Conscience and the objective moral law
I received some helpful feedback on my last article that prompted me to clarify some things. In that article I said:
The pope teaches:
"Natural law could not be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions."
In other words, objective sources of Truth are inspirations we use to form our consciences, but God rules each man personally in their conscience.
It was pointed out that what I said could be interpreted to mean that someone’s conscience determines the moral law, that someone can decide in their conscience what is right or wrong, and, because they used their conscience, that God blesses that decision.
That isn’t what I meant to communicate. And I think it’s important to clarify because I think the objective moral law is important. Not just important, essential. If the individual conscience determined the moral law then we would have moral relativism, with everyone determining their own right and wrong—which is an incredibly dangerous idea.
In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis teaches:
“Under the guise of tolerance, relativism ultimately leaves the interpretation of moral values to those in power, to be defined as they see fit…Relativism always brings the risk that some or other alleged truth will be imposed by the powerful or the clever. Yet, ‘when it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the ‘poorest of the poor’ on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal’” (FT 206, 209).
In other words, without an objective moral law, the Vladimir Putin’s of the world can define wrong as right, war as peace, aggression as defense, violence as peacekeeping. Without an objective moral law, might makes right.
Pope Francis also says, “Murder is not wrong simply because it is socially unacceptable and punished by law, but because of a deeper conviction. This is a non-negotiable truth attained by the use of reason and accepted in conscience” (FT 207).
“Do not kill,” is a non-negotiable moral truth that is accepted, not created, by the conscience.
In that regard, the Catechism says that "Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey” (CCC 1776) and that the objective moral law, specifically the Ten Commandments, are “a light offered to the conscience of every man to make God's call and ways known to him and to protect him against evil” (CCC 1962).
In other words, a person’s conscience does not determine the moral law, but discovers and accepts it. We can come to know the objective moral law through Scripture, natural reasoning, experience, and the Church’s teaching. Learning from these sources of moral truth, along with prayer and examination, is how our conscience is formed.
However, our conscience can still error. “Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them” (CCC 1786).
This tells us two things. First, for something to be in error there has to be an outside truth it’s being measured against. Second, this means that formation of conscience is a dynamic and lifelong responsibility.
If I am doing all those things to form my conscience, I can trust that following it won't condemn me. Actually, I am required to follow my conscience and am condemned if I don’t (CCC 1790). But even if I am not personally guilty, any action that violates the objective moral law still does damage. Reduced culpability doesn’t mean reduced harm. If I scream at my child because I’m stressed, exhausted, and on my last leg, I may not be culpable of a sin, but my kid is still hurt and there’s still apologizing I need to do and damage I’m responsible for repairing.
Living out the objective moral law in our day to day lives—in the midst of mental illness, complicated relationships, and messy circumstances—is difficult. And it is precisely through our conscience that God helps us make moral choices and respond to the grace he’s already giving us.