A person's moral conscience grows and matures in the Church

Despite the very inclement weather on Wednesday, 24 August, an estimated 20,000 people attended the audience in St Peter's Square.  After the reading of St Paul's Letter to the Ephesians, chapter four, verses 11 to 15, the Holy Father gave the following address.

1. "… so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of man, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles" (Eph 4:14).

Dearly beloved, with these words the Apostle Paul reminds us of the necessity of being adult persons in the faith, mature in our judgments, possessed of a moral conscience capable of guiding our choices in harmony with "the truth in love" (ibid., 15).

The formation of one's conscience is a fundamental duty.  The reason is very simple: our conscience can err.  And when error prevails over it, it becomes a cause of the greatest harm for the human person: it prevents man from self-realization, by subordinating the exercise of freedom to truth.

However, the journey toward a mature moral conscience cannot even begin if the spirit is not free from a mortal illness, very widespread today: indifference to the truth.  How indeed could we be concerned that the truth should dwell in our conscience if we hold that truth is not a value of decisive importance for man? 

2.  There are numerous symptoms of this disease. Indifference towards the truth is manifested, for example, in the opinion that truth and falsehood in ethics are only a question of taste, of personal decisions, of cultural and social conditionings; or that it is sufficient to do as we think without concerning ourselves further whether our thinking is true or false; or also that our being pleasing to God does not in fact depend on the truth of what we think about him, but only on believing sincerely in what we profess.  Indifference towards the truth is also to be found in the view that it is more important for man to seek the truth than to attain it, since the attainment of truth, in fact, escapes him irremediably; and consequently to confuse the respect due to every person whatever be the ideas he professes, with the negation of the existence of objective truth.

3. If a human person is indifferent to the truth in the way described above, he will give no thought to the formation of his conscience and he will end up sooner or later by confusing fidelity to his conscience with adhesion to any personal opinion whatsoever or to the opinion of the majority.

Whence derives this very grave spiritual illness?  Its ultimate origin is pride in which, according to the entire ethical tradition of the Church, there is to be found the root of every human evil.  Pride leads man to attribute to himself the power of deciding, as supreme arbiter, what is true and what is false; to deny, that is, the transcendence of truth in relation to our created intelligence and consequently to question the duty of being open to it, to welcome it, not as one's own invention but as a gift made to it by the uncreated light.

It appears clear, then, that the origin of indifference towards the truth resides in the depth of the human heart.  The truth will not be found if it is not loved; the truth will not be known if one does not will to know it. 

4. "To live according to the truth in love" is what the Apostle invites us to do.  We have indicated the point of departure for the formation of moral conscience: the love of the truth.  Now we can point out some of its significant "moments".

One of the positive results expected from the celebration of this extraordinary Holy Year is that the Church should return to the assiduous practice of the Sacrament of Penance.  In the context of our reflection today the call to this sacrament becomes particularly important.  The "conversion of heart" is indeed the most precious gift of this event of grace.  The heart converted to the Lord and to the love of the good is the ultimate source of the true judgments of moral conscience.  Since, let it not be forgotten, to discern in the concrete between what is good and what is evil, it is not sufficient—even though necessary—to know the universal moral law, but it is also necessary to have a kind of "connaturality" between the human person and the real good (See, for example, St. Thomas. Summa Theologiae II, II, q. 45, a. 2).

By virtue of this "connaturality" the conscience becomes capable, as though by a form of spiritual instinct, of perceiving where the good lies and which is therefore the choice to be made in the concrete case.  Well, then, the grace of the Sacrament of Penance, assiduously and fervently celebrated, produces in the human person this progressive and ever deeper "connaturalization" with the truth and the good.

In the Pauline text, which we took for the beginning of our reflection, it is said that Christ "appointed some as apostles, others as prophets… for building up the Body of Christ".  It is in the Church that the person's moral conscience grows and matures; by the Church it is helped "not to be tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men".  The Church, in fact, is "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15).  Fidelity to the magisterium of the Church, therefore, prevents the moral conscience from straying from the truth about man's good.

It is not right then to regard the moral conscience of the individual and the magisterium of the Church as two contenders, as two realities in conflict.  The authority which the magisterium enjoys by the will of Christ exists so that the moral conscience can attain the truth with security and remain in it. 

L'Osservatore Romano August 29, 1983
Reprinted with permission