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Chapter 23: God’s Redemptive Work in the Lives of Christians

Appendix 2: The human authenticity of the faithful Catholic conscience

To nonbelievers, Catholics might appear to be untrue to themselves when they form their consciences by the Church’s teaching. The nonbelieving world in general denies the reality of moral guilt, yet it knows this reality. Hence, the world fails to appreciate the blessing Catholics enjoy in having a secure means of knowing what is morally true; the world flees from moral standards—especially those proclaimed clearly and uncompromisingly by the Church—which call in question the world’s own sin. The nonbeliever’s challenge is: “You Catholics are abdicating your own consciences and enslaving yourselves to the opinions of your popes and bishops.” This challenge must be answered.

The first point to make is that everyone who lives responsibly relies at times on the moral advice of others. For example, any person entering an especially responsible job must make many judgments about how to handle problems which arise. The sensible person looks for a colleague who is experienced, upright, and willing to talk, and seeks his or her guidance.

According to Catholic faith, humankind existing in a world sinful and redeemed is very much in need of wise advice from Jesus. He is our colleague: more experienced, certainly upright, and (through the Church) willing to talk. In this way we learn in the light of faith much moral truth—some of which we could know even without faith and can come to understand for ourselves once it is taught us by the Church. Without faith, we could not know it so easily, nor be so sure of it, nor gather it without a mixture of mistaken opinions (see DS 3005/1786).

Moreover, from our Lord Jesus we learn what we otherwise could not know: our true destiny of fulfillment in him. From Jesus we receive the power of the Spirit and the guidance to walk after Jesus to glory. Without faith, we could not know at all this truth which Jesus himself is, and so we would not know how to live in the only right way possible in this sinful world.

As in other choices of moral advisors, so in our commitment to Jesus and our adherence to his truth taught by the Church, we are led by conscience to seek the truth from Jesus and to accept his moral guidance as he speaks to us in the Church. Still, it will be objected, one abdicates personal responsibility by submitting unreservedly to the Church’s teaching and not testing each moral norm she proposes by one’s own reason and experience. One who is upright would never submit so completely to any other moral advisor.

The last point is correct. There are limits to the trust one can place in a merely human moral guide, and it would be irresponsible to go beyond these limits. But we believe that our Lord teaches in and through the Church and gives us the word of the Father. Hence, our submission to the Church’s teaching is not submission to mere human opinions, but to the very word of God (see 1 Thes 2.13).

By faith we are certain that in faith we accept God and through faithfulness live in communion with him. Otherwise, faith would be null, since it is inherently normative. One is no more intellectually irresponsible in submitting unreservedly to the Church’s moral teaching than in submitting unreservedly to any of the fundamental doctrines which go beyond reason and experience: the Trinity, the Incarnation, the adoption of children of God, the bodily presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and so on.

But does it not degrade Catholics, place them in the position of immature children, that even the details of their intimate, personal lives are regulated by Church teaching? This would be the case if the Church were a political society. If her moral teaching were a code of law, its all-inclusiveness would be totalitarian. It is precisely this misconception—that Catholic moral teaching is a code of law—and reaction against the resulting appearance of totalitarianism, which lead some to reject the Church’s teaching. But if moral teaching is a light from God, and if nothing is good or worthwhile apart from one’s relationship to God, then humble acceptance of the whole of the Church’s moral teaching, including those points which touch one most intimately, is in no way degrading.