Following Faithfully

After much free and honest talk—what Pope Francis in his final address to the Synod on the Family last October praised as “a spirit of collegiality and synodality”—and the revelation of significant divisions among the world’s bishops, we now await the ongoing discussions in preparation for the second session of the Synod on the Family in October. Unfortunately, none of the synod fathers sought to defend the long-standing Catholic way to make a moral choice, namely, individual conscience, the “law inscribed by God” in human hearts, “the most secret core and sanctuary of man…[where] he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depth. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor” (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” No. 16).

The Rev. Joseph Ratzinger, who at the time was a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council, commented on this passage: “Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. Conscience confronts [the individual] with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church.”

Thomas Aquinas, in his book of Sentences (IV, 38, 2, 4), established the authority and inviolability of conscience in words similar to Father Ratzinger’s: “Anyone upon whom the ecclesiastical authorities, in ignorance of the true facts, impose a demand that offends against his clear conscience should perish in excommunication rather than violate his conscience.” For any Catholic in search of truth, no stronger statement on the authority and inviolability of personal conscience could be found, but Aquinas goes further. He insists that even the dictate of an erroneous conscience must be followed and that to act against such a dictate is immoral.

Seven hundred years later, the last hundred of which saw the rights of individual conscience regularly challenged in the church, Vatican II’s “Decree on Religious Freedom” embraced Aquinas’s judgment on the inviolability of conscience: “In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience faithfully, in order that he may come to God, for whom he was created. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious” (No. 3). In the 1960s, such words were seldom heard in Catholic magisterial circles, but the undoubted reality is that they are ideas that are deeply rooted in the Catholic moral tradition and, indeed, are constitutive of it.

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