You Will Know the Truth and the
Truth Will Set You Free
A Pastoral Letter on Deepening our Understanding
of the Truths of the Catholic Faith
Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila, D.D.
Bishop of Fargo
Feast of the Apostle Andrew
November 30, 2004
To the Faithful of the Church of Fargo
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
1. Over the past several months, issues in public life have raised
urgent questions about the moral responsibilities of Catholic voters and
Catholic public officials. One aspect of the discussion has focused on
the reception of Holy Communion by Catholics who support abortion.
Bishops have issued statements about this matter, and I addressed it in
my column in the May 2004 issue of our diocesan newspaper, New Earth. I
received many letters of support but also a few that took issue with my
column and with Church teaching. The election is now over, but the
questions remain and require serious reflection. To respond adequately,
we must address underlying problems that have become evident during the
course of the discussion.
2. The discussion has made it clear that some Catholics today are more
influenced by the secular culture in which we live than by the teachings
of Jesus Christ and faith in him as the very revelation of the Father.
The discussion also has shown that many Catholics have an inadequate
understanding of the Catholic faith. Over the past thirty years some
have taught the faith well, but all too often the catechetics practiced
during this period have failed to hand on the Catholic faith. As your
bishop I am concerned about both the profound influence of the secular
world on the minds and hearts of the faithful and the failure of many to
understand the clear teaching of Jesus Christ and his Church.
3. Jesus Christ is "the way, the truth and the life" (Jn 14, 6) who sets
us free. He entered the world to reveal to us the love of the Father and
to bring us the gift of salvation. "For God so loved the world that he
gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but
have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn
the world, but that the world might be saved through him" (Jn 3, 16-17).
My ardent desire is that all people may come to know God's love for them
as revealed in Jesus Christ, and enter into a personal relationship with
Jesus so that their every word and action may flow from their knowledge
and love of him. I pray that for each of us this knowledge and love may
well up to eternal life in the heavenly kingdom he promises to those who
4. This pastoral letter will address five areas of confusion in the
hearts and minds of some of the faithful, in the hope that as a Catholic
people we will come to a deeper understanding of the truth that sets us
The Truth That Sets Us Free
I. We must clearly present the deposit of faith entrusted to us by
Jesus Christ in Scripture and Tradition.
5. As Blessed John XXIII noted in his opening speech of the Second
Vatican Council, the primary purpose of the Council was "that the sacred
deposit of Christian doctrine be guarded and taught more efficaciously."
He also pointed out the need for the Church "to promote and defend
truth." In our own time we have the gift of the Catechism of the
Catholic Church (CCC) as "a sure norm for teaching the faith
and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion."
6. Unfortunately, the discussion in the media and some of the letters I
have received make it clear that many of the faithful have not read the
Catechism, the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II, or the documents of
Vatican II. Many even reject the principle that we must accept what the
Church believes and teaches, and think they can pick and choose what to
believe. Instead of trying to appropriate the faith and treating it as a
standard for judging the values of the unbelieving culture that
surrounds us, people all too often judge which Church teachings to
accept on the basis of whether they conform to the values of the
7. We must never forget that certain Church teachings can never change,
regardless of whether or not people accept them or are faithful to them.
These teachings are fixed in the very revelation of Jesus Christ and are
transmitted through Sacred Scripture and the apostolic Tradition, and in
faithfulness to Jesus Christ are upheld by the magisterium of the
Church. They include the following:
- The One God is a Trinity of divine persons, Father, Son, and
Holy Spirit which "is the central mystery of Christian faith and
life" (CCC 234).
- "Jesus means in Hebrew: 'God saves'" (CCC 430). He is the
Savior of the world and no one can be saved apart from him (CCC
- There are seven sacraments of the Church (CCC 1113), and
they include the Eucharist, in which Jesus is truly and
substantially present (CCC 1374); Marriage, which is the
union of one man and one woman (CCC 1603-05); and Holy
Orders, which can be conferred only on men (CCC 1577).
- Some acts are intrinsically evil and thus always wrong. Such
acts include: euthanasia (CCC 2276-79), abortion (CCC
2270-2275), blasphemy (CCC 2148-49), murder (CCC
2258-2269), various "offenses against chastity" (CCC
2351-59), contraception (CCC 2370, 2399), and lying (CCC
2482-2486). They should never be chosen or approved by anyone who
believes in Jesus Christ.
- The virginity of Mary, her Assumption into heaven and her
Immaculate Conception (CCC 487-507, 966).
The list could go on. Other examples can be found in the Catechism,
which I urge you to read prayerfully from beginning to end.
8. Pope John Paul II explains in his apostolic exhortation, Catechesis
in our Time (CT), that "the definitive aim of catechesis is to put
people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus
Christ: only He can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and
make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity" (CT 5). We should teach
the faithful everything Jesus has commanded us (Mt 28, 20) and urge them
to live upright lives precisely because we wish to lead them into that
intimacy and to grow in holiness. We must invite them to respond to
Jesus' call, "Come, follow me" (Mt 19, 21) by developing a personal
relationship with him, which will draw them into communion with the
Triune God and with the Church. Then they will experience the freedom
that only truth can give.
II. We must become more deeply convinced that we can find the
truth that sets us free only in Jesus Christ.
9. We live in a complex secular culture and are inevitably exposed to a
variety of ideas that are incompatible with the truths of faith. Some
non-believers are pure materialists who deny the existence of God and
any spiritual reality at all. In their view, nothing has intrinsic
value, not even human beings, since everything about them is thought to
be just a more complex evolution of matter. For materialists, values
arise from whatever people happen to think and want. Most contemporary
materialists tend to value pleasant states of consciousness and to think
that the point of life is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.
10. Other non-believers recognize the existence of spiritual reality and
specifically of the human soul. Many take this to an extreme by adopting
a dualistic view of the human person: they identify the true person with
the soul or conscious subject and consider the body as merely
instrumental. This view has significant consequences. It inclines people
to regard sexual differences as merely anatomical and to approve of
homosexual activity. It inclines them to regard the reproductive
dimension of human sexuality as purely biological and functional, and to
approve of contraception, abortion, and sex outside of marriage. It
inclines them to regard incurable illness as an indication that the body
has outlived its usefulness and to approve of physician-assisted
11. Still other non-believers are relativists or subjectivists who deny
that it is possible to reach objective truth at all. Some who do not go
quite that far nevertheless assume that truth cannot be expressed and
handed on but only gotten hold of in some mysterious way. As a result,
they tend to think that the formulations used to express doctrine can be
put aside. They also tend to regard moral norms as mere rules that can
be dismissed when they become too demanding.
12. Although these different views are conceptually distinct, people
tend not to be consistent in holding to one or the other of them.
Rather, they tend to mix together elements of these and other systems in
their own thinking, while also assimilating cultural values like our
excessive emphasis on youth, self-sufficiency, and consumer goods.
13. We have only to look around our world to see the culture of death
which these and other strains of secularist thought have produced.
Abortion is commonplace and regarded by many as a "right." Along with
some other forms of wrongful killing, it is not only legal but even
publicly funded. Much of the media, various well-heeled foundations, and
some very competent people and organizations promote the further
legalization and availability of such killing.
14. Christians are by no means immune to these influences. In fact, they
sometimes adopt elements of secularist perspectives without recognizing
their incompatibility with Christian faith. However, the Lord Jesus
entered the world to proclaim the truth: "For this I was born, and for
this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone
who is of the truth hears my voice" (Jn 18, 37b).
15. As human beings endowed with intellect and will, we are able to know
the truth which will grant us true freedom. In teaching "you will know
the truth, and the truth will make you free" (Jn 8, 32), Jesus affirms
the relationship between truth and freedom. One kind of
freedom is free will: "Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will,
to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate
actions on one's own responsibility." When we exercise this kind of
freedom, we shape our very character: "By free will one shapes one's own
life" (CCC 1731).
16. If we choose well and cooperate with grace, we orient ourselves to
genuine and lasting fulfillment both here and hereafter: "Human freedom
is a force for growth in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection
when directed toward God" (CCC 1731). The proper exercise of free
will, then, leads to freedom in an even fuller sense: the freedom of the
children of God which is found only in Jesus Christ who is "the way, the
truth and the life" (Jn 14, 6). We can never find this freedom by
choosing something that is not ordered toward the good-toward God. This
noblest sort of freedom is found only in choosing the good and thereby
ordering our lives to Jesus and his Kingdom.
17. If, however, we choose what we know is gravely wrong and thus fail
to cooperate with grace, we form our character in a way that is
incompatible with the authentic fulfillment that God so much wants us to
receive. Unless we repent, this leads to unhappiness not just here, but
also hereafter. Whenever a person chooses to go against the law of God,
"to disobey and do evil," he or she abuses freedom and becomes a "slave
to sin" (Jn 8, 34-36 and CCC 1733).
18. We see what slavery to sin does in our world when we consider
terrorism, genocide, abortion, murder, war, divorce, and a host of other
ills. Slavery to sin always brings with it darkness, death, confusion,
and a rejection of God and his laws. Ever since the fall of Adam and Eve
who rejected the truth of God's law to follow their own way, the attempt
to separate truth and freedom has proved disastrous for the human race,
just as uniting them has given us many saints. Catholics, both laity and
clergy, must rediscover the relationship between truth and freedom. We
must refuse to be seduced by secularist thought. Rather, we must judge
it according to the standard of the truth revealed in the person of
Jesus Christ and live out that truth in our daily lives, so that we can
enjoy the freedom of the children of God.
III. We must develop a mature understanding of the meaning of
19. Pastors must clarify what conscience is, show the faithful how to
recognize an erroneous conscience, and help them form their conscience
20. Conscience, in Catholic teaching, is God's law written on the human
heart (CCC 1777-1802). It is "the most secret core and sanctuary
of a man" where "he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his
depths." To obey conscience "is the very dignity of man; according to it
he will be judged" (Gaudium et Spes 16). We are always obliged to
follow our conscience because it is our last and best judgment about the
morality of a particular act.
21. Catholics sometimes say they are following their conscience when
they choose to do something-for example, tell a lie, use contraception,
have or recommend abortion, defraud someone, conceive a child through in
vitro fertilization-that the Church teaches to be intrinsically evil.
Some members of the clergy confuse the faithful by telling them, "Just
follow your conscience." Without proper explanation such guidance is
misleading because it suggests that people are responsibly following
their conscience when they knowingly replace Christ's teaching with the
22. Our conscience—our
last and best judgment about what morality concretely requires—can
be mistaken: "conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance
with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous
judgment that departs from them" (CCC 1786). We must nevertheless
follow our conscience because we cannot know, here and now, that this
last and best judgment is mistaken. The alternative to following our
conscience would be to refuse to do what we sincerely believe morality
requires. This dilemma makes it clear that having an erroneous
conscience is a serious problem whether or not a person is responsible
for the error.
23. If a person is responsible for the error, because he was
negligent or self-deceptive in forming conscience, then he is also
responsible for the wrong it leads him to do (CCC 1736). We
should not dismiss this possibility lightly, for we all are tempted to
rationalize when we form our consciences about the morality of things we
strongly desire to do. But even if a person is not responsible for the
error (CCC 1735), his mistaken conscience remains problematic
because it leads him to do what is objectively wrong and harmful. A
child killed through abortion is no better off when the one who chooses
abortion is not subjectively culpable. The problem of mistaken
conscience underlines the importance of proper conscience formation.
24. Proper conscience formation presupposes good will. We must be
willing, no matter what the cost, to recognize moral truth when it
becomes clear. We begin to discover moral truth by reflecting on the
principles of natural law-the law God has written in our hearts. These
principles are not externally imposed rules but the intrinsic
requirements implied by true respect for everything that is humanly
good. They include our awareness that we always should do what is
morally upright, that we should love God and neighbor, that we should
never intentionally harm ourselves or others, and that we should always
treat others fairly.
25. We discover moral truth in greater detail when we reflect on the Ten
Commandments, which are norms that flow from these principles. When we
strive to understand these principles and norms in the bracing way that
the Church understands them (CCC 2083-2557), we come to see more
clearly what morality concretely requires of us. A properly formed
conscience can never approve an evil or go against a law of God.
Conscience recognizes objective truth which binds every human person.
The "voice of God" and his law are never relativistic, telling one
person "it is permitted to abort a child," and telling another person
"you may not," for God never contradicts himself.
26. I urge the clergy, catechists, and laity of the Diocese of Fargo to
read the Catechism of the Catholic Church to understand the true
meaning of conscience. In order to facilitate this understanding, I am
mandating today that every priest or deacon, who preaches on the first
two Sundays in Lent of 2005, is to present a catechetical homily on
conscience. The section on conscience of the Catechism is to be
distributed to every Catholic in the pew on the First Sunday of Lent.
Homily outlines will be provided to the clergy to assist them in their
IV. We must deepen our appreciation of the inalienable dignity
of human life.
27. John Paul II, in his encyclical The Gospel of Life, beautifully sets
out the Catholic understanding of human life and the dignity of the
human person. Unfortunately, the discussion of life issues in the media
has made it clear that too few Catholics have prayerfully studied this
document. Catholics all too often regard abortion and euthanasia
primarily as political issues on which they can legitimately take a
position at odds with the teachings of Christ and his Church.
28. Persons with an authentically Catholic perspective recognize that
these are not primarily political but moral issues, and that Church
teaching on them is binding. Abortion and euthanasia are intrinsic evils
that violate the inherent dignity of the human person, whose life must
be protected from the moment of conception to natural death. To
recognize this truth in law is emphatically not a matter of imposing a
particular tenet of the Catholic faith on a pluralistic society; it is a
matter of that society recognizing a principle of natural justice-the
inviolability of innocent human life from the very beginning-which is
crucial to the survival of any law-governed democracy. Thus "the
inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a
constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation" (CCC
29. Practices like abortion and euthanasia are morally abhorrent even
when they are called "rights" and given the protection of law. They
remain abhorrent even when such a law is agreed upon by a majority of
persons. Sadly, we have only to consider recent history to find examples
of unjust laws, some of which enjoyed significant popular support.
Genocidal laws in Nazi Germany, Russia, and China, and laws upholding
slavery in our own country were neither right nor just, for they denied
the dignity of the human person with horrific consequences. Whenever
people create laws which violate the inherent dignity of the human
person, whether they be laws protecting slavery, abortion, euthanasia,
or genocide, they violate the law of God and contribute to the culture
of death. That is why abortion and euthanasia are the great civil rights
issues of our day.
30. There is a tendency among some Catholics to equate all issues of
life such that, for example, capital punishment and war are considered
to have the same moral significance as abortion and euthanasia. Though
all these issues are important, this tendency is misguided. It is
possible in principle to justify putting a dangerous criminal to death
in order to protect society, even if this can rarely if ever be
justified in practice today because other ways of effectively preventing
a criminal from doing further harm are almost always available (CCC
2267 and The Gospel of Life 56). As for the complex issue of war,
"legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty." While
arms should be taken up only as a last resort, "those who legitimately
hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors
against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility" (CCC
2265). By contrast, the consistent teaching of the Church makes it
abundantly clear that abortion and euthanasia are intrinsic evils which
can never be justified (CCC 2270-79 and The Gospel of Life
62, 65). Yet, three thousand to four thousand abortions take place every
day in this country: three to four thousand human lives destroyed
daily! Far more innocent lives have been brutally killed in this
past century through the crime of abortion than all of the wars and
capital punishment cases combined.
V. We must deepen our understanding of what it means to live out
our faith in the world.
31. Jesus calls us to be a light in the world and salt for the earth.
"Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works
and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Mt 5, 13-16). Catholics
are called to transform the world by the way they live their daily
lives, bearing consistent witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
32. As I teach in my Confirmation homilies, the ways and thoughts of
the human person are often far from those of God (Is 55, 8). As
Catholics, we are called to remain faithful to Jesus the Christ and have
his heart and mind (Phil 4, 7; 1 Cor 2, 14). I often pose the following
question to the children to be confirmed: "If every Catholic in the
world, your school, or your home, had the heart and mind of Jesus Christ
and the ways and thoughts of God, would they not be different?" The
young people always respond "yes." They know that if every Catholic
truly lived the faith, their homes, schools, and world would be much
different because a culture of life would flourish.
33. Some Catholics say they are personally opposed to abortion but
defend the alleged right to abortion and even approve when others choose
it. They separate their personal conviction about fundamental truths
from their public life. Whether they are culpable or not, such persons
cooperate in a grave evil by their support of abortion.
34. Catholic politicians who vote specifically to fund abortions do not
merely cooperate with a grave evil but are principal agents in a grave
evil. For, despite any good ulterior ends they may have in view, in
voting precisely to fund abortions they necessarily intend, even if only
reluctantly, to promote the killing of innocent babies, some of whom
would not be killed without the funding their votes help provide. By
acting in this way, they fail to be the light of Jesus Christ and they
cooperate with the father of lies.
35. Voting for a candidate who supports abortion can be justified only
if one has a proportionate reason, that is, only if one honestly judges
that all the other candidates who might be elected would be worse. One
can make such a judgment only if one recognizes how horrendous abortion
is and what a candidate's support for abortion implies about his or her
character. Although we cannot make subjective judgments about anyone's
moral condition, we can say that to support abortion is to support an
injustice of the grossest kind and one that occurs on a grand scale: the
killing, the tearing apart, of thousands of innocent babies day after
day, along with the continuous assault on the dignity of women that this
entails. It is no wonder that the Church calls abortion and infanticide
"unspeakable crimes" (Gaudium et Spes 51). Those who are willing
to support this attack on innocent human life are not likely to resist
when they are under political pressure to support other attacks on human
goods. It is hard to imagine a proportionate reason that could justify
voting for such a person if one of the other candidates will vote to
36. All too often, Catholic public officials and voters are more deeply
committed to their political agendas than they are to the teaching of
Christ. If Catholics, whether in Congress or at the polls, consistently
voted in line with the Gospel of Life—with
the mind and heart of Jesus Christ—we
would not be where we are today in our society. The inherent dignity of
the human person would be respected from the moment of conception
through natural death and the world would be transformed.
37. I highlight here only five areas of confusion and recognize that
there are others that could be addressed at length. These include: the
assumption that salvation is universal and automatic no matter what one
says or does; the failure to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation
on a regular basis and to be properly disposed before receiving Holy
Communion; the failure to appreciate the truth, dignity, and meaning of
human sexuality; the failure to understand the apostolic authority of
bishops; and pastoral practices in dioceses which go beyond legitimate
diversity. However, the five areas I have treated stand out to me, your
bishop, as especially serious. I am convinced that if we conscientiously
strive to address them, our efforts will also be helpful in addressing
these other concerns.
38. Jesus Christ entered the world so that we might "have life and have
it more abundantly" (Jn 10, 10). My fervent prayer is that we embrace
and live out his teachings, and that our every word and action promote
the Gospel of Life. As we approach the feast of Christmas, we remember
the love God showed our world in sending Jesus, the Word made flesh,
"full of grace and truth" (Jn 1, 14). Let us recall Pope John Paul II's
invitation to every Catholic in his apostolic letter on The Most Holy
Rosary: to sit "at the school of Mary and [be] led to contemplate the
beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love."
May Mary, who gave birth to Jesus "the life of the world," help us live
in him! May she help us respond with her courage, openness, and
receptivity to the Word of Life! May each of us have and live her
holiness of life! My firm hope is that all Catholics will respond by
studying their faith at a deep and profound level so that they may have
the ways and thoughts of God and the heart and mind of Jesus Christ, and
thus live the truth in freedom.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Most Reverend Samuel J. Aquila, D.D.
Bishop of Fargo
Given on November 30, 2004
Feast of the Apostle Andrew
Used with permission of the Diocese of Fargo, North Dakota