|Dr Brian Lewis is one of Australia’s
most eminent moral theologians.
He is a graduate of the Angelicum and the Alphonsian Academy in Rome
and formerly lectured in moral theology in Ballarat and Melbourne.
Prior to retirement he taught scripture, theology and ethics on campuses of the present Australian Catholic University.
He has contributed articles to many journals and reviews.
Perspectives - The articles at
this link are part of an ongoing series written by Dr Brian Lewis which
explores understandings of conscience and morality in the Christian
tradition. Deeper insights into the Scriptures and church traditions open
up new possibilities in ecumenical and philosophical thinking in the
search for a more comprehensive moral worldview.
Brian's previous articles
July 9, 2012 Brian Lewis, Ballarat, Australia
THYSELF BE TRUE
this bit of advice Shakespeare's Polonius says something very profound.
Morally the moment of truth occurs in an actual concrete situation when
the individual person makes a good decision. The actual situation is the
ultimate reality which has to be confronted and judged on its merits. It is here
that moral truth has to be found. It might be said that in the actual situation
objectivity and subjectivity meet together. In the following reflections I will
try to explain what is meant by this.
II in is Declaration on Religious Liberty
(n.1-3) explains further that the two basic principles underlying the question
of moral truth are: first, the right and the duty of all to seek the truth,
especially (but of course not exclusively) in what concerns God and God's
Church, and to embrace it once it is known, and second, regarding the way the
search is done, these obligations with their binding force fall upon human
conscience and 'the truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own
truth' as it is grasped by the person at once quietly and with cogency. So it is
the role of conscience to seek and discover the truth in the actual situation;
to bring pressure to bear on conscience is against truth itself, for freedom is
a fundamental human right demanded by the very dignity of the human person.
'This freedom means that all are to be immune from coercion on the part of
individuals or of social groups or of any human power', so that a person's
conscience is sacrosanct and no one is to be forced to act against their
no one is to be restrained (within due limits) from acting in accordance with
their conscience. Our duty as human persons to seek the truth and adhere to it
once it is known requires, therefore, 'immunity from external coercion as well
as psychological freedom'. This is demanded by the very fact that God has made
us free and so empowered us to 'come to perceive ever increasingly the
unchanging truth. From this comes the right and duty to seek the truth, in order
to be able to form right and true judgments of conscience. In other words,
ethico-religious obligation is the domain of conscience, which may not
be superseded by any previously given formula or law, however objectively
true. The human person 'perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine
law through the mediation of conscience', which must be followed faithfully in
order to 'come to God, for whom (the human person) was created'.
virtue of responsibility, which St. Thomas Aquinas knew as prudentia
and which I prefer to speak of as wisdom
of the heart, ensures that we make a practical decision which is morally
good and right. This virtue operates in two stages. First of all, under pain of
ceasing to be a virtue, it must ensure that the action proposed is objectively
morally good as far as this is possible in contingent matters. Given the
infinite variability of human action, the degree of certainty about objective
truth is necessarily limited. Certainty in practical moral decisions such as
this cannot be put on the same footing as speculative or even scientific
certitude. The kind of certainty which rules out the reasonable fear of being
wrong is usually the best we can expect – and this is all that is needed.
judgment of conscience is of course practical and obligatory, but it has truth
more of the speculative type, by conformity with reality, with what actually is.
It can therefore be true or false, for conscience in complex questions is
a fragile and fallible guide. We commonly speak of an erroneous conscience,
arising either from voluntary or involuntary ignorance. People are sometimes
responsible for their own ignorance and false, even anaesthetised conscience. In
that case they are not justified in following their erroneous conscience and
their obligation is to correct it. Otherwise they are not acting virtuously.
Aquinas, and he has often been misunderstood on this point, wisdom of the heart
is even more concerned that what is chosen is in harmony with one's own better
self, with one's deeper desires and truly human aspirations.
For it is wisdom of the heart which realises in practice the pattern of
the loving, faithful, just, generous, courageous way of life and that sorts out
the priority among the various demands of virtue in particular concrete
situations. Aquinas says this in the philosophical language of his time when he
speaks of an act chosen being 'in accord with right appetite', that is, with
one's affective nature rightly directed towards those goals that enable one to
live as becomes a person forming part of the human community. This for him is
moral truth in the strict sense. It is practical truth, the truth of life and
action in all its human complexity. It is being true to oneself.