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.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Veritatis Splendor: Part 21--Conscience and Error

THE POPE IN HIS ENCYCLICAL has just told us that the judgment of conscience is the proximate norm of personal morality (VS, 60), which all men are bound under penalty of sin to follow, but, "as the judgment of an act, [conscience] is not exempt from the possibility of error." VS,62. "Conscience is not an infallible judgment; it can make mistakes." VS, 62. The error may be as a result of invincible ignorance (in which case, though wrong, it imparts not moral blame upon the actor when followed), or it may be vincible (in which case their may be moral fault).

There is, however, an obligation to inform the conscience with moral truth, which would include truths of fact and truths of the moral law: "man must seek the truth and must make judgments in accordance with the same truth." VS, 62. Man is under a strict obligation of being honest with the faculty of conscience: he dare not "practice cunning and tamper with God's word," he must seek to have his conscience "confirmed by the Holy Spirit," and so he dare not inform his conscience with falsity. Rather, there is an obligation to have a "good conscience," to conform his conscience to truth so that the possibility of an erroneous conscience is minimized: "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."* VS, 62. "Thus, before feeling easily justified in the name of our conscience," the Pope admonishes, "we should reflect on the words of the Psalm: 'Who can discern his errors? Clear me from hidden faults.' (Ps 19:12) There are faults which we fail to see but which nevertheless remain faults, because we have refused to walk towards the light (cf. Jn 9:39-41)." VS, 63.

Yet withal the obligation to inform the conscience with the truth, it remains an unfortunate reality that conscience can be invincibly ignorant:

The [Second Vatican] Council reminds us that in cases where such invincible ignorance is not culpable, conscience does not lose its dignity, because even when it directs us to act in a way not in conformity with the objective moral order, it continues to speak in the name of the truth about the good which the subject is called to seek sincerely.

VS, 62.**

While insisting on the dignity of conscience even if invincibly erroneous, one must not think of this dignity of conscience as being independent of the truth. Indeed, the truth is the opposite: the dignity of conscience comes from its relationship to truth, and so the invincibly ignorant conscience retains its dignity not in making an erroneous decision, but despite of it, because it is fundamentally ordered to moral truth, even though in this particular instance it is in error and sees an objective wrong subjectively as a concretization of the good. The invincibly ignorant conscience is not a rejection of the good, of the natural moral law; rather, it is a misjudgment regarding the content of the law or the application of it to a concrete situation. It follows that there is no equivalency between an erroneous conscience and a right or correct conscience, even where moral fault may not exist in the former because the erroneous conscience is one that is invincible. In other words, in all times, all circumstances, all places, it is better to have a correct conscience than an invincibly ignorant conscience.

It is never acceptable to confuse a "subjective" error about moral good with the "objective" truth rationally proposed to man in virtue of his end, or to make the moral value of an act performed with a true and correct conscience equivalent to the moral value of an act performed by following the judgment of an erroneous conscience. It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good. Furthermore, a good act which is not recognized as such does not contribute to the moral growth of the person who performs it; it does not perfect him and it does not help to dispose him for the supreme good.

VS, 63.***

There is a watershed of difference between an invincibly ignorant (inculpably erroneous) conscience an a conscience which is culpably erroneous. Here the difference is one between night and day:
Conscience, as the ultimate concrete judgment, compromises its dignity when it is culpably erroneous, that is to say, "when man shows little concern for seeking what is true and good, and conscience gradually becomes almost blind from being accustomed to sin". Jesus alludes to the danger of the conscience being deformed when he warns: "The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!" (Mt 6:22-23)
VS, 63.†

"Christ the Teacher" in the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption,
Torcello, Italy (11th Century)

There is no warrant for resting comfortably in error: the human conscience thirsts for truth, and there is an overarching obligation to seek the truth as a thirsty deer seeks running water.

The words of Jesus just quoted also represent a call to form our conscience, to make it the object of a continuous conversion to what is true and to what is good. In the same vein, Saint Paul exhorts us not to be conformed to the mentality of this world, but to be transformed by the renewal of our mind (cf. Rom 12:2). It is the "heart" converted to the Lord and to the love of what is good which is really the source of true judgments of conscience. Indeed, in order to "prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom 12:2), knowledge of God's law in general is certainly necessary, but it is not sufficient: what is essential is a sort of "connaturality" between man and the true good. Such a connaturality is rooted in and develops through the virtuous attitudes of the individual himself: prudence and the other cardinal virtues, and even before these the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. This is the meaning of Jesus' saying: "He who does what is true comes to the light" (Jn 3:21).
VS, 64.

The notion of "'connaturality' between man and the true good" is a borrowing from St. Thomas, and his treatment of the gift of wisdom. The Pope cites to Saint Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae, IIa-IIae, q. 45, a. 2, and it is worth quoting entire:
[W]isdom denotes a certain rectitude of judgment according to the Eternal Law. Now rectitude of judgment is twofold: first, on account of perfect use of reason, secondly, on account of a certain connaturality with the matter about which one has to judge. Thus,[for example,] about matters of chastity, a man after inquiring with his reason forms a right judgment, if he has learnt the science of morals, while he who has the habit of chastity judges of such matters by a kind of connaturality.

Accordingly it belongs to the wisdom that is an intellectual virtue to pronounce right judgment about Divine things after reason has made its inquiry, but it belongs to wisdom as a gift of the Holy Ghost to judge aright about them on account of connaturality with them: thus Dionysius says (Div. Nom. ii) that "Hierotheus is perfect in Divine things, for he not only learns, but is patient of, Divine things."

Now this sympathy or connaturality for Divine things is the result of charity, which unites us to God, according to 1 Corinthians 6:17: "He who is joined to the Lord, is one spirit." Consequently wisdom which is a gift, has its cause in the will, which cause is charity, but it has its essence in the intellect, whose act is to judge aright, as stated above (I-II, 14, 1).
Pope John Paul is thus insisting on the importance of formation and of the inculcation of virtue and the practice of religion as a fundamental part of the formation of conscience, of what Gabriel Marcel, in his book Creative Fidelity, identifies as the duty of the believer to become aware of the non-believer that is within him so that he can root the non-believing out. So also must man identify the immoral within him so that he can root any immorality out.

How is this growth in wisdom, in virtue, in the use of right reason to come about? How is the conscience to be formed, and where is any deformed or malinformed or erroneously formed conscience to go for enlightenment?

Ite ad ecclesiam!

Christians [and indeed all men of good will] have a great help for the formation of conscience in the Church and her Magisterium. As the Council affirms: "In forming their consciences the Christian faithful must give careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. Her charge is to announce and teach authentically that truth which is Christ, and at the same time with her authority to declare and confirm the principles of the moral order which derive from human nature itself."
VS, 64.††

Conscience is inextricably bound to the truth: it is compelled, under a most sacred duty, to conform itself to truth. This means that conscience is intimately bound with God, the source of all truth, with Christ, the Way and the Truth and the Life, and with Christ's Church, the Church to which Christ gave all authority until his Second Coming. A man's conscience is therefore intimately tied to the Church, and to her authoritative teaching:
It follows that the authority of the Church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians. This is so not only because freedom of conscience is never freedom "from" the truth but always and only freedom "in" the truth, but also because the Magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith. The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it.
VS, 64.

To pit conscience against the Magisterium is a grave error, as the human conscience, like the Church, is ordered to the truth, and while the conscience is not preserved from error and is fallible, the Church, when she teaches universally, is, by the grace of God, preserved from error and infallible in her teaching on faith and morals.

To suggest that conscience can go about its business without the guidance of the Church is to suggest that a blind and inexperienced mariner can go about the seas without a sextant, map, or any other navigational instrument, and make it to his destination by "feeling." It would be as imprudent as the ill-fated journey of Maurice Wilson, who thought he could climb Mount Everest without mountaineering experience, without proper training and preparation, and without the use of ice axe and crampons. That would be a fool's journey.
*John Paul's teaching on conscience in this section is biblical and Pauline: he cites 1 Tim 1:1-15; 2 Tim. 1:3, 2 Cor.4:2, and Rom. 12:2.
**The Pope is apparently referring to a brief quotation from Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World
Gaudium et Spes, 16 cited earlier in the text: "[N]ot infrequently conscience can be mistaken as a result of invincible ignorance, although it does not on that account forfeit its dignity; but this cannot be said when a man shows little concern for seeking what is true and good, and conscience gradually becomes almost blind from being accustomed to sin."
***John Paul II cites to Saint Thomas Aquinas,
De Veritate, q. 17, a. 4. "Therefore, [an erroneous] conscience is not said to bind in the sense that what one does according to such a [erroneous] conscience will be good, but in the sense that in not following it he will sin." He further observes that "a correct conscience and a false conscience bind in different ways. The correct conscience binds absolutely and for an intrinsic reason; the false binds in a qualified way and for an extrinsic reason."
†The quotation is from
Gaudium et Spes, 16.
††The quotation is derived from Declaration on Religious Freedom
Dignitatis Humanae, 14.

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