Sep 10, 2014 1:34 AM

Atheists should follow their conscience Holy Father?....Not so fast!

Back in 2011, before giving the traditional Christmas blessing to the City of Rome and the world ("urbi et orbi"), Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the Child of Bethlehem as Savior. His Holiness said (in part): "He was sent by God the Father to save us above all from the evil deeply rooted in man and in history: the evil of separation from God, the prideful presumption of being self-sufficient, of trying to compete with God and to take his place, to decide what is good and evil, to be the master of life and death.."

The Holy Father said that human beings cannot save themselves from this sin, "unless we rely on God's help, unless we cry out to him: 'Veni ad salvandum nos! -- Come to save us!'"

He affirmed, though, that "the very fact that we cry to heaven in this way already sets us aright; it makes us true to ourselves: We are in fact those who cried out to God and were saved."

The Bishop of Rome spoke of God as the physician, while we are the infirm. And to realize this, he said, "is the first step towards salvation, towards emerging from the maze in which we have been locked by our pride. To lift our eyes to heaven, to stretch out our hands and call for help is our means of escape, provided that there is Someone who hears us and can come to our assistance."

"Jesus Christ is the proof that God has heard our cry," the Pope declared. "And not only this! God's love for us is so strong that he cannot remain aloof; he comes out of himself to enter into our midst and to share fully in our human condition. The answer to our cry which God gave in Jesus infinitely transcends our expectations, achieving a solidarity which cannot be human alone, but divine. Only the God who is love, and the love which is God, could choose to save us in this way, which is certainly the lengthiest way, yet the way which respects the truth about him and about us: the way of reconciliation, dialogue and cooperation." (See here).

There is a famous hymn written by Martin Luther which begins, "A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.." For all too many people today (including sadly, many Catholics) the conscience has become a "mighty fortress" built so as to shelter one from the exacting demands of truth. In the words of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "In the Psalms we meet from time to time the prayer that God should free man from his hidden sins. The Psalmist sees as his greatest danger the fact that he no longer recognizes them as sins and thus falls into them in apparently good conscience. Not being able to have a guilty conscience is a sickness...And thus one cannot aprove the maxim that everyone may always do what his conscience allows him to do: In that case the person without a conscience would be permitted to do anything. In truth it is his fault that his conscience is so broken that he no longer sees what he as a man should see. In other words, included in the concept of conscience is an obligation, namely, the obligation to care for it, to form it and educate it. Conscience has a right to respect and obedience in the measure in which the person himself respects it and gives it the care which its dignity deserves. The right of conscience is the obligation of the formation of conscience. Just as we try to develop our use of language and we try to rule our use of rules, so must we also seek the true measure of conscience so that finally the inner word of conscience can arrive at its validity.

For us this means that the Church's magisterium bears the responsibility for correct formation. It makes an appeal, one can say, to the inner vibrations its word causes in the process of the maturing of conscience. It is thus an oversimplification to put a statement of the magisterium in opposition to conscience. In such a case I must ask myself much more. What is it in me that contradicts this word of the magisterium? Is it perhaps only my comfort? My obstinacy? Or is it an estrangement through some way of life that allows me something which the magisterium forbids and that appears to me to be better motivated or more suitable simply because society considers it reasonable? It is only in the context of this kind of struggle that the conscience can be trained, and the magisterium has the right to expect that the conscience will be open to it in a manner befitting the seriousness of the matter. If I believe that the Church has its origins in the Lord, then the teaching office in the Church has a right to expect that it, as it authentically develops, will be accepted as a priority factor in the formation of conscience." (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Keynote Address of the Fourth Bishops' Workshop of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, on "Moral Theology Today: Certitudes and Doubts," February 1984).

In the same address, Cardinal Ratzinger explains that, "Conscience is understood by many as a sort of deification of subjectivity, a rock of bronze on which even the magisterium is shattered....Conscience appears finally as subjectivity raised to the ultimate standard."

This deification of subjectivity is something Pope Francis appears to have advanced. He has said that, "Sin, even for those who have no faith, is when one goes against their conscience,” he added. “To listen and to obey to (one’s conscience) means to decide oneself in relation to what’s perceived as good and evil. And this decision is fundamental to determining the good or evil of our actions." See here.

It's not that simple Holy Father.

There is a difference in meaning between a certain and a correct conscience. The term "correct" describes the objective truth of the person's judgment, that in fact his conscience represents the real state of things. The term "certain" describes the subjective state of the person judging, how firmly he holds to his assent and how thoroughly he has excluded fear of the opposite. The kind of certitude which is meant here is a subjective certitude, which may easily exist along with objective error. It follows then that we have two possibilities here:

1. A certain and correct conscience.

2. A certain but erroneous conscience.

Now, a certain and correct conscience offers no difficulty and our obligation is therefore clear. A certain and correct conscience is merely the moral law promulgated to the individual and applied to to his own individual act. But the moral law must always be obeyed. Consequently, a certain and correct conscience must be obeyed. And what degree of certitude is required? It is sufficient that the individual's conscience be prudentially certain. Prudential certitude is not absolute but relative. As such, it excludes all prudent fear that the opposite may be true, but does not rule out imprudent fears which are based upon bare possibilities. The reasons are convincing enough to satisfy a normally prudent man in an important matter and this results in that individual feeling safe in practice while there is a theoretical chance of his being incorrect. In such a case, the individual has taken every reasonable precaution but he cannot guarantee against rare contingencies and "freaks of nature."

In moral matters, a complete mathematical certitude is not to be expected. This because when there is question of action, of something to be done in the here and now, but which also involves future consequences (some of which are dependent upon the wills of other individuals), the absolute possibility of error cannot be entirely excluded. However, it can be so reduced that no prudent man, one who is free of neurotic whimsies, would be deterred from acting through fear of it. Therefore, prudential certitude, since it excludes all reasonable fear of error, is much more than high probability, which fails to exclude such reasonable fear.

What happens when an individual is in possession of an erroneous conscience? That depends. If the error is vincible, it must be corrected. In such a case, the person knows that he may be wrong, is able to correct the possible error, and is obliged to do so before acting. A vincibly erroneous conscience cannot be a certain conscience. This is easily demonstrated. For example, an individual may have a merely probable opinion which he neglects to verify, (through laziness or fear of discovering that he is in fact in error), although he is able to do so. Or perhaps he may have judged certainly and yet erroneously at one point, but now begins to doubt whether or not his judgment was in fact correct. For as long as this individual did not realize his error, his conscience was invincibly erroneous; the error becomes vincible at the precise moment that the individual is no longer subjectively certain and has begun to doubt. Anyone who has read Dr. Scott Hahn's personal conversion story will recall that, when he realized the truth of Catholic teaching and that the Catholic Church was in fact the Church founded by Christ, he knew he had a responsibility to enter that Church. I would also refer readers to Lumen Gentium, No. 14 which deals with this subject.

If an error is invincible, there appears to be a dilemma. On the one hand, it doesn't seem right that a person should be obliged to follow an erroneous judgment; on the other, the individual is not aware of being in error and has no means of correcting it. But this dilemma is solved by recalling that conscience is a subjective guide to conduct, that invincible error and ignorance are unavoidable, that any wrong which occurs is not done voluntarily and therefore may not be charged to the agent. An individual acting with an invincibly erroneous conscience may in fact do something that is objectively wrong. However, since he does not recognize it as such it is not subjectively wrong. Such a person is thereby free of guilt by the invincible ignorance which is bound up in his error.

Conclusion: The will depends on the intellect to present the good to it. The will-act is good so long as it tends to the good presented by the intellect. It is bad or deficient if it tends to what the intellect judges evil. Invincible error in the intellect does not change the goodness or badness of the will-act, in which morality essentially consists. If an individual is firmly convinced that his or her action is right, that person is obeying the moral law to the degree that he or she can. If that same individual is firmly convinced that his or her action is wrong, that person is disobeying the moral law in intention, even though the act may not be objectively wrong.

I would recommend a thorough read of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say with regard to forming a correct conscience.

A broken conscience, an ill-formed conscience, can become a mighty fortress which shuts the truth out. Have we built an interior castle, as did St. Teresa of Avila, which remains open to the demands of truth and the promptings of the Holy Spirit? Or has our conscience become a mighty fortress built to prevent our encounter with truth?

Related reading: Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1783-1785.


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