Conscience and the Council

Author: Cardinal Pericle Felici


Cardinal Pericle Felici

We wish to examine some points of the Catholic doctrine that more closely concern the questions raised after the publication of "Humanae vitae".

Conscience, in the sense that interests us, is the ultimate practical judgment on morality, that is on the goodness or badness of our action. It is therefore an act, a judgment, not only on the speculative plane but also on the practical one, hence on an action to be carried out. In other words, conscience is, according to St. Thomas, "a certain application of knowledge to action" (1-2, 19, 5) and that is the conclusion of a syllogism, the major premise of which is constituted by synderesis or, more amply, by the objective standard of morality, and the minor by the act to be carried out, considered in its moral aspect.

The final judgment of the syllogism becomes binding to the extent to which it faithfully reproduces the objective standard that is God's law, in its various manifestations. Only the law of God, in fact, communicated to us by reason, can have binding force and tell us if an act is good and therefore to be done, or if an act is bad and therefore to be


It is therefore the duty of everyone to know God's law well and with certainty: "What is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom. 12, 2), in order to conform to it. He who neglects this duty, is well as acting against the dignity of his own person which finds its perfection in God, becomes responsible for the evil he may do because of his ignorance. I cannot find words better suited to express these concepts than those spoken by the Council in the pastoral Constitution "Gaudium et spes": "in the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can when necessary speak to his heart more specifically: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.

Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbour. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals and from social relationships. Hence the more that a correct conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by objective norms of morality.

Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said of a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or of a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin" (n. 16; cf. Declar. "Dignitatis humanae", nn. 2, 3).

These are clear and persuasive words. But the Council has also envisaged the case of conscience erring invincibly, in which case one does not lose one's dignity by following it. What does this mean? it means that in some cases, despite all good will and possible researches, man does not succeed in knowing the objective norm of morality, and acts therefore under the dictates of a norm that may even be contrary to the objective norm. In these cases not only does the subject not do wrong in following the objectively erroneous norm, which he believes, with certainty, is true and good, but he is actually obliged to follow it, to the extent that every act of will conflicting with reason, both when the latter is right and when it is wrong, is always bad" (St. Th. 12, 19, 5). The underlying motive for all this, however strange it may seem, lies in the fundamental obligation binding upon everyone to follow the truth sought carefully and obtained with certainty. In fact, one follows or even must follow error to the extent that the latter has for one the value of truth.

This principle, far from encouraging indulgence in error, confirms, on the contrary, the necessity of a careful search for the truth, which must be carried out with every means, in the light of Revelation and under the guidance of the Magisterium; "In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church. The Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth. It is her duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that Truth which is Christ himself, and also to declare and confirm by her authority those principles of the moral order which have their origin in human nature itself" (Declar. "Dignitatis humanae", n. 14).

Precisely as regards the specific problem of birth regulation, Vatican II, while leaving the ultimate decision regarding the number of children to the couple, continually reminds them of the necessity of forming their conscience according to the prescriptions of the law of God and of the Magisterium of the Church, which interprets it (cf. Past. Const. "Gaudium et spes", nn. 50, 51).

It is indeed true that, when conscience considers specific acts, it is necessary in the individual cases to keep in mind other elements, including those of a subjective nature: but, to the extent that it is within the possibility of the subject, these elements must not contradict the objective norm of morality.

Invincible error, therefore, always remains an accidental fact and, as such, cannot be presented and sustained as a rule. It is impossible, therefore, to understand certain declarations that authorize a way of acting contrary to the teaching of the Encyclical "Humanae vitae" in the case of those who, considering themselves competent in the matter and able to form a personal judgment, should arrive, after a careful examination before God, at conclusions different from those of the Encyclical and, it should also be said, from the Council teaching, to which the Encyclical refers. For how can an examination be a thorough one and how can it be said to be made before God if it neglects the authoritative voice of the Magisterium, which interprets the law of God? And who can authorize anyone to give more credit to his own ideas than to the voice of the one who has received from Christ the mandate of preaching the truth? Cardinal Journet has pointed out that this is to attribute infallibility to one's own individual conscience, which is so often subject to error, while making difficulties about attributing binding value to the true, certain and authoritative doctrine of the Vicar of Christ.

But it is understandable that even with regard to the doctrine of "Humanae vitae" cases of conscience erring invincibly may continue to occur. Not everyone will observe or will succeed at once, for different causes, in observing what it prescribes. Anyone who knows the involutions, the finiteness, the haziness, the weaknesses of the human mind will not be surprised at this. For this reason the confessor who is, at the same time, judge and father, will forgive in God's name, and will know how to guide and direct towards perfection with prudence, understanding, patience and love. But the law of God, the law that liberates, and is therefore a good, to win which it is worth selling all one's possessions (cf. Mt. 13, 44), the law of God is the law proposed by the Magisterium of the Church. For it to be a norm of action conscience must be certain, as we have often pointed out in the course of our reasoning. In fact without certainty, no measure can be considered such. However, as regards the doctrine set forth in "Humanae vitae" clearly and evidently, as well as authoritatively, one cannot plead a state of doubt owing to the fact that the, doctrine was not defined ex cathedra. As a matter of fact some people, not finding themselves faced with a definition ex cathedra, conclude that the doctrine is not infallible and therefore that the possibility of a change exists. Regarding this problem, it- is necessary to. keep in mind that a truth may be sure and certain, and therefore binding even without the chrism of the ex cathedra definition, as is actually the case for the Encyclical "Humanae vitae'', in which the Pope, the Supreme Teacher of the Church, sets forth a truth which has been constantly taught by the Magisterium of the Church, and conforms to the dictates of Revelation.

Not long ago I read a letter by St. John of the Cross (the great master of the spiritual life of St. Teresa and other saints), addressed to a preacher, "showing him (the text is a 17th century translation) the spirit he must beware of in the doctrine, and how he must follow, in the Scriptures, the interpretation of the Holy Doctors". The letter begins as

follows: "I have received Your Reverence's letter and as for the mists you say hang over that city, I will reply to you in a few words: our Lord never forgets his Flock to such an extent as to allow deception to prevail for long, weeds being taken for wheat. There is no doubt that the doctrine that is not in conformity with what the Roman Church teaches

(which God has willed to be head and teacher of all other churches), will never be long in disappearing together with its authors, even if they were more numerous than drops in the ocean; and were they higher and loftier than the stars in the heavens. The word, or the sentiment, that is not firmly attached to this principle, and does not conform to this model, has not been planted by God's hand, and therefore "tandem eradicabitur". It is true that it is sometimes the good God's pleasure that this truth should come to light not without toil and trouble on the part of his true ministers, not without tears from his good and simple sheep, but it should not seem strange to us to have to persuade and toil in a matter from which we may expect fruit, and such fruit". This letter was written four hundred years ago but who, apart from its archaic flavour, would not find it topical?

Finally, it does not harm the certainty of doctrine that it can, and in fact must, be studied by theologians and scholars. In fact, apart from the work of the scientist, who is not a teacher of morality, but can only supply the Magisterium with the data of his research, the investigations of the theologian will have to move along the line laid down by the Magisterium of the Church, which the Lord has promised extraordinary assistance in guarding the sacred deposit of the Faith.

The theologian must therefore beware of the danger pointed out by St. John of the Cross in the letter quoted: "And such people are wont to glorify greatly the word of God, but they err in such a way that where they think they are ruled by this means, they are actually ruled rather according to their own brain, because they wish to understand the Scriptures in their own way and not otherwise and, in a word, while they maintain that Christ's word alone must prevail, it is actually their own sentiment and opinion that prevail, since they wish to give God's Word their meaning and make it say whatever they like".

May the Lord grant us, therefore, a more living spirit of faith, deeper humility and more docile obedience. This is what the Church needs most today.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
7 November 1968, page 4

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