The Liturgy of the Word celebrated during the course of the general audience of Wednesday, 17 August, was centred on a reading of the text Rom 12, 1-2. After the text had been proclaimed in various languages, the Holy Father delivered the following address.
1. The words of the Apostle, which we have just heard, describe to us what is the task of what we call the moral conscience of man: "prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect". Our reflection on the ethos of the Redemption today wishes to focus on "man's most secret core and sanctuary, where he is alone with God", as the Second Vatican Council describes moral conscience (Past. Const. Gaudium et Spes, n. 16).
What does the Apostle mean when he speaks about "proving" or "discerning" in this field? If we pay attention to our own interior experience, we will note the presence of a spiritual experience within us, which we can call evaluative activity. Is it not true that often we find ourselves saying: "this is good, this is not good or right"? There exists in each of us, that is, a sort of "moral sense" which leads us to discern what is good and what is evil, just as there exists a sort of "aesthetic sense" which leads us to discern what is beautiful and what is ugly. It is like an interior eye, a visual capacity of the spirit, which is able to guide our steps along the path of good.
But the words of the Apostle have a deeper meaning. The activity of moral conscience does not only concern what is good and what is evil universally. Its discernment concerns especially the single and concrete free act which we are about to carry out or have carried out. This is what conscience is speaking to us about; it is this that conscience evaluates: this action, conscience tells us, which you, in your unrepeatable singularity, are carrying out (or have carried out) is good or is bad.
Second Vatican Council provides answer
2. Where does conscience derive its criteria of judgment? On what basis does our moral conscience judge the actions we are about to carry out or have carried out? Let us listen attentively to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council: "The highest norm of human life is the divine law itself—eternal, objective and universal, by which God orders, directs and governs the whole world and the ways of the human community... It is through his conscience that man sees and recognizes the demands of the divine law. He is bound to follow this conscience faithfully in all his activity so that he may come to God, who is his last end" (Dignitatis Humanae, n. 3).
Let us reflect attentively on these words which are so deep and enlightening. Moral conscience is not an autonomous judge of our actions. It derives the criteria for its judgments from that "eternal, objective and universal divine law", from that "unchangeable truth" of which the conciliar text speaks: that law, that truth, which the intelligence of man can discover in the order of being. It is for this reason that the Council says that man, in his conscience, is "alone with God". Let us note: the text does not simply affirm: "he is alone", but adds "with God". Moral conscience does not close man within an insurmountable and impenetrable solitude, but it opens him to the call, to the voice of God.
In this, not in anything else, lies the entire mystery and the dignity of moral conscience: in being, that is, the place, the sacred space in which God speaks to man. As a consequence, if man does not listen to his own conscience, if he allows error to settle into it, he then breaks the most profound bond which links him in an alliance with his Creator.
3. If moral conscience is not the ultimate instance which decides what is good and what is evil, but must conform itself to the unchangeable truth of the moral law, then it follows that conscience is not an infallible judge: it can err.
This point merits special attention. "Do not be conformed", the Apostle teaches, "to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind" (Rom, 12, 2). In the judgment of our consciences there remains always the possibility of error.
The consequence which derives from such error is very serious: when man follows his own erroneous conscience, his action is no longer correct, it does not objectively realize what is good for the human person. And this is so for the simple fact that the judgment of conscience is not the ultimate moral instance.
Certainly, "it happens not rarely", as the Council immediately makes clear, "that conscience is erroneous by reason of invincible ignorance" (ibid.). In this case "it does not lose its dignity" (cf. ibid.) and the man who follows its judgment does not sin. The same conciliar text, however, proceeds by noting: "But the same cannot be said when the man makes little effort to seek the truth and the good, and when conscience becomes almost blind as a result of the habit of sin" (ibid.).
It is not sufficient, therefore, to say to man: "always follow your conscience". It is necessary to add immediately and always: "ask yourself if your conscience is telling you the truth or something false, and seek untiringly to know the truth". If we were not to make this necessary clarification, man would risk to find in his conscience a force which is destructive of his true humanity, rather than that holy place where God reveals to him his true good.
It is necessary to "form" one's own conscience. In that commitment the believer knows that he has a particular help in the doctrine of the Church. "The Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. It is her duty to proclaim and teach with authority the truth which is Christ and, at the same time, to declare and confirm by her authority the principles of the moral order which spring from human nature itself" (Dignitatis Humanae, 14).
Let us ask Christ the Redeemer insistently for the grace to be able to "prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect". The gift, that is, to be in the truth, in order to do the truth.
L'Osservatore Romano August 22, 1983