In the Working Paper for the Synod there is a paragraph which seems to have put the cat amongst the pigeons. It reads:
137. In relation to the rich content of Humanae Vitae and the issues it treats, two principal points emerge which always need to be brought together. One element is the role of conscience as understood to be God’s voice resounding in the human heart which is trained to listen. The other is an objective moral norm which does not permit considering the act of generation a reality to be decided arbitrarily, irrespective of the divine plan of human procreation. A person’s over-emphasizing the subjective aspect runs the risk of easily making selfish choices. An over-emphasis on the other results in seeing the moral norm as an insupportable burden and unresponsive to a person’s needs and resources. Combining the two, under the regular guidance of a competent spiritual guide, will help married people make choices which are humanly fulfilling and ones which conform to God’s will.
It may take you more than a few minutes (as it did for me) to understand just what this means. I even wonder whether it was intended to be too complex for comprehension. But, as far as It can make out, it suggests that there can well be a conflict between the law of God, as witnessed by the Church’s moral authority, and the conclusion of the individual conscience in the light of subjective circumstances. And that neither of these should be over emphasised in the decision.
If I am right, then the document makes explicit two channels of moral thought. One channel says that if we open ourselves to God in the decisions of conscience, we may well conclude that the law as stated does not necessarily apply. We may perhaps believe that the expression of the law is incorrect, or that other moral factors in our situations may overrule the law in this case. Whether we are right or wrong in this, we are bound to follow the conclusion of our reason.
The other view says that if we are truly open to God, we will always conclude that the law, in matters of intrinsic right or wrong, is absolute. Apparent exceptions are illusory because a defiance of God’s law can never be in our true interests. Our failure to see this comes from our unwillingness to listen to the law in our hearts. We are thus at fault. This purports to show that our conscience remains free since the two sources: first, our free rational recognition of the good and, second, the law which explicitly witnesses to the good, are both ultimately from God. And God does not contradict himself.
Since the paragraph is concerned with Humanae Vitae we might test these principles in terms of this statement from its para 11: “The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law…teaches us as absolutely required that any use whatever of marriage must retain its natural potential to procreate human life.” (Italics as in HV)
Have I understood the issue correctly or is there another and better interpretation? If I am correct, should I be concerned about a semi official document which suggests that my subjective evaluation of a moral question could properly take precedence over a law taught through the authority of the Church? Or should I accept that if I cannot recognise the moral law, as the Church happens to teach it, I am failing to open myself to God’s law in my heart?