Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Freedom Of Conscience

This will the first in a series of blogs exploring Church teaching on freedom of conscience

Bishop G. Emmett Carter observed in his comments on the Declaration on Christian Education that the theme of personal responsibility dominated many of the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council (Carter, 1966, p. 640, footnote). One such example is found in the opening lines of the Declaration on Religious Freedom which reads as follows:

A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man. And the demand is increasingly made that humans should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty [Vatican Council II, 1966, n. 1, p. 675].

What is important to note here is that the document places this theme of personal responsibility within the context of a recent historical development of philosophical and theological understanding concerning the role that freedom must play in a humans life. Certainly, one can use the suggestive negative wording of an America editorial to say of the Church’s doctrine in this respect:

No one can account to God for his or her talents simply by pleading that he or she acted as an agent for Peter. The abdication of personal moral responsibility has never been a doctrine of the Church [America, 1968, p. 94].

The Council fathers, however, see this increasing awareness of the dignity of the human person as a sign of the times and as a definite positive step in the progress of civilization. This progress carries with it a parallel need for the Church to stress positively the right and duty of every individual to arrive at a greater freedom of conscience:

. . . every human has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious, in order that they may with prudence form for themself right and true judgments of conscience. . . . The inquiry is to be free, carried on with aid of teaching or instruction, communication, and dialogue [Vatican Council II, 1966, n. 3. pp. 680-681].

In practically the same words as the opening statement quoted above we read in Louis Monden’s work Sin, liberty and law:

The self-discovery experienced by man in the past century has given rise in him to an urgent need for mature autonomy in his existence, for a freedom from all bonds of dependence. There is a general feeling that for the first time in history man is being offered the chance to become fully himself [Monden, 1965, p. 75].

Monden sees a radically new historical context in which we must reconsider the relation that should exist between personal freedom and all forms of authority, including the authority exercised within the Church. He speaks of a universal phenomenon that sets modern man against all constraints on his personal moral decisions on the part of any outside agency whatsoever: “Before the sanctuary of his personal decisions of conscience every influence from without must come to a halt. Only his inner freedom decides what is good and what is bad” (Monden, 1965, p. 99).
Monden is inclined to see in this new spirit a call to humans to achieve a new moral maturity. He speaks of the new morality as a reflection in the consciousness of believers of a crisis of growth through which mankind’s collective consciousness is now passing.

With all its exaggerations, it [the new morality] might represent an attempt, both human and Christian, to break out of the shelter of exterior safeguards and to coincide in a renewed and more complete self-possession with the deepest roots of one’s own being and vocation. Then, all those exaggerations would only be the unavoidable ransom that youth must pay in breaking through to adulthood, not a phenomenon of decadence, but a sign of spring [Monden, 1965, p. 111].

Perhaps the single most important statement on conscience in the documents of Vatican II occurs in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World:

. . . 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 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 neighbor. 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 [Vatican Council II, 1966, n. 16, pp. 213-214].

Practically every major theme which will be treated in this paper can be found in this statement. Conscience is described here as the voice of God speaking to humans immediately from within their own consciousness without the necessary aid of an external mediation. The human's freedom to follow his or her conscience is seen as the source of his or her true dignity. And this freedom is understood not as an anarchic principle but, on the contrary, as the only true foundation for real community and as the only valid ground for a solution to social problems.
Another example of the persistent theme of personal freedom and responsibility is to be found in the Declaration on Christian Education where it is applied to the formation of the conscience of the young: ". . . children and young people have a right to be encouraged to weigh moral values with an upright conscience, and to embrace them by personal choice." (Vatican Council II, 1966, n. 1, pp. 639-640). The Council thus indicates a corresponding obligation on the part of educators to lead young people to a true and responsible freedom of conscience.
Again, the same theme is to be found throughout the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, where it is stressed that the layman is not to exaggerate authority, but to take personal responsibility for his or her choices and actions:

Laymen should also know that it is generally the function of their well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city. From priests they may look for spiritual light and nourishment. Let the layman not imagine that his or her pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give him or her a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church, let the layman take on his or her own distinctive role [Vatican Council II, 1966, n. 43 p. 244].

According to this document the layman’s role is to be that of mediator between the Church and the world, having the responsibility and the corresponding right to determine how the message of the Gospel applies to the complicated problems in the field of his competence.
One example of the free moral responsibility which, the Council insists, belongs to the conscience of the individual layman is to be found in the teaching of the Council on modern warfare, where the right of the layman to reach the moral decision to be a conscientious objector is stressed, and the corresponding duty of the state to enact laws respecting that right is noted (Vatican Council II, 1966, n. 79, p. 292). The council stresses further that each individual soldier can no longer justify his actions in time of war in terms of blind obedience to authority, but must bear personal responsibility for the morality of his actions.
The Council throws light on the moral freedom and responsibility of the individual both by what it says and by what it fails to say. As Daniel Maguire observes in his article, Morality and the Magisterium, the consistent refusal of the Church to use its prerogative of infallibility in the past (and most recently in the birth-control issue) is “theologically instructive”:

It seems to me that in practice, despite its firm grasp of the moral vision of the Gospel, the Church seems to realize . . . that it does not enjoy an infallibly guaranteed competence to apply that moral vision of the Gospel to complex natural law questions such as sexual questions, medical ethics, genetics, business ethics, international law, social reconstruction and war and peace [Maguire, 1968, p. 41].

It is precisely by determining how the moral vision of the Gospel is to be incarnated in concrete decisions in these areas of his competence that the layman “plays his own decisive role.”
In so acting, the Council and the magisterium acted in the spirit of the moral message of the New Testament. As Charles Curran points out in his article, The Ethical Teaching of Jesus, that message is a constant reminder of the absolute claim which the presence of the reign of God makes on the follower of Jesus (Curran, 1967). Jesus does not proclaim universal norms of conduct which are obligatory on all Christians under all circumstances. Rather, He indicates the goal and the direction that should characterize the life and the actions of His followers. “Give to everyone who asks” would be an impossible command, if it were understood as an absolute ethical imperative. Rather, such a demand indicates the thrust that should characterize the life of the Christian. How such an imperative is to be implemented in his situation is left to the free judgment of each individual. Christ does promise, however, the help of the Spirit, who will enlighten and strengthen each individual who sincerely seeks out the divine will in his situation.

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