Pope John Paul II on Conscience | Richard A. Spinello | Homiletic & Pastoral Review | August 2009
Conscience itself does not create norms but discovers them in the objective order of morality.
When Cardinal Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II in 1978, he was well prepared to teach the Catholic faithful about ethics. As a young man Karol Wojtyla thought about a career in acting, but he felt a call to the priesthood and soon found himself immersed in the study of philosophy and theology. He was particularly attracted to the study of moral philosophy. After his ordination Father Wojtyla pursued doctoral studies, writing his dissertation on one of the foremost moral philosophers of the twentieth century, Max Scheler. He then joined the faculty at the Catholic University of Lublin in 1954. He was appointed to the prestigious Chair of Ethics at that University in 1956. During these years, Wojtyla offered popular seminars and he wrote extensively about ethical issues, often focusing on the intimate connection between ethics and anthropology.
One of the moral themes that pre-occupied Wojtyla in these pre-papal writings was conscience. It is no surprise, therefore, that he would return to this theme many times in his magisterial teachings. The Pope recognized the need for a proper understanding of conscience, and he was concerned with those who sought to undermine the orthodox doctrine of conscience with more subjectivist notions. Not only has this doctrine been distorted by some revisionist theologians, who diminish the moral law’s decisive role in human development, it has also been corrupted in modern culture. In recent centuries the notion of authenticity has displaced the traditional conception of conscience. The person is supposedly guided by an “inner voice” to make authentic moral choices that are consistent with his or her particular value system. Conscience is also equated with a Freudian superego, which makes us aware of superficial and conventional social standards. The pre-cursor of this idea was Nietzsche, who reduced conscience to the sublimation of instinct.
In the face of all this confusion, conceptual clarity about the nature of conscience is essential. Thus, one of the aims of the Pope’s writings was to re-affirm the Church’s traditional understanding of conscience and to elaborate on Vatican II’s concise presentation on this theme. While the Pope’s treatment of conscience is generally consistent with the philosophy of Aquinas, there is a deeply spiritual dimension to his reflections that sets them apart from the tracts on moral theology used in the pre-conciliar Church.
The Second Vatican Council had emphasized the need for a renewal of moral theology, which should be properly “nourished” by scriptural sources. The council, however, had little to say about this pivotal issue of conscience. Perhaps the Council Fathers would have elaborated on this matter in more precise language had they known what was looming for the Church in the wake of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae and the claims that conscience was the ultimate arbiter of sexual morality.
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