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«Conscience, Truth and Magisterium in Conjugal Morality»
Introduction to the General Session of the Pontifical Council for the Family
11 December 1985
Anthropos, May 1986

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Before going into the particular topic which has been given to me I think it is necessary to raise some general reflections on moral conscience and its relationship to the Church’s moral Magisterium. This will be the first part of my reflection. In the second part, I will take up the specific theme.


1. Moral conscience and the Church’s moral Magisterium (general reflections)


I would like to begin by pointing out some reasons which have made the problem “difficult” concerning the relationship between conscience-Magisterium both with regard to thought and on the practical level.

First. This had already been pointed out by J.H. Newman in very strong terms:

«Its miserable counterfeit… the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience… the right of thinking, speaking, writing and acting, according to their judgement or their humour, without any thought of God at all…» (Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, in Difficulties of Anglicans, vol. II, p. 250). «Deference to the law of conscience… is easily perverted into a kind of self-confidence, namely a deference to our judgement» (Oxford University Sermons, p. 172).

Thus, the first cause is due to the equivocalness attached to the term of moral conscience. It is used with two meanings which are contradictory to one another and irreconciliable. Let us take a look at them. This very serious situation requires us first of all to make an effort at rigorously clarifying the concept of moral conscience.

Second. A confusion of terms always indicates a confusion of concepts. Such confusion creates a serious problem. What makes up this confusion? Basically by exchanging (or, namely, confusing) the affirmation - on which we should reflect al length — whereby the moral obligation arises in the conscience and through the conscience with the affirmation that the moral obligation arises from the conscience; in confusing the manifesting function (of the truth) which belongs to the conscience with the constitutive function (of the truth) which, as we will see, can not in any way be attributed to man’s moral conscience. This situation requires us to make an effort to clarify as much as possible the precise function of moral conscience in moral life, especially with regard to the Truth about what is right.

Third. The problem moves from the relationship between moral conscience and political authority which, since the formation of absolutist States, has continued being a great problem in modern political philosophy — to that of the relationship between moral conscience (of the believer) to the Church’s Magisterium, without any change at allo That is to say, the following proportion is set up: moral conscience (of the citizen): political authority = moral conscience (of the believer): Church’s Magisterium. This fact requires us to discover the specific quality, the originality of the relationship between conscience and the Magisterium, which is not in any way reducible to the former type of relationship.

In this way we have indicated the two main themes which we will deal with in the first part of our reflection.


1, 1. The nature of moral conscience and its relationship with the truth about what is right

Moral conscience, despite the fact that the word makes us think of a faculty of our spirit, is really an act of our reason, a judgement through which I discover moral truth, the truth about what is right or wrong (cfr «an instrument for detecting moral truth wherever it lies hid»: J.H. NEWMAN, Oxford... cit., p. 66). These simple words hide, or better, attempt to describe one of the most awesome and mysterious happenings that can take pIace in our spirit.

Let us begin immediately by saying that through this act — which precisely makes up conscience — man does not discover just any moral truth, but a truth inherent in the action which he is about to perform (or has performed). It is a truth which concerns the person in his individuality, as the subject about to perform an action. Conscience makes him know precisely the moral truth about this action: that is, its moral goodness or evil. At this point it is logical for us to ask: how can he know this truth? How is this judgement created which makes up moral conscience? An entire concept of conscience ultimately depends on the answer to this question. We must start from the observation based on out daily experience that this judgement has a strength all of its own: that of absolutely obliging, and not only hypothetically, our decisions and our freedom. Thus, it is so clear for each person that speaking of «conscience» and «feeling obliged to...» is practically the same thing. But what is of greatest interest is to take note and understand the nature and the wholly unique form of this obligation. In fact it is certain that, in a certain sense, every judgement of our reason requires a certain behavior and, therefore, certain decisions of the will. If we know that a certain food is harmful to our health, we usually decide to avoid it. If we know that outside the weather is bad, il we decide to go out, we logically decide to dress appropriately. And so on. Nevertheless these and other judgements of our reason require a coherent behavior but only hypothetically. If you want to be healthy, knowing that a certain food... If you do not want to get bronchitis, knowing that the weather... But if we pay attention to the judgement of the conscience, we see that the obligation generated by it is basically of a different nature. That obligation does not depend on an «if»: it does not depend on anything. It is imposed immediately by itself on man’s freedom. The voice of conscience places man’s freedom before an absolute: an absolute duty.

We therefore have an inner situation which is most unique. On one hand, the human person feels absolutely obliged only in the face of this judgement, that of the conscience. Only in the face of this judgement does freedom feel absolutely obliged. On the other hand, this judgement is an act of the individual, of the subject and only his. From where and how can it happen that the person through one of his or her own actions feel an interiorly obliged so deeply and so strictly as to not be able, with a contrary action, to be released? It is an action of his — an act of his reason — which has bound his freedom. With an act — an act of his reason — he is released. The reality of our inner experience dearly attests to us that this does not happen. Man can not dispense himself from the obligation to which the judgement of conscience forces him. The universal experience of remorse demonstrates this. This impossibility forces us to a deeper reflection about moral conscience.

The fact that man feels he cannot dispense himself from the obligation of his own conscience shows that its judgement makes the person know about a truth that is pre-existing to conscience itself. This is a truth that is not real through or because our conscience knows it but, on the contrary, our conscience knows it because the truth exists. In brief: truth does not depend on conscience but conscience depends on truth. What truth? The truth in the light of which and on the strength of which «this action is good and to be performed» or «this action is illicit and to be avoided». Thus we have already arrived at this very important conclusion: since man is obliged only by the judgement of his own conscience (auto-nomy), and since the judgement of his own conscience obligates because it makes the truth known, thus man is autonomous when subjected to the truth. One’s own autonomy is made up by one’s subordination to the truth.

Now we must briefly return to reflect on the truth known through the judgment of our own conscience. What truth is this? Since conscience is a judgement concerning our action from a moral standpoint, it is a practical truth (concerning human action), a truth about the good and evil of our actions. The judgement of our conscience uncovers in the action I am about to perform (or have performed) — or due to its make-up or the circumstances in which it is performed — a relationship with an order in vigor of which «iustum est ut omnia sint ordinatissima» (ST. AUGUSTINE, De libero arbitrio 1, 6, 15). It is an order linked with the very universe of being and intrinsic to that universe of being. If I discover that this relationship is contrary to it — that is, conscience perceives that this action is contrary to that order, that this action destroys that order and upsets it, this action, precisely because of its deformation must be avoided. Moral conscience knows this order of being in that it is respected or negated by the action I am about to perform. Therefore, the judgement of the conscience — and it deserves a great deal of attention — is the convergence, the meeting point, the synthesis of knowledge about the intrinsic order of being with knowledge about the action I am about to perform. This order intrinsic to being is none other than the order of God’s creative wisdom with and in which everything created has been created.

But how can man know this order, this «ontological rectitude»? This human capability is precisely what is called human reason. It is thus what makes man participate in the Wisdom of God: the seal stamped on man — and only on man — by God’s creative hand. Through reason man knows the order that represents the beauty and goodness of being. It is in the light of this knowledge that conscience can discover whether the action which a person is about to perform is found in this order, in this beauty and goodness. To say that this order is created or made up by human reason and not merely discovered by it amounts to simply denying a fact to which our experience continuously testifies. When we discover this beauty with our reason, this order and its unchangeable requirements, «non examinator corrigit, sed tantum laetatur inventor» as St. Augustine profoundly wrote (op. cit., 2, 12, 34), «it does not judge (them) as an arbiter but it enjoys them as a discoverer». I will now try to explain this most important point.

Let us begin with an observation. On what man has produced, we make a judgement («examinatores corrigimus», St. Augustine would say). Looking at a building, we say: «It could have or should have been built better». Or of a book: «It’s not well written. It could or should have been written better» and so on.

But none of us, when we discover that justice deserves being honored would say: «It could or should have been different. It would have been better if justice had not merited being honored». Very simply when we see the dignity of justice, we see a truth that does not depend on us, about which we cannot make a judgement. We see instead that we depend on it and are judged by it and we delight in that discovery («laetatur inventor»).

Now let us return to our topic to conclude it. Human reason takes part in the light of God’s creative wisdom which governs the entire universe of being. Through this participation man discovers an intrinsic order of being which must be recognized and venerated. In the light of this discovery, man is in a position to judge whether an action he is about to perform is within this order (= good) or negates it (= evil). Precisely this judgement is moral conscience. I cannot find any better synthesis or conclusion than these words by Newman:

«The Supreme Being... has the attributes of justice, truth, wisdom, sanctity, benevolence and mercy, as eternal characteristics in His nature, the very Law of his being, identical with Himself; and next, when he became Creator, He implanted this Law, which is Himself, in the intelligence of all His rational creatures. The Divine Law, then, is the rule of ethical truth, the standard of right and wrong, a sovereign irreversible absolute authority in the presence of men and Angels... This Law, as apprehended in the minds of individual men, is called “conscience” (Letter, cit. pag. 246- 247)».


1, 2. Moral conscience and the Church’s Magisterium

It is not necessary for me to recall the Catholic doctrine concerning the Church’s Magisterium. I suppose it is well-known.

From what we have said previously it immediately follows that the supreme good for conscience is that the person know the truth about what is right and wrong; that he see that intrinsic order of being, have intuition of the beauty of righteousness and know the unchangeable requirements of that order (= moral norms). Without this knowledge, conscience is lacking that light that enables it to see the good or the evil of the act to be performed. This knowledge is for conscience what light is for the eyes. Without light the eye simply cannot see. How can I judge a page of music if I have no musical sense? How can I judge an action from a moral point of view if I do not know the norms on which to base a judgement? On the other hand, that conscience judge in the light of truth is the most necessary thing; indeed, the only absolutely necessary thing for man. On this depends whether he is in truth or in error and his eternal destiny.

Let us keep all this in mind and, at the same time, what man’s real situation is in this matter: he is exposed to error, uncertainty and the difficulty of discovering the truth about what is right and wrong. From this we can already presume that, in His Providence, God wanted to remedy this situation in order not to leave man in such great spiritual difficulty.

The moral Magisterium of the Church is precisely the gift of Providence to man. It teaches the unchangeable requirements of the moral order so that, in its light, the judgement of conscience can be true. Thus to speak of a conflict between conscience and Magisterium is the same as speaking of a conflict between the eye and the light. The eye does not find in the light anything that hinders it from seeing, but the medium through which it can see. In this context we can find the ultimate roots of a situation that frequently occurs today.

If it is believed that conscience represents moral truth, or, in the final analysis, that it is not called to accept a truth, or make its own and interiorize more and more deeply a truth which it did not create, then a potential competitor of conscience, its adversary, can be seen in the Magisterium. The same thing can actually happen if one is not convinced that the Magisterium possesses that «charisma certum Veritatis» which Christ had desired for it.

In this context we can and must rigorously clarify the concept of «rights of conscience».

First of all, the ways of conceiving the relationship between conscience and political authority cannot be transferred to the way in which the relationship conscience-Magisterium is conceived: the scope of the former extends only as far as the requirements of the «common good»: the end of the political society. The attainment of this end, which political authority requires through the promulgation of laws, includes no more than the performance of certain external actions and the omission of others. The end of the political community is in fact a temporal one. It obviously does not propose man’s eternal salvation. Thus the human person has a higher value than the political community as such. The latter only has an instrumental value with regard to the human person: it exists for the human person. Thus with regard to the political community, or more precisely to political authority, the human person is an intangible value. And if the authority were not to respect that intangibility, it would perform a morally illicit act and the person has not only the right but the duty to refuse to obey (= conscientious objection in the case, for example, of the law legitimizing abortion).

The situation of the person in the Church is profoundly different. It should never be forgotten, not even for an instant, that the Church is that happening put into being by Christ’s redemptive act, the happening of man’s eternal Salvation. The Church has only one reason for being: to lead man to eternal communion with God. The Church, in its basic mystery, is not the work of man: it is the new Jerusalem that came down from heaven. Its root is the faith that assents to God’s Revelation. It is built through the consensus to Christ’s love who gives Himself on the Cross, the gift which is always present through the Eucharist. The Magisterium is one of the means created by Christ Himself in order for the Church to remain faithful to its Spouse: that it not be adulterous by giving itself to others. Remaining in the Truth of Christ is the first condition for the very existence of the Church. In order to thus remain the Magisterium exists. And we have now reached the heart of our problem: the conflict — to use again the words of Newman — between the «dogmatic principle» and the «liberal principle». The «liberal principle» can be described in this way:

«That truth and falsehood in religion are but matter of opinion; that one doctrine is as good as another; that the Governor of the world does not intend that we should gain the truth; that there is no truth; that we are not more acceptable to God by believing this than by believing that; that no one is answerable for his opinions; that they are a matter of necessity or accident; that it is enough if we sincerely hold what we profess; that our merit lies in seeking not in possessing; that it is a duty to follow what seems to us true, without a fear lest it should not be true … that we may take up and lay down opinions at pleasure; ... that we may safely trust to our selves in matters of Faith, and need no other guide» (Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Westminster 1968, pp. 357-358).

The «dogmatic principle» can be described as follows:

«That there is a truth then; that there is one truth; that religious error is in itself of an immoral nature; that its maintainers, unless unvolountarily such, are guilty in maintaining it; that it is to be dreaded; that the search for truth is not the gratification of curiosity; that its attainment has nothing of the excitement of a discovery; that the mind is below truth, not above it, and is bound, not to discant upon it, but to venerate it; that truth and falsehood are set before us for the trial of our hearts; ... that before all things it is necessary to hold the catholic faith; that he that would be saved must thus think, and not otherwise» (ibid., p. 357).

These two principles describe exactly the two attitudes with which we can ultimately place ourselves in the Church. The first principle is the anti-ecclesial one par excellence since it simply denies that which makes the Church be: obedient acceptance of Revealed Truth.

Within the context of the liberal principle one can speak of and say — as has been said even during these past weeks — that in the Church, as in States, there must be religious freedom. One speaks of «rights of conscience» against the Magisterium since, coherently, the liberal principle logically leads either to denying that a truth exists which is imposed on conscience, or to holding that the existence or non-existence of the truth is a matter of secondary importance for man’s salvation, or to believing impossible that a Magisterium exists which is gifted as such with a real authority of its own. Therefore, any intervention by the Magisterium in the field of moral truth will either be judged as undue interference in the area of conscience or seen as one of the many voices to which conscience does not owe real obedience.

Within the context of the dogmatic principle, one can speak of «rights of conscience» which are not against the Magisterium but precisely the opposite. The faithful has the right that the Magisterium teach him moral truth. Conscience has a right to the Magisterium. In this sense, St. Augustine wrote that to be a Christian is a dignity, to be a pastor is a Service (cfr for example CCL 41, 529-530).


2. Moral conscience, Magisterium of the Church, responsible procreation


In the light of what we have said up to now, we can now go into our specific topic. We will carry out our reflection on the basis of the catecheses which the Holy Father dedicated to the Encyclical Humanae vitae in the Wednesday audiences. There are 16 catecheses which began on July 7, 1984 and ended on November 28, 1984.

I would like to immediately note that I do not intend to present their content but simply re-read them in the context of the theme given to me.


2, 1. It must immediately be noted that the problem we are dealing with is not explicity raised in these catecheses. However, there are two explicit statements touching on the subject of conscience, or rather — if we take the quotation into consideration as well — there are four (cfr The Teaching of John Paul II, vol. VII, 2-1984, p. 87 and p. 101; quotes p. 145 GS 50). The two quotations contain a statement of great importance: the moral norm taught by Humanae vitae is based on the intimate nature of the conjugal act, of the very person of the spouses and, through the re-reading in the truth of that intimate nature, it must be transferred to the conscience of the spouses.

The statement must be carefully analyzed. As we know, the main nucleus of the teaching of Humane Vitae is this: the conjugal act bears within itself two meanings — the unitive and the procreative, and, between the two there is an inseparable connection.

By making use of the term «meaning», Paul VI raises a correlation between the conjugal act which signifies and a subject to which the «significant message» is made. In order to understand better, we can recall the analogy of a communication based on words between two persons. There is one person who speaks and communicates a message and the other person who listens and grasps the significance of the words spoken. Similarly the conjugal act has in itself two meanings which are inseparably connected. These two meanings and their inseparable connection must be understood, «read in their truth». By reason of this «reading in truth», the truth of the conjugal act enters into the spouses’ conscience.

According to classical metaphysics of human knowledge, the truth speaking correctly and formally is made up by the judgement of our reason; it is a property of the judgement of our reason (in technical terms: this is logical truth). But when are out judgements true? When the way in which our thought is formulated about the matter corresponds to the way in which the matter exists. «Truth», says St. Thomas, «is the conformity of the spirit with being in that (the spirit) states about being what it is and not what it is not» (Contra Gentes, I, 59). Thus the basis of the truth (logic) of our judgements is reality itself in that it is knowable in itself. Hence a truth exists in things themselves which, when known, renders our judgements true. This «truth about things» is called «ontological truth» (which precedes and gives foundation to logical truth).

After this brief digression, let us return to our subject. In one of his catecheses, the Holy Father states: «Meaning arises in the conscience with the re-reading of the truth (ontological) of the object. Through this re-reading the truth (ontological) enters, so to speak, into the cognitive dimension: subjective and psychological» (p. 101, N. 1). This paragraph is very important. Let us try to briefly examine it.

The conjugal act possesses a truth of its own (ontological). When this truth is known, the truth about the conjugal act enters into the conscience and the subject knows really what the conjugal act is. That is, he sees the two basic meanings and their inseparable connection. Therefore, the intimate structure of the conjugal act (about which Humanae vitae speaks) is the basis, the foundation for discovering those two meanings and their inseparable connection. This discovery is made by conscience which then transfers those two meanings into one’s personal subjectivity. The person accepts them, reads them and interiorizes them so that they become the norm of his or her behavior. But note well: the existence of these two meanings in the conjugal act and their inseparable connection is not caused by the fact that conscience discovers them: they exist prior to conscience. St. Augustine writes: «Truth, while remaining unto itself, does not grow when it is manifested more greatly to us, nor does it diminish when manifested less to us, but it remains integral and always the same. It fills with light those who turn to it and punishes with blindness those who shun it» (De libero arbitrio 2, 12, 34). It is not the eye that puts on the light nor does the light shine more because more eyes are enlightened by it. What becomes more or less luminous is the eye and not the light. If, when thirsty, you drink more water, the fountain will not make more water flow. And, in this way, the truth about the conjugal act does not depend on awareness about it. Thus there is no sense in talking about a «graduality of the moral law».

It must be noted, however, that it is not a truth outside of man. It is rather, as the catecheses emphasize repeatedly, the very truth (ontological) of the human person. Thus the conscience can not dispense with knowing about it. By not knowing the truth, man will not act in truth, he will not do what is true and will lose his freedom. He will create an existence in error — a non-existence.

The reason for being then of Humanae vitae and the Catecheses on human love is to enlighten men and women about the truth of their conjugal love, about the truth of their being a human person. It is a concrete case of implementation of that profound relationship between moral conscience and Magisterium which we discussed at length in the first part of this report.


2, 2. What is our task then? In the first piace to communicate wholly this Magisterium of the Church. But we must reflect on this communication, at least briefly.

First, we must be convinced and aware that the truth communicated is not «something extraneous to man». It is not an ideal: it is the truth about man. Thus it is a truth which each man bears inscribed in his heart. The Church does not teach an ideal: it teaches the truth about man. Christian pedagogy is a pedagogy of the «inner teacher» and not a «product of consensus». The Christian pedagogue guides man to discovering in himself the truth of which he is made.

Second, we must remember the particularly difficult situation in which man, given his sinful condition, finds himself in seeking moral truth. An environment and a life of chastity help decisively in perceiving the ethical value of the conjugal act.




«This is our freedom: to be subject to the truth... that very Truth, who is also man in dialogue with other men, said to those who believe in him: if you keep my words, you will be my disciples. You will know the truth and the truth will make you free» (De libero arbitrio 2, 13, 37).

The Magisterium of the Church exists so that spouses, by listening through it to Christ’s words, may know the truth about their conjugal love: the truth about their being spouses. May this truth penetrate their moral conscience and their decisions since joy is basically possessing the Truth.