March 26, 2012
Brian Lewis, Ballarat, Australia
DIGNITY OF PERSONAL CONSCIENCE IN VATICAN II
In 1962 the Preparatory
Commission for Vatican 2 presented a schema (working paper) on conscience to
guide the council in its deliberations. This document reflected the common
thinking at the time. Its main focus was the existence of an objective moral
order set up by God himself, which determines the morality of human actions.
This order is absolute; it holds everywhere and at all times, independently of
any circumstances whatever. The fundamental moral laws arising from this order
are written in our hearts by God (the 'natural law') and
bind us without exception everywhere and at all times.
Conscience has the
task, according this view, of ensuring that we conform ourselves to this
objective and absolute order so that we act in accordance with the natural law
on which it is based. Conscience's only role is to apply the natural law to a
particular situation. Only then can it be said to be true and to make known the
will of God in the concrete.
The foregoing schema
was rejected by the Council in session to draft the Constitution on the Church
in the World Today, Gaudium et Spes. A
very different perspective on conscience emerged from the deliberations on the
Conscience is not the
mere reflection by an individual on the moral order nor is it simply the
applicative judgment on the relevant moral norm. Taking into account the meaning
of the human person illuminated by the mystery of Jesus Christ, Vatican II
presents conscience in its most fundamental sense as the human person's 'most
secret core and sanctuary, where (the person) is alone with God, whose voice
echoes in his (her) depths' (n.16). It is the interiority, or perhaps we might
say the heart, of the person. And it
is in the depths of the heart that the person reaches out to others and indeed
to God. The text goes on: 'in this interiority the human person transcends the
universe, turning to this profound interiority whenever he/she enters within the
heart, where God who probes the heart awaits, where under the regard of God true
human destiny is discerned'.
So one meets God, as
one understands God, in the heart. Conscience in this fundamental sense is a
meeting place between persons, not in the first place a confrontation with a
law. Conscience, the Council says, does not mean isolation but
communion and dialogue with other persons. 'By his (her) innermost nature
the human person is a social being, and unless humans relate to others they can
neither live nor develop their potential' (n.12).
The second major point
the Council makes is that conscience matures in the development of a sense of
moral obligation. 'In the depths of conscience (the person) discovers a law, not
imposed upon oneself but holding one to obedience. Always summoning the person
to love and do good and to avoid evil, the voice of conscience can when
necessary speak to the heart: do this, shun that' (n.16).
Two observations should
be noted here. First, the law referred to is not primarily the 'natural law'
written in our hearts but the New Law, which is , as Aquinas puts it, 'the grace
of the Holy Spirit given through faith in Christ,'.
It is the law of laws, the law that summons us to the love 'that has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us' (Romans 5:5). As such this can only be fully known by conscience, which is where the voice of God resounds: 'In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which consists in love of God and neighbour' (n.16).
Secondly, it is
important to note that the sense of moral obligation relates to something more
profound and more demanding than a practical judgment about what is the right
thing to do in this particular situation. We have long seen conscience as a
practical decision such as this. But in the depth of conscience as Vatican II
understands it, it is the very person who is experienced as under obligation to
be a certain kind of person, that is, a loving, relating person. Conscience
is fundamentally about being rather than doing. Indeed the sort of
person we are determines what we decide to do or not to do. And the experience
about what we should do or avoid comes to us only gradually. In the last
analysis it is 'through the gift of the Holy Spirit that the person comes by
faith to the contemplation and appreciation of the divine plan', the mystery of
Christ in us, in whom the divine plan is revealed, who is both Word and summons
to live in response to the call of God.
A third major point the
Council makes is that fidelity to conscience leads to moral truth, which it must
search for in company with others. 'In fidelity to conscience Christians are
joined with the rest of humankind 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'. And it is precisely in this shared fidelity to
conscience that the possibility of escaping arbitrariness and relativism is
found: 'the more a correct conscience (in the sense, as we have said, of
fidelity and genuine searching for truth) holds sway, the more persons and
groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by objective norms
of morality' (n.16). Again, the objectivity in question is an objectivity of
persons, of love, of fidelity to conscience in the joint quest for the right
solution to the problems thrown up by the march of humanity through history. In
other words, moral truth is the fruit of this searching together, without in the
process neglecting to apply where appropriate the relevant moral norms.
To conclude, this
understanding of conscience presented by Vatican II is not centred upon a moral
order in the sense proposed by the preparatory schema but on a law of love, on
an order of persons in communion with one another and with God. In this
perspective moral truth is not an application of an impersonal moral norm. It is
the truth of fidelity to oneself as one listens to and discerns the imperative
of love. Simply put, moral truth is ultimately the truth of conscience. The
ramifications of this profound insight are the subject of ongoing refinement and
development in moral theology today.