Veritatis Splendor commentary continued
In this next section, JP2 describes and then criticizes a common error on ethics and conscience:
55. "According to the opinion of some theologians, the function of conscience had been reduced, at least at a certain period in the past, to a simple application of general moral norms to individual cases in the life of the person. But those norms, they continue, cannot be expected to foresee and to respect all the individual concrete acts of the person in all their uniqueness and particularity. While such norms might somehow be useful for a correct assessment of the situation, they cannot replace the individual personal decision on how to act in particular cases. The critique already mentioned of the traditional understanding of human nature and of its importance for the moral life has even led certain authors to state that these norms are not so much a binding objective criterion for judgments of conscience, but a general perspective which helps man tentatively to put order into his personal and social life. These authors also stress the complexity typical of the phenomenon of conscience, a complexity profoundly related to the whole sphere of psychology and the emotions, and to the numerous influences exerted by the individual's social and cultural environment. On the other hand, they give maximum attention to the value of conscience, which the Council itself defined as "the sanctuary of man, where he is alone with God whose voice echoes within him".102 This voice, it is said, leads man not so much to a meticulous observance of universal norms as to a creative and responsible acceptance of the personal tasks entrusted to him by God.
"In their desire to emphasize the "creative" character of conscience, certain authors no longer call its actions "judgments" but "decisions" : only by making these decisions "autonomously" would man be able to attain moral maturity. Some even hold that this process of maturing is inhibited by the excessively categorical position adopted by the Church's Magisterium in many moral questions; for them, the Church's interventions are the cause of unnecessary conflicts of conscience."
The above erroneous position, adopted by a number of different authors with many variations in theme, is incompatible with the teaching of the Magisterium.
In truth, the moral law is objective and unchanging, because it is the Justice inherent in the Divine Nature. God is unchanging goodness and justice, so the moral law is not relative, but objectively absolute.
And the human conscience is able to understand the requirements of the moral law, both in general (thou shalt not steal) and in particular (is a particular act stealing), because the human person is created in the image of God. If we were unable to understand the objective moral law and its particular requirements, we would not be like God: free will, intellect, and the ability to love.
This last point, about the ability to love, is not a digression. The love of God above all else and the love of neighbor as self is the basis for the moral law.
56. "In order to justify these positions, some authors have proposed a kind of double status of moral truth. Beyond the doctrinal and abstract level, one would have to acknowledge the priority of a certain more concrete existential consideration. The latter, by taking account of circumstances and the situation, could legitimately be the basis of certain exceptions to the general rule and thus permit one to do in practice and in good conscience what is qualified as intrinsically evil by the moral law. A separation, or even an opposition, is thus established in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid in general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision about what is good and what is evil. On this basis, an attempt is made to legitimize so-called "pastoral" solutions contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium, and to justify a "creative" hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept.
"No one can fail to realize that these approaches pose a challenge to the very identity of the moral conscience in relation to human freedom and God's law. Only the clarification made earlier with regard to the relationship, based on truth, between freedom and law makes possible a discernment concerning this "creative" understanding of conscience. "
The Pontiff rejected the approach to moral theology that would allow exceptions to the condemnation of an intrinsically evil act. Such exceptions are said, variously, to be justified by circumstances, or by conscience, or by intention. But Pope John Paul II, exercising the teaching authority of Christ, condemned this approach to ethics.
In fact, there are many magisterial documents teaching one and the same doctrine, that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention, or circumstances.
The judgment of conscience
57. "The text of the Letter to the Romans which has helped us to grasp the essence of the natural law also indicates the biblical understanding of conscience, especially in its specific connection with the law: "When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law unto themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them" (Rom 2:14-15)."
"According to Saint Paul, conscience in a certain sense confronts man with the law, and thus becomes a "witness" for man: a witness of his own faithfulness or unfaithfulness with regard to the law, of his essential moral rectitude or iniquity. Conscience is the only witness, since what takes place in the heart of the person is hidden from the eyes of everyone outside. Conscience makes its witness known only to the person himself. And, in turn, only the person himself knows what his own response is to the voice of conscience."
When unbelievers today -- atheists, agnostics, those who do not believe in one eternal all-powerful God who created heaven and earth, as well as the non-practicing nominal members of various religions -- when these unbelievers make a decision to do good, or to do evil, they are not excused from the requirement to obey the eternal moral law. Even if they do not know the teachings of any true religion on morality, they have the ability to use reason and free will to discern right from wrong.
Their conscience might accuse them, if they knowingly choose what they understand to be immoral, or if they refuse to even consider that their acts may be immoral. Their conscience might excuse them, if they committed an objectively immoral act without realizing that it was immoral. But they are not exempt from the eternal moral law.
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