Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Veritatis Splendor: Part 19--Conscience as Witness

CONSCIENCE AND NATURAL LAW ARE INTIMATELY bound, and for this reason the same part of the epistle of St. Paul to the Romans that deals with the natural law--the law "written" on the Gentiles' hearts--"indicates the biblical understanding of conscience especially in its specific connection with the law." VS, 57.

The scriptural passage referred to by John Paul II (Rom 2:14-15) is well-known:
When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law unto themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them.

What is the biblical teaching of conscience? It is, more than anything else, a witness: a personal, silent, unique, intimate witness. It is therefore in a way part of man (intrinsic), and in a way not part of man (extrinsic). It has a voice separate and apart from a man's identity, and for this reason, in the interior colloquy that man has with his conscience, the conscience "makes its witness known only to the person himself," and "only the person himself knows what his own response is to the voice of conscience." VS, 57. There is therefore an interior dialogue that occurs within man as a result of the existence of conscience.

But as John Paul II makes clear: the dialogue is not entirely one within man himself: it is a dialogue in which God plays part:

The importance of this interior dialogue of man with himself can never be adequately appreciated. But it is also a dialogue of man with God, the author of the law, the primordial image and final end of man.

VS, 58. It would seem, then, that the internal dialogue of conscience is, in one way of speaking, prayer ("dialogue of man with God"). When conscience responds after it has been queried, moreover, it speaks with authority. John Paul invokes St. Bonaventure:
[C]onscience is like God's herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God's authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king. This is why conscience has binding force.

Conscientia est sicut praeco Dei et nuntius, et quod dicit, non mandat ex se, sed mandat quasi ex Deo, sicut praeco, cum divulgat edictum regis. Et hinc est, quod conscientia habet virtutem ligandi.*
This quality of conscience is vitally important in man's life. If conscience is God's herald and messenger, God's "viceroy in me" (Donne), it is a means by which God communicates to man. It is a natural means by which God communicates to every man since it is present in every man. So it is that "conscience is the witness of God himself, whose voice and judgment penetrate the depths of man's soul, calling him fortiter et suaviter [forcefully and softly] to obedience." VS, 58.

Conscience is God's Herald and Messenger

Conscience, then, is something uniquely human, but one must not forget its intimate connection to God. It is not something upon which man solipsistically can rely--as if human conscience is its own authority, something which allows self-assertion, much less an assertion against the One who has sent this herald. Human conscience has an authority which comes from beyond man. Human conscience's authority comes--not from man, but from its role as God's voice in man. Human conscience, while man's own voice in man (intrinsic), is also God's voice in man (extrinsic). It is this dual, dialogical quality of conscience which makes the suggestion that the moral life requires man to be "autonomous" ultimately absurd. The moral life requires an active conscience, which means ipso facto that there is an Other's voice that is involved. There will always be a certain kind of autonomy in heteronomy, a heteronomy in autonomy involved in conscience.
Moral conscience does not close man within an insurmountable and impenetrable solitude, but opens him to the call, to the voice of God. In this, and not in anything else, lies the entire mystery and the dignity of the moral conscience: in being the place, the sacred place where God speaks to man.**
VS, 58.

*In II Librum Sentent., dist. 39, a. 1, q. 3, conclusion; Ed. Ad Claras Aquas, II 907b.
**John Paul II quotes from his general audience of August 17, 1983. See Address (General Audience, August 17, 1983), 2: Insegnamenti, VI, 2 (1983), 256.

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