a response that can be qualified as either “true” or “false”. Asking oneself whether it is possible to distinguish between true and false happiness no longer has any meaning, since to be happy means to feel happy. Accordingly, the project of one’s individual existence eludes every judgment that has a degree of universal validity. The same thing applies to the choices that bring about the fulfilment of that project.




The judgment of conscience is the last tangential point of divine Wisdom bestowed on man along with free decision. Saving man’s true autonomy from either the de-subjectivization of post-modernity or what we called earlier “self-basis” is one of the fundamental tasks of current Christian thinking. In order to save the truth of freedom.



(1) See e.g. Pinkaers (Th.), Les sources de la moral chrétienne, Fribourg-Paris 1985, pag. 258-279.

(2) “Adverte, lector benevole quod primum hunc tractatum de

conscientia, quo aditus ad universam moralem theologiam aperitur, speciali studio a me elucubratum...” (Theologia Moralis, Liber primus, Tractatus primus, monitum auctoris).

(3) PG 13, 45 A.

(4) Lib. III; Die Griechischen Christl. Scriftsteller, vol. 33, Leiprig 1925, pag. 190, 19-20; pag. 191, 18-19.

(5) See e.g. Dreyfus F., L’actualisation à l’interieur de la Bible, in Revue Biblique XXXIII, 1976, p. 161.

(6) S. Bernardi opera vol. II. Ed. Cistercienses, Romae 1958, pag. 196.

(7) Ibid., vol. I, pag. 67.

(8) See that text in Herder Korrespondenz, sept. 1993, pag. 460-467 and above all IV, 4, pag. 465.

(9) See e.g. Ottonello P.P., Struttura e forma del nichilismo europeo, 4 voll., Roma 1990-92; Perrati G., Contemporaneità e post-moderno, Milano 1992; Touraine A., Critica della modernità, Milano 1993.

(10), See Polaino-Lorente A., Manual de bioetica general, our Introduction general, pag. 23-30.

(11) Manzoni A., Del sistema che fonda la morale sull’utilità, in Osservazioni sulla morale cattolica, vol. II, Milano-Napoli, 1966, pag. 325-410.

(12) See note 1.

(13) Cfr. Fabro C., La dialettica d’intelligenza e volontà nella costituzione dell’atto libero, in Doctor Communis, 2, 1977, pag. 163-191.

(14) Schüller B., La fondazione dei giudizi morali, Assisi 1975, pag. 75.

(15) Wojtyla K., Persona e atto, Città del Vaticano 1982, pag. 287.

(16) Cost. Past. Gaudium et Spes 16: “Fidelitate erga conscientiam christiani cum ceteris hominibus coniunguntur ad veritatem inquirendam et tot problemata moralia, quae tam in vita singulorum quam in sociali consortione exurgunt, in veritate solvenda”.

(17) Cfr. e. g. n. 4, 2; 29, 4; 32, 2.

(18) Hegel G. F., Geschichte der Philosophie, ed. Michelet, Berlin 1840, Vol. I, p. 63 and also cfr. Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, Vorrede, ed. Hoffmeister, Hamburg 1955, pag. 17.

(19) The most profound Kierkegaard’s insight of freedom in La malattia mortale; about possibility-necessity See Parte Prima, C, A, b, in Opere, Firenze 1972, pag. 637-641.

(20) S. Bernardi opera, Vol. VI, 2, ed. cit., pag. 37.

(21) In De libero arbitrio II, XIII, 37; CC 29, pag. 262.