We have, from time to time, reviewed the question of conscience, but I wonder whether we have fully taken in a momentous change ushered in by Vatican II.
We are all aware of the words of Gaudium et Spes: “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God …Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity.“ Thinking of myself, I felt that I was always aware of that. But further consideration leads me to suspect that I had underestimated its force.
Look at the words of Pope Benedict (as Cardinal Ratzinger) “’The pre-conciliar’ model which subjects Christian existence to authority, regulating life even into its most intimate preserves, and thereby attempts to maintain control over people’s lives …is superseded. “
Superseded? Yes, this is a change – not a development but a realisation that the idea that morality lies in obedience to the Church’s moral teaching, and that immorality lies in disobedience, was simply wrong. It would be a reversal of a position which has been maintained at least since Trent – when the pressures of the Reformation induced the Church to strong arm the Catholic body. He goes on to tell us that the new position refers to an older tradition of freedom.
For that, we need to go back to Aquinas. He teaches that reason is the instrument of conscience. In that regard, he is loyal to Aristotle, who taught that the predominant characteristic of our species is reason, and that it is through reason that we recognise our moral duties.
He then faces up to the question: What if a man, using his reason, arrives at an objectively wrong answer? His verdict is clear: the conclusion remains wrong, but the man is still obliged to obey his reason. And Aquinas uses a test case – quite remarkable in view of the culture of the time — if a man’s reason guides him to reject faith in Christ then he is obliged to reject him.
Thus a Catholic who divorces his spouse, and remarries, may be objectively wrong, but he is bound to do so if his reason concludes that that is the right course. This is why confessors are instructed not to probe the conscience of penitents on matters such as contraception unless the issue is raised by the penitent. A question to consider here is what right we have to use any pressure on someone whose reason leads her to bring about abortion.
Freedom is always welcome – but be careful what you wish for. No longer can we use the excuse “the Church told me to” on the Day of Judgment. The best we can do is to say “I listened to the Church and I endorsed its teaching with my reason (or not, as the case may be)” Or perhaps to follow the Church because you judge it more likely to be true than you are – just as you might prefer a doctor’s expert opinion over your own, uncertain, opinion. And of course reason instructs a Catholic in matters of doubt to refer to the Church’s moral teaching and to try to see how it may be true, and thus receive endorsement or otherwise. Freedom is not a free pass, it is extended responsibility.