Sin, conscience and the law of God

by Father Timothy Finigan ASTL

Man: the image of God

This is the root of our whole moral life. It is because of being made to God’s image that we are destined for eternal happiness. It also gives us the dignity of the spiritual nature which can freely choose what is good.

Our vocation to beatitude

We have a natural desire for happiness which is a part of our God-given nature. Jesus shows us where this happiness or beatitude is to be found. (Cf 1720) Because this is our end, we are therefore confronted with moral choices in order to attain it.

Original Sin

Catholic moral teaching is also based on the doctrine of original sin and its effects (what Fr Benedict Groeschel has called the “original wound”). This accounts for the difficulty that we have in acting in accord with the natural moral law

“Man, enticed by the Evil One, abused his freedom at the very beginning of history.”? He succumbed to temptation and did what was evil. He still desires the good, but his nature bears the wound of original sin. He is now inclined to evil and subject to error: Man is divided in himself. As result, the whole life of men, both individual and social, shows itself to be struggle, and dramatic one, between good and evil, between light and darkness.

An erroneous view of freedom causes much confusion here. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes a common-sense point based on the teaching of St Augustine.

The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin.”

What makes an act right or wrong?

A human act is made up of its object, the intention for which it is done and the circumstances surrounding it.

An act which has a good object can be made evil by a bad intention. But an act which has an evil object cannot be made good by a good intention.

The circumstances are secondary factors which can increase the goodness or evil of an act. They cannot change its essential nature.

There are acts which of themselves are always gravely illicit. We in fact recognise this in various cases. It is often a matter of fashion which are the intrinsic evils of the day. The Church teaches with constancy.

An act may be influenced by the passions of love (eros), hatred, desire, fear, joy, sadness and anger. These are not morally good or evil in themselves but can be deliberately chosen or encouraged. They should be governed by the reason. An example of the passions ruling instead of the reason is the excuse for breaking up a home “We weren’t in love any more.”?

Mortal and venial sin

Catholic moral theology has traditionally distinguished between sins of different gravity.

Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him. Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.

A mortal sin is one which is seriously evil in itself, a direct violation of the commandments, committed with full knowledge of its sinful character and committed with the full consent of the will. Consent may be diminished by external factors such as force or fear, or by internal factors such as habit, passion or psychological weakness or disorder.

A venial sin is one which is not grievous matter in itself or which is committed without full knowledge or without full consent. We can only judge the objective evil of a sin, the gravity of the matter. The judgement of the person belongs to God alone. A confessor may help a person to understand both the gravity of a sin and their own dispositions, whether factors mitigating the personal responsibility or increasing it.

Christ’s teaching very clearly highlights the importance of our moral acts at the last judgement.

The importance of conscience

The moral conscience is the key to human moral acts at the level of the individual.

“Then someone came to him. . .”. In the young man, whom Matthew’s Gospel does not name, we can recognise every person who, consciously or not, “approaches Christ the Redeemer of man and questions him about morality.” For the young man, the “question” is not so much about rules to be followed, but “about the full meaning of life.” This is in fact the aspiration at the heart of every human decision and action, the quiet searching and interior prompting which sets freedom in motion. This question is ultimately an appeal to the absolute Good which attracts us and beckons us; it is the echo of a call from God who is the origin and goal of man’s life. Precisely in this perspective the Second Vatican Council called for a renewal of moral theology, so that its teaching would display the lofty vocation which the faithful have received in Christ, the only response fully capable of satisfying the desire of the human heart.

The encyclical Veritatis Splendor was issued in 1993 in order to clarify Catholic moral teaching against a background of unsound teaching. We can easily recognise the tendencies to which the Holy Father was responding. One of these concerns conscience:

The individual conscience is accorded the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgement which hands down categorical and infallible decisions about good and evil. To the affirmation that one has a duty to follow one’s conscience is unduly added the affirmation that one’s moral judgement is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience. But in this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and “?being at peace with oneself”, so much so that some have come to adopt a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgement.

Conscience is a faculty that is given to point us to the truth, to call us to act in a way that is morally good. If conscience is removed from the realm of truth, it can be given the status of an independent arbiter of moral truth.

Conscience is no longer considered in its primordial reality as an act of a person’s intelligence, the function of which is to apply the universal knowledge of the good in a specific situation and thus to express a judgement about the right conduct to be chosen here and now. Instead, there is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly. Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others. Taken to its extreme consequences, this individualism leads to a denial of the very idea of human nature.

In England, this seems rather naïve. We have not only rejected the idea of “human nature”, it is also seriously proposed that there is no such thing as society.

Conscience and feeling

Conscience may be defined as

The judgement of conscience is a “practical judgement,” a judgement which makes known what man must do or not do, or which assesses an act already performed by him. It is a judgement which applies to a concrete situation the rational conviction that one must love and do good and avoid evil.

It is an act of the intellect which applies the moral law to a particular case. It therefore refers to a primordial moral law, not to a person’s own feelings.

The Holy Father perspicaciously describes a tendency of the modern moral theologian who wishes to “get round” the traditional relationship between truth and conscience.

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 judgements 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”. 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.

Conscience and the law

In reply to this, the Holy Father quotes St Paul’s letter to the Romans which shows the relationship between conscience and 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”

Here conscience is not in opposition to law but in opposition to personal desire or even “choice”. The conscience is a witness which confronts the person with the law. As the encyclical Veritatis splendor puts it:

The universality of the law and its obligation are acknowledged, not suppressed, once reason has established the law’s application in concrete present circumstances.

Conscience proclaims the law of God to us. The Holy Father quotes a passage from St Bonaventure which reads as though it could have been written by John Henry Newman.

Conscience is like God’s herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God’s authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king. This is why conscience has binding force.

Conscience has what Newman called a “peremptory” character, and the Holy Father also mentions its “imperative” character. This is itself a witness to the relationship between conscience and law and the difference between conscience and feelings. If conscience is identified with “personal choice” or moral autonomy, it cannot command or act as an imperative which we might in some cases ignore.

A further difficulty we see today is that of “morality by survey”?

Today too, the situation of the world of the senses within space and time, physio-chemical constants, bodily processes, psychological impulses and forms of social conditioning seem to many people the only really decisive factors of human reality. In this context even moral facts, despite their specificity, are frequently treated as if they were statistically verifiable data, patterns of behaviour which can be subject to observation or explained exclusively in categories of psychosocial processes. As a result, “some ethicists,” professionally engaged in the study of human realities and behaviour, can be tempted to take as the standard for their discipline and even for its operative norms the results of a statistical study of concrete human behaviour patterns and the opinions about morality encountered in the majority of people.

We can see this clearly when people justify the Abortion Act on the grounds that it is popular. The encyclical Evangelium Vitae made a telling point in this regard:

Everyone’s conscience rightly rejects those crimes against humanity of which our century has had such sad experience. But would these crimes cease to be crimes if, instead of being committed by unscrupulous tyrants, they were legitimated by popular consensus?

Fundamental option

A modern theory in some Catholic circles has been that of the “fundamental option”. This is the theory is that salvation is only lost by an act which engages the person in his totality. The question is one of the gravity of the matter which the “fundamental option”? theorist would say is determined by the engagement of the person in his totality rather than by the character of the individual act.

The Holy Father recognises the importance and biblical foundation of “a fundamental choice which qualifies the moral life and engages freedom on a radical level before God”? “Come follow me” is an invitation to a fundamental option as is “Take up your cross and follow me”, “sell all you have…” in some cases is a particularly exalted fundamental option for an evangelical life.

In fact, Catholic moral theology has always recognised the importance of knowledge and consent in the assessment of the guilt incurred by an individual as we saw in relation to mortal and venial sin. There are complex moral cases involving psychological judgements and it is just as much a part of traditional Catholic moral theology to accept the need for pastoral care for individuals. However a sin does not necessarily have to involve a conscious and explicit rejection of God to be a mortal sin.

But the Holy Father carefully rules out the theory which makes the primordial option the only area in which it is proper to speak of moral good and evil. Such a theory prescinds from judging a particular act as right or wrong except in reference to the fundamental option. My extra-marital affair may not be immoral if it is in accordance with my fundamental option towards the good expressed in so many other areas of life.

There is also an important pastoral point. The radical “fundamental option”? theory would hold that an individual could remain faithful to God regardless of particular individual acts which he commits and which are contrary to the moral law. But in fact, the grace of justification can be lost by any seriously evil moral act which is culpable. And this brings us on to the question of mortal and venial sin.

Other theories

Various theories of morality hold that the morality of an act is determined by the effect of the action on the ultimate end of the person or by weighing up the various goods and evils which arise from the act.

This “teleologism”, as a method for discovering the moral norm, can thus be called—according to terminology and approaches imported from different currents of thought—”consequentialism”? or “proportionalism”. The former claims to draw the criteria of the rightness of a given way of acting solely from a calculation of foreseeable consequences deriving from a given choice. The latter, by weighing the various values and goods being sought, focuses rather on the proportion acknowledged between the good and bad effects of that choice, with a view to the “greater good” or “?lesser evil” actually possible in a particular situation.

These theories contest the traditional Christian view that the morality of a human act is determined first of all by the objective character of the act and secondarily by the intention and other circumstances surrounding it. According to the teleological or proportionalist approach it would never be possible to say that some acts are always wrong or “intrinsically evil”.

The martyrs witness to the moral law

In a magnificent insight into the question of the morality of human acts, the Holy Father draws attention to the manner in which the martyrs have given witness to the objective character of the moral law.

Countless other martyrs accepted persecution and death rather than perform the idolatrous act of burning incense before the statue of the Emperor (cf. Rev 13:7-10). They even refused to feign such worship, thereby giving an example of the duty to refrain from performing even a single concrete act contrary to God’s love and the witness of faith. Like Christ himself, they obediently trusted and handed over their lives to the Father, the one who could free them from death (cf. Heb 5:7).

And again, in relation to mortal sin, he says:

The Church proposes the example of numerous Saints who bore witness to and defended moral truth even to the point of enduring martyrdom, or who preferred death to a single mortal sin. In raising them to the honour of the altars, the Church has canonised their witness and declared the truth of their judgement, according to which the love of God entails the obligation to respect his commandments, even in the most dire of circumstances, and the refusal to betray those commandments, even for the sake of saving one’s own life.

An erroneous conscience

A conscience is erroneous when it directs a person to do something which is objectively evil. It operates against the truth. The error may be through someone else’s fault—a parent or an educator who has taught convincingly something that is contrary to the moral law, for example.

The error may be due to the person’s own fault. It is possible through negligence or hedonism to put ourselves in the way of influences that will soften our adherence to the moral law. A person can be careless, never taking the trouble to inform their conscience. In England, the law assumes that ignorance is culpable: ignorantia iuris non excusat. The Holy Father quotes the words of the sermon on the mount as describing the state of culpable ignorance of the moral law:

The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

Unlike the law, however, which must protect us in the public domain, we can, as pastors and as fellow-Christians, recognise the possibility of inculpable or “invincible”? ignorance. We do not presume to judge the state of a person’s soul and it is not possible for us to judge the extent of various influences on a person that may affect their ability to know the truth.

However, an erroneous conscience, even if erroneous through invincible or inculpable ignorance, does not protect others from the effects of moral evil.

It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgement may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good.

One need only think here of the paedophile who convinces himself that the child consent to his actions. He may be invincibly ignorant because he has suffered terrible abuse himself. Nevertheless the effect of his action is devastating for the child and continues the cycle of corruption. This is an extreme example but every objective moral evil has effects in the world and these are not removed because of a person’s being invincibly ignorant.

The real harm done by objective moral evil is the reason why we must seek to form our conscience so that we can conform more closely to the objective moral law in our individual actions. Part of the role of the Church in teaching on moral matters is to elucidate the natural law so that we can form our consciences.

This is so not only because freedom of conscience is never freedom “from” the truth but always and only freedom “in” the truth, but also because the Magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith. The Church puts herself always and only at the “service of conscience,” helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it.

A doubtful conscience

This area was the subject of several theories among post-reformation Catholic theologians. This discussion characterised some of the more important work of St Alphonsus Liguori who might be regarded as one of the greatest “pastoral theologian” of modern times.

In practice, a person in doubt needs to act to try to resolve the doubt by seeking advice or information. In addition, some people may need help to overcome scruples which can be a considerable spiritual burden. A good spiritual director can be a help. St Teresa of Avila’s advice here was that it was best if a director was both learned and holy. But if one could not be found, it was better to seek a learned one.

A common example

The morality of sexual acts is an area in which many of these principles can be applied.

We find people who do not have an informed conscience and believe that it is lawful to live together as man and wife without being married. This has been found to lead to more frequent break-up of marriages and we can see the objective moral harm that results.

We find that feelings are used as a counterfeit conscience. Someone may say that they are no longer “in love” and regard this as justification for breaking the vows of marriage or that they “felt it right” and thereby justify behaviour which is objectively immoral.

We also find ourselves counselling those for whom an act which is, objectively speaking, gravely evil, does not constitute a mortal sin, either because of a lack of knowledge or a lack of consent. To exercise pastoral compassion and leniency in such a case is sometimes condemned as “hypocrisy”. However the alternative of rigorous condemnation is used in other areas in society and leads to a perplexing difficulties.

Homosexuality is one area in which Catholic moral teaching can be applied with a clarity that is both pastoral and objectively caring. The homosexual condition is considered to be contrary to the natural order but not necessarily culpable. (We do not need to make a judgement on the genesis of the homosexual condition.) Homosexual acts are gravely wrong as are any sexual acts outside of marriage. There is no “persecution” of a particular group and the same moral and pastoral norms can be applied. A pastor or confessor can take into account the influence of strong feelings, habit, passion or ignorance of the moral law in lessening the culpability of a person but need not imply that homosexual acts are morally good. It is possible to be compassionate and understanding and at the same time to teach the fullness of the natural moral law without any prejudice to an individual. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and we cannot make judgements of an individual’s relative culpability without knowing every detail of their entire life both exterior and interior. Only God can judge because he “sees the heart.”

Our final end

In all of moral theology, it is important from time to time to remind ourselves of the fundamental truth that we are made to the image and likeness of God and destined for eternal happiness. The question of the rich young man “what should I do to inherit eternal life” is the fundamental moral question.