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Chapter 4: Some Mistaken Theories of Moral Principles

Question B: Are judgments of conscience derivable from any general principle?

1. The view that they are not, reduces conscience to isolated acts of insight. Although these insights are thought to embody moral truth, it is denied that there are any general principles from which rational reflection can draw them.

2. Some hold that judgments of conscience are direct inspirations from God. This claim has been pressed most with respect to certain especially important questions of conscience, such as the discernment of one’s personal vocation.4

3. The view that judgments of conscience cannot be derived from any general principle has a certain plausibility. To some extent, this plausibility arises from the fact that the deliverances of superego, which are often confused with conscience, do not follow rationally from principles, but rather follow from early conditioning. Even at the level of moral truth, as was explained (3‑D), people who have sufficiently appropriated and integrated moral principles do make immediate, sound, practical judgments by connaturality.5 Moreover, one often reasons from principles to conclusions without being clearly aware that one is doing so and without making explicit the principles and steps of the reasoning process. This can lead one to suppose that a judgment of conscience is an isolated act of insight when actually it is a reasoned conclusion.

4. Some aspects of Protestant theology incline toward this view of conscience.6 It suits the thesis that fallen humankind is so thoroughly corrupt that we can put no trust in anything proper to our nature. Direct divine inspiration would relieve us of having to trust our corrupted nature, since conscience would have nothing to do except receive the message passively. In recent years some Catholic theologians have been influenced by these beliefs.

5. This view must be rejected. If one takes from human persons their understanding of moral principles, their ability to reason from them, and their capacity to judge according to them, one takes away their ability to act humanly. Further, if all moral judgments were isolated acts, life would lack organization and continuity; no one could be a person of principle. Moreover, if all moral judgments were unique personal insights, no group of persons could hope to discover true solutions to their differences through reasonable discussion in the light of shared principles.

Christian life is a communal sign, as will be explained (23‑F). The communal character and sign-value of Christian life would be lost if each Christian judged and acted by private inspirations, rather than by a common and publicly preached moral teaching which belongs to faith. Faith must be articulated in the words which complete the sign of Christian life and make it effective in communicating divine revelation to the world.

6. This view is also theologically unacceptable. In attributing everything exclusively to the Holy Spirit, one is not crediting more to grace but failing to credit grace with its full effect: the raising of human persons to the status of children of God, able to live lives like that of Jesus. Furthermore, individuals are prone to take the deliverances of their personal urges or superego or some social group for the voice of God; discernment with respect to moral judgments thought to come immediately from the Holy Spirit consists in examining them for their conformity or nonconformity to the teaching of the Church. Finally, the Church has condemned the view that conscience consists of isolated acts of insight suited to each situation and underivable from general principles (see DS 3918–21).

Some argue: The Spirit illumines the Christian; the spiritual person can judge everything. Why cannot a Christian simply receive by inspiration whatever guidance is needed to form a correct conscience? At the concrete level one would grasp which choice is to be made and would see the limits of general guidelines, thus being able to set them aside when appropriate. Sometimes this idea is supported by the argument that what really should bind the Christian is God’s holy will, not some rational norm.

The work of the Spirit is not the communication of the content of faith, but evidence of God revealing, so that one can accept on divine testimony the content one receives by hearing (20‑E). Because morality is not extrinsic to faith, the same is true of basic moral principles. Of course, faith’s implications must be continuously unfolded and the practical demands it makes must be defended against competing demands. In this work, the Christian community is sustained by the continuing light of the Spirit. However, this process cannot negate truth already received, nor can it be an individualistic process.7

Someone might object that special divine inspiration cannot be excluded in principle. After all, some especially holy souls attest to receiving direct divine guidance. One ought to attend to the promptings of the Spirit. One ought indeed. The difficulty is to discern which spirit is prompting one (see 1 Thes 5.19–22; 1 Jn 4.1–3). Promptings must be put to the test of their conformity to revealed truth; one also must discern supposed promptings by the fruit to which they lead.8

One of the greatest mystics, St. John of the Cross, takes a very dim view of supernatural means of obtaining practical knowledge: “There is no necessity for this kind of knowledge, since a person can get sufficient guidance from natural reason, and the law and doctrine of the Gospel. There is no difficulty or necessity unresolvable or irremediable by these means, which are very pleasing to God and profitable to souls.”9 John would discard anything which is not in perfect harmony with the Church’s teaching. God wants human persons to be guided by other human persons; he does not want us to accept any private revelations not confirmed “through the human channel of the mouth of man.”10

Vatican II teaches that the responsibility for judging the genuineness and proper use of the gifts of the Spirit belongs to those who preside over the Church (see LG 12). This position has its foundation in the fact that the Spirit builds up the Church by working not only in every member but also in the authorities Christ set over it (see Acts 20.28–31; Eph 4.11–13; 2 Tm 1.14).

4. Karl Rahner, S.J., “On the Question of a Formal Existential Ethics,” Theological Investigations, vol. 2, Man in the Church, trans. Karl‑H. Kruger (Baltimore: Helicon, 1963), 217–34; The Dynamic Element in the Church (New York: Herder and Herder, 1964), 84–170; proposed that a process of nonconceptual intuition or discernment is required to determine what affirmative choice is appropriate in matters such as vocation. In these arguments, Rahner always assumed the scholastic theory of natural law which is criticized in question F; thus his proposal was a somewhat confused effort to make up for the inadequacy of this theory. A telling critique of Rahner’s proposal: Donal J. Dorr, “Karl Rahner’s ‘Formal Existential Ethics,’ ” Irish Theological Quarterly, 36 (1969), 211–29. Still, it must be credited to Rahner that in these works he was careful to separate himself from the situation ethics condemned by the Church; he firmly maintained that there are intelligible, general principles taught by the Church which hold true in every case, so that discernment is limited to possibilities tested by these general principles and found morally permissible or good (Dynamic Element, 91, 101, and 169). (In 27‑C the work of conscience in such judgments will be explained without appeal to mysterious intuitions and inspirations.) More questionable is Rahner’s subsequent positing of a “moral instinct of faith” which is supposed to deliver universal moral judgments irreducible to principles: “The Problem of Genetic Manipulation,” Theological Investigations, vol. 9, Writings of 1965–67, I, trans. Graham Harrison (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), 238–43. One must agree with Rahner that in the light of faith and with the help of the Church’s teaching, Catholics often can grasp moral truths for which they cannot articulate reasons. But this is not all he has in mind. One also must admit that people reasonably hold moral norms without being able to articulate the reasoning by which they follow from first principles; the situation is analogous to the rational knowledge of God’s existence, where the general line of reasoning is clear enough but the articulation of a tight argument is difficult. However, Rahner claims that the analysis is impossible. For this claim he provides little support except his supposition that the “conceptual” falls short of aspects of the “experienced” and of “practice” which nevertheless essentially determine moral goodness (239). Underlying this supposition is a voluntarism which makes moral judgment rest on choice (similar to the position examined in question C). Thus, Rahner suggests that “ ‘is’ and ‘ought’ mutually determine each other,” and “what is ‘objectively’ right only becomes transparent to the person who has already embraced the correct attitude toward it” (239); and explicitly (later in the same essay): “The ‘instinct’ justifiably has the courage to say Stat pro ratione voluntas because such a confession need not be overcautious about making a decision” (251).

5. Thus, in arguing for an intuitionist theory at the level of specific moral norms, William A. Luijpen, Phenomenology of Natural Law (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1967), 156, uses examples: “Anyone who is at least a little bit human knows that it is unjust to pluck out the eyes of children solely because they happen to be blue; and whoever disagrees with this statement is simply wrong. Anyone who is at least a little bit human knows that it is unjust to burn widows or to offer children in sacrifice; and whoever disagrees with this is simply wrong.” A minimally decent person in our culture does know such things by connaturality, but this fact does not show there is an implicit knowledge identical with the “being of man” as Luijpen thinks. His criticism (86–111) of the “Thomistic” doctrine of natural law, which he attempts to better with this intuitionism, is full of misconceptions; he distorts St. Thomas’ view into something akin to the theory criticized in question F.

6. See Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the Word (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), 72–98; Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics, vol. 1, Foundations, ed. William H. Lazareth (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 648–60, who conducts a polemic against the Catholic notion of natural law, under the title: “The Guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Given Situation”; Paul L. Lehmann, Ethics in a Christian Context (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), 124–61 (esp. the last five pages) and 287–367 (esp. 348–52). Other references to this tendency can be found in Edward LeRoy Long, Jr., A Survey of Christian Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 146–64.

7. See William F. Orr and James Arthur Walther, I Corinthians, Anchor Bible, 32 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976), 165–67. A valuable treatment by a philosopher who argues against both intuitionism and illuminationism and for reasons in the light of faith: Basil Mitchell, Morality: Religious and Secular: The Dilemma of the Traditional Conscience (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980).

8. See Thomas Dubay, S.M., Authenticity: A Biblical Treatment of Discernment (Denville, N.J.: Dimension Books, 1977), for an excellent treatise on this matter.

9. St. John of the Cross, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964), 174.

10. Ibid., 182.