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Chapter 3: Conscience: Knowledge of Moral Truth

Question F: How can the Church’s teaching form conscience from within?

1. It is apparent to anyone who understands what natural law is that there can be no inconsistency between the objectivity of its norms and the personal quality of conscience. Natural law is our understanding of the basic principles of our fulfillment as human persons, and these principles are the premises from which we reason to judgments of conscience. Hence, natural law cannot be regarded as an imposition.

2. By contrast, the Church’s moral teaching seems to come from outside oneself. Many think of it as if it were a set of imposed social standards, much like a civil society’s body of law. This view is false. Here we shall see how the Church’s moral teaching forms conscience from within. Later (23‑G) we shall see why Catholics must conform their consciences in detail to this teaching.

3. The act of faith is the accepting of a personal relationship with God revealing himself. One can enter this relationship only by free choice and remain in it only if one is willing. This choice and willingness ought to be in accord with one’s own conscience. In other words, people ought to make the act of faith and live up to it because all human persons have a responsibility to seek the truth, “especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth” (DH 2).

In the next paragraph of the same document, Vatican II goes on to explain that while the divine law—which is God’s wise and loving plan for all creation—is the highest standard for human life, human persons have been created with the ability to grasp for themselves the relevant implications of this plan for their lives. “Hence every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious, in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, with the use of all suitable means” (DH 3). Naturally, the quest for truth will be social, but it should be a matter of free cooperation, not one of public imposition, because genuine religion depends on personal assent. Hence compulsion to accept and practice religious faith is excluded. One “perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience” (DH 3), and so “it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to [religious truth]” (DH 3).

4. Thus, in making the act of faith, one conforms to one’s own conscience. Moreover, this judgment of conscience is rooted in an appreciation that the life of faith is not opposed to human goods and one’s own true fulfillment, but is a necessary way of serving human goods and fulfilling oneself. In particular, faith and the life of faith are essential to sharing in the goods of friendship with God and redemption from the wounds of sin and its consequences. These are great human goods; those who lose themselves in their service most truly fulfill themselves.

5. The act of faith makes one a member of the Church, the communion of those in friendship with God through friendship with Jesus. Since one is a member of the Church by one’s own commitment of faith, identity as a Catholic is part of one’s existential self-identity. This is an example of the self-constitution by choice explained previously (2‑H). For her committed members, therefore, the Church is not a society from which they are more or less alienated. For such people, to accept the Church’s teaching is to be self-consistent. To wish to be a Catholic while refusing to accept the Church’s teaching would be rather like wishing to have a friend without being a friend.

6. Moral teaching is an important part of the Church’s teaching. Faith makes practical demands precisely because it involves a personal relationship. But the moral demands of the Church’s teaching are not additions over and above the requirements of morality which one can know naturally; rather, they specify the moral implications of natural law.

7. By Jesus’ will it is part of the Church’s duty to state authoritatively “those principles of the moral order which have their origin in human nature itself” (DH 14). In carrying out this duty, the Church calls attention to principles of the natural law, rejects formulations which distort them, and spells out many of their implications. This work is necessary because sin leads individuals and societies to rationalize their immoral choices and policies, and such rationalizations cloud insight into moral principles. This part of the Church’s teaching does not form conscience by conveying information or giving orders, but by calling attention to truths one can know for oneself.

8. The Church’s teaching also provides a great deal of information about the human condition and human possibilities, particularly about the fall, redemption, and our vocation to fulfillment in the Lord Jesus. This information does not comprise a set of commands but a set of facts which cannot be known apart from faith. One can ignore them if one wishes, but it is folly to do so. These facts about the human condition and human possibilities also specify the moral implications of natural law. Because the human predicament and the solution which faith proposes limit morally acceptable choices, a merely general knowledge of what is right and wrong simply does not provide sufficient moral guidance.

If they do what they ought, teachers in the Church have no choices to make concerning what to teach; their choices instead concern how most clearly and effectively to teach the truth entrusted to the Church by Jesus. Anyone who chooses to teach something other than what has been received and is believed simply ceases to act as a Catholic teacher. Teaching is not making or enforcing rules. Rules can be changed or softened; but where it is a question of the Church’s teaching, there is no room for the Church to “ease the ban on X” or for those who minister in the Church’s name to “relax the Church’s rules on Y.”