Ioannes Paulus PP. II
Splendor of Truth
Pope John Paul II
Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate,
Health and the Apostolic Blessing!
The splendour of truth shines forth in all the works of the Creator and, in a special way, in man, created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 1:26). Truth enlightens man’s intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord. Hence the Psalmist prays: “Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord” (Ps 4:6).
Jesus Christ, the true light that enlightens everyone
1. Called to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, “the true light that enlightens everyone” (Jn 1:9), people become “light in the Lord” and “children of light” (Eph 5:8), and are made holy by “obedience to the truth” (1 Pet 1:22).
This obedience is not always easy. As a result of that mysterious original sin, committed at the prompting of Satan, the one who is “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn8:44), man is constantly tempted to turn his gaze away from the living and true God in order to direct it towards idols (cf. 1 Thes 1:9), exchanging “the truth about God for a lie” (Rom 1:25). Man’s capacity to know the truth is also darkened, and his will to submit to it is weakened. Thus, giving himself over to relativism and scepticism (cf. Jn18:38), he goes off in search of an illusory freedom apart from truth itself.
But no darkness of error or of sin can totally take away from man the light of God the Creator. In the depths of his heart there always remains a yearning for absolute truth and a thirst to attain full knowledge of it. This is eloquently proved by man’s tireless search for knowledge in all fields. It is proved even more by his search for the meaning of life. The development of science and technology, this splendid testimony of the human capacity for understanding and for perseverance, does not free humanity from the obligation to ask the ultimate religious questions. Rather, it spurs us on to face the most painful and decisive of struggles, those of the heart and of the moral conscience.
2. No one can escape from the fundamental questions: What must I do? How do I distinguish good from evil? The answer is only possible thanks to the splendour of the truth which shines forth deep within the human spirit, as the Psalmist bears witness: “There are many who say: ‘O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord’ ” (Ps 4:6).
The light of God’s face shines in all its beauty on the countenance of Jesus Christ, “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), the “reflection of God’s glory” (Heb 1:3), “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). Christ is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn14:6). Consequently the decisive answer to every one of man’s questions, his religious and moral questions in particular, is given by Jesus Christ, or rather is Jesus Christ himself, as the Second Vatican Council recalls: “In fact,it is only in the mystery of the Word incarnate that light is shed on the mystery of man. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of the future man, namely, of Christ the Lord. It is Christ, the last Adam, who fully discloses man to himself and unfolds his noble calling by revealing the mystery of the Father and the Father’s love”.1
Jesus Christ, the “light of the nations”, shines upon the face of his Church, which he sends forth to the whole world to proclaim the Gospel to every creature (cf. Mk16:15).2 Hence the Church, as the People of God among the nations,3 while attentive to the new challenges of history and to mankind’s efforts to discover the meaning of life, offers to everyone the answer which comes from the truth about Jesus Christ and his Gospel. The Church remains deeply conscious of her “duty in every age of examining the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel, so that she can offer in a manner appropriate to each generation replies to the continual human questionings on the meaning of this life and the life to come and on how they are related”.4
3. The Church’s Pastors, in communion with the Successor of Peter, are close to the faithful in this effort; they guide and accompany them by their authoritative teaching, finding ever new ways of speaking with love and mercy not only to believers but to all people of good will. The Second Vatican Council remains an extraordinary witness of this attitude on the part of the Church which, as an “expert in humanity”,5 places herself at the service of every individual and of the whole world.6
The Church knows that the issue of morality is one which deeply touches every person; it involves all people, even those who do not know Christ and his Gospel or God himself. She knows that it is precisely on the path of the moral life that the way of salvation is open to all. The Second Vatican Council clearly recalled this when it stated that “those who without any fault do not know anything about Christ or his Church, yet who search for God with a sincere heart and under the influence of grace, try to put into effect the will of God as known to them through the dictate of conscience… can obtain eternal salvation”. The Council added: “Nor does divine Providence deny the helps that are necessary for salvation to those who, through no fault of their own, have not yet attained to the express recognition of God, yet who strive, not without divine grace, to lead an upright life. For whatever goodness and truth is found in them is considered by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel and bestowed by him who enlightens everyone that they may in the end have life”.7
The purpose of the present Encyclical
4. At all times, but particularly in the last two centuries, the Popes, whether individually or together with the College of Bishops, have developed and proposed a moral teaching regarding the many different spheres of human life. In Christ’s name and with his authority they have exhorted, passed judgment and explained. In their efforts on behalf of humanity, in fidelity to their mission, they have confirmed, supported and consoled. With the guarantee of assistance from the Spirit of truth they have contributed to a better understanding of moral demands in the areas of human sexuality, the family, and social, economic and political life. In the tradition of the Church and in the history of humanity, their teaching represents a constant deepening of knowledge with regard to morality.8
Today, however, it seems necessary to reflect on the whole of the Church’s moral teaching, with the precise goal of recalling certain fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine which, in the present circumstances, risk being distorted or denied. In fact, a new situation has come about within the Christian community itself, which has experienced the spread of numerous doubts and objections of a human and psychological, social and cultural, religious and even properly theological nature, with regard to the Church’s moral teachings. It is no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent, but of an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine, on the basis of certain anthropological and ethical presuppositions. At the root of these presuppositions is the more or less obvious influence of currents of thought which end by detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth. Thus the traditional doctrine regarding the natural law, and the universality and the permanent validity of its precepts, is rejected; certain of the Church’s moral teachings are found simply unacceptable; and the Magisterium itself is considered capable of intervening in matters of morality only in order to “exhort consciences” and to “propose values”, in the light of which each individual will independently make his or her decisions and life choices.
In particular, note should be taken of the lack of harmony between the traditional response of the Church and certain theological positions, encountered even in Seminaries and in Faculties of Theology, with regard to questions of the greatest importance for the Church and for the life of faith of Christians, as well as for the life of society itself. In particular, the question is asked: do the commandments of God, which are written on the human heart and are part of the Covenant, really have the capacity to clarify the daily decisions of individuals and entire societies? Is it possible to obey God and thus love God and neighbour, without respecting these commandments in all circumstances? Also, an opinion is frequently heard which questions the intrinsic and unbreakable bond between faith and morality, as if membership in the Church and her internal unity were to be decided on the basis of faith alone, while in the sphere of morality a pluralism of opinions and of kinds of behaviour could be tolerated, these being left to the judgment of the individual subjective conscience or to the diversity of social and cultural contexts.
5. Given these circumstances, which still exist, I came to the decision — as I announced in my Apostolic Letter Spiritus Domini, issued on 1 August 1987 on the second centenary of the death of Saint Alphonsus Maria de’ Liguori — to write an Encyclical with the aim of treating “more fully and more deeply the issues regarding the very foundations of moral theology”,9 foundations which are being undermined by certain present day tendencies.
I address myself to you, Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate, who share with me the responsibility of safeguarding “sound teaching” (2 Tim 4:3), with the intention ofclearly setting forth certain aspects of doctrine which are of crucial importance in facing what is certainly a genuine crisis, since the difficulties which it engenders have most serious implications for the moral life of the faithful and for communion in the Church, as well as for a just and fraternal social life.
If this Encyclical, so long awaited, is being published only now, one of the reasons is that it seemed fitting for it to be preceded by the Catechism of the Catholic Church,which contains a complete and systematic exposition of Christian moral teaching. The Catechism presents the moral life of believers in its fundamental elements and in its many aspects as the life of the “children of God”: “Recognizing in the faith their new dignity, Christians are called to lead henceforth a life ‘worthy of the Gospel of Christ’ (Phil 1:27). Through the sacraments and prayer they receive the grace of Christ and the gifts of his Spirit which make them capable of such a life”.10 Consequently, while referring back to the Catechism “as a sure and authentic reference text for teaching Catholic doctrine”,11 the Encyclical will limit itself to dealing with certain fundamental questions regarding the Church’s moral teaching, taking the form of a necessary discernment about issues being debated by ethicists and moral theologians. The specific purpose of the present Encyclical is this: to set forth, with regard to the problems being discussed, the principles of a moral teaching based upon Sacred Scripture and the living Apostolic Tradition,12 and at the same time to shed light on the presuppositions and consequences of the dissent which that teaching has met.
CHAPTER I – “TEACHER, WHAT GOOD MUST I DO…? ” (Mt 19:16) – Christ and the answer to the question about morality
“Someone came to him…” (Mt 19:16)
6. The dialogue of Jesus with the rich young man, related in the nineteenth chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, can serve as a useful guide for listening once more in a lively and direct way to his moral teaching: “Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments. ‘He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’ ” (Mt 19:16-21).13
7. “Then someone came to him…”. In the young man, whom Matthew’s Gospel does not name, we can recognize every person who, consciously or not, approaches Christ the Redeemer of man and questions him about morality. For the young man, thequestion 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,14 the only response fully capable of satisfying the desire of the human heart.
In order to make this “encounter” with Christ possible, God willed his Church. Indeed, the Church “wishes to serve this single end: that each person may be able to find Christ, in order that Christ may walk with each person the path of life”.15
“Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” (Mt 19:16)
8. The question which the rich young man puts to Jesus of Nazareth is one which rises from the depths of his heart. It is an essential and unavoidable question for the life of every man, for it is about the moral good which must be done, and about eternal life. The young man senses that there is a connection between moral good and the fulfilment of his own destiny. He is a devout Israelite, raised as it were in the shadow of the Law of the Lord. If he asks Jesus this question, we can presume that it is not because he is ignorant of the answer contained in the Law. It is more likely that the attractiveness of the person of Jesus had prompted within him new questions about moral good. He feels the need to draw near to the One who had begun his preaching with this new and decisive proclamation: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15).
People today need to turn to Christ once again in order to receive from him the answer to their questions about what is good and what is evil. Christ is the Teacher, the Risen One who has life in himself and who is always present in his Church and in the world. It is he who opens up to the faithful the book of the Scriptures and, by fully revealing the Father’s will, teaches the truth about moral action. At the source and summit of the economy of salvation, as the Alpha and the Omega of human history (cf. Rev 1:8; 21:6; 22:13), Christ sheds light on man’s condition and his integral vocation. Consequently, “the man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly — and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being — must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter him with all his own self; he must ‘appropriate’ and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself. If this profound process takes place within him, he then bears fruit not only of adoration of God but also of deeper wonder at himself”.16
If we therefore wish to go to the heart of the Gospel’s moral teaching and grasp its profound and unchanging content, we must carefully inquire into the meaning of the question asked by the rich young man in the Gospel and, even more, the meaning of Jesus’ reply, allowing ourselves to be guided by him. Jesus, as a patient and sensitive teacher, answers the young man by taking him, as it were, by the hand, and leading him step by step to the full truth.
“There is only one who is good” (Mt 19:17)
9. Jesus says: “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:17). In the versions of the Evangelists Mark and Luke the question is phrased in this way: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mk 10:18; cf. Lk 18:19).
Before answering the question, Jesus wishes the young man to have a clear idea of why he asked his question. The “Good Teacher” points out to him — and to all of us — that the answer to the question, “What good must I do to have eternal life?” can only be found by turning one’s mind and heart to the “One” who is good: “No one is good but God alone” (Mk 10:18; cf. Lk 18:19). Only God can answer the question about what is good, because he is the Good itself.
To ask about the good, in fact, ultimately means to turn towards God, the fullness of goodness. Jesus shows that the young man’s question is really a religious question,and that the goodness that attracts and at the same time obliges man has its source in God, and indeed is God himself. God alone is worthy of being loved “with all one’s heart, and with all one’s soul, and with all one’s mind” (Mt 22:37). He is the source of man’s happiness. Jesus brings the question about morally good action back to its religious foundations, to the acknowledgment of God, who alone is goodness, fullness of life, the final end of human activity, and perfect happiness.
10. The Church, instructed by the Teacher’s words, believes that man, made in the image of the Creator, redeemed by the Blood of Christ and made holy by the presence of the Holy Spirit, has as the ultimate purpose of his life to live “for the praise of God’s glory” (cf. Eph 1:12), striving to make each of his actions reflect the splendour of that glory. “Know, then, O beautiful soul, that you are the image of God”,writes Saint Ambrose. “Know that you are the glory of God (1 Cor 11:7). Hear how you are his glory. The Prophet says: Your knowledge has become too wonderful for me (cf. Ps. 138:6, Vulg.). That is to say, in my work your majesty has become more wonderful; in the counsels of men your wisdom is exalted. When I consider myself, such as I am known to you in my secret thoughts and deepest emotions, the mysteries of your knowledge are disclosed to me. Know then, O man, your greatness, and be vigilant”.17
What man is and what he must do becomes clear as soon as God reveals himself.The Decalogue is based on these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex 20:2-3). In the “ten words” of the Covenant with Israel, and in the whole Law, God makes himself known and acknowledged as the One who “alone is good”; the One who despite man’s sin remains the “model” for moral action, in accordance with his command, “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2); as the One who, faithful to his love for man, gives him his Law (cf. Ex 19:9-24 and 20:18-21) in order to restore man’s original and peaceful harmony with the Creator and with all creation, and, what is more, to draw him into his divine love: “I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Lev 26:12).
The moral life presents itself as the response due to the many gratuitous initiatives taken by God out of love for man. It is a response of love, according to the statement made in Deuteronomy about the fundamental commandment: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children” (Dt 6:4-7). Thus the moral life, caught up in the gratuitousness of God’s love, is called to reflect his glory: “For the one who loves God it is enough to be pleasing to the One whom he loves: for no greater reward should be sought than that love itself; charity in fact is of God in such a way that God himself is charity”.18
11. The statement that “There is only one who is good” thus brings us back to the “first tablet” of the commandments, which calls us to acknowledge God as the one Lord of all and to worship him alone for his infinite holiness (cf. Ex 20:2-11). The good is belonging to God, obeying him, walking humbly with him in doing justice and in loving kindness (cf.Mic 6:8). Acknowledging the Lord as God is the very core, the heart of the Law, from which the particular precepts flow and towards which they are ordered. In the morality of the commandments the fact that the people of Israel belongs to the Lord is made evident, because God alone is the One who is good. Such is the witness of Sacred Scripture, imbued in every one of its pages with a lively perception of God’s absolute holiness: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (Is 6:3).
But if God alone is the Good, no human effort, not even the most rigorous observance of the commandments, succeeds in “fulfilling” the Law, that is, acknowledging the Lord as God and rendering him the worship due to him alone (cf. Mt 4:10). This “fulfilment” can come only from a gift of God: the offer of a share in the divine Goodness revealed and communicated in Jesus, the one whom the rich young man addresses with the words “Good Teacher” (Mk 10:17; Lk 18:18). What the young man now perhaps only dimly perceives will in the end be fully revealed by Jesus himself in the invitation: “Come, follow me” (Mt 19:21).
“If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:17)
12. Only God can answer the question about the good, because he is the Good. But God has already given an answer to this question: he did so by creating man and ordering him with wisdom and love to his final end, through the law which is inscribed in his heart (cf. Rom 2:15), the “natural law”. The latter “is nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided. God gave this light and this law to man at creation”.19 He also did so in the history of Israel, particularly in the “ten words”, the commandments of Sinai, whereby he brought into existence the people of the Covenant (cf. Ex 24) and called them to be his “own possession among all peoples”, “a holy nation” (Ex19:5-6), which would radiate his holiness to all peoples (cf. Wis 18:4; Ez 20:41). The gift of the Decalogue was a promise and sign of the New Covenant, in which the law would be written in a new and definitive way upon the human heart (cf. Jer 31:31-34), replacing the law of sin which had disfigured that heart (cf. Jer 17:1). In those days, “a new heart” would be given, for in it would dwell “a new spirit”, the Spirit of God (cf. Ez36:24-28).20
Consequently, after making the important clarification: “There is only one who is good”, Jesus tells the young man: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:17). In this way, a close connection is made between eternal life and obedience to God’s commandments: God’s commandments show man the path of life and they lead to it. From the very lips of Jesus, the new Moses, man is once again given the commandments of the Decalogue. Jesus himself definitively confirms them and proposes them to us as the way and condition of salvation. The commandments are linked to a promise. In the Old Covenant the object of the promise was the possession of a land where the people would be able to live in freedom and in accordance with righteousness (cf. Dt 6:20-25). In the New Covenant the object of the promise is the “Kingdom of Heaven”, as Jesus declares at the beginning of the “Sermon on the Mount” — a sermon which contains the fullest and most complete formulation of the New Law (cf. Mt 5-7), clearly linked to the Decalogue entrusted by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. This same reality of the Kingdom is referred to in the expression “eternal life”, which is a participation in the very life of God. It is attained in its perfection only after death, but in faith it is even now a light of truth, a source of meaning for life, an inchoate share in the full following of Christ. Indeed, Jesus says to his disciples after speaking to the rich young man: “Every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and inherit eternal life” (Mt19:29).
13. Jesus’ answer is not enough for the young man, who continues by asking the Teacher about the commandments which must be kept: “He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ ” (Mt 19:18). He asks what he must do in life in order to show that he acknowledges God’s holiness. After directing the young man’s gaze towards God, Jesus reminds him of the commandments of the Decalogue regarding one’s neighbour: “Jesus said: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ ” (Mt 19:18-19).
From the context of the conversation, and especially from a comparison of Matthew’s text with the parallel passages in Mark and Luke, it is clear that Jesus does not intend to list each and every one of the commandments required in order to “enter into life”, but rather wishes to draw the young man’s attention to the “centrality” of the Decalogue with regard to every other precept, inasmuch as it is the interpretation of what the words “I am the Lord your God” mean for man. Nevertheless we cannot fail to notice which commandments of the Law the Lord recalls to the young man. They are some of the commandments belonging to the so-called “second tablet” of the Decalogue, the summary (cf. Rom 13: 8-10) and foundation of which is the commandment of love of neighbour: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Mt19:19; cf. Mk 12:31). In this commandment we find a precise expression of the singular dignity of the human person, “the only creature that God has wanted for its own sake”.21 The different commandments of the Decalogue are really only so many reflections of the one commandment about the good of the person, at the level of the many different goods which characterize his identity as a spiritual and bodily being in relationship with God, with his neighbour and with the material world. As we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the Ten Commandments are part of God’s Revelation. At the same time, they teach us man’s true humanity. They shed light on the essential duties, and so indirectly on the fundamental rights, inherent in the nature of the human person”.22
The commandments of which Jesus reminds the young man are meant to safeguardthe good of the person, the image of God, by protecting his goods. “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness” are moral rules formulated in terms of prohibitions. These negative precepts express with particular force the ever urgent need to protect human life, the communion of persons in marriage, private property, truthfulness and people’s good name.
The commandments thus represent the basic condition for love of neighbour; at the same time they are the proof of that love. They are the first necessary step on the journey towards freedom, its starting-point. “The beginning of freedom”, Saint Augustine writes, “is to be free from crimes… such as murder, adultery, fornication, theft, fraud, sacrilege and so forth. When once one is without these crimes (and every Christian should be without them), one begins to lift up one’s head towards freedom. But this is only the beginning of freedom, not perfect freedom…”.23
14. This certainly does not mean that Christ wishes to put the love of neighbour higher than, or even to set it apart from, the love of God. This is evident from his conversation with the teacher of the Law, who asked him a question very much like the one asked by the young man. Jesus refers him to the two commandments of love of God and love of neighbour (cf. Lk 10:25-27), and reminds him that only by observing them will he have eternal life: “Do this, and you will live” (Lk 10:28). Nonetheless it is significant that it is precisely the second of these commandments which arouses the curiosity of the teacher of the Law, who asks him: “And who is my neighbour?” (Lk 10:29). The Teacher replies with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is critical for fully understanding the commandment of love of neighbour (cf. Lk10:30-37).
These two commandments, on which “depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Mt22:40), are profoundly connected and mutually related. Their inseparable unity is attested to by Christ in his words and by his very life: his mission culminates in the Cross of our Redemption (cf. Jn 3:14-15), the sign of his indivisible love for the Father and for humanity (cf. Jn 13:1).
Both the Old and the New Testaments explicitly affirm that without love of neighbour,made concrete in keeping the commandments, genuine love for God is not possible.Saint John makes the point with extraordinary forcefulness: “If anyone says, ‘I love God’, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (Jn 4:20). The Evangelist echoes the moral preaching of Christ, expressed in a wonderful and unambiguous way in the parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10:30-37) and in his words about the final judgment (cf. Mt 25:31-46).
15. In the “Sermon on the Mount”, the magna charta of Gospel morality,24 Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Mt 5:17). Christ is the key to the Scriptures: “You search the Scriptures…; and it is they that bear witness to me” (Jn5:39). Christ is the centre of the economy of salvation, the recapitulation of the Old and New Testaments, of the promises of the Law and of their fulfilment in the Gospel; he is the living and eternal link between the Old and the New Covenants. Commenting on Paul’s statement that “Christ is the end of the law” (Rom 10:4), Saint Ambrose writes: “end not in the sense of a deficiency, but in the sense of the fullness of the Law: a fullness which is achieved in Christ (plenitudo legis in Christo est), since he came not to abolish the Law but to bring it to fulfilment. In the same way that there is an Old Testament, but all truth is in the New Testament, so it is for the Law: what was given through Moses is a figure of the true law. Therefore, the Mosaic Law is an image of the truth”.25
Jesus brings God’s commandments to fulfilment, particularly the commandment of love of neighbour, by interiorizing their demands and by bringing out their fullest meaning. Love of neighbour springs from a loving heart which, precisely because it loves, is ready to live out the loftiest challenges. Jesus shows that the commandments must not be understood as a minimum limit not to be gone beyond, but rather as a path involving a moral and spiritual journey towards perfection, at the heart of which is love (cf. Col 3:14). Thus the commandment “You shall not murder” becomes a call to an attentive love which protects and promotes the life of one’s neighbour. The precept prohibiting adultery becomes an invitation to a pure way of looking at others, capable of respecting the spousal meaning of the body: “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment’. But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’. But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:21-22, 27-28). Jesus himself is the living “fulfilment” of the Law inasmuch as he fulfils its authentic meaning by the total gift of himself: he himself becomes a living and personal Law, who invites people to follow him; through the Spirit, he gives the grace to share his own life and love and provides the strength to bear witness to that love in personal choices and actions (cf.Jn 13:34-35).
“If you wish to be perfect” (Mt 19:21)
16. The answer he receives about the commandments does not satisfy the young man, who asks Jesus a further question. “I have kept all these; what do I still lack? “(Mt 19:20). It is not easy to say with a clear conscience “I have kept all these”, if one has any understanding of the real meaning of the demands contained in God’s Law. And yet, even though he is able to make this reply, even though he has followed the moral ideal seriously and generously from childhood, the rich young man knows that he is still far from the goal: before the person of Jesus he realizes that he is still lacking something. It is his awareness of this insufficiency that Jesus addresses in his final answer. Conscious of the young man’s yearning for something greater, which would transcend a legalistic interpretation of the commandments, the Good Teacher invites him to enter upon the path of perfection: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mt 19:21).
Like the earlier part of Jesus’ answer, this part too must be read and interpreted in the context of the whole moral message of the Gospel, and in particular in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes (cf. Mt 5:3-12), the first of which is precisely the Beatitude of the poor, the “poor in spirit” as Saint Matthew makes clear (Mt 5:3), the humble. In this sense it can be said that the Beatitudes are also relevant to the answer given by Jesus to the young man’s question: “What good must I do to have eternal life? “. Indeed, each of the Beatitudes promises, from a particular viewpoint, that very “good” which opens man up to eternal life, and indeed is eternal life.
The Beatitudes are not specifically concerned with certain particular rules of behaviour. Rather, they speak of basic attitudes and dispositions in life and therefore they do not coincide exactly with the commandments. On the other hand, there is no separation or opposition between the Beatitudes and the commandments: both refer to the good, to eternal life. The Sermon on the Mount begins with the proclamation of the Beatitudes, but also refers to the commandments (cf. Mt 5:20-48). At the same time, the Sermon on the Mount demonstrates the openness of the commandments and their orientation towards the horizon of the perfection proper to the Beatitudes. These latter are above all promises, from which there also indirectly flow normative indications for the moral life. In their originality and profundity they are a sort of self- portrait of Christ, and for this very reason are invitations to discipleship and to communion of life with Christ.26
17. We do not know how clearly the young man in the Gospel understood the profound and challenging import of Jesus’ first reply: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments”. But it is certain that the young man’s commitment to respect all the moral demands of the commandments represents the absolutely essential ground in which the desire for perfection can take root and mature, the desire, that is, for the meaning of the commandments to be completely fulfilled in following Christ. Jesus’ conversation with the young man helps us to grasp the conditions for the moral growth of man, who has been called to perfection: the young man, having observed all the commandments, shows that he is incapable of taking the next step by himself alone. To do so requires mature human freedom (“If you wish to be perfect”) and God’s gift of grace (“Come, follow me”).
Perfection demands that maturity in self-giving to which human freedom is called.Jesus points out to the young man that the commandments are the first and indispensable condition for having eternal life; on the other hand, for the young man to give up all he possesses and to follow the Lord is presented as an invitation: “If you wish…”. These words of Jesus reveal the particular dynamic of freedom’s growth towards maturity, and at the same time they bear witness to the fundamental relationship between freedom and divine law. Human freedom and God’s law are not in opposition; on the contrary, they appeal one to the other. The follower of Christ knows that his vocation is to freedom. “You were called to freedom, brethren” (Gal5:13), proclaims the Apostle Paul with joy and pride. But he immediately adds: “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another” (ibid.). The firmness with which the Apostle opposes those who believe that they are justified by the Law has nothing to do with man’s “liberation” from precepts. On the contrary, the latter are at the service of the practice of love: “For he who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the Law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ ” (Rom 13:8-9). Saint Augustine, after speaking of the observance of the commandments as being a kind of incipient, imperfect freedom, goes on to say: “Why, someone will ask, is it not yet perfect? Because ‘I see in my members another law at war with the law of my reason’… In part freedom, in part slavery: not yet complete freedom, not yet pure, not yet whole, because we are not yet in eternity. In part we retain our weakness and in part we have attained freedom. All our sins were destroyed in Baptism, but does it follow that no weakness remained after iniquity was destroyed? Had none remained, we would live without sin in this life. But who would dare to say this except someone who is proud, someone unworthy of the mercy of our deliverer?… Therefore, since some weakness has remained in us, I dare to say that to the extent to which we serve God we are free, while to the extent that we follow the law of sin, we are still slaves”.27
18. Those who live “by the flesh” experience God’s law as a burden, and indeed as a denial or at least a restriction of their own freedom. On the other hand, those who are impelled by love and “walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16), and who desire to serve others, find in God’s Law the fundamental and necessary way in which to practise love as something freely chosen and freely lived out. Indeed, they feel an interior urge — a genuine “necessity” and no longer a form of coercion — not to stop at the minimum demands of the Law, but to live them in their “fullness”. This is a still uncertain and fragile journey as long as we are on earth, but it is one made possible by grace, which enables us to possess the full freedom of the children of God (cf. Rom 8:21) and thus to live our moral life in a way worthy of our sublime vocation as “sons in the Son”.
This vocation to perfect love is not restricted to a small group of individuals. The invitation, “go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor”, and the promise “you will have treasure in heaven”, are meant for everyone, because they bring out the full meaning of the commandment of love for neighbour, just as the invitation which follows, “Come, follow me”, is the new, specific form of the commandment of love of God. Both the commandments and Jesus’ invitation to the rich young man stand at the service of a single and indivisible charity, which spontaneously tends towards that perfection whose measure is God alone: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus makes even clearer the meaning of this perfection: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36).
“Come, follow me” (Mt 19:21)
19. The way and at the same time the content of this perfection consist in the following of Jesus, sequela Christi, once one has given up one’s own wealth and very self. This is precisely the conclusion of Jesus’ conversation with the young man: “Come, follow me” (Mt 19:21). It is an invitation the marvellous grandeur of which will be fully perceived by the disciples after Christ’s Resurrection, when the Holy Spirit leads them to all truth (cf. Jn 16:13).
It is Jesus himself who takes the initiative and calls people to follow him. His call is addressed first to those to whom he entrusts a particular mission, beginning with the Twelve; but it is also clear that every believer is called to be a follower of Christ (cf.Acts 6:1). Following Christ is thus the essential and primordial foundation of Christian morality: just as the people of Israel followed God who led them through the desert towards the Promised Land (cf. Ex 13:21), so every disciple must follow Jesus, towards whom he is drawn by the Father himself (cf. Jn 6:44).
This is not a matter only of disposing oneself to hear a teaching and obediently accepting a commandment. More radically, it involves holding fast to the very person of Jesus, partaking of his life and his destiny, sharing in his free and loving obedience to the will of the Father. By responding in faith and following the one who is Incarnate Wisdom, the disciple of Jesus truly becomes a disciple of God (cf. Jn 6:45). Jesus is indeed the light of the world, the light of life (cf. Jn 8:12). He is the shepherd who leads his sheep and feeds them (cf. Jn 10:11-16); he is the way, and the truth, and the life (cf. Jn 14:6). It is Jesus who leads to the Father, so much so that to see him, the Son, is to see the Father (cf. Jn 14:6-10). And thus to imitate the Son, “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), means to imitate the Father.
20. Jesus asks us to follow him and to imitate him along the path of love, a love which gives itself completely to the brethren out of love for God: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). The word “as” requires imitation of Jesus and of his love, of which the washing of feet is a sign: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:14-15). Jesus’ way of acting and his words, his deeds and his precepts constitute the moral rule of Christian life. Indeed, his actions, and in particular his Passion and Death on the Cross, are the living revelation of his love for the Father and for others. This is exactly the love that Jesus wishes to be imitated by all who follow him. It is the “new” commandment: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35).
The word “as” also indicates the degree of Jesus’ love, and of the love with which his disciples are called to love one another. After saying: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12), Jesus continues with words which indicate the sacrificial gift of his life on the Cross, as the witness to a love “to the end” (Jn 13:1): “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13).
As he calls the young man to follow him along the way of perfection, Jesus asks him to be perfect in the command of love, in “his” commandment: to become part of the unfolding of his complete giving, to imitate and rekindle the very love of the “Good” Teacher, the one who loved “to the end”. This is what Jesus asks of everyone who wishes to follow him: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24).
21. Following Christ is not an outward imitation, since it touches man at the very depths of his being. Being a follower of Christ means becoming conformed to himwho became a servant even to giving himself on the Cross (cf. Phil 2:5-8). Christ dwells by faith in the heart of the believer (cf. Eph 3:17), and thus the disciple is conformed to the Lord. This is the effect of grace, of the active presence of the Holy Spirit in us.
Having become one with Christ, the Christian becomes a member of his Body, which is the Church (cf. Cor 12:13, 27). By the work of the Spirit, Baptism radically configures the faithful to Christ in the Paschal Mystery of death and resurrection; it “clothes him” in Christ (cf. Gal 3:27): “Let us rejoice and give thanks”, exclaims Saint Augustine speaking to the baptized, “for we have become not only Christians, but Christ (…). Marvel and rejoice: we have become Christ! “.28 Having died to sin, those who are baptized receive new life (cf. Rom 6:3-11): alive for God in Christ Jesus, they are called to walk by the Spirit and to manifest the Spirit’s fruits in their lives (cf. Gal5:16-25). Sharing in the Eucharist, the sacrament of the New Covenant (cf. 1 Cor11:23-29), is the culmination of our assimilation to Christ, the source of “eternal life” (cf. Jn 6:51-58), the source and power of that complete gift of self, which Jesus — according to the testimony handed on by Paul — commands us to commemorate in liturgy and in life: “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).
“With God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26)
22. The conclusion of Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man is very poignant: “When the young man heard this, he went away sorrowful, for he had many possessions” (Mt 19:22). Not only the rich man but the disciples themselves are taken aback by Jesus’ call to discipleship, the demands of which transcend human aspirations and abilities: “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?’ ” (Mt 19:25). But the Master refers them to God’s power: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).
In the same chapter of Matthew’s Gospel (19:3-10), Jesus, interpreting the Mosaic Law on marriage, rejects the right to divorce, appealing to a “beginning” more fundamental and more authoritative than the Law of Moses: God’s original plan for mankind, a plan which man after sin has no longer been able to live up to: “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:8). Jesus’ appeal to the “beginning” dismays the disciples, who remark: “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry” (Mt19:10). And Jesus, referring specifically to the charism of celibacy “for the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 19:12), but stating a general rule, indicates the new and surprising possibility opened up to man by God’s grace. “He said to them: ‘Not everyone can accept this saying, but only those to whom it is given’ ” (Mt 19:11).
To imitate and live out the love of Christ is not possible for man by his own strength alone. He becomes capable of this love only by virtue of a gift received. As the Lord Jesus receives the love of his Father, so he in turn freely communicates that love to his disciples: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love” (Jn15:9). Christ’s gift is his Spirit, whose first “fruit” (cf. Gal 5:22) is charity: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). Saint Augustine asks: “Does love bring about the keeping of the commandments, or does the keeping of the commandments bring about love?” And he answers: “But who can doubt that love comes first? For the one who does not love has no reason for keeping the commandments”.29
23. “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2). With these words the Apostle Paul invites us to consider in the perspective of the history of salvation, which reaches its fulfilment in Christ, the relationship between the (Old) Law and grace (the New Law). He recognizes the pedagogic function of the Law, which, by enabling sinful man to take stock of his own powerlessness and by stripping him of the presumption of his self-sufficiency, leads him to ask for and to receive “life in the Spirit”. Only in this new life is it possible to carry out God’s commandments. Indeed, it is through faith in Christ that we have been made righteous (cf. Rom 3:28): the “righteousness” which the Law demands, but is unable to give, is found by every believer to be revealed and granted by the Lord Jesus. Once again it is Saint Augustine who admirably sums up this Pauline dialectic of law and grace: “The law was given that grace might be sought; and grace was given, that the law might be fulfilled”.30
Love and life according to the Gospel cannot be thought of first and foremost as a kind of precept, because what they demand is beyond man’s abilities. They are possible only as the result of a gift of God who heals, restores and transforms the human heart by his grace: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn 1:17). The promise of eternal life is thus linked to the gift of grace, and the gift of the Spirit which we have received is even now the “guarantee of our inheritance” (Eph 1:14).
24. And so we find revealed the authentic and original aspect of the commandment of love and of the perfection to which it is ordered: we are speaking of a possibility opened up to man exclusively by grace, by the gift of God, by his love. On the other hand, precisely the awareness of having received the gift, of possessing in Jesus Christ the love of God, generates and sustains the free response of a full love for God and the brethren, as the Apostle John insistently reminds us in his first Letter: “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love… Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another… We love, because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:7-8, 11, 19).
This inseparable connection between the Lord’s grace and human freedom, between gift and task, has been expressed in simple yet profound words by Saint Augustine in his prayer: “Da quod iubes et iube quod vis” (grant what you command and command what you will).31
The gift does not lessen but reinforces the moral demands of love: “This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another just as he has commanded us” (1 Jn 3:32). One can “abide” in love only by keeping the commandments, as Jesus states: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (Jn 15:10).
Going to the heart of the moral message of Jesus and the preaching of the Apostles, and summing up in a remarkable way the great tradition of the Fathers of the East and West, and of Saint Augustine in particular,32 Saint Thomas was able to write thatthe New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit given through faith in Christ.33 The external precepts also mentioned in the Gospel dispose one for this grace or produce its effects in one’s life. Indeed, the New Law is not content to say what must be done, but also gives the power to “do what is true” (cf. Jn 3:21). Saint John Chrysostom likewise observed that the New Law was promulgated at the descent of the Holy Spirit from heaven on the day of Pentecost, and that the Apostles “did not come down from the mountain carrying, like Moses, tablets of stone in their hands; but they came down carrying the Holy Spirit in their hearts… having become by his grace a living law, a living book”.34
“Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20)
25. Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man continues, in a sense, in every period of history, including our own. The question: “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” arises in the heart of every individual, and it is Christ alone who is capable of giving the full and definitive answer. The Teacher who expounds God’s commandments, who invites others to follow him and gives the grace for a new life, is always present and at work in our midst, as he himself promised: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20). Christ’s relevance for people of all times is shown forth in his body, which is the Church. For this reason the Lord promised his disciples the Holy Spirit, who would “bring to their remembrance” and teach them to understand his commandments (cf. Jn 14:26), and who would be the principle and constant source of a new life in the world (cf. Jn 3:5-8; Rom 8:1-13).
The moral prescriptions which God imparted in the Old Covenant, and which attained their perfection in the New and Eternal Covenant in the very person of the Son of God made man, must be faithfully kept and continually put into practice in the various different cultures throughout the course of history. The task of interpreting these prescriptions was entrusted by Jesus to the Apostles and to their successors, with the special assistance of the Spirit of truth: “He who hears you hears me” (Lk 10:16). By the light and the strength of this Spirit the Apostles carried out their mission of preaching the Gospel and of pointing out the “way” of the Lord (cf. Acts 18:25), teaching above all how to follow and imitate Christ: “For to me to live is Christ” (Phil1:21).
26. In the moral catechesis of the Apostles, besides exhortations and directions connected to specific historical and cultural situations, we find an ethical teaching with precise rules of behaviour. This is seen in their Letters, which contain the interpretation, made under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, of the Lord’s precepts as they are to be lived in different cultural circumstances (cf. Rom 12-15; 1 Cor 11-14;Gal 5-6; Eph 4-6; Col 3-4; 1 Pt and Jas). From the Church’s beginnings, the Apostles, by virtue of their pastoral responsibility to preach the Gospel, were vigilant over the right conduct of Christians,35 just as they were vigilant for the purity of the faith and the handing down of the divine gifts in the sacraments.36 The first Christians, coming both from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, differed from the pagans not only in their faith and their liturgy but also in the witness of their moral conduct, which was inspired by the New Law.37 The Church is in fact a communion both of faith and of life; her rule of life is “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).
No damage must be done to the harmony between faith and life: the unity of the Church is damaged not only by Christians who reject or distort the truths of faith but also by those who disregard the moral obligations to which they are called by the Gospel (cf. 1 Cor 5:9-13). The Apostles decisively rejected any separation between the commitment of the heart and the actions which express or prove it (cf. 1 Jn 2:3-6). And ever since Apostolic times the Church’s Pastors have unambiguously condemned the behaviour of those who fostered division by their teaching or by their actions.38
27. Within the unity of the Church, promoting and preserving the faith and the moral life is the task entrusted by Jesus to the Apostles (cf. Mt 28:19-20), a task which continues in the ministry of their successors. This is apparent from the living Tradition,whereby — as the Second Vatican Council teaches — “the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to every generation all that she is and all that she believes. This Tradition which comes from the Apostles, progresses in the Church under the assistance of the Holy Spirit”.39 In the Holy Spirit, the Church receives and hands down the Scripture as the witness to the “great things” which God has done in history (cf. Lk 1:49); she professes by the lips of her Fathers and Doctors the truth of the Word made flesh, puts his precepts and love into practice in the lives of her Saints and in the sacrifice of her Martyrs, and celebrates her hope in him in the Liturgy. By this same Tradition Christians receive “the living voice of the Gospel”,40 as the faithful expression of God’s wisdom and will.
Within Tradition, the authentic interpretation of the Lord’s law develops, with the help of the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit who is at the origin of the Revelation of Jesus’ commandments and teachings guarantees that they will be reverently preserved, faithfully expounded and correctly applied in different times and places. This constant “putting into practice” of the commandments is the sign and fruit of a deeper insight into Revelation and of an understanding in the light of faith of new historical and cultural situations. Nevertheless, it can only confirm the permanent validity of Revelation and follow in the line of the interpretation given to it by the great Tradition of the Church’s teaching and life, as witnessed by the teaching of the Fathers, the lives of the Saints, the Church’s Liturgy and the teaching of the Magisterium.
In particular, as the Council affirms, “the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether in its written form or in that of Tradition, has been entrusted only to those charged with the Church’s living Magisterium, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ”.41 The Church, in her life and teaching, is thus revealed as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” ( 1 Tim 3:15), including the truth regarding moral action. Indeed, “the Church has the right always and everywhere to proclaim moral principles, even in respect of the social order, and to make judgments about any human matter in so far as this is required by fundamental human rights or the salvation of souls”.42
Precisely on the questions frequently debated in moral theology today and with regard to which new tendencies and theories have developed, the Magisterium, in fidelity to Jesus Christ and in continuity with the Church’s tradition, senses more urgently the duty to offer its own discernment and teaching, in order to help man in his journey towards truth and freedom.
CHAPTER II – “DO NOT BE CONFORMED TO THIS WORLD ” (Rom 12:2) – The Church and the discernment of certain tendencies in present-day moral theology
Teaching what befits sound doctrine (cf. Tit 2:1)
28. Our meditation on the dialogue between Jesus and the rich young man has enabled us to bring together the essential elements of Revelation in the Old and New Testament with regard to moral action. These are: the subordination of man and his activity to God, the One who “alone is good”; the relationship clearly indicated in the divine commandments, between the moral good of human acts and eternal life; Christian discipleship, which opens up before man the perspective of perfect love; and finally the gift of the Holy Spirit, source and means of the moral life of the “new creation” (cf. 2 Cor 5:17).
In her reflection on morality, the Church has always kept in mind the words of Jesus to the rich young man. Indeed, Sacred Scripture remains the living and fruitful source of the Church’s moral doctrine; as the Second Vatican Council recalled, the Gospel is “the source of all saving truth and moral teaching”.43 The Church has faithfully preserved what the word of God teaches, not only about truths which must be believed but also about moral action, action pleasing to God (cf. 1 Th 4:1); she has achieved a doctrinal development analogous to that which has taken place in the realm of the truths of faith. Assisted by the Holy Spirit who leads her into all the truth (cf. Jn 16:13), the Church has not ceased, nor can she ever cease, to contemplate the “mystery of the Word Incarnate”, in whom “light is shed on the mystery of man”.44
29. The Church’s moral reflection, always conducted in the light of Christ, the “Good Teacher”, has also developed in the specific form of the theological science called”moral theology “, a science which accepts and examines Divine Revelation while at the same time responding to the demands of human reason. Moral theology is a reflection concerned with “morality”, with the good and the evil of human acts and of the person who performs them; in this sense it is accessible to all people. But it is also “theology”, inasmuch as it acknowledges that the origin and end of moral action are found in the One who “alone is good” and who, by giving himself to man in Christ, offers him the happiness of divine life.
The Second Vatican Council invited scholars to take “special care for the renewal of moral theology”, in such a way that “its scientific presentation, increasingly based on the teaching of Scripture, will cast light on the exalted vocation of the faithful in Christ and on their obligation to bear fruit in charity for the life of the world”.45 The Council also encouraged theologians, “while respecting the methods and requirements of theological science, to look for a more appropriate way of communicating doctrine to the people of their time; since there is a difference between the deposit or the truths of faith and the manner in which they are expressed, keeping the same meaning and the same judgment”.46 This led to a further invitation, one extended to all the faithful, but addressed to theologians in particular: “The faithful should live in the closest contact with others of their time, and should work for a perfect understanding of their modes of thought and feelings as expressed in their culture”.47
The work of many theologians who found support in the Council’s encouragement has already borne fruit in interesting and helpful reflections about the truths of faith to be believed and applied in life, reflections offered in a form better suited to the sensitivities and questions of our contemporaries. The Church, and particularly the Bishops, to whom Jesus Christ primarily entrusted the ministry of teaching, are deeply appreciative of this work, and encourage theologians to continue their efforts, inspired by that profound and authentic “fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom” (cf. Prov 1:7).
At the same time, however, within the context of the theological debates which followed the Council, there have developed certain interpretations of Christian morality which are not consistent with “sound teaching” (2 Tim 4:3). Certainly the Church’s Magisterium does not intend to impose upon the faithful any particular theological system, still less a philosophical one. Nevertheless, in order to “reverently preserve and faithfully expound” the word of God,48 the Magisterium has the duty to state that some trends of theological thinking and certain philosophical affirmations are incompatible with revealed truth.49
30. In addressing this Encyclical to you, my Brother Bishops, it is my intention to statethe principles necessary for discerning what is contrary to “sound doctrine”, drawing attention to those elements of the Church’s moral teaching which today appear particularly exposed to error, ambiguity or neglect. Yet these are the very elements on which there depends “the answer to the obscure riddles of the human condition which today also, as in the past, profoundly disturb the human heart. What is man? What is the meaning and purpose of our life? What is good and what is sin? What origin and purpose do sufferings have? What is the way to attaining true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? Lastly, what is that final, unutterable mystery which embraces our lives and from which we take our origin and towards which we tend?”.50 These and other questions, such as: what is freedom and what is its relationship to the truth contained in God’s law? what is the role of conscience in man’s moral development? how do we determine, in accordance with the truth about the good, the specific rights and duties of the human person? — can all be summed up in the fundamental question which the young man in the Gospel put to Jesus: “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” Because the Church has been sent by Jesus to preach the Gospel and to “make disciples of all nations…, teaching them to observe all” that he has commanded (cf. Mt 28:19-20), she today once more puts forward the Master’s reply, a reply that possesses a light and a power capable of answering even the most controversial and complex questions. This light and power also impel the Church constantly to carry out not only her dogmatic but also her moral reflection within an interdisciplinary context, which is especially necessary in facing new issues.51
It is in the same light and power that the Church’s Magisterium continues to carry out its task of discernment, accepting and living out the admonition addressed by the Apostle Paul to Timothy: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time will come when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry” (2 Tim 4:1-5; cf. Tit 1:10, 13-14).
“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32)
31. The human issues most frequently debated and differently resolved in contemporary moral reflection are all closely related, albeit in various ways, to a crucial issue: human freedom.
Certainly people today have a particularly strong sense of freedom. As the Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae had already observed, “the dignity of the human person is a concern of which people of our time are becoming increasingly more aware”.52 Hence the insistent demand that people be permitted to “enjoy the use of their own responsible judgment and freedom, and decide on their actions on grounds of duty and conscience, without external pressure or coercion”.53In particular, the right to religious freedom and to respect for conscience on its journey towards the truth is increasingly perceived as the foundation of the cumulative rights of the person.54
This heightened sense of the dignity of the human person and of his or her uniqueness, and of the respect due to the journey of conscience, certainly represents one of the positive achievements of modern culture. This perception, authentic as it is, has been expressed in a number of more or less adequate ways, some of which however diverge from the truth about man as a creature and the image of God, and thus need to be corrected and purified in the light of faith.55
32. Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values. This is the direction taken by doctrines which have lost the sense of the transcendent or which are explicitly atheist. The individual conscience is accorded the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment 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 judgment 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 judgment.
As is immediately evident, the crisis of truth is not unconnected with this development. Once the idea of a universal truth about the good, knowable by human reason, is lost, inevitably the notion of conscience also changes. 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 judgment 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.
These different notions are at the origin of currents of thought which posit a radical opposition between moral law and conscience, and between nature and freedom.
33. Side by side with its exaltation of freedom, yet oddly in contrast with it, modern culture radically questions the very existence of this freedom. A number of disciplines, grouped under the name of the “behavioural sciences”, have rightly drawn attention to the many kinds of psychological and social conditioning which influence the exercise of human freedom. Knowledge of these conditionings and the study they have received represent important achievements which have found application in various areas, for example in pedagogy or the administration of justice. But some people, going beyond the conclusions which can be legitimately drawn from these observations, have come to question or even deny the very reality of human freedom.
Mention should also be made here of theories which misuse scientific research about the human person. Arguing from the great variety of customs, behaviour patterns and institutions present in humanity, these theories end up, if not with an outright denial of universal human values, at least with a relativistic conception of morality.
34. “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?”. The question of morality, to which Christ provides the answer, cannot prescind from the issue of freedom. Indeed, it considers that issue central, for there can be no morality without freedom: “It is only in freedom that man can turn to what is good”.56 But what sort of freedom? The Council, considering our contemporaries who “highly regard” freedom and “assiduously pursue” it, but who “often cultivate it in wrong ways as a licence to do anything they please, even evil”, speaks of “genuine” freedom: “Genuine freedom is an outstanding manifestation of the divine image in man. For God willed to leave man “in the power of his own counsel” (cf. Sir 15:14), so that he would seek his Creator of his own accord and would freely arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to God”.57 Although each individual has a right to be respected in his own journey in search of the truth, there exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known.58 As Cardinal John Henry Newman, that outstanding defender of the rights of conscience, forcefully put it: “Conscience has rights because it has duties”.59
Certain tendencies in contemporary moral theology, under the influence of the currents of subjectivism and individualism just mentioned, involve novel interpretations of the relationship of freedom to the moral law, human nature and conscience, and propose novel criteria for the moral evaluation of acts. Despite their variety, these tendencies are at one in lessening or even denying the dependence of freedom on truth.
If we wish to undertake a critical discernment of these tendencies — a discernment capable of acknowledging what is legitimate, useful and of value in them, while at the same time pointing out their ambiguities, dangers and errors — we must examine them in the light of the fundamental dependence of freedom upon truth, a dependence which has found its clearest and most authoritative expression in the words of Christ: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32).
I. Freedom and Law
“Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (Gen 2:17)
35. In the Book of Genesis we read: “The Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may eat freely of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die’ ” (Gen2:16-17).
With this imagery, Revelation teaches that the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man, but to God alone. The man is certainly free, inasmuch as he can understand and accept God’s commands. And he possesses an extremely far-reaching freedom, since he can eat “of every tree of the garden”. But his freedom is not unlimited: it must halt before the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”, for it is called to accept the moral law given by God. In fact, human freedom finds its authentic and complete fulfilment precisely in the acceptance of that law. God, who alone is good, knows perfectly what is good for man, and by virtue of his very love proposes this good to man in the commandments.
God’s law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom; rather, it protects and promotes that freedom. In contrast, however, some present-day cultural tendencies have given rise to several currents of thought in ethics which centre uponan alleged conflict between freedom and law. These doctrines would grant to individuals or social groups the right to determine what is good or evil. Human freedom would thus be able to “create values” and would enjoy a primacy over truth, to the point that truth itself would be considered a creation of freedom. Freedom would thus lay claim to a moral autonomy which would actually amount to an absolute sovereignty.
36. The modern concern for the claims of autonomy has not failed to exercise aninfluence also in the sphere of Catholic moral theology. While the latter has certainly never attempted to set human freedom against the divine law or to question the existence of an ultimate religious foundation for moral norms, it has, nonetheless, been led to undertake a profound rethinking about the role of reason and of faith in identifying moral norms with reference to specific “innerworldly” kinds of behaviour involving oneself, others and the material world.
It must be acknowledged that underlying this work of rethinking there are certain positive concerns which to a great extent belong to the best tradition of Catholic thought. In response to the encouragement of the Second Vatican Council,60 there has been a desire to foster dialogue with modern culture, emphasizing the rational — and thus universally understandable and communicable — character of moral norms belonging to the sphere of the natural moral law.61 There has also been an attempt to reaffirm the interior character of the ethical requirements deriving from that law, requirements which create an obligation for the will only because such an obligation was previously acknowledged by human reason and, concretely, by personal conscience.
Some people, however, disregarding the dependence of human reason on Divine Wisdom and the need, given the present state of fallen nature, for Divine Revelation as an effective means for knowing moral truths, even those of the natural order,62have actually posited a complete sovereignty of reason in the domain of moral norms regarding the right ordering of life in this world. Such norms would constitute the boundaries for a merely “human” morality; they would be the expression of a law which man in an autonomous manner lays down for himself and which has its source exclusively in human reason. In no way could God be considered the Author of this law, except in the sense that human reason exercises its autonomy in setting down laws by virtue of a primordial and total mandate given to man by God. These trends of thought have led to a denial, in opposition to Sacred Scripture (cf. Mt 15:3-6) and the Church’s constant teaching, of the fact that the natural moral law has God as its author, and that man, by the use of reason, participates in the eternal law, which it is not for him to establish.
37. In their desire, however, to keep the moral life in a Christian context, certain moral theologians have introduced a sharp distinction, contrary to Catholic doctrine,63between an ethical order, which would be human in origin and of value for this worldalone, and an order of salvation, for which only certain intentions and interior attitudes regarding God and neighbour would be significant. This has then led to an actual denial that there exists, in Divine Revelation, a specific and determined moral content, universally valid and permanent. The word of God would be limited to proposing an exhortation, a generic paraenesis, which the autonomous reason alone would then have the task of completing with normative directives which are truly “objective”, that is, adapted to the concrete historical situation. Naturally, an autonomy conceived in this way also involves the denial of a specific doctrinal competence on the part of the Church and her Magisterium with regard to particular moral norms which deal with the so-called “human good”. Such norms would not be part of the proper content of Revelation, and would not in themselves be relevant for salvation.
No one can fail to see that such an interpretation of the autonomy of human reason involves positions incompatible with Catholic teaching.
In such a context it is absolutely necessary to clarify, in the light of the word of God and the living Tradition of the Church, the fundamental notions of human freedom and of the moral law, as well as their profound and intimate relationship. Only thus will it be possible to respond to the rightful claims of human reason in a way which accepts the valid elements present in certain currents of contemporary moral theology without compromising the Church’s heritage of moral teaching with ideas derived from an erroneous concept of autonomy.
“God left man in the power of his own counsel” (Sir 15:14)
38. Taking up the words of Sirach, the Second Vatican Council explains the meaning of that “genuine freedom” which is “an outstanding manifestation of the divine image” in man: “God willed to leave man in the power of his own counsel, so that he would seek his Creator of his own accord and would freely arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to God”.64 These words indicate the wonderful depth of thesharing in God’s dominion to which man has been called: they indicate that man’s dominion extends in a certain sense over man himself. This has been a constantly recurring theme in theological reflection on human freedom, which is described as a form of kingship. For example, Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes: “The soul shows its royal and exalted character… in that it is free and self-governed, swayed autonomously by its own will. Of whom else can this be said, save a king?… Thus human nature, created to rule other creatures, was by its likeness to the King of the universe made as it were a living image, partaking with the Archetype both in dignity and in name”.65
The exercise of dominion over the world represents a great and responsible task for man, one which involves his freedom in obedience to the Creator’s command: “Fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28). In view of this, a rightful autonomy is due to every man, as well as to the human community, a fact to which the Council’s ConstitutionGaudium et spes calls special attention. This is the autonomy of earthly realities, which means that “created things have their own laws and values which are to be gradually discovered, utilized and ordered by man”.66
39. Not only the world, however, but also man himself has been entrusted to his own care and responsibility. God left man “in the power of his own counsel” (Sir 15:14), that he might seek his Creator and freely attain perfection. Attaining such perfection means personally building up that perfection in himself. Indeed, just as man in exercising his dominion over the world shapes it in accordance with his own intelligence and will, so too in performing morally good acts, man strengthens, develops and consolidates within himself his likeness to God.
Even so, the Council warns against a false concept of the autonomy of earthly realities, one which would maintain that “created things are not dependent on God and that man can use them without reference to their Creator”.67 With regard to man himself, such a concept of autonomy produces particularly baneful effects, and eventually leads to atheism: “Without its Creator the creature simply disappears… If God is ignored the creature itself is impoverished”.68
40. The teaching of the Council emphasizes, on the one hand, the role of human reason in discovering and applying the moral law: the moral life calls for that creativity and originality typical of the person, the source and cause of his own deliberate acts. On the other hand, reason draws its own truth and authority from the eternal law, which is none other than divine wisdom itself.69 At the heart of the moral life we thus find the principle of a “rightful autonomy”70 of man, the personal subject of his actions.The moral law has its origin in God and always finds its source in him: at the same time, by virtue of natural reason, which derives from divine wisdom, it is a properly human law. Indeed, as we have seen, the natural law “is nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided. God gave this light and this law to man at creation”.71 The rightful autonomy of the practical reason means that man possesses in himself his own law, received from the Creator. Nevertheless, the autonomy of reason cannot mean that reason itself creates values and moral norms.72 Were this autonomy to imply a denial of the participation of the practical reason in the wisdom of the divine Creator and Lawgiver, or were it to suggest a freedom which creates moral norms, on the basis of historical contingencies or the diversity of societies and cultures, this sort of alleged autonomy would contradict the Church’s teaching on the truth about man.73It would be the death of true freedom: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen 2:17).
41. Man’s genuine moral autonomy in no way means the rejection but rather the acceptance of the moral law, of God’s command: “The Lord God gave this command to the man…” (Gen 2:16). Human freedom and God’s law meet and are called to intersect, in the sense of man’s free obedience to God and of God’s completely gratuitous benevolence towards man. Hence obedience to God is not, as some would believe, a heteronomy, as if the moral life were subject to the will of something all-powerful, absolute, ex- traneous to man and intolerant of his freedom. If in fact a heteronomy of morality were to mean a denial of man’s self-determination or the imposition of norms unrelated to his good, this would be in contradiction to the Revelation of the Covenant and of the redemptive Incarnation. Such a heteronomy would be nothing but a form of alienation, contrary to divine wisdom and to the dignity of the human person.
Others speak, and rightly so, of theonomy, or participated theonomy, since man’s free obedience to God’s law effectively implies that human reason and human will participate in God’s wisdom and providence. By forbidding man to “eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”, God makes it clear that man does not originally possess such “knowledge” as something properly his own, but only participates in it by the light of natural reason and of Divine Revelation, which manifest to him the requirements and the promptings of eternal wisdom. Law must therefore be considered an expression of divine wisdom: by submitting to the law, freedom submits to the truth of creation. Consequently one must acknowledge in the freedom of the human person the image and the nearness of God, who is present in all (cf. Eph 4:6). But one must likewise acknowledge the majesty of the God of the universe and revere the holiness of the law of God, who is infinitely transcendent: Deus semper maior.74
Blessed is the man who takes delight in the law of the Lord (cf. Ps 1:1-2)
42. Patterned on God’s freedom, man’s freedom is not negated by his obedience to the divine law; indeed, only through this obedience does it abide in the truth and conform to human dignity. This is clearly stated by the Council: “Human dignity requires man to act through conscious and free choice, as motivated and prompted personally from within, and not through blind internal impulse or merely external pressure. Man achieves such dignity when he frees himself from all subservience to his feelings, and in a free choice of the good, pursues his own end by effectively and assiduously marshalling the appropriate means”.75
In his journey towards God, the One who “alone is good”, man must freely do good and avoid evil. But in order to accomplish this he must be able to distinguish good from evil. And this takes place above all thanks to the light of natural reason, the reflection in man of the splendour of God’s countenance. Thus Saint Thomas, commenting on a verse of Psalm 4, writes: “After saying: Offer right sacrifices (Ps4:5), as if some had then asked him what right works were, the Psalmist adds: There are many who say: Who will make us see good? And in reply to the question he says:The light of your face, Lord, is signed upon us, thereby implying that the light of natural reason whereby we discern good from evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else but an imprint on us of the divine light”.76 It also becomes clear why this law is called the natural law: it receives this name not because it refers to the nature of irrational beings but because the reason which promulgates it is proper to human nature.77
43. The Second Vatican Council points out that the “supreme rule of life is the divine law itself, the eternal, objective and universal law by which God out of his wisdom and love arranges, directs and governs the whole world and the paths of the human community. God has enabled man to share in this divine law, and hence man is able under the gentle guidance of God’s providence increasingly to recognize the unchanging truth”.78
The Council refers back to the classic teaching on God’s eternal law. Saint Augustine defines this as “the reason or the will of God, who commands us to respect the natural order and forbids us to disturb it”.79 Saint Thomas identifies it with “the type of the divine wisdom as moving all things to their due end”.80 And God’s wisdom is providence, a love which cares. God himself loves and cares, in the most literal and basic sense, for all creation (cf. Wis 7:22; 8:11). But God provides for man differently from the way in which he provides for beings which are not persons. He cares for man not “from without”, through the laws of physical nature, but “from within”, through reason, which, by its natural knowledge of God’s eternal law, is consequently able to show man the right direction to take in his free actions.81 In this way God calls man to participate in his own providence, since he desires to guide the world — not only the world of nature but also the world of human persons — through man himself, through man’s reasonable and responsible care. The natural law enters here as the human expression of God’s eternal law. Saint Thomas writes: “Among all others, the rational creature is subject to divine providence in the most excellent way, insofar as it partakes of a share of providence, being provident both for itself and for others. Thus it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end. This participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called natural law”.82
44. The Church has often made reference to the Thomistic doctrine of natural law, including it in her own teaching on morality. Thus my Venerable Predecessor Leo XIII emphasized the essential subordination of reason and human law to the Wisdom of God and to his law. After stating that “the natural law is written and engraved in the heart of each and every man, since it is none other than human reason itself which commands us to do good and counsels us not to sin”, Leo XIII appealed to the “higher reason” of the divine Lawgiver: “But this prescription of human reason could not have the force of law unless it were the voice and the interpreter of some higher reason to which our spirit and our freedom must be subject”. Indeed, the force of law consists in its authority to impose duties, to confer rights and to sanction certain behaviour: “Now all of this, clearly, could not exist in man if, as his own supreme legislator, he gave himself the rule of his own actions”. And he concluded: “It follows that the natural law is itself the eternal law, implanted in beings endowed with reason, and inclining themtowards their right action and end; it is none other than the eternal reason of the Creator and Ruler of the universe”.83
Man is able to recognize good and evil thanks to that discernment of good from evil which he himself carries out by his reason, in particular by his reason enlightened by Divine Revelation and by faith, through the law which God gave to the Chosen People, beginning with the commandments on Sinai. Israel was called to accept and to live out God’s law as a particular gift and sign of its election and of the divine Covenant, and also as a pledge of God’s blessing. Thus Moses could address the children of Israel and ask them: “What great nation is that that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?” (Dt 4:7-8). In the Psalms we encounter the sentiments of praise, gratitude and veneration which the Chosen People is called to show towards God’s law, together with an exhortation to know it, ponder it and translate it into life. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps 1:1-2). “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes” (Ps 1819:8-9).
45. The Church gratefully accepts and lovingly preserves the entire deposit of Revelation, treating it with religious respect and fulfilling her mission of authentically interpreting God’s law in the light of the Gospel. In addition, the Church receives the gift of the New Law, which is the “fulfilment” of God’s law in Jesus Christ and in his Spirit. This is an “interior” law (cf. Jer 31:31-33), “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor 3:3); a law of perfection and of freedom (cf. 2 Cor 3:17); “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:2). Saint Thomas writes that this law “can be called law in two ways. First, the law of the spirit is the Holy Spirit… who, dwelling in the soul, not only teaches what it is necessary to do by enlightening the intellect on the things to be done, but also inclines the affections to act with uprightness… Second, the law of the spirit can be called the proper effect of the Holy Spirit, and thus faith working through love (cf. Gal 5:6), which teaches inwardly about the things to be done… and inclines the affections to act”.84
Even if moral-theological reflection usually distinguishes between the positive or revealed law of God and the natural law, and, within the economy of salvation, between the “old” and the “new” law, it must not be forgotten that these and other useful distinctions always refer to that law whose author is the one and the same God and which is always meant for man. The different ways in which God, acting in history, cares for the world and for mankind are not mutually exclusive; on the contrary, they support each other and intersect. They have their origin and goal in the eternal, wise and loving counsel whereby God predestines men and women “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29). God’s plan poses no threat to man’s genuine freedom; on the contrary, the acceptance of God’s plan is the only way to affirm that freedom.
“What the law requires is written on their hearts” (Rom 2:15)
46. The alleged conflict between freedom and law is forcefully brought up once again today with regard to the natural law, and particularly with regard to nature. Debates about nature and freedom have always marked the history of moral reflection; they grew especially heated at the time of the Renaissance and the Reformation, as can be seen from the teaching of the Council of Trent.85 Our own age is marked, though in a different sense, by a similar tension. The penchant for empirical observation, the procedures of scientific objectification, technological progress and certain forms of liberalism have led to these two terms being set in opposition, as if a dialectic, if not an absolute conflict, between freedom and nature were characteristic of the structure of human history. At other periods, it seemed that “nature” subjected man totally to its own dynamics and even its own unbreakable laws. 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.
Other moralists, however, in their concern to stress the importance of values, remain sensitive to the dignity of freedom, but they frequently conceive of freedom as somehow in opposition to or in conflict with material and biological nature, over which it must progressively assert itself. Here various approaches are at one in overlooking the created dimension of nature and in misunderstanding its integrity. For some,”nature” becomes reduced to raw material for human activity and for its power: thus nature needs to be profoundly transformed, and indeed overcome by freedom, inasmuch as it represents a limitation and denial of freedom. For others, it is in the untrammelled advancement of man’s power, or of his freedom, that economic, cultural, social and even moral values are established: nature would thus come to mean everything found in man and the world apart from freedom. In such an understanding, nature would include in the first place the human body, its make-up and its processes: against this physical datum would be opposed whatever is “constructed”, in other words “culture”, seen as the product and result of freedom. Human nature, understood in this way, could be reduced to and treated as a readily available biological or social material. This ultimately means making freedom selfdefining and a phenomenon creative of itself and its values. Indeed, when all is said and done man would not even have a nature; he would be his own personal life-project. Man would be nothing more than his own freedom!
47. In this context, objections of physicalism and naturalism have been levelled against the traditional conception of the natural law, which is accused of presenting as moral laws what are in themselves mere biological laws. Consequently, in too superficial a way, a permanent and unchanging character would be attributed to certain kinds of human behaviour, and, on the basis of this, an attempt would be made to formulate universally valid moral norms. According to certain theologians, this kind of “biologistic or naturalistic argumentation” would even be present in certain documents of the Church’s Magisterium, particularly those dealing with the area of sexual and conjugal ethics. It was, they maintain, on the basis of a naturalistic understanding of the sexual act that contraception, direct sterilization, autoeroticism, pre-marital sexual relations, homosexual relations and artificial insemination were condemned as morally unacceptable. In the opinion of these same theologians, a morally negative evaluation of such acts fails to take into adequate consideration both man’s character as a rational and free being and the cultural conditioning of all moral norms. In their view, man, as a rational being, not only can but actually must freely determine the meaning of his behaviour. This process of “determining the meaning” would obviously have to take into account the many limitations of the human being, as existing in a body and in history. Furthermore, it would have to take into consideration the behavioural models and the meanings which the latter acquire in any given culture. Above all, it would have to respect the fundamental commandment of love of God and neighbour. Still, they continue, God made man as a rationally free being; he left him “in the power of his own counsel” and he expects him to shape his life in a personal and rational way. Love of neighbour would mean above all and even exclusively respect for his freedom to make his own decisions. The workings of typically human behaviour, as well as the so-called “natural inclinations”, would establish at the most — so they say — a general orientation towards correct behaviour, but they cannot determine the moral assessment of individual human acts, so complex from the viewpoint of situations.
48. Faced with this theory, one has to consider carefully the correct relationship existing between freedom and human nature, and in particular the place of the human body in questions of natural law.
A freedom which claims to be absolute ends up treating the human body as a raw datum, devoid of any meaning and moral values until freedom has shaped it in accordance with its design. Consequently, human nature and the body appear aspresuppositions or preambles, materially necessary for freedom to make its choice, yet extrinsic to the person, the subject and the human act. Their functions would not be able to constitute reference points for moral decisions, because the finalities of these inclinations would be merely “physical” goods, called by some “pre-moral”. To refer to them, in order to find in them rational indications with regard to the order of morality, would be to expose oneself to the accusation of physicalism or biologism. In this way of thinking, the tension between freedom and a nature conceived of in a reductive way is resolved by a division within man himself.
This moral theory does not correspond to the truth about man and his freedom. It contradicts the Church’s teachings on the unity of the human person, whose rational soul is per se et essentialiter the form of his body.86 The spiritual and immortal soul is the principle of unity of the human being, whereby it exists as a whole — corpore et anima unus 87 — as a person. These definitions not only point out that the body, which has been promised the resurrection, will also share in glory. They also remind us that reason and free will are linked with all the bodily and sense faculties. The person, including the body, is completely entrusted to himself, and it is in the unity of body and soul that the person is the subject of his own moral acts. The person, by the light of reason and the support of virtue, discovers in the body the anticipatory signs, the expression and the promise of the gift of self, in conformity with the wise plan of the Creator. It is in the light of the dignity of the human person — a dignity which must be affirmed for its own sake — that reason grasps the specific moral value of certain goods towards which the person is naturally inclined. And since the human person cannot be reduced to a freedom which is self-designing, but entails a particular spiritual and bodily structure, the primordial moral requirement of loving and respecting the person as an end and never as a mere means also implies, by its very nature, respect for certain fundamental goods, without which one would fall into relativism and arbitrariness.
49. A doctrine which dissociates the moral act from the bodily dimensions of its exercise is contrary to the teaching of Scripture and Tradition. Such a doctrine revives, in new forms, certain ancient errors which have always been opposed by the Church, inasmuch as they reduce the human person to a “spiritual” and purely formal freedom. This reduction misunderstands the moral meaning of the body and of kinds of behaviour involving it (cf. 1 Cor 6:19). Saint Paul declares that “the immoral, idolaters, adulterers, sexual perverts, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers” are excluded from the Kingdom of God (cf. 1 Cor 6:9). This condemnation — repeated by the Council of Trent”88 — lists as “mortal sins” or “immoral practices” certain specific kinds of behaviour the wilful acceptance of which prevents believers from sharing in the inheritance promised to them. In fact, body and soul are inseparable: in the person, in the willing agent and in the deliberate act, they stand or fall together.
50. At this point the true meaning of the natural law can be understood: it refers to man’s proper and primordial nature, the “nature of the human person”,89 which is the person himself in the unity of soul and body, in the unity of his spiritual and biological inclinations and of all the other specific characteristics necessary for the pursuit of his end. “The natural moral law expresses and lays down the purposes, rights and duties which are based upon the bodily and spiritual nature of the human person. Therefore this law cannot be thought of as simply a set of norms on the biological level; rather it must be defined as the rational order whereby man is called by the Creator to direct and regulate his life and actions and in particular to make use of his own body”.90 To give an example, the origin and the foundation of the duty of absolute respect for human life are to be found in the dignity proper to the person and not simply in the natural inclination to preserve one’s own physical life. Human life, even though it is a fundamental good of man, thus acquires a moral significance in reference to the good of the person, who must always be affirmed for his own sake. While it is always morally illicit to kill an innocent human being, it can be licit, praiseworthy or even imperative to give up one’s own life (cf. Jn 15:13) out of love of neighbour or as a witness to the truth. Only in reference to the human person in his “unified totality”, that is, as “a soul which expresses itself in a body and a body informed by an immortal spirit”,91 can the specifically human meaning of the body be grasped. Indeed, natural inclinations take on moral relevance only insofar as they refer to the human person and his authentic fulfilment, a fulfilment which for that matter can take place always and only in human nature. By rejecting all manipulations of corporeity which alter its human meaning, the Church serves man and shows him the path of true love, the only path on which he can find the true God.
The natural law thus understood does not allow for any division between freedom and nature. Indeed, these two realities are harmoniously bound together, and each is intimately linked to the other.
“From the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:8)
51. The alleged conflict between freedom and nature also has repercussions on the interpretation of certain specific aspects of the natural law, especially its universality and immutability. “Where then are these rules written”, Saint Augustine wondered, “except in the book of that light which is called truth? From thence every just law is transcribed and transferred to the heart of the man who works justice, not by wandering but by being, as it were, impressed upon it, just as the image from the ring passes over to the wax, and yet does not leave the ring”.92
Precisely because of this “truth” the natural law involves universality. Inasmuch as it is inscribed in the rational nature of the person, it makes itself felt to all beings endowed with reason and living in history. In order to perfect himself in his specific order, the person must do good and avoid evil, be concerned for the transmission and preservation of life, refine and develop the riches of the material world, cultivate social life, seek truth, practise good and contemplate beauty.93
The separation which some have posited between the freedom of individuals and the nature which all have in common, as it emerges from certain philosophical theories which are highly influential in present- day culture, obscures the perception of the universality of the moral law on the part of reason. But inasmuch as the natural law expresses the dignity of the human person and lays the foundation for his fundamental rights and duties, it is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all mankind. This universality does not ignore the individuality of human beings, nor is it opposed to the absolute uniqueness of each person. On the contrary, it embraces at its root each of the person’s free acts, which are meant to bear witness to the universality of the true good. By submitting to the common law, our acts build up the true communion of persons and, by God’s grace, practise charity, “which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3:14). When on the contrary they disregard the law, or even are merely ignorant of it, whether culpably or not, our acts damage the communion of persons, to the detriment of each.
52. It is right and just, always and for everyone, to serve God, to render him the worship which is his due and to honour one’s parents as they deserve. Positive precepts such as these, which order us to perform certain actions and to cultivate certain dispositions, are universally binding; they are “unchanging”.94 They unite in the same common good all people of every period of history, created for “the same divine calling and destiny”.95 These universal and permanent laws correspond to things known by the practical reason and are applied to particular acts through the judgment of conscience. The acting subject personally assimilates the truth contained in the law. He appropriates this truth of his being and makes it his own by his acts and the corresponding virtues. The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance. It is a matter of prohibitions which forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception, because the choice of this kind of behaviour is in no case compatible with the goodness of the will of the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion with his neighbour. It is prohibited — to everyone and in every case — to violate these precepts. They oblige everyone, regardless of the cost, never to offend in anyone, beginning with oneself, the personal dignity common to all.
On the other hand, the fact that only the negative commandments oblige always and under all circumstances does not mean that in the moral life prohibitions are more important than the obligation to do good indicated by the positive commandments. The reason is this: the commandment of love of God and neighbour does not have in its dynamic any higher limit, but it does have a lower limit, beneath which the commandment is broken.
Furthermore, what must be done in any given situation depends on the circumstances, not all of which can be foreseen; on the other hand there are kinds of behaviour which can never, in any situation, be a proper response — a response which is in conformity with the dignity of the person.
Finally, it is always possible that man, as the result of coercion or other circumstances, can be hindered from doing certain good actions; but he can never be hindered from not doing certain actions, especially if he is prepared to die rather than to do evil.
The Church has always taught that one may never choose kinds of behaviour prohibited by the moral commandments expressed in negative form in the Old and New Testaments. As we have seen, Jesus himself reaffirms that these prohibitions allow no exceptions: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments… You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness” (Mt 19:17-18).
53. The great concern of our contemporaries for historicity and for culture has led some to call into question the immutability of the natural law itself, and thus the existence of “objective norms of morality” 96 valid for all people of the present and the future, as for those of the past. Is it ever possible, they ask, to consider as universally valid and always binding certain rational determinations established in the past, when no one knew the progress humanity would make in the future?
It must certainly be admitted that man always exists in a particular culture, but it must also be admitted that man is not exhaustively defined by that same culture. Moreover, the very progress of cultures demonstrates that there is something in man which transcends those cultures. This “something” is precisely human nature: this nature is itself the measure of culture and the condition ensuring that man does not become the prisoner of any of his cultures, but asserts his personal dignity by living in accordance with the profound truth of his being. To call into question the permanent structural elements of man which are connected with his own bodily dimension would not only conflict with common experience, but would render meaningless Jesus’ reference to the “beginning”, precisely where the social and cultural context of the time had distorted the primordial meaning and the role of certain moral norms (cf. Mt19:1-9). This is the reason why “the Church affirms that underlying so many changes there are some things which do not change and are ultimately founded upon Christ,who is the same yesterday and today and for ever”.97 Christ is the “Beginning” who, having taken on human nature, definitively illumines it in its constitutive elements and in its dynamism of charity towards God and neighbour.98
Certainly there is a need to seek out and to discover the most adequate formulationfor universal and permanent moral norms in the light of different cultural contexts, a formulation most capable of ceaselessly expressing their historical relevance, of making them understood and of authentically interpreting their truth. This truth of the moral law — like that of the “deposit of faith” — unfolds down the centuries: the norms expressing that truth remain valid in their substance, but must be specified and determined “eodem sensu eademque sententia” 99 in the light of historical circumstances by the Church’s Magisterium, whose decision is preceded and accompanied by the work of interpretation and formulation characteristic of the reason of individual believers and of theological reflection.100
II. Conscience and truth
54. The relationship between man’s freedom and God’s law is most deeply lived out in the “heart” of the person, in his moral conscience. As the Second Vatican Council observed: “In the depths of his conscience man detects a law which he does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can when necessary speak to his heart more specifically: ‘do this, shun that’. For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged (cf. Rom 2:14-16)”.101
The way in which one conceives the relationship between freedom and law is thus intimately bound up with one’s understanding of the moral conscience. Here the cultural tendencies referred to above — in which freedom and law are set in opposition to each other and kept apart, and freedom is exalted almost to the point of idolatry — lead to a “creative” understanding of moral conscience, which diverges from the teaching of the Church’s tradition and her Magisterium.
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 ageneral 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.
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 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.
58. The importance of this interior dialogue of man with himself can never be adequately appreciated. But it is also a dialogue of man with God, the author of the law, the primordial image and final end of man. Saint Bonaventure teaches that “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”.103Thus it can be said that conscience bears witness to man’s own rectitude or iniquity to man himself but, together with this and indeed even beforehand, conscience is the witness of God himself, whose voice and judgment penetrate the depths of man’s soul, calling him fortiter et suaviter to obedience. “Moral conscience does not close man within an insurmountable and impenetrable solitude, but opens him to the call, to the voice of God. In this, and not in anything else, lies the entire mystery and the dignity of the moral conscience: in being the place, the sacred place where God speaks to man”.104
59. Saint Paul does not merely acknowledge that conscience acts as a “witness”; he also reveals the way in which conscience performs that function. He speaks of “conflicting thoughts” which accuse or excuse the Gentiles with regard to their behaviour (cf. Rom 2:15). The term “conflicting thoughts” clarifies the precise nature of conscience: it is a moral judgment about man and his actions, a judgment either of acquittal or of condemnation, according as human acts are in conformity or not with the law of God written on the heart. In the same text the Apostle clearly speaks of the judgment of actions, the judgment of their author and the moment when that judgment will be definitively rendered: “(This will take place) on that day when, according to my Gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Rom 2:16).
The judgment of conscience is a practical judgment, a judgment which makes known what man must do or not do, or which assesses an act already performed by him. It is a judgment which applies to a concrete situation the rational conviction that one must love and do good and avoid evil. This first principle of practical reason is part of the natural law; indeed it constitutes the very foundation of the natural law, inasmuch as it expresses that primordial insight about good and evil, that reflection of God’s creative wisdom which, like an imperishable spark (scintilla animae), shines in the heart of every man. But whereas the natural law discloses the objective and universal demands of the moral good, conscience is the application of the law to a particular case; this application of the law thus becomes an inner dictate for the individual, a summons to do what is good in this particular situation. Conscience thus formulatesmoral obligation in the light of the natural law: it is the obligation to do what the individual, through the workings of his conscience, knows to be a good he is called to do here and now. The universality of the law and its obligation are acknowledged, not suppressed, once reason has established the law’s application in concrete present circumstances. The judgment of conscience states “in an ultimate way” whether a certain particular kind of behaviour is in conformity with the law; it formulates the proximate norm of the morality of a voluntary act, “applying the objective law to a particular case”.105
60. Like the natural law itself and all practical knowledge, the judgment of conscience also has an imperative character: man must act in accordance with it. If man acts against this judgment or, in a case where he lacks certainty about the rightness and goodness of a determined act, still performs that act, he stands condemned by his own conscience, the proximate norm of personal morality. The dignity of this rational forum and the authority of its voice and judgments derive from the truth about moral good and evil, which it is called to listen to and to express. This truth is indicated by the “divine law”, the universal and objective norm of morality. The judgment of conscience does not establish the law; rather it bears witness to the authority of the natural law and of the practical reason with reference to the supreme good, whose attractiveness the human person perceives and whose commandments he accepts. “Conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil. Rather there is profoundly imprinted upon it a principle of obedience vis-à-vis the objective norm which establishes and conditions the correspondence of its decisions with the commands and prohibitions which are at the basis of human behaviour”.106
61. The truth about moral good, as that truth is declared in the law of reason, is practically and concretely recognized by the judgment of conscience, which leads one to take responsibility for the good or the evil one has done. If man does evil, the just judgment of his conscience remains within him as a witness to the universal truth of the good, as well as to the malice of his particular choice. But the verdict of conscience remains in him also as a pledge of hope and mercy: while bearing witness to the evil he has done, it also reminds him of his need, with the help of God’s grace, to ask forgiveness, to do good and to cultivate virtue constantly.
Consequently in the practical judgment of conscience, which imposes on the person the obligation to perform a given act, the link between freedom and truth is made manifest. Precisely for this reason conscience expresses itself in acts of “judgment” which reflect the truth about the good, and not in arbitrary “decisions”. The maturity and responsibility of these judgments — and, when all is said and done, of the individual who is their subject — are not measured by the liberation of the conscience from objective truth, in favour of an alleged autonomy in personal decisions, but, on the contrary, by an insistent search for truth and by allowing oneself to be guided by that truth in one’s actions.
Seeking what is true and good
62. Conscience, as the judgment of an act, is not exempt from the possibility of error. As the Council puts it, “not infrequently conscience can be mistaken as a result of invincible ignorance, although it does not on that account forfeit its dignity; but this cannot be said when a man shows little concern for seeking what is true and good, and conscience gradually becomes almost blind from being accustomed to sin”.107 In these brief words the Council sums up the doctrine which the Church down the centuries has developed with regard to the erroneous conscience.
Certainly, in order to have a “good conscience” (1 Tim 1:5), man must seek the truth and must make judgments in accordance with that same truth. As the Apostle Paul says, the conscience must be “confirmed by the Holy Spirit” (cf. Rom 9:1); it must be “clear” (2 Tim 1:3); it must not “practise cunning and tamper with God’s word”, but “openly state the truth” (cf. 2 Cor 4:2). On the other hand, the Apostle also warns Christians: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2).
Paul’s admonition urges us to be watchful, warning us that in the judgments of our conscience the possibility of error is always present. Conscience is not an infallible judge; it can make mistakes. However, error of conscience can be the result of aninvincible ignorance, an ignorance of which the subject is not aware and which he is unable to overcome by himself.
The Council reminds us that in cases where such invincible ignorance is not culpable, conscience does not lose its dignity, because even when it directs us to act in a way not in conformity with the objective moral order, it continues to speak in the name of that truth about the good which the subject is called to seek sincerely.
63. In any event, it is always from the truth that the dignity of conscience derives. In the case of the correct conscience, it is a question of the objective truth received by man; in the case of the erroneous conscience, it is a question of what man, mistakenly, subjectively considers to be true. It is never acceptable to confuse a “subjective” error about moral good with the “objective” truth rationally proposed to man in virtue of his end, or to make the moral value of an act performed with a true and correct conscience equivalent to the moral value of an act performed by following the judgment of an erroneous conscience.108 It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment 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. Furthermore, a good act which is not recognized as such does not contribute to the moral growth of the person who performs it; it does not perfect him and it does not help to dispose him for the supreme good. Thus, before feeling easily justified in the name of our conscience, we should reflect on the words of the Psalm: “Who can discern his errors? Clear me from hidden faults” (Ps 19:12). There are faults which we fail to see but which nevertheless remain faults, because we have refused to walk towards the light (cf. Jn 9:39-41).
Conscience, as the ultimate concrete judgment, compromises its dignity when it isculpably erroneous, that is to say, “when man shows little concern for seeking what is true and good, and conscience gradually becomes almost blind from being accustomed to sin”.109 Jesus alludes to the danger of the conscience being deformed when he warns: “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!” (Mt 6:22-23).
64. The words of Jesus just quoted also represent a call to form our conscience, to make it the object of a continuous conversion to what is true and to what is good. In the same vein, Saint Paul exhorts us not to be conformed to the mentality of this world, but to be transformed by the renewal of our mind (cf. Rom 12:2). It is the “heart” converted to the Lord and to the love of what is good which is really the source of true judgments of conscience. Indeed, in order to “prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2), knowledge of God’s law in general is certainly necessary, but it is not sufficient: what is essential is a sort of”connaturality” between man and the true good.110 Such a connaturality is rooted in and develops through the virtuous attitudes of the individual himself: prudence and the other cardinal virtues, and even before these the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. This is the meaning of Jesus’ saying: “He who does what is true comes to the light” (Jn 3:21).
Christians have a great help for the formation of conscience in the Church and her Magisterium. As the Council affirms: “In forming their consciences the Christian faithful must give careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. Her charge is to announce and teach authentically that truth which is Christ, and at the same time with her authority to declare and confirm the principles of the moral order which derive from human nature itself “.111 It follows that the authority of the Church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians. 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.
III. Fundamental choice and specific kinds of behaviour
“Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal 5:13)
65. The heightened concern for freedom in our own day has led many students of the behavioural and the theological sciences to develop a more penetrating analysis of its nature and of its dynamics. It has been rightly pointed out that freedom is not only the choice for one or another particular action; it is also, within that choice, a decision about oneself and a setting of one’s own life for or against the Good, for or against the Truth, and ultimately for or against God. Emphasis has rightly been placed on the importance of certain choices which “shape” a person’s entire moral life, and which serve as bounds within which other particular everyday choices can be situated and allowed to develop.
Some authors, however, have proposed an even more radical revision of therelationship between person and acts. They speak of a “fundamental freedom”, deeper than and different from freedom of choice, which needs to be considered if human actions are to be correctly understood and evaluated. According to these authors, the key role in the moral life is to be attributed to a “fundamental option”, brought about by that fundamental freedom whereby the person makes an overall self-determination, not through a specific and conscious decision on the level of reflection, but in a “transcendental” and “athematic” way. Particular acts which flow from this option would constitute only partial and never definitive attempts to give it expression; they would only be its “signs” or symptoms. The immediate object of such acts would not be absolute Good (before which the freedom of the person would be expressed on a transcendental level), but particular (also termed “categorical” ) goods. In the opinion of some theologians, none of these goods, which by their nature are partial, could determine the freedom of man as a person in his totality, even though it is only by bringing them about or refusing to do so that man is able to express his own fundamental option.
A distinction thus comes to be introduced between the fundamental option and deliberate choices of a concrete kind of behaviour. In some authors this division tends to become a separation, when they expressly limit moral “good” and “evil” to the transcendental dimension proper to the fundamental option, and describe as “right” or “wrong” the choices of particular “innerworldly” kinds of behaviour: those, in other words, concerning man’s relationship with himself, with others and with the material world. There thus appears to be established within human acting a clear disjunction between two levels of morality: on the one hand the order of good and evil, which is dependent on the will, and on the other hand specific kinds of behaviour, which are judged to be morally right or wrong only on the basis of a technical calculation of the proportion between the “premoral” or “physical” goods and evils which actually result from the action. This is pushed to the point where a concrete kind of behaviour, even one freely chosen, comes to be considered as a merely physical process, and not according to the criteria proper to a human act. The conclusion to which this eventually leads is that the properly moral assessment of the person is reserved to his fundamental option, prescinding in whole or in part from his choice of particular actions, of concrete kinds of behaviour.
66. There is no doubt that Christian moral teaching, even in its Biblical roots, acknowledges the specific importance of a fundamental choice which qualifies the moral life and engages freedom on a radical level before God. It is a question of the decision of faith, of the obedience of faith (cf. Rom 16:26) “by which man makes a total and free self-commitment to God, offering ‘the full submission of intellect and will to God as he reveals’ “.112 This faith, which works through love (cf. Gal 5:6), comes from the core of man, from his “heart” (cf. Rom 10:10), whence it is called to bear fruit in works (cf. Mt 12:33-35; Lk 6:43-45; Rom 8:5-10; Gal 5:22). In the Decalogue one finds, as an introduction to the various commandments, the basic clause: “I am the Lord your God…” (Ex 20:2), which, by impressing upon the numerous and varied particular prescriptions their primordial meaning, gives the morality of the Covenant its aspect of completeness, unity and profundity. Israel’s fundamental decision, then, is about the fundamental commandment (cf. Jos 24:14-25; Ex 19:3-8; Mic 6:8). The morality of the New Covenant is similarly dominated by the fundamental call of Jesus to follow him — thus he also says to the young man: “If you wish to be perfect… then come, follow me” (Mt 19:21); to this call the disciple must respond with a radical decision and choice. The Gospel parables of the treasure and the pearl of great price, for which one sells all one’s possessions, are eloquent and effective images of the radical and unconditional nature of the decision demanded by the Kingdom of God. The radical nature of the decision to follow Jesus is admirably expressed in his own words: “Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel’s will save it” (Mk 8:35).
Jesus’ call to “come, follow me” marks the greatest possible exaltation of human freedom, yet at the same time it witnesses to the truth and to the obligation of acts of faith and of decisions which can be described as involving a fundamental option. We find a similar exaltation of human freedom in the words of Saint Paul: “You were called to freedom, brethren” (Gal 5:13). But the Apostle immediately adds a grave warning: “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh”. This warning echoes his earlier words: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). Paul encourages us to be watchful, because freedom is always threatened by slavery. And this is precisely the case when an act of faith — in the sense of a fundamental option — becomes separated from the choice of particular acts, as in the tendencies mentioned above.
67. These tendencies are therefore contrary to the teaching of Scripture itself, which sees the fundamental option as a genuine choice of freedom and links that choice profoundly to particular acts. By his fundamental choice, man is capable of giving his life direction and of progressing, with the help of grace, towards his end, following God’s call. But this capacity is actually exercised in the particular choices of specific actions, through which man deliberately conforms himself to God’s will, wisdom and law. It thus needs to be stated that the so-called fundamental option, to the extent that it is distinct from a generic intention and hence one not yet determined in such a way that freedom is obligated, is always brought into play through conscious and free decisions. Precisely for this reason, it is revoked when man engages his freedom in conscious decisions to the contrary, with regard to morally grave matter.
To separate the fundamental option from concrete kinds of behaviour means to contradict the substantial integrity or personal unity of the moral agent in his body and in his soul. A fundamental option understood without explicit consideration of the potentialities which it puts into effect and the determinations which express it does not do justice to the rational finality immanent in man’s acting and in each of his deliberate decisions. In point of fact, the morality of human acts is not deduced only from one’s intention, orientation or fundamental option, understood as an intention devoid of a clearly determined binding content or as an intention with no corresponding positive effort to fulfil the different obligations of the moral life. Judgments about morality cannot be made without taking into consideration whether or not the deliberate choice of a specific kind of behaviour is in conformity with the dignity and integral vocation of the human person. Every choice always implies a reference by the deliberate will to the goods and evils indicated by the natural law as goods to be pursued and evils to be avoided. In the case of the positive moral precepts, prudence always has the task of verifying that they apply in a specific situation, for example, in view of other duties which may be more important or urgent. But the negative moral precepts, those prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behaviour as intrinsically evil, do not allow for any legitimate exception. They do not leave room, in any morally acceptable way, for the “creativity” of any contrary determination whatsoever. Once the moral species of an action prohibited by a universal rule is concretely recognized, the only morally good act is that of obeying the moral law and of refraining from the action which it forbids.
68. Here an important pastoral consideration must be added. According to the logic of the positions mentioned above, an individual could, by virtue of a fundamental option, remain faithful to God independently of whether or not certain of his choices and his acts are in conformity with specific moral norms or rules. By virtue of a primordial option for charity, that individual could continue to be morally good, persevere in God’s grace and attain salvation, even if certain of his specific kinds of behaviour were deliberately and gravely contrary to God’s commandments as set forth by the Church.
In point of fact, man does not suffer perdition only by being unfaithful to that fundamental option whereby he has made “a free self-commitment to God”.113 With every freely committed mortal sin, he offends God as the giver of the law and as a result becomes guilty with regard to the entire law (cf. Jas 2:8-11); even if he perseveres in faith, he loses “sanctifying grace”, “charity” and “eternal happiness”.114As the Council of Trent teaches, “the grace of justification once received is lost not only by apostasy, by which faith itself is lost, but also by any other mortal sin”.115
Mortal and venial sin
69. As we have just seen, reflection on the fundamental option has also led some theologians to undertake a basic revision of the traditional distinction between mortalsins and venial sins. They insist that the opposition to God’s law which causes the loss of sanctifying grace — and eternal damnation, when one dies in such a state of sin — could only be the result of an act which engages the person in his totality: in other words, an act of fundamental option. According to these theologians, mortal sin, which separates man from God, only exists in the rejection of God, carried out at a level of freedom which is neither to be identified with an act of choice nor capable of becoming the object of conscious awareness. Consequently, they go on to say, it is difficult, at least psychologically, to accept the fact that a Christian, who wishes to remain united to Jesus Christ and to his Church, could so easily and repeatedly commit mortal sins, as the “matter” itself of his actions would sometimes indicate. Likewise, it would be hard to accept that man is able, in a brief lapse of time, to sever radically the bond of communion with God and afterwards be converted to him by sincere repentance. The gravity of sin, they maintain, ought to be measured by the degree of engagement of the freedom of the person performing an act, rather than by the matter of that act.
70. The Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia reaffirmed the importance and permanent validity of the distinction between mortal and venial sins, in accordance with the Church’s tradition. And the 1983 Synod of Bishops, from which that Exhortation emerged, “not only reaffirmed the teaching of the Council of Trent concerning the existence and nature of mortal and venial sins, but it also recalled that mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent”.116
The statement of the Council of Trent does not only consider the “grave matter” of mortal sin; it also recalls that its necessary condition is “full awareness and deliberate consent”. In any event, both in moral theology and in pastoral practice one is familiar with cases in which an act which is grave by reason of its matter does not constitute a mortal sin because of a lack of full awareness or deliberate consent on the part of the person performing it. Even so, “care will have to be taken not to reduce mortal sin to an act of ‘fundamental option’ — as is commonly said today — against God”, seen either as an explicit and formal rejection of God and neighbour or as an implicit and unconscious rejection of love. “For mortal sin exists also when a person knowingly and willingly, for whatever reason, chooses something gravely disordered. In fact, such a choice already includes contempt for the divine law, a rejection of God’s love for humanity and the whole of creation: the person turns away from God and loses charity. Consequently, the fundamental orientation can be radically changed by particular acts. Clearly, situations can occur which are very complex and obscure from a psychological viewpoint, and which influence the sinner’s subjective imputability. But from a consideration of the psychological sphere one cannot proceed to create a theological category, which is precisely what the ‘fundamental option’ is, understanding it in such a way that it objectively changes or casts doubt upon the traditional concept of mortal sin”.117
The separation of fundamental option from deliberate choices of particular kinds of behaviour, disordered in themselves or in their circumstances, which would not engage that option, thus involves a denial of Catholic doctrine on mortal sin: “With the whole tradition of the Church, we call mortal sin the act by which man freely and consciously rejects God, his law, the covenant of love that God offers, preferring to turn in on himself or to some created and finite reality, something contrary to the divine will (conversio ad creaturam). This can occur in a direct and formal way, in the sins of idolatry, apostasy and atheism; or in an equivalent way, as in every act of disobedience to God’s commandments in a grave matter”.118
IV. The moral act
Teleology and teleologism
71. The relationship between man’s freedom and God’s law, which has its intimate and living centre in the moral conscience, is manifested and realized in human acts. It is precisely through his acts that man attains perfection as man, as one who is called to seek his Creator of his own accord and freely to arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him.119
Human acts are moral acts because they express and determine the goodness or evil of the individual who performs them.120 They do not produce a change merely in the state of affairs outside of man but, to the extent that they are deliberate choices, they give moral definition to the very person who performs them, determining his profound spiritual traits. This was perceptively noted by Saint Gregory of Nyssa: “All things subject to change and to becoming never remain constant, but continually pass from one state to another, for better or worse… Now, human life is always subject to change; it needs to be born ever anew… But here birth does not come about by a foreign intervention, as is the case with bodily beings…; it is the result of a free choice. Thus we are in a certain way our own parents, creating ourselves as we will, by our decisions”.121
72. The morality of acts is defined by the relationship of man’s freedom with the authentic good. This good is established, as the eternal law, by Divine Wisdom which orders every being towards its end: this eternal law is known both by man’s natural reason (hence it is “natural law”), and — in an integral and perfect way — by God’s supernatural Revelation (hence it is called “divine law”). Acting is morally good when the choices of freedom are in conformity with man’s true good and thus express the voluntary ordering of the person towards his ultimate end: God himself, the supreme good in whom man finds his full and perfect happiness. The first question in the young man’s conversation with Jesus: “What good must I do to have eternal life? ” (Mt 19:6) immediately brings out the essential connection between the moral value of an act and man’s final end. Jesus, in his reply, confirms the young man’s conviction: the performance of good acts, commanded by the One who “alone is good”, constitutes the indispensable condition of and path to eternal blessedness: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:17). Jesus’ answer and his reference to the commandments also make it clear that the path to that end is marked by respect for the divine laws which safeguard human good.Only the act in conformity with the good can be a path that leads to life.
The rational ordering of the human act to the good in its truth and the voluntary pursuit of that good, known by reason, constitute morality. Hence human activity cannot be judged as morally good merely because it is a means for attaining one or another of its goals, or simply because the subject’s intention is good.122 Activity is morally good when it attests to and expresses the voluntary ordering of the person to his ultimate end and the conformity of a concrete action with the human good as it is acknowledged in its truth by reason. If the object of the concrete action is not in harmony with the true good of the person, the choice of that action makes our will and ourselves morally evil, thus putting us in conflict with our ultimate end, the supreme good, God himself.
73. The Christian, thanks to God’s Revelation and to faith, is aware of the “newness” which characterizes the morality of his actions: these actions are called to show either consistency or inconsistency with that dignity and vocation which have been bestowed on him by grace. In Jesus Christ and in his Spirit, the Christian is a “new creation”, a child of God; by his actions he shows his likeness or unlikeness to the image of the Son who is the first-born among many brethren (cf. Rom 8:29), he lives out his fidelity or infidelity to the gift of the Spirit, and he opens or closes himself to eternal life, to the communion of vision, love and happiness with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.123 As Saint Cyril of Alexandria writes, Christ “forms us according to his image, in such a way that the traits of his divine nature shine forth in us through sanctification and justice and the life which is good and in conformity with virtue… The beauty of this image shines forth in us who are in Christ, when we show ourselves to be good in our works”.124
Consequently the moral life has an essential “teleological” character, since it consists in the deliberate ordering of human acts to God, the supreme good and ultimate end(telos) of man. This is attested to once more by the question posed by the young man to Jesus: “What good must I do to have eternal life? “. But this ordering to one’s ultimate end is not something subjective, dependent solely upon one’s intention. It presupposes that such acts are in themselves capable of being ordered to this end, insofar as they are in conformity with the authentic moral good of man, safeguarded by the commandments. This is what Jesus himself points out in his reply to the young man: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:17).
Clearly such an ordering must be rational and free, conscious and deliberate, by virtue of which man is “responsible” for his actions and subject to the judgment of God, the just and good judge who, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, rewards good and punishes evil: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (2 Cor5:10).
74. But on what does the moral assessment of man’s free acts depend? What is it that ensures this ordering of human acts to God? Is it the intention of the acting subject, the circumstances — and in particular the consequences — of his action, or the object itself of his act?
This is what is traditionally called the problem of the “sources of morality”. Precisely with regard to this problem there have emerged in the last few decades new or newly-revived theological and cultural trends which call for careful discernment on the part of the Church’s Magisterium.
Certain ethical theories, called “teleological”, claim to be concerned for the conformity of human acts with the ends pursued by the agent and with the values intended by him. The criteria for evaluating the moral rightness of an action are drawn from theweighing of the non-moral or pre-moral goods to be gained and the corresponding non-moral or pre-moral values to be respected. For some, concrete behaviour would be right or wrong according as whether or not it is capable of producing a better state of affairs for all concerned. Right conduct would be the one capable of “maximizing” goods and “minimizing” evils.
Many of the Catholic moralists who follow in this direction seek to distance themselves from utilitarianism and pragmatism, where the morality of human acts would be judged without any reference to the man’s true ultimate end. They rightly recognize the need to find ever more consistent rational arguments in order to justify the requirements and to provide a foundation for the norms of the moral life. This kind of investigation is legitimate and necessary, since the moral order, as established by the natural law, is in principle accessible to human reason. Furthermore, such investigation is well-suited to meeting the demands of dialogue and cooperation with non-Catholics and non-believers, especially in pluralistic societies.
75. But as part of the effort to work out such a rational morality (for this reason it is sometimes called an “autonomous morality” ) there exist false solutions, linked in particular to an inadequate understanding of the object of moral action. Some authorsdo not take into sufficient consideration the fact that the will is involved in the concrete choices which it makes: these choices are a condition of its moral goodness and its being ordered to the ultimate end of the person. Others are inspired by a notion of freedom which prescinds from the actual conditions of its exercise, from its objective reference to the truth about the good, and from its determination through choices of concrete kinds of behaviour.
According to these theories, free will would neither be morally subjected to specific obligations nor shaped by its choices, while nonetheless still remaining responsible for its own acts and for their consequences. 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.
The teleological ethical theories (proportionalism, consequentialism), while acknowledging that moral values are indicated by reason and by Revelation, maintain that it is never possible to formulate an absolute prohibition of particular kinds of behaviour which would be in conflict, in every circumstance and in every culture, with those values. The acting subject would indeed be responsible for attaining the values pursued, but in two ways: the values or goods involved in a human act would be, from one viewpoint, of the moral order (in relation to properly moral values, such as love of God and neighbour, justice, etc.) and, from another viewpoint, of the pre-moral order,which some term non-moral, physical or ontic (in relation to the advantages and disadvantages accruing both to the agent and to all other persons possibly involved, such as, for example, health or its endangerment, physical integrity, life, death, loss of material goods, etc.). In a world where goodness is always mixed with evil, and every good effect linked to other evil effects, the morality of an act would be judged in two different ways: its moral “goodness” would be judged on the basis of the subject’s intention in reference to moral goods, and its “rightness” on the basis of a consideration of its foreseeable effects or consequences and of their proportion. Consequently, concrete kinds of behaviour could be described as “right” or “wrong”, without it being thereby possible to judge as morally “good” or “bad” the will of the person choosing them. In this way, an act which, by contradicting a universal negative norm, directly violates goods considered as “pre-moral” could be qualified as morally acceptable if the intention of the subject is focused, in accordance with a “responsible” assessment of the goods involved in the concrete action, on the moral value judged to be decisive in the situation.
The evaluation of the consequences of the action, based on the proportion between the act and its effects and between the effects themselves, would regard only the pre-moral order. The moral specificity of acts, that is their goodness or evil, would be determined exclusively by the faithfulness of the person to the highest values of charity and prudence, without this faithfulness necessarily being incompatible with choices contrary to certain particular moral precepts. Even when grave matter is concerned, these precepts should be considered as operative norms which are always relative and open to exceptions.
In this view, deliberate consent to certain kinds of behaviour declared illicit by traditional moral theology would not imply an objective moral evil.
The object of the deliberate act
76. These theories can gain a certain persuasive force from their affinity to the scientific mentality, which is rightly concerned with ordering technical and economic activities on the basis of a calculation of resources and profits, procedures and their effects. They seek to provide liberation from the constraints of a voluntaristic and arbitrary morality of obligation which would ultimately be dehumanizing.
Such theories however are not faithful to the Church’s teaching, when they believe they can justify, as morally good, deliberate choices of kinds of behaviour contrary to the commandments of the divine and natural law. These theories cannot claim to be grounded in the Catholic moral tradition.
Although the latter did witness the development of a casuistry which tried to assess the best ways to achieve the good in certain concrete situations, it is nonetheless true that this casuistry concerned only cases in which the law was uncertain, and thus the absolute validity of negative moral precepts, which oblige without exception, was not called into question. The faithful are obliged to acknowledge and respect the specific moral precepts declared and taught by the Church in the name of God, the Creator and Lord.125 When the Apostle Paul sums up the fulfilment of the law in the precept of love of neighbour as oneself (cf.Rom 13:8-10), he is not weakening the commandments but reinforcing them, since he is revealing their requirements and their gravity. Love of God and of one’s neighbour cannot be separated from the observance of the commandments of the Covenantrenewed in the blood of Jesus Christ and in the gift of the Spirit. It is an honour characteristic of Christians to obey God rather than men (cf. Acts 4:19; 5:29) and accept even martyrdom as a consequence, like the holy men and women of the Old and New Testaments, who are considered such because they gave their lives rather than perform this or that particular act contrary to faith or virtue.
77. In order to offer rational criteria for a right moral decision, the theories mentioned above take account of the intention and consequences of human action. Certainly there is need to take into account both the intention — as Jesus forcefully insisted in clear disagreement with the scribes and Pharisees, who prescribed in great detail certain outward practices without paying attention to the heart (cf. Mk 7:20-21; Mt15:19) — and the goods obtained and the evils avoided as a result of a particular act. Responsibility demands as much. But the consideration of these consequences, and also of intentions, is not sufficient for judging the moral quality of a concrete choice. The weighing of the goods and evils foreseeable as the consequence of an action is not an adequate method for determining whether the choice of that concrete kind of behaviour is “according to its species”, or “in itself”, morally good or bad, licit or illicit. The foreseeable consequences are part of those circumstances of the act, which, while capable of lessening the gravity of an evil act, nonetheless cannot alter its moral species.
Moreover, everyone recognizes the difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of evaluating all the good and evil consequences and effects — defined as pre-moral — of one’s own acts: an exhaustive rational calculation is not possible. How then can one go about establishing proportions which depend on a measuring, the criteria of which remain obscure? How could an absolute obligation be justified on the basis of such debatable calculations?
78. The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the “object” rationally chosen by the deliberate will, as is borne out by the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by Saint Thomas.126 In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person. The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behaviour. To the extent that it is in conformity with the order of reason, it is the cause of the goodness of the will; it perfects us morally, and disposes us to recognize our ultimate end in the perfect good, primordial love. By the object of a given moral act, then, one cannot mean a process or an event of the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world. Rather, that object is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person. Consequently, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “there are certain specific kinds of behaviour that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil”.127 And Saint Thomas observes that “it often happens that man acts with a good intention, but without spiritual gain, because he lacks a good will. Let us say that someone robs in order to feed the poor: in this case, even though the intention is good, the uprightness of the will is lacking. Consequently, no evil done with a good intention can be excused. ‘There are those who say: And why not do evil that good may come? Their condemnation is just’ (Rom 3:8)”.128
The reason why a good intention is not itself sufficient, but a correct choice of actions is also needed, is that the human act depends on its object, whether that object iscapable or not of being ordered to God, to the One who “alone is good”, and thus brings about the perfection of the person. An act is therefore good if its object is in conformity with the good of the person with respect for the goods morally relevant for him. Christian ethics, which pays particular attention to the moral object, does not refuse to consider the inner “teleology” of acting, inasmuch as it is directed to promoting the true good of the person; but it recognizes that it is really pursued only when the essential elements of human nature are respected. The human act, good according to its object, is also capable of being ordered to its ultimate end. That same act then attains its ultimate and decisive perfection when the will actually does order it to God through charity. As the Patron of moral theologians and confessors teaches: “It is not enough to do good works; they need to be done well. For our works to be good and perfect, they must be done for the sole purpose of pleasing God”.129
“Intrinsic evil”: it is not licit to do evil that good may come of it (cf. Rom 3:8)
79. One must therefore reject the thesis, characteristic of teleological and proportionalist theories, which holds that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species — its “object” — the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned.
The primary and decisive element for moral judgment is the object of the human act, which establishes whether it is capable of being ordered to the good and to the ultimate end, which is God. This capability is grasped by reason in the very being of man, considered in his integral truth, and therefore in his natural inclinations, his motivations and his finalities, which always have a spiritual dimension as well. It is precisely these which are the contents of the natural law and hence that ordered complex of “personal goods” which serve the “good of the person”: the good which is the person himself and his perfection. These are the goods safeguarded by the commandments, which, according to Saint Thomas, contain the whole natural law.130
80. Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature “incapable of being ordered” to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object”.131 The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: “Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator”.132
With regard to intrinsically evil acts, and in reference to contraceptive practices whereby the conjugal act is intentionally rendered infertile, Pope Paul VI teaches: “Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf. Rom 3:8) — in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general”.133
81. In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture. The Apostle Paul emphatically states: “Do not be deceived: neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God” (1Cor 6:9-10).
If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain “irremediably” evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. “As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?”.134
Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice.
82. Furthermore, an intention is good when it has as its aim the true good of the person in view of his ultimate end. But acts whose object is “not capable of being ordered” to God and “unworthy of the human person” are always and in every case in conflict with that good. Consequently, respect for norms which prohibit such acts and oblige semper et pro semper, that is, without any exception, not only does not inhibit a good intention, but actually represents its basic expression.
The doctrine of the object as a source of morality represents an authentic explicitation of the Biblical morality of the Covenant and of the commandments, of charity and of the virtues. The moral quality of human acting is dependent on this fidelity to the commandments, as an expression of obedience and of love. For this reason — we repeat — the opinion must be rejected as erroneous which maintains that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, without taking into account the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned. Without the rational determination of the morality of human acting as stated above, it would be impossible to affirm the existence of an “objective moral order”135 and to establish any particular norm the content of which would be binding without exception. This would be to the detriment of human fraternity and the truth about the good, and would be injurious to ecclesial communion as well.
83. As is evident, in the question of the morality of human acts, and in particular the question of whether there exist intrinsically evil acts, we find ourselves faced with the question of man himself, of his truth and of the moral consequences flowing from that truth. By acknowledging and teaching the existence of intrinsic evil in given human acts, the Church remains faithful to the integral truth about man; she thus respects and promotes man in his dignity and vocation. Consequently, she must reject the theories set forth above, which contradict this truth.
Dear Brothers in the Episcopate, we must not be content merely to warn the faithful about the errors and dangers of certain ethical theories. We must first of all show the inviting splendour of that truth which is Jesus Christ himself. In him, who is the Truth (cf. Jn 14:6), man can understand fully and live perfectly, through his good actions, his vocation to freedom in obedience to the divine law summarized in the commandment of love of God and neighbour. And this is what takes place through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, of freedom and of love: in him we are enabled to interiorize the law, to receive it and to live it as the motivating force of true personal freedom: “the perfect law, the law of liberty” (Jas 1:25).
CHAPTER III – “LEST THE CROSS OF CHRIST BE EMPTIED OF ITS POWER (1 Cor 1:17) – Moral good for the life of the Church and of the world
“For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1).
84. The fundamental question which the moral theories mentioned above pose in a particularly forceful way is that of the relationship of man’s freedom to God’s law; it is ultimately the question of the relationship between freedom and truth.
According to Christian faith and the Church’s teaching, “only the freedom which submits to the Truth leads the human person to his true good. The good of the person is to be in the Truth and to do the Truth”.136
A comparison between the Church’s teaching and today’s social and cultural situation immediately makes clear the urgent need for the Church herself to develop an intense pastoral effort precisely with regard to this fundamental question. “This essential bond between Truth, the Good and Freedom has been largely lost sight of by present-day culture. As a result, helping man to rediscover it represents nowadays one of the specific requirements of the Church’s mission, for the salvation of the world. Pilate’s question: “What is truth” reflects the distressing perplexity of a man who often no longer knows who he is, whence he comes and where he is going. Hence we not infrequently witness the fearful plunging of the human person into situations of gradual self-destruction. According to some, it appears that one no longer need acknowledge the enduring absoluteness of any moral value. All around us we encounter contempt for human life after conception and before birth; the ongoing violation of basic rights of the person; the unjust destruction of goods minimally necessary for a human life. Indeed, something more serious has happened: man is no longer convinced that only in the truth can he find salvation. The saving power of the truth is contested, and freedom alone, uprooted from any objectivity, is left to decide by itself what is good and what is evil. This relativism becomes, in the field of theology, a lack of trust in the wisdom of God, who guides man with the moral law. Concrete situations are unfavourably contrasted with the precepts of the moral law, nor is it any longer maintained that, when all is said and done, the law of God is always the one true good of man”.137
85. The discernment which the Church carries out with regard to these ethical theories is not simply limited to denouncing and refuting them. In a positive way, the Church seeks, with great love, to help all the faithful to form a moral conscience which will make judgments and lead to decisions in accordance with the truth, following the exhortation of the Apostle Paul: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). This effort by the Church finds its support — the “secret” of its educative power — not so much in doctrinal statements and pastoral appeals to vigilance, as in constantly looking to the Lord Jesus. Each day the Church looks to Christ with unfailing love, fully aware that the true and final answer to the problem of morality lies in him alone. In a particular way, it is in the Crucified Christ that the Church finds the answer to the question troubling so many people today: how can obedience to universal and unchanging moral norms respect the uniqueness and individuality of the person, and not represent a threat to his freedom and dignity? The Church makes her own the Apostle Paul’s awareness of the mission he had received: “Christ… sent me… to preach the Gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power…. We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:17, 23-24). The Crucified Christ reveals the authentic meaning of freedom; he lives it fully in the total gift of himself and calls his disciples to share in his freedom.
86. Rational reflection and daily experience demonstrate the weakness which marks man’s freedom. That freedom is real but limited: its absolute and unconditional origin is not in itself, but in the life within which it is situated and which represents for it, at one and the same time, both a limitation and a possibility. Human freedom belongs to us as creatures; it is a freedom which is given as a gift, one to be received like a seed and to be cultivated responsibly. It is an essential part of that creaturely image which is the basis of the dignity of the person. Within that freedom there is an echo of the primordial vocation whereby the Creator calls man to the true Good, and even more, through Christ’s Revelation, to become his friend and to share his own divine life. It is at once inalienable self-possession and openness to all that exists, in passing beyond self to knowledge and love of the other.138 Freedom then is rooted in the truth about man, and it is ultimately directed towards communion.
Reason and experience not only confirm the weakness of human freedom; they also confirm its tragic aspects. Man comes to realize that his freedom is in some mysterious way inclined to betray this openness to the True and the Good, and that all too often he actually prefers to choose finite, limited and ephemeral goods. What is more, within his errors and negative decisions, man glimpses the source of a deep rebellion, which leads him to reject the Truth and the Good in order to set himself up as an absolute principle unto himself: “You will be like God” (Gen 3:5).
Consequently,freedom itself needs to be set free. It is Christ who sets it free: he “has set us free for freedom” (cf. Gal 5:1).
87. Christ reveals, first and foremost, that the frank and open acceptance of truth is the condition for authentic freedom: “You
will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32).139 This is truth which sets one free in the face of worldly power and which gives the strength to endure martyrdom. So it was with Jesus before Pilate: “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth” (Jn 18:37). The true worshippers of God must thus worship him “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23): in this worship they become free.
Worship of God and a relationship with truth are revealed in Jesus Christ as the deepest foundation of freedom.
Furthermore, Jesus reveals by his whole life, and not only by his words, that freedom is acquired in love, that is, in the gift of self. The one who says: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13), freely goes out to meet his Passion (cf. Mt 26:46), and in obedience to the Father gives his life on the Cross for all men (cf. Phil 2:6-11). Contemplation of Jesus Crucified is thus the highroad which the Church must tread every day if she wishes to understand the full meaning of freedom: the gift of self in service to God and one’s brethren. Communion with the Crucified and Risen Lord is the never-ending source from which the Church draws unceasingly in order to live in freedom, to give of herself and to serve. Commenting on the verse in Psalm 100 “Serve the Lord with gladness”, Saint Augustine says: “In the house of the Lord, slavery is free. It is free because it serves not out of necessity, but out of charity… Charity should make you a servant, just as truth has made you free… you are at once both a servant and free: a servant, because you have become such; free, because you are loved by God your Creator; indeed, you have also been enabled to love your Creator… You are a servant of the Lord and you are a freedman of the Lord. Do not go looking for a liberation which will lead you far from the house of your liberator!”.140
The Church, and each of her members, is thus called to share in the munus regale of the Crucified Christ (cf. Jn 12:32), to share in the grace and in the responsibility of the Son of man who came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28).141
Jesus, then, is the living, personal summation of perfect freedom in total obedience to the will of God. His crucified flesh fully reveals the unbreakable bond between freedom and truth, just as his Resurrection from the dead is the supreme exaltation of the fruitfulness and saving power of a freedom lived out in truth.
Walking in the light (cf. 1 Jn 1:7)
88. The attempt to set freedom in opposition to truth, and indeed to separate them radically, is the consequence, manifestation and consummation of another more serious and destructive dichotomy, that which separates faith from morality.
This separation represents one of the most acute pastoral concerns of the Church amid today’s growing secularism, wherein many, indeed too many, people think and live “as if God did not exist”. We are speaking of a mentality which affects, often in a profound, extensive and all-embracing way, even the attitudes and behaviour of Christians, whose faith is weakened and loses its character as a new and original criterion for thinking and acting in personal, family and social life. In a widely dechristianized culture, the criteria employed by believers themselves in making judgments and decisions often appear extraneous or even contrary to those of the Gospel.
It is urgent then that Christians should rediscover the newness of the faith and its power to judge a prevalent and all-intrusive culture. As the Apostle Paul admonishes us: “Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of the light (for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful words of darkness, but instead expose them… Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph 5:8-11, 15-16; cf. 1 Th 5:4-8).
It is urgent to rediscover and to set forth once more the authentic reality of the Christian faith, which is not simply a set of propositions to be accepted with intellectual assent. Rather, faith is a lived knowledge of Christ, a living remembrance of his commandments, and a truth to be lived out. A word, in any event, is not truly received until it passes into action, until it is put into practice. Faith is a decision involving one’s whole existence. It is an encounter,a dialogue, a communion of love and of life between the believer and Jesus Christ, the Way, and the Truth, and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6). It entails an act of trusting abandonment to Christ, which enables us to live as he lived (cf. Gal 2:20), in profound love of God and of our brothers and sisters.
89. Faith also possesses a moral content. It gives rise to and calls for a consistent life commitment; it entails and brings to perfection the acceptance and observance of God’s commandments. As Saint John writes, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth… And by this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He who says ‘ I know him’ but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 Jn 1:5-6; 2:3-6).
Through the moral life, faith becomes “confession”, not only before God but also before men: it becomes witness. “You are the light of the world”, said Jesus; “a city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt5:14-16). These works are above all those of charity (cf. Mt 25:31-46) and of the authentic freedom which is manifested and lived in the gift of self, even to the total gift of self, like that of Jesus, who on the Cross “loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). Christ’s witness is the source, model and means for the witness of his disciples, who are called to walk on the same road: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). Charity, in conformity with the radical demands of the Gospel, can lead the believer to the supreme witness of martyrdom. Once again this means imitating Jesus who died on the Cross: “Be imitators of God, as beloved children”, Paul writes to the Christians of Ephesus, “and walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:1-2).
Martyrdom, the exaltation of the inviolable holiness of God’s law
90. The relationship between faith and morality shines forth with all its brilliance in theunconditional respect due to the insistent demands of the personal dignity of every man, demands protected by those moral norms which prohibit without exception actions which are intrinsically evil. The universality and the immutability of the moral norm make manifest and at the same time serve to protect the personal dignity and inviolability of man, on whose face is reflected the splendour of God (cf. Gen 9:5-6).
The unacceptability of “teleological”, “consequentialist” and “proportionalist” ethical theories, which deny the existence of negative moral norms regarding specific kinds of behaviour, norms which are valid without exception, is confirmed in a particularly eloquent way by Christian martyrdom, which has always accompanied and continues to accompany the life of the Church even today.
91. In the Old Testament we already find admirable witnesses of fidelity to the holy law of God even to the point of a voluntary acceptance of death. A prime example is the story of Susanna: in reply to the two unjust judges who threatened to have her condemned to death if she refused to yield to their sinful passion, she says: ” I am hemmed in on every side. For if I do this thing, it is death for me; and if I do not, I shall not escape your hands. I choose not to do it and to fall into your hands, rather than to sin in the sight of the Lord!” (Dan 13:22-23). Susanna, preferring to “fall innocent” into the hands of the judges, bears witness not only to her faith and trust in God but also to her obedience to the truth and to the absoluteness of the moral order. By her readiness to die a martyr, she proclaims that it is not right to do what God’s law qualifies as evil in order to draw some good from it. Susanna chose for herself the “better part”: hers was a perfectly clear witness, without any compromise, to the truth about the good and to the God of Israel. By her acts, she revealed the holiness of God.
At the dawn of the New Testament, John the Baptist, unable to refrain from speaking of the law of the Lord and rejecting any compromise with evil, “gave his life in witness to truth and justice”,142 and thus also became the forerunner of the Messiah in the way he died (cf. Mk 6:17-29). “The one who came to bear witness to the light and who deserved to be called by that same light, which is Christ, a burning and shining lamp, was cast into the darkness of prison… The one to whom it was granted to baptize the Redeemer of the world was thus baptized in his own blood”.143
In the New Testament we find many examples of followers of Christ, beginning with the deacon Stephen (cf. Acts 6:8-7:60) and the Apostle James (cf. Acts 12:1-2), who died as martyrs in order to profess their faith and their love for Christ, unwilling to deny him. In this they followed the Lord Jesus who “made the good confession” (1Tim 6:13) before Caiaphas and Pilate, confirming the truth of his message at the cost of his life. Countless other martyrs accepted persecution and death rather than perform the idolatrous act of burning incense before the statue of the Emperor (cf.Rev13:7-10). 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).
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 canonized their witness and declared the truth of their judgment, 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.
92. Martyrdom, accepted as an affirmation of the inviolability of the moral order, bears splendid witness both to the holiness of God’s law and to the inviolability of the personal dignity of man, created in God’s image and likeness. This dignity may never be disparaged or called into question, even with good intentions, whatever the difficulties involved. Jesus warns us most sternly: “What does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? ” (Mk 8:36).
Martyrdom rejects as false and illusory whatever “human meaning” one might claim to attribute, even in “exceptional” conditions, to an act morally evil in itself. Indeed, it even more clearly unmasks the true face of such an act: it is a violation of man’s “humanity”, in the one perpetrating it even before the one enduring it.144 Hence martyrdom is also the exaltation of a person’s perfect “humanity” and of true “life”, as is attested by Saint Ignatius of Antioch, addressing the Christians of Rome, the place of his own martyrdom: “Have mercy on me, brethren: do not hold me back from living; do not wish that I die… Let me arrive at the pure light; once there I will be truly a man.Let me imitate the passion of my God”.145
93. Finally, martyrdom is an outstanding sign of the holiness of the Church. Fidelity to God’s holy law, witnessed to by death, is a solemn proclamation and missionary commitment usque ad sanguinem, so that the splendour of moral truth may be undimmed in the behaviour and thinking of individuals and society. This witness makes an extraordinarily valuable contribution to warding off, in civil society and within the ecclesial communities themselves, a headlong plunge into the most dangerous crisis which can afflict man: the confusion between good and evil, which makes it impossible to build up and to preserve the moral order of individuals and communities. By their eloquent and attractive example of a life completely transfigured by the splendour of moral truth, the martyrs and, in general, all the Church’s Saints, light up every period of history by reawakening its moral sense. By witnessing fully to the good, they are a living reproof to those who transgress the law (cf. Wis 2:12), and they make the words of the Prophet echo ever afresh: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Is 5:20).
Although martyrdom represents the high point of the witness to moral truth, and one to which relatively few people are called, there is nonetheless a consistent witness which all Christians must daily be ready to make, even at the cost of suffering and grave sacrifice. Indeed, faced with the many difficulties which fidelity to the moral order can demand, even in the most ordinary circumstances, the Christian is called, with the grace of God invoked in prayer, to a sometimes heroic commitment. In this he or she is sustained by the virtue of fortitude, whereby — as Gregory the Great teaches — one can actually “love the difficulties of this world for the sake of eternal rewards”.146
94. In this witness to the absoluteness of the moral good Christians are not alone:they are supported by the moral sense present in peoples and by the great religious and sapiential traditions of East and West, from which the interior and mysterious workings of God’s Spirit are not absent. The words of the Latin poet Juvenal apply to all: “Consider it the greatest of crimes to prefer survival to honour and, out of love of physical life, to lose the very reason for living”.147 The voice of conscience has always clearly recalled that there are truths and moral values for which one must be prepared to give up one’s life. In an individual’s words and above all in the sacrifice of his life for a moral value, the Church sees a single testimony to that truth which, already present in creation, shines forth in its fullness on the face of Christ. As Saint Justin put it, “the Stoics, at least in their teachings on ethics, demonstrated wisdom, thanks to the seed of the Word present in all peoples, and we know that those who followed their doctrines met with hatred and were killed”.148
Universal and unchanging moral norms at the service of the person and of society
95. The Church’s teaching, and in particular her firmness in defending the universal and permanent validity of the precepts prohibiting intrinsically evil acts, is not infrequently seen as the sign of an intolerable intransigence, particularly with regard to the enormously complex and conflict-filled situations present in the moral life of individuals and of society today; this intransigence is said to be in contrast with the Church’s motherhood. The Church, one hears, is lacking in understanding and compassion. But the Church’s motherhood can never in fact be separated from her teaching mission, which she must always carry out as the faithful Bride of Christ, who is the Truth in person. “As Teacher, she never tires of proclaiming the moral norm… The Church is in no way the author or the arbiter of this norm. In obedience to the truth which is Christ, whose image is reflected in the nature and dignity of the human person, the Church interprets the moral norm and proposes it to all people of good will, without concealing its demands of radicalness and perfection”.149
In fact, genuine understanding and compassion must mean love for the person, for his true good, for his authentic freedom. And this does not result, certainly, from concealing or weakening moral truth, but rather from proposing it in its most profound meaning as an outpouring of God’s eternal Wisdom, which we have received in Christ, and as a service to man, to the growth of his freedom and to the attainment of his happiness.150
Still, a clear and forceful presentation of moral truth can never be separated from a profound and heartfelt respect, born of that patient and trusting love which man always needs along his moral journey, a journey frequently wearisome on account of difficulties, weakness and painful situations. The Church can never renounce the “the principle of truth and consistency, whereby she does not agree to call good evil and evil good”;151 she must always be careful not to break the bruised reed or to quench the dimly burning wick (cf. Is 42:3). As Paul VI wrote: “While it is an outstanding manifestation of charity towards souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ, this must always be joined with tolerance and charity, as Christ himself showed by his conversations and dealings with men. Having come not to judge the world but to save it, he was uncompromisingly stern towards sin, but patient and rich in mercy towards sinners”.152
96. The Church’s firmness in defending the universal and unchanging moral norms is not demeaning at all. Its only purpose is to serve man’s true freedom. Because there can be no freedom apart from or in opposition to the truth, the categorical — unyielding and uncompromising — defence of the absolutely essential demands of man’s personal dignity must be considered the way and the condition for the very existence of freedom.
This service is directed to every man, considered in the uniqueness and singularity of his being and existence: only by obedience to universal moral norms does man find full confirmation of his personal uniqueness and the possibility of authentic moral growth. For this very reason, this service is also directed to all mankind: it is not only for individuals but also for the community, for society as such. These norms in fact represent the unshakable foundation and solid guarantee of a just and peaceful human coexistence, and hence of genuine democracy, which can come into being and develop only on the basis of the equality of all its members, who possess common rights and duties. 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.
97. In this way, moral norms, and primarily the negative ones, those prohibiting evil, manifest their meaning and force, both personal and social. By protecting the inviolable personal dignity of every human being they help to preserve the human social fabric and its proper and fruitful development. The commandments of the second table of the Decalogue in particular — those which Jesus quoted to the young man of the Gospel (cf. Mt 19:19) — constitute the indispensable rules of all social life.
These commandments are formulated in general terms. But the very fact that “the origin, the subject and the purpose of all social institutions is and should be the human person” 153 allows for them to be specified and made more explicit in a detailed code of behaviour. The fundamental moral rules of social life thus entailspecific demands to which both public authorities and citizens are required to pay heed. Even though intentions may sometimes be good, and circumstances frequently difficult, civil authorities and particular individuals never have authority to violate the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person. In the end, only a morality which acknowledges certain norms as valid always and for everyone, with no exception, can guarantee the ethical foundation of social coexistence, both on the national and international levels.
Morality and the renewal of social and political life
98. In the face of serious forms of social and economic injustice and political corruption affecting entire peoples and nations, there is a growing reaction of indignation on the part of very many people whose fundamental human rights have been trampled upon and held in contempt, as well as an ever more widespread and acute sense of the need for a radical personal and social renewal capable of ensuring justice, solidarity, honesty and openness.
Certainly there is a long and difficult road ahead; bringing about such a renewal will require enormous effort, especially on account of the number and the gravity of the causes giving rise to and aggravating the situations of injustice present in the world today. But, as history and personal experience show, it is not difficult to discover at the bottom of these situations causes which are properly “cultural”, linked to particular ways of looking at man, society and the world. Indeed, at the heart of the issue of culture we find the moral sense, which is in turn rooted and fulfilled in the religious sense.154
99. Only God, the Supreme Good, constitutes the unshakable foundation and essential condition of morality, and thus of the commandments, particularly those negative commandments which always and in every case prohibit behaviour and actions incompatible with the personal dignity of every man. The Supreme Good and the moral good meet in truth: the truth of God, the Creator and Redeemer, and the truth of man, created and redeemed by him. Only upon this truth is it possible to construct a renewed society and to solve the complex and weighty problems affecting it, above all the problem of overcoming the various forms of totalitarianism, so as to make way for the authentic freedom of the person. “Totalitarianism arises out of a denial of truth in the objective sense. If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. If one does not acknowledge transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others…. Thus, the root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights which no one may violate — no individual, group, class, nation or State. Not even the majority of a social body may violate these rights, by going against the minority, by isolating, oppressing, or exploiting it, or by attempting to annihilate it”.155
Consequently, the inseparable connection between truth and freedom — which expresses the essential bond between God’s wisdom and will — is extremely significant for the life of persons in the socio-economic and socio-political sphere. This is clearly seen in the Church’s social teaching — which “belongs to the field… of theology and particularly of moral theology” 156 — and from her presentation of commandments governing social, economic and political life, not only with regard to general attitudes but also to precise and specific kinds of behaviour and concrete acts.
100. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that “in economic matters, respect for human dignity requires the practice of the virtue of temperance, to moderate our attachment to the goods of this world; of the virtue of justice, to preserve our neighbour’s rights and to render what is his or her due; and of solidarity, following the Golden Rule and in keeping with the generosity of the Lord, who ‘though he was rich, yet for your sake… became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’ (2 Cor8:9)”.157 The Catechism goes on to present a series of kinds of behaviour and actions contrary to human dignity: theft, deliberate retention of goods lent or objects lost, business fraud (cf. Dt 25:13-16), unjust wages (cf. Dt 24:14-15), forcing up prices by trading on the ignorance or hardship of another (cf. Am 8:4-6), the misappropriation and private use of the corporate property of an enterprise, work badly done, tax fraud, forgery of cheques and invoices, excessive expenses, waste, etc.158 It continues: “The seventh commandment prohibits actions or enterprises which for any reason — selfish or ideological, commercial or totalitarian — lead to the enslavement of human beings, disregard for their personal dignity, buying or selling or ex- changing them like merchandise. Reducing persons by violence to use-value or a source of profit is a sin against their dignity as persons and their fundamental rights. Saint Paul set a Christian master right about treating his Christian slave ‘no longer as a slave but… as a brother… in the Lord’ (Philem 16)”.159
101. In the political sphere, it must be noted that truthfulness in the relations between those governing and those governed, openness in public administration, impartiality in the service of the body politic, respect for the rights of political adversaries, safeguarding the rights of the accused against summary trials and convictions, the just and honest use of public funds, the rejection of equivocal or illicit means in order to gain, preserve or increase power at any cost — all these are principles which are primarily rooted in, and in fact derive their singular urgency from, the transcendent value of the person and the objective moral demands of the functioning of States.160When these principles are not observed, the very basis of political coexistence is weakened and the life of society itself is gradually jeopardized, threatened and doomed to decay (cf. Ps 14:3-4; Rev 18:2-3, 9-24). Today, when many countries have seen the fall of ideologies which bound politics to a totalitarian conception of the world — Marxism being the foremost of these — there is no less grave a danger that the fundamental rights of the human person will be denied and that the religious yearnings which arise in the heart of every human being will be absorbed once again into politics. This is the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism,which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgement of truth impossible. Indeed, “if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism”.161
Thus, in every sphere of personal, family, social and political life, morality — founded upon truth and open in truth to authentic freedom — renders a primordial, indispensable and immensely valuable service not only for the individual person and his growth in the good, but also for society and its genuine development.
Grace and obedience to God’s law
102. Even in the most difficult situations man must respect the norm of morality so that he can be obedient to God’s holy commandment and consistent with his own dignity as a person. Certainly, maintaining a harmony between freedom and truth occasionally demands uncommon sacrifices, and must be won at a high price: it can even involve martyrdom. But, as universal and daily experience demonstrates, man is tempted to break that harmony: “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want” (Rom 7:15, 19).
What is the ultimate source of this inner division of man? His history of sin begins when he no longer acknowledges the Lord as his Creator and himself wishes to be the one who determines, with complete independence, what is good and what is evil. “You will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5): this was the first temptation, and it is echoed in all the other temptations to which man is more easily inclined to yield as a result of the original Fall.
But temptations can be overcome, sins can be avoided, because together with the commandments the Lord gives us the possibility of keeping them: “His eyes are on those who fear him, and he knows every deed of man. He has not commanded any one to be ungodly, and he has not given any one permission to sin” (Sir 15:19-20). Keeping God’s law in particular situations can be difficult, extremely difficult, but it is never impossible. This is the constant teaching of the Church’s tradition, and was expressed by the Council of Trent: “But no one, however much justified, ought to consider himself exempt from the observance of the commandments, nor should he employ that rash statement, forbidden by the Fathers under anathema, that the commandments of God are impossible of observance by one who is justified. For God does not command the impossible, but in commanding he admonishes you to do what you can and to pray for what you cannot, and he gives his aid to enable you. His commandments are not burdensome (cf. 1 Jn 5:3); his yoke is easy and his burden light (cf. Mt 11:30)”.162
103. Man always has before him the spiritual horizon of hope, thanks to the help of divine grace and with the cooperation of human freedom.
It is in the saving Cross of Jesus, in the gift of the Holy Spirit, in the Sacraments which flow forth from the pierced side of the Redeemer (cf. Jn 19:34), that believers find the grace and the strength always to keep God’s holy law, even amid the gravest of hardships. As Saint Andrew of Crete observes, the law itself “was enlivened by grace and made to serve it in a harmonious and fruitful combination. Each element preserved its characteristics without change or confusion. In a divine manner, he turned what could be burdensome and tyrannical into what is easy to bear and a source of freedom”.163
Only in the mystery of Christ’s Redemption do we discover the “concrete” possibilities of man. “It would be a very serious error to conclude… that the Church’s teaching is essentially only an “ideal” which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man, according to a “balancing of the goods in question”. But what are the “concrete possibilities of man” ? And of which man are we speaking? Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ? This is what is at stake: the reality of Christ’s redemption. Christ has redeemed us! This means that he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence. And if redeemed man still sins, this is not due to an imperfection of Christ’s redemptive act, but to man’s will not to avail himself of the grace which flows from that act. God’s command is of course proportioned to man’s capabilities; but to the capabilities of the man to whom the Holy Spirit has been given; of the man who, though he has fallen into sin, can always obtain pardon and enjoy the presence of the Holy Spirit”.164
104. In this context, appropriate allowance is made both for God’s mercy towards the sinner who converts and for the understanding of human weakness. Such understanding never means compromising and falsifying the standard of good and evil in order to adapt it to particular circumstances. It is quite human for the sinner to acknowledge his weakness and to ask mercy for his failings; what is unacceptable is the attitude of one who makes his own weakness the criterion of the truth about the good, so that he can feel self-justified, without even the need to have recourse to God and his mercy. An attitude of this sort corrupts the morality of society as a whole, since it encourages doubt about the objectivity of the moral law in general and a rejection of the absoluteness of moral prohibitions regarding specific human acts, and it ends up by confusing all judgments about values.
Instead, we should take to heart the message of the Gospel parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (cf. Lk 18:9-14). The tax collector might possibly have had some justification for the sins he committed, such as to diminish his responsibility. But his prayer does not dwell on such justifications, but rather on his own unworthiness before God’s infinite holiness: “God, be merciful to me a sinner! ” (Lk 18:13). The Pharisee, on the other hand, is self-justified, finding some excuse for each of his failings. Here we encounter two different attitudes of the moral conscience of man in every age. The tax collector represents a “repentant” conscience, fully aware of the frailty of its own nature and seeing in its own failings, whatever their subjective justifications, a confirmation of its need for redemption. The Pharisee represents a “self-satisfied” conscience, under the illusion that it is able to observe the law without the help of grace and convinced that it does not need mercy.
105. All people must take great care not to allow themselves to be tainted by the attitude of the Pharisee, which would seek to eliminate awareness of one’s own limits and of one’s own sin. In our own day this attitude is expressed particularly in the attempt to adapt the moral norm to one’s own capacities and personal interests, and even in the rejection of the very idea of a norm. Accepting, on the other hand, the “disproportion” between the law and human ability (that is, the capacity of the moral forces of man left to himself) kindles the desire for grace and prepares one to receive it. “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” asks the Apostle Paul. And in an outburst of joy and gratitude he replies: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! ” (Rom 7:24-25).
We find the same awareness in the following prayer of Saint Ambrose of Milan: “What then is man, if you do not visit him? Remember, Lord, that you have made me as one who is weak, that you formed me from dust. How can I stand, if you do not constantly look upon me, to strengthen this clay, so that my strength may proceed from your face? When you hide your face, all grows weak (Ps 104:29): if you turn to look at me, woe is me! You have nothing to see in me but the stain of my crimes; there is no gain either in being abandoned or in being seen, because when we are seen, we offend you. Still, we can imagine that God does not reject those he sees, because he purifies those upon whom he gazes. Before him burns a fire capable of consuming our guilt (cf. Joel 2:3)”.165
Morality and new evangelization
106. Evangelization is the most powerful and stirring challenge which the Church has been called to face from her very beginning. Indeed, this challenge is posed not so much by the social and cultural milieux which she encounters in the course of history, as by the mandate of the Risen Christ, who defines the very reason for the Church’s existence: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mk16:15).
At least for many peoples, however, the present time is instead marked by a formidable challenge to undertake a “new evangelization”, a proclamation of the Gospel which is always new and always the bearer of new things, an evangelization which must be “new in its ardour, methods and expression”.166 Dechristianization, which weighs heavily upon entire peoples and communities once rich in faith and Christian life, involves not only the loss of faith or in any event its becoming irrelevant for everyday life, but also, and of necessity, a decline or obscuring of the moral sense.This comes about both as a result of a loss of awareness of the originality of Gospel morality and as a result of an eclipse of fundamental principles and ethical values themselves. Today’s widespread tendencies towards subjectivism, utilitarianism and relativism appear not merely as pragmatic attitudes or patterns of behaviour, but rather as approaches having a basis in theory and claiming full cultural and social legitimacy.
107. Evangelization — and therefore the “new evangelization” — also involves the proclamation and presentation of morality. Jesus himself, even as he preached the Kingdom of God and its saving love, called people to faith and conversion (cf. Mk1:15). And when Peter, with the other Apostles, proclaimed the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, he held out a new life to be lived, a “way” to be followed, for those who would be disciples of the Risen One (cf. Acts 2:37-41; 3:17-20).
Just as it does in proclaiming the truths of faith, and even more so in presenting the foundations and content of Christian morality, the new evangelization will show its authenticity and unleash all its missionary force when it is carried out through the gift not only of the word proclaimed but also of the word lived. In particular, the life of holiness which is resplendent in so many members of the People of God, humble and often unseen, constitutes the simplest and most attractive way to perceive at once the beauty of truth, the liberating force of God’s love, and the value of unconditional fidelity to all the demands of the Lord’s law, even in the most difficult situations. For this reason, the Church, as a wise teacher of morality, has always invited believers to seek and to find in the Saints, and above all in the Virgin Mother of God “full of grace” and “all-holy”, the model, the strength and the joy needed to live a life in accordance with God’s commandments and the Beatitudes of the Gospel.
The lives of the saints, as a reflection of the goodness of God — the One who “alone is good” — constitute not only a genuine profession of faith and an incentive for sharing it with others, but also a glorification of God and his infinite holiness. The life of holiness thus brings to full expression and effectiveness the threefold and unitarymunus propheticum, sacerdotale et regale which every Christian receives as a gift by being born again “of water and the Spirit” (Jn 3:5) in Baptism. His moral life has the value of a “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1; cf. Phil 3:3), flowing from and nourished by that inexhaustible source of holiness and glorification of God which is found in the Sacraments, especially in the Eucharist: by sharing in the sacrifice of the Cross, the Christian partakes of Christ’s self-giving love and is equipped and committed to live this same charity in all his thoughts and deeds. In the moral life the Christian’s royal service is also made evident and effective: with the help of grace, the more one obeys the new law of the Holy Spirit, the more one grows in the freedom to which he or she is called by the service of truth, charity and justice.
108. At the heart of the new evangelization and of the new moral life which it proposes and awakens by its fruits of holiness and missionary zeal, there is the Spirit of Christ, the principle and strength of the fruitfulness of Holy Mother Church. As Pope Paul VI reminded us: “Evangelization will never be possible without the action of the Holy Spirit”.167 The Spirit of Jesus, received by the humble and docile heart of the believer, brings about the flourishing of Christian moral life and the witness of holiness amid the great variety of vocations, gifts, responsibilities, conditions and life situations. As Novatian once pointed out, here expressing the authentic faith of the Church, it is the Holy Spirit “who confirmed the hearts and minds of the disciples, who revealed the mysteries of the Gospel, who shed upon them the light of things divine.
Strengthened by his gift, they did not fear either prisons or chains for the name of the Lord; indeed they even trampled upon the powers and torments of the world, armed and strengthened by him, having in themselves the gifts which this same Spirit bestows and directs like jewels to the Church, the Bride of Christ. It is in fact he who raises up prophets in the Church, instructs teachers, guides tongues, works wonders and healings, accomplishes miracles, grants the discernment of spirits, assigns governance, inspires counsels, distributes and harmonizes every other charismatic gift. In this way he completes and perfects the Lord’s Church everywhere and in all things”.168
In the living context of this new evangelization, aimed at generating and nourishing “the faith which works through love” (cf. Gal 5:6), and in relation to the work of the Holy Spirit, we can now understand the proper place which continuing theological reflection about the moral life holds in the Church, the community of believers. We can likewise speak of the mission and the responsibility proper to moral theologians.
The service of moral theologians
109. The whole Church is called to evangelization and to the witness of a life of faith, by the fact that she has been made a sharer in the munus propheticum of the Lord Jesus through the gift of his Spirit. Thanks to the permanent presence of the Spirit of truth in the Church (cf. Jn 14:16-17), “the universal body of the faithful who have received the anointing of the holy one (cf. 1 Jn 2:20, 27) cannot be mistaken in belief. It displays this particular quality through a supernatural sense of the faith in the whole people when, ‘from the Bishops to the last of the lay faithful ‘, it expresses the consensus of all in matters of faith and morals”.169
In order to carry out her prophetic mission, the Church must constantly reawaken or “rekindle” her own life of faith (cf. 2 Tim 1:6), particularly through an ever deeper reflection, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, upon the content of faith itself. The “vocation” of the theologian in the Church is specifically at the service of this “believing effort to understand the faith”. As the Instruction Donum Veritatis teaches: “Among the vocations awakened by the Spirit in the Church is that of the theologian. His role is to pursue in a particular way an ever deeper understanding of the word of God found in the inspired Scriptures and handed on by the living Tradition of the Church. He does this in communion with the Magisterium, which has been charged with the responsibility of preserving the deposit of faith. By its nature, faith appeals to reason because it reveals to man the truth of his destiny and the way to attain it. Revealed truth, to be sure, surpasses our telling. All our concepts fall short of its ultimately unfathomable grandeur (cf. Eph 3:19). Nonetheless, revealed truth beckons reason — God’s gift fashioned for the assimilation of truth — to enter into its light and thereby come to understand in a certain measure what it has believed. Theological science responds to the invitation of truth as it seeks to understand the faith. It thereby aids the People of God in fulfilling the Apostle’s command (cf. 1 Pet 3:15) to give an accounting for their hope to those who ask it”.170
It is fundamental for defining the very identity of theology, and consequently for theology to carry out its proper mission, to recognize its profound and vital connection with the Church, her mystery, her life and her mission: “Theology is an ecclesial science because it grows in the Church and works on the Church… It is a service to the Church and therefore ought to feel itself actively involved in the mission of the Church, particularly in its prophetic mission”.171 By its very nature and procedures, authentic theology can flourish and develop only through a committed and responsible participation in and “belonging” to the Church as a “community of faith”. In turn, the fruits of theological research and deeper insight become a source of enrichment for the Church and her life of faith.
110. All that has been said about theology in general can and must also be said formoral theology, seen in its specific nature as a scientific reflection on the Gospel as the gift and commandment of new life, a reflection on the life which “professes the truth in love” (cf. Eph 4:15) and on the Church’s life of holiness, in which there shines forth the truth about the good brought to its perfection. The Church’s Magisterium intervenes not only in the sphere of faith, but also, and inseparably so, in the sphere of morals. It has the task of “discerning, by means of judgments normative for the consciences of believers, those acts which in themselves conform to the demands of faith and foster their expression in life and those which, on the contrary, because intrinsically evil, are incompatible with such demands”.172 In proclaiming the commandments of God and the charity of Christ, the Church’s Magisterium also teaches the faithful specific particular precepts and requires that they consider them in conscience as morally binding. In addition, the Magisterium carries out an important work of vigilance, warning the faithful of the presence of possible errors, even merely implicit ones, when their consciences fail to acknowledge the correctness and the truth of the moral norms which the Magisterium teaches.
This is the point at which to consider the specific task of all those who by mandate of their legitimate Pastors teach moral theology in Seminaries and Faculties of Theology. They have the grave duty to instruct the faithful — especially future Pastors — about all those commandments and practical norms authoritatively declared by the Church.173 While recognizing the possible limitations of the human arguments employed by the Magisterium, moral theologians are called to develop a deeper understanding of the reasons underlying its teachings and to expound the validity and obligatory nature of the precepts it proposes, demonstrating their connection with one another and their relation with man’s ultimate end.174 Moral theologians are to set forth the Church’s teaching and to give, in the exercise of their ministry, the example of a loyal assent, both internal and external, to the Magisterium’s teaching in the areas of both dogma and morality.175 Working together in cooperation with the hierarchical Magisterium, theologians will be deeply concerned to clarify ever more fully the biblical foundations, the ethical significance and the anthropological concerns which underlie the moral doctrine and the vision of man set forth by the Church.
111. The service which moral theologians are called to provide at the present time is of the utmost importance, not only for the Church’s life and mission, but also for human society and culture. Moral theologians have the task, in close and vital connection with biblical and dogmatic theology, to highlight through their scientific reflection “that dynamic aspect which will elicit the response that man must give to the divine call which comes in the process of his growth in love, within a community of salvation. In this way, moral theology will acquire an inner spiritual dimension in response to the need to develop fully the imago Dei present in man, and in response to the laws of spiritual development described by Christian ascetical and mystical theology”.176
Certainly moral theology and its teaching are meeting with particular difficulty today. Because the Church’s morality necessarily involves a normative dimension, moral theology cannot be reduced to a body of knowledge worked out purely in the context of the so-called behavioural sciences. The latter are concerned with the phenomenon of morality as a historical and social fact; moral theology, however, while needing to make use of the behavioural and natural sciences, does not rely on the results of formal empirical observation or phenomenological understanding alone. Indeed, the relevance of the behavioural sciences for moral theology must always be measured against the primordial question: What is good or evil? What must be done to have eternal life?
112. The moral theologian must therefore exercise careful discernment in the context of today’s prevalently scientific and technical culture, exposed as it is to the dangers of relativism, pragmatism and positivism. From the theological viewpoint, moral principles are not dependent upon the historical moment in which they are discovered. Moreover, the fact that some believers act without following the teachings of the Magisterium, or erroneously consider as morally correct a kind of behaviour declared by their Pastors as contrary to the law of God, cannot be a valid argument for rejecting the truth of the moral norms taught by the Church. The affirmation of moral principles is not within the competence of formal empirical methods. While not denying the validity of such methods, but at the same time not restricting its viewpoint to them, moral theology, faithful to the supernatural sense of the faith, takes into account first and foremost the spiritual dimension of the human heart and its vocation to divine love.
In fact, while the behavioural sciences, like all experimental sciences, develop an empirical and statistical concept of “normality”, faith teaches that this normality itself bears the traces of a fall from man’s original situation — in other words, it is affected by sin. Only Christian faith points out to man the way to return to “the beginning” (cf.Mt 19:8), a way which is often quite different from that of empirical normality. Hence the behavioural sciences, despite the great value of the information which they provide, cannot be considered decisive indications of moral norms. It is the Gospel which reveals the full truth about man and his moral journey, and thus enlightens and admonishes sinners; it proclaims to them God’s mercy, which is constantly at work to preserve them both from despair at their inability fully to know and keep God’s law and from the presumption that they can be saved without merit. God also reminds sinners of the joy of forgiveness, which alone grants the strength to see in the moral law a liberating truth, a grace-filled source of hope, a path of life.
113. Teaching moral doctrine involves the conscious acceptance of these intellectual, spiritual and pastoral responsibilities. Moral theologians, who have accepted the charge of teaching the Church’s doctrine, thus have a grave duty to train the faithful to make this moral discernment, to be committed to the true good and to have confident recourse to God’s grace.
While exchanges and conflicts of opinion may constitute normal expressions of public life in a representative democracy, moral teaching certainly cannot depend simply upon respect for a process: indeed, it is in no way established by following the rules and deliberative procedures typical of a democracy.Dissent, in the form of carefully orchestrated protests and polemics carried on in the media, is opposed to ecclesial communion and to a correct understanding of the hierarchical constitution of the People of God. Opposition to the teaching of the Church’s Pastors cannot be seen as a legitimate expression either of Christian freedom or of the diversity of the Spirit’s gifts. When this happens, the Church’s Pastors have the duty to act in conformity with their apostolic mission, insisting that the right of the faithful to receive Catholic doctrine in its purity and integrity must always be respected. “Never forgetting that he too is a member of the People of God, the theologian must be respectful of them, and be committed to offering them a teaching which in no way does harm to the doctrine of the faith”.177
Our own responsibilities as Pastors
114. As the Second Vatican Council reminds us, responsibility for the faith and the life of faith of the People of God is particularly incumbent upon the Church’s Pastors: “Among the principal tasks of Bishops the preaching of the Gospel is pre-eminent. For the Bishops are the heralds of the faith who bring new disciples to Christ. They are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people entrusted to them the faith to be believed and put into practice; they illustrate this faith in the light of the Holy Spirit, drawing out of the treasury of Revelation things old and new (cf. Mt 13:52); they make it bear fruit and they vigilantly ward off errors that are threatening their flock (cf. 2 Tim 4:1-4)”.178
It is our common duty, and even before that our common grace, as Pastors and Bishops of the Church, to teach the faithful the things which lead them to God, just as the Lord Jesus did with the young man in the Gospel. Replying to the question: “What good must I do to have eternal life?”, Jesus referred the young man to God, the Lord of creation and of the Covenant. He reminded him of the moral commandments already revealed in the Old Testament and he indicated their spirit and deepest meaning by inviting the young man to follow him in poverty, humility and love: “Come, follow me! “. The truth of this teaching was sealed on the Cross in the Blood of Christ: in the Holy Spirit, it has become the new law of the Church and of every Christian.
This “answer” to the question about morality has been entrusted by Jesus Christ in a particular way to us, the Pastors of the Church; we have been called to make it the object of our preaching, in the fulfilment of our munus propheticum. At the same time, our responsibility as Pastors with regard to Christian moral teaching must also be exercised as part of the munus sacerdotale: this happens when we dispense to the faithful the gifts of grace and sanctification as an effective means for obeying God’s holy law, and when with our constant and confident prayers we support believers in their efforts to be faithful to the demands of the faith and to live in accordance with the Gospel (cf. Col 1:9-12). Especially today, Christian moral teaching must be one of the chief areas in which we exercise our pastoral vigilance, in carrying out our munus regale.
115. This is the first time, in fact, that the Magisterium of the Church has set forth in detail the fundamental elements of this teaching, and presented the principles for the pastoral discernment necessary in practical and cultural situations which are complex and even crucial.
In the light of Revelation and of the Church’s constant teaching, especially that of the Second Vatican Council, I have briefly recalled the essential characteristics of freedom, as well as the fundamental values connected with the dignity of the person and the truth of his acts, so as to be able to discern in obedience to the moral law a grace and a sign of our adoption in the one Son (cf. Eph 1:4-6). Specifically, this Encyclical has evaluated certain trends in moral theology today. I now pass this evaluation on to you, in obedience to the word of the Lord who entrusted to Peter the task of strengthening his brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), in order to clarify and aid our common discernment.
Each of us knows how important is the teaching which represents the central theme of this Encyclical and which is today being restated with the authority of the Successor of Peter. Each of us can see the seriousness of what is involved, not only for individuals but also for the whole of society, with thereaffirmation of the universality and immutability of the moral commandments, particularly those which prohibit always and without exception intrinsically evil acts.
In acknowledging these commandments, Christian hearts and our pastoral charity listen to the call of the One who “first loved us” (1Jn 4:19). God asks us to be holy as he is holy (cf. Lev 19:2), to be — in Christ — perfect as he is perfect (cf. Mt 5:48). The unwavering demands of that commandment are based upon God’s infinitely merciful love (cf. Lk 6:36), and the purpose of that commandment is to lead us, by the grace of Christ, on the path of that fullness of life proper to the children of God.
116. We have the duty, as Bishops, to be vigilant that the word of God is faithfully taught. My Brothers in the Episcopate, it is part of our pastoral ministry to see to it that this moral teaching is faithfully handed down and to have recourse to appropriate measures to ensure that the faithful are guarded from every doctrine and theory contrary to it. In carrying out this task we are all assisted by theologians; even so, theological opinions constitute neither the rule nor the norm of our teaching. Its authority is derived, by the assistance of the Holy Spirit and in communion cum Petro et sub Petro, from our fidelity to the Catholic faith which comes from the Apostles. As Bishops, we have the grave obligation to be personally vigilant that the “sound doctrine” (1 Tim 1:10) of faith and morals is taught in our Dioceses.
A particular responsibility is incumbent upon Bishops with regard to Catholic institutions. Whether these are agencies for the pastoral care of the family or for social work, or institutions dedicated to teaching or health care, Bishops can canonically erect and recognize these structures and delegate certain responsibilities to them. Nevertheless, Bishops are never relieved of their own personal obligations. It falls to them, in communion with the Holy See, both to grant the title “Catholic” to Church-related schools,179 universities,180 health-care facilities and counselling services, and, in cases of a serious failure to live up to that title, to take it away.
117. In the heart of every Christian, in the inmost depths of each person, there is always an echo of the question which the young man in the Gospel once asked Jesus: “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” (Mt 19:16). Everyone, however, needs to address this question to the “Good Teacher”, since he is the only one who can answer in the fullness of truth, in all situations, in the most varied of circumstances. And when Christians ask him the question which rises from their conscience, the Lord replies in the words of the New Covenant which have been entrusted to his Church. As the Apostle Paul said of himself, we have been sent “to preach the Gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the Cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor 1:17). The Church’s answer to man’s question contains the wisdom and power of Christ Crucified, the Truth which gives of itself.
When people ask the Church the questions raised by their consciences, when the faithful in the Church turn to their Bishops and Pastors, the Church’s reply contains the voice of Jesus Christ, the voice of the truth about good and evil. In the words spoken by the Church there resounds, in people’s inmost being, the voice of God who “alone is good” (cf. Mt 19:17), who alone “is love” (1 Jn 4:8, 16).
Through the anointing of the Spirit this gentle but challenging word becomes light and life for man. Again the Apostle Paul invites us to have confidence, because “our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit… The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:5-6, 17-18).
Mary, Mother of Mercy
118. At the end of these considerations, let us entrust ourselves, the sufferings and the joys of our life, the moral life of believers and people of good will, and the research of moralists, to Mary, Mother of God and Mother of Mercy.
Mary is Mother of Mercy because her Son, Jesus Christ, was sent by the Father as the revelation of God’s mercy (cf. Jn 3:16-18). Christ came not to condemn but to forgive, to show mercy (cf. Mt 9:13). And the greatest mercy of all is found in his being in our midst and calling us to meet him and to confess, with Peter, that he is “the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). No human sin can erase the mercy of God, or prevent him from unleashing all his triumphant power, if we only call upon him. Indeed, sin itself makes even more radiant the love of the Father who, in order to ransom a slave, sacrificed his Son:181 his mercy towards us is Redemption. This mercy reaches its fullness in the gift of the Spirit who bestows new life and demands that it be lived. No matter how many and great the obstacles put in his way by human frailty and sin, the Spirit, who renews the face of the earth (cf.Ps 104:30), makes possible the miracle of the perfect accomplishment of the good. This renewal, which gives the ability to do what is good, noble, beautiful, pleasing to God and in conformity with his will, is in some way the flowering of the gift of mercy, which offers liberation from the slavery of evil and gives the strength to sin no more. Through the gift of new life, Jesus makes us sharers in his love and leads us to the Father in the Spirit.
119. Such is the consoling certainty of Christian faith, the source of its profound humanity and extraordinary simplicity. At times, in the discussions about new and complex moral problems, it can seem that Christian morality is in itself too demanding, difficult to understand and almost impossible to practise. This is untrue, since Christian morality consists, in the simplicity of the Gospel, in following Jesus Christ, in abandoning oneself to him, in letting oneself be transformed by his grace and renewed by his mercy, gifts which come to us in the living communion of his Church. Saint Augustine reminds us that “he who would live has a place to live, and has everything needed to live. Let him draw near, let him believe, let him become part of the body, that he may have life. Let him not shrink from the unity of the members”.182 By the light of the Holy Spirit, the living essence of Christian morality can be understood by everyone, even the least learned, but particularly those who are able to preserve an “undivided heart” (Ps 86:11). On the other hand, this evangelical simplicity does not exempt one from facing reality in its complexity; rather it can lead to a more genuine understanding of reality, inasmuch as following Christ will gradually bring out the distinctive character of authentic Christian morality, while providing the vital energy needed to carry it out. It is the task of the Church’s Magisterium to see that the dynamic process of following Christ develops in an organic manner, without the falsification or obscuring of its moral demands, with all their consequences. The one who loves Christ keeps his commandments (cf. Jn 14:15).
120. Mary is also Mother of Mercy because it is to her that Jesus entrusts his Church and all humanity. At the foot of the Cross, when she accepts John as her son, when she asks, together with Christ, forgiveness from the Father for those who do not know what they do (cf. Lk 23:34), Mary experiences, in perfect docility to the Spirit, the richness and the universality of God’s love, which opens her heart and enables it to embrace the entire human race. Thus Mary becomes Mother of each and every one of us, the Mother who obtains for us divine mercy.
Mary is the radiant sign and inviting model of the moral life. As Saint Ambrose put it, “The life of this one person can serve as a model for everyone”,183 and while speaking specifically to virgins but within a context open to all, he affirmed: “The first stimulus to learning is the nobility of the teacher. Who can be more noble than the Mother of God? Who can be more glorious than the one chosen by Glory Itself?”.184Mary lived and exercised her freedom precisely by giving herself to God and accepting God’s gift within herself. Until the time of his birth, she sheltered in her womb the Son of God who became man; she raised him and enabled him to grow, and she accompanied him in that supreme act of freedom which is the complete sacrifice of his own life. By the gift of herself, Mary entered fully into the plan of God who gives himself to the world. By accepting and pondering in her heart events which she did not always understand (cf. Lk 2:19), she became the model of all those who hear the word of God and keep it (cf. Lk 11:28), and merited the title of “Seat of Wisdom”. This Wisdom is Jesus Christ himself, the Eternal Word of God, who perfectly reveals and accomplishes the will of the Father (cf.Heb 10:5-10). Mary invites everyone to accept this Wisdom. To us too she addresses the command she gave to the servants at Cana in Galilee during the marriage feast: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5).
Mary shares our human condition, but in complete openness to the grace of God. Not having known sin, she is able to have compassion on every kind of weakness. She understands sinful man and loves him with a Mother’s love. Precisely for this reason she is on the side of truth and shares the Church’s burden in recalling always and to everyone the demands of morality. Nor does she permit sinful man to be deceived by those who claim to love him by justifying his sin, for she knows that the sacrifice of Christ her Son would thus be emptied of its power. No absolution offered by beguiling doctrines, even in the areas of philosophy and theology, can make man truly happy: only the Cross and the glory of the Risen Christ can grant peace to his conscience and salvation to his life.
Mother of Mercy,
watch over all people,
that the Cross of Christ
may not be emptied of its power,
that man may not stray
from the path of the good
or become blind to sin,
but may put his hope ever more fully in God
who is “rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4).
May he carry out the good works prepared
by God beforehand (cf. Eph 2:10)
and so live completely
“for the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:12).
Given in Rome, at Saint Peter’s, on 6 August, Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, in the year 1993, the fifteenth of my Pontificate.
Banner/featured image by Nycholas Benaia on Unsplash. Public domain.