Rights, the Person, and Conscience in the Catechism
Catholic Dossier, Vol. 3, No. 1: Jan-Feb 1997
Many have observed that the modern world is so
pluralistic in its moral thinking that there is no common moral discourse.
Yet there is one mode of moral discourse that seems to have a kind of
universal currency and that is the language of human rights.
One of Mary Ann Glendon's most salient observations is that rights
language impoverishes our moral discourse. It reduces all moral claims to
claims of justice. Entire other spheres of moral discourse are forgotten.
One considerable challenge that the Church faces in modern times is
finding a way of conveying its moral teaching to an age that most manifestly
does not share the moral presuppositions of the Church. The Church holds
many views very contrary to the modern age; for instance, that there are
moral absolutes; that suffering can be a redemptive good; that we should
readily sacrifice possession of the goods of this world in preference to
securing the goods of Heaven. The Church understands freedom not to be doing
whatever one wants, but liberation from sin and the right to do what is
good. Moreover, the Christian understands that the supernatural is always
penetrating this world to help souls attach themselves to what is good and
Still, it is often difficult for Christians to divest themselves of their
modern presuppositions and adopt the vision of the Church. Here I wish to
identify one particular modern presupposition and to use it as a foil to
portray the much richer moral vision of the Church.
The Language of Rights
Many have observed that the modern world is so pluralistic in its moral
thinking that there is no common moral discourse. Yet there is one mode of
moral discourse that seems to have a kind of universal currency and that is
the language of human rights. Universal declarations of human rights seem to
provide a kind of backdrop against which cross cultural discussions of
morality and politics can proceed. Since the final decade of the last
century, since Leo XIII, and very much in the last decades of this century,
"rights language" has played an almost dominant role in Church encyclicals
about moral and political matters.
There are likely two reasons for this. First, as mentioned, "rights
language" is the coin of the day as far as moral discourse is concerned:
that is, if one is going to try to make a case of morality in the modern
age, it is nearly impossible to do so without recourse to "rights language."
Second, "rights language" carries with it a salutary dimension that combats
a dangerous feature of the modern ethos relativism. Whereas relativism
dominates modern moral judgments, "rights language," with its reference to
inalienable rights, carries with it the sense that there is a universal and
absolute set of moral demands, true at all times and places.
Catholic thinkers such as John Courtney Murray and Jacques Maritain have
applauded the Church's adoption of "rights language" since they believe it
compatible with the natural law tradition of the Church. Yet, it has long
been argued by others that the use of this language poses some problems for
the Church. They observe that "rights language" grows out of the political
thought of such enlightenment thinkers as Hobbes and Locke who had a view of
man and God in considerable opposition to that of the Church.
There is a confusion of what a "right" is. Some rights, often called
"negative rights," describe what is known as a "zone of non-interference."
To say, for instance, that one has a "right to life" or a "right to privacy"
means that there are very few justifications for taking another's life and
no one should violate another's privacy. Other rights, known as "positive"
rights, make claims on others to provide something to the needy. Children
are said to have a right to food, shelter, clothing, and education from
their parents. It is not always clear whether a right is a negative or
positive right or, in the case of positive rights, who has the obligation or
duty to supply the need. For instance, it is not immediately clear whether a
right to a job or a right to health care are negative or positive rights and
who has the obligation to provide jobs and health care.
What one understands to be the source of rights also makes a great deal
of difference how one understands rights; how one understands what
constitutes a right and how absolute and universal the rights are. Does the
state confer rights upon us? Are they God-given? One could ask these
questions differently: are rights given to us in virtue of our nature, are
there fundamental human rights or are rights simply a legal invention? What
is the good that they serve? Human liberty? Human dignity? And finally, what
are our rights? Do we have a right to freedom of speech? To free practice of
religion? To abortion? Are there limits to these rights?
A full consideration of these questions is definitely beyond the scope of
this essay, but such questions begin to suggest some of the problems with
"rights language." A book entitled Rights Talk by Mary Ann Glendon,
the lawyer from Harvard who was the head of the Vatican delegation to
Beijing, illuminates even further some of the problems with "rights
language." It is quite ironic that she is one of the fiercest critics of
"rights talk." The irony is that in Beijing she found herself drawing a
great deal on "rights language" to defend women, children, and culture
against horrendous violations of their fundamental human dignity. Yet, this
situation would hardly have surprised her, since she has herself documented
well that those who wish to speak of morality in the modern age are quite
necessarily dependent upon rights language.
The following passage represents well her critique:
Our rights talk, in its absoluteness, promotes
unrealistic expectations, heightens social conflict, and inhibits dialogue
that might lead toward consensus, accommodation, or at least the discovery
of common ground. In its silence concerning responsibilities, it seems to
condone acceptance of the benefits of living in a democratic social welfare
state, without accepting the corresponding personal and civic obligations.
In its relentless individualism, it fosters a climate that is inhospitable
to society's losers, and that systematically disadvantages caretakers and
dependents, young and old. In its neglect of civic society, it undermines
the principle seedbeds of civic and personal virtue.
Glendon makes many claims here. She claims that rights talk does not
allow for nuances that any right quickly comes to be seen as absolute and
without limitation. Elsewhere she notes that rights seem to proliferate and,
again, quickly assume a status of absoluteness; for instance, the "right to
privacy" has begun to dominate many legal decisions in the United States
and, as is well known, is the basis for the legalization of abortion and
euthanasia. We soon find ourselves claiming we have a right to whatever it
is that we want and claiming that others should provide it for us.
Glendon also claims that "rights talk" eclipses all talk of
responsibility. She observes that young people are able to recite a litany
of the rights that are secured by a free society but are not able to list
what obligations and responsibilities members of a free society might have.
She maintains that "rights talk" reduces each of us to an autonomous center
of rights who is independent of relationships and of the community. We
become so concerned with securing our own rights that we exhibit little
interest in the well being of others. In fact, others are seen as potential
rivals for the goods to which we have rights.
Modern "rights talk" asserts that the foremost right is liberty and,
apart from harming others, we believe our liberty to pursue our own concept
of the good should be unfettered. In the modern view, rights secure our
liberties; the ultimate goal is for each of us to do what we want, when we
want, as long as we do no harm to others. Indeed, in the U.S. Supreme Court
Case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, it was stated that "At the heart
of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of
meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life" [112 S. Ct. 2807
(1992)]. This claim was made in support of abortion and has since been used
in support of euthanasia.
One of Mary Ann Glendon's most salient observations is that "rights
language" impoverishes our moral discourse. It reduces all moral claims to
claims of justice. Entire other spheres of moral discourse are forgotten.
For instance, we no longer speak in terms of virtue (though there are
currently powerful attempts to reinsert virtue language into our moral
discourse) or in terms of doing God's will, or in terms of duty, or natural
law, or keeping the commandments. My students are always astonished when I
speak of a moral obligation we have to take care of our health; they balk at
this claim unless it can be framed in terms of what we owe others. That
health is a human good that we have an obligation to seek or preserve seems
a foreign concept to them. If no injustice is done, if no rights are
violated, they can not see that something immoral has been done. Since we
have lost the language of these other sources of morality, we have also, it
seems, lost the moral vision that undergirds them.
To understand how "rights talk" impoverishes our moral discourse, let us
evaluate a scenario and see how different would be the terms of the
discussion of the moral dimensions of the situation from the point of view
of one who reasons in terms of rights and from the point of view of one who
shares the Church's moral vision.
The scenario is this: a young unmarried woman engages in an act of sexual
intercourse; she becomes pregnant; she ponders an abortion but decides to
carry the child to term; she goes on welfare but also sues the father for
child support; she places the child in daycare so that she can pursue a
The individual who reasons in terms of rights might say that the woman
has a right to have sexual intercourse when and with whom she likes; she has
a right to an effective contraceptive which the medical profession has yet
really to provide her; she has a right to an abortion which outweighs the
fetus's right to life. (She also has a right to the opinion that the fetus
has no right to life). She has a right to public support in order to raise
her child; she also has a right to child support from the father of the
child. She has a right to self-fulfillment so she has the right to place her
child in childcare. Since no rights have been violated according to this
evaluation, it is difficult to see how any disapproval of her action could
be expressed. Those who reason in terms of rights may sense that all is not
morally laudable here, but after all, she is just doing what she has a right
to do, she is doing what she is free to do.
"Rights language" could be used to express disapproval of this woman's
action but we must make very clear that it would be a different "rights
language." The "rights" we invoked to justify her action are in service of
individual liberty. Reference to rights to register disapproval are not
those designed to maximize freedom but are rights that are rooted in the
dignity of the human person, a dignity bestowed upon the human person by
God. From this perspective, it could be said that people have no right to
have sexual intercourse outside of marriage, that they have no right to use
contraception or to have an abortion. The child can be said to have a right
to be conceived by parents who are married to each other (as Donum Vitae
states) and, of course, to have a right to life. It could be said that the
parents have no right to charitable support for their misdeeds and that they
have no right to pursue their own selfish interests at the expense of the
wellbeing of their child.
Moderns who disapprove of the actions portrayed would likely speak this way,
would likely use "rights language" to express their disapproval. They would,
however, be speaking a different "rights language"; a "rights language" that
understands rights to be protective of human dignity, not to be a means to
maximize human freedom. I will return to the question of the foundation of
rights in a moment.
The Language of Responsibility
Before we consider the proper use of "rights language," let us note that
one who shares the Church's moral vision could evaluate this scenario
without any use of "rights language." Disapproval of the woman's actions
could be expressed in a multitude of ways. In having sexual intercourse
outside of marriage the woman is not acting in accord with human dignity;
she is violating the meaning and purpose of sexual intercourse, for she is
not using her sexual powers to express her spousal love for another and she
is not being responsible towards any child she might conceive. In so acting
she is breaking the natural law. She is also violating the laws of Scripture
and the Church that teach that sexual intercourse outside of marriage is a
grave offense against God. She is violating the meaning of sexual
intercourse by using contraception, for she is not expressing the full
meaning of complete self-giving that the sexual act is meant to express.
Both the male and the female involved in the act of sexual intercourse
outside of marriage have failed to act in accord with the dictates of love;
they have used and exploited each other (even if they felt love for each
other) and have not brought their child into the world in a loving fashion.
The woman does not have the virtue of moderation or temperance in respect to
her sexual desires since she does not order these desires to their proper
good. If she had decided to have an abortion she would be doing greater
damage to herself than to the unborn child. If she knows the nature of her
act, she would be committing a mortal sin and endangering her immortal soul.
She would be forming vices such as injustice and perhaps cowardice in her
soul. The community may be charitable to her in giving her and her child
welfare to support her child, but can the woman and her child be said to
have a right to welfare? The couple has harmed the child and the
community by bringing a child into existence outside of the support of a
The father (who would share fully in the evil of the action) certainly
ought to assume financial and emotional responsibility for the child. Both
parents ought to do everything they can to ensure that the child not suffer
from their poor decisions and by poor decisions I mean immoral actions. The
woman and the man should put the well-being of the child above their own
self-fulfilling career and life interests.
Both individuals should have recourse to the sacraments of Confession and
the Eucharist for the grace to amend their ways and to fulfill their
responsibilities. Had they consulted their consciences before they acted and
attempted to form their consciences in accord with Church teaching, they
would have realized that sexual intercourse outside of marriage is wrong and
as free and responsible moral agents would have voluntarily postponed sexual
satisfaction until they made a commitment to each other and to the children
their actions might produce. They should have prayed to Christ and relied
upon his grace and love to strengthen them so they could resist their unruly
passions and could act in accord with their responsibilities. Insofar as
they overcome these passions, and act in accord with their responsibilities,
in accord with the dictates of human dignity, love of each other, and the
love of God, they would be becoming perfect as their heavenly Father is
perfect and would look forward to living for eternity with God himself.
Note that the evaluation in accord with the Church's moral vision can be
done without any reference to rights and that it is much more complicated
than the evaluation in terms of rights. "Rights language" focuses on a
fairly narrow range of ethical concerns - the just interactions between
individuals or between individuals and the state. In addition, the Church's
moral vision encompasses human dignity, natural law, virtue, grace, love,
charity, the commandments, prayer, the sacraments, conscience, the passions,
obligations to others and to God, sin and the eternal destiny of man. These
are all themes of the Catechism. Such concerns can easily be lost in
the moral vision governed by rights.
Perhaps the difference between a moral vision governed by "rights
language" and the moral vision of the Church can best be seen through
contrasting what it means to be a creature bearing rights and a creature
bearing duties. Our age is slow to recognize duties and responsibilities. In
fact, it tends to find in the words "duty" and "responsibility" negative
connotations that suggest a curtailment of freedom, whereas rights are
connected with freedom. A creature bearing rights is a creature full of
needs and demands that often seem to conflict with the needs and demands of
others. A creature bearing duties is interconnected with others as one who
must actively seek the good of others, and who, in doing so, is also
achieving goods for oneself, if only the very important good of performing
The Christian moral vision sees the human person as indebted from the moment
of conception and throughout his lifetime. He owes God and his parents for
his coming into existence and for his continued existence. He owes countless
others for making his life and his enjoyment of life possible. Each human
person is a creature much indebted to God and others. He is obliged to live
a life of self-giving, if only to make some small repayment for what he has
received. His focus should not be upon himself - his needs, demands and
rights - but on doing good for others. Those who perform their duties
achieve true freedom, the freedom from selfishness and vice. Thus while
"rights language" can serve the important function of protecting human
dignity from assaults against it, the language of duty advances the
ennobling of the human person and true freedom.
The Foundation of Rights
We must realize, then, that the Church use of "rights language" differs
considerably from modern "rights talk." As was noted above, the Church is
careful to indicate that it understands rights to be grounded in human
dignity, in the nature of the human person, which encompasses more than
man's status as a free creature. Such a grounding is essential, for it
prevents the irresponsible proliferation of rights that are grounded only in
our needs or desires. It combats the lethal modern tendency to enshrine
inauthentic exercises of liberty into rights (more about this in a moment).
The clearest statement of the foundation of rights is perhaps found in a
passage from Donum Vitae (section III), quoted by the Catechism
...human rights depend neither on single individuals nor on parents;
nor do they represent a concession made by society and the state; they
belong to human nature and are inherent in the person by virtue of the
creative act from which the person took his origin.
Here rights are linked to human nature, to the human person, and to the
Creator who formed that nature. In fact the Catechism links "rights
talk" not only to human dignity but also to the commandments and to natural
law as well:
The natural law, present in the heart of each man and established by
reason, is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men.
It expresses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his
fundamental rights and duties ... (no. 1956)
The Ten Commandments belong to God's revelation. At the same time they
teach us the true humanity of man. They bring to light the essential duties,
and therefore, indirectly, the fundamental rights inherent in the nature of
the human person (no. 2070).
Here we can see that the Church tethers "rights language" to the
traditional moral terminology of the Church; such statements make it
impossible, for instance, that one could have a "right" to do something at
odds with human nature and the dignity of the human person or to do
something in violation of the commandments.
In recent documents the Church has been sharp in its warnings against the
modern age's overvaluation and erroneous understanding of freedom. In such
an age of relativism and skepticism, "rights language," rather than serving
to protect fundamental human goods, begins to be used to protect violations
of fundamental human goods. We find in Evangelium Vitae a marvelous
dissection of the dangers of "modern rights" language. It speaks powerfully
about how the laudable modern interest in ensuring that the fundamental
rights of all are respected has, through a distorted understanding of
freedom, led us to begin to transform what should properly be termed crimes
into fundamental human rights.
At one time abortion was considered a heinous crime, then it was argued
that women should have the right to choose abortion; then access to abortion
was spoken of as a fundamental right, and in some areas of the globe,
notably China, abortion is now used as an instrument of the state; women who
have had one child are forced to undergo abortion. In Evangelium
Vitae the Church powerfully describes this process. In the U.S., right
to die forces are winning through the same shift from crime, to fundamental
human right, and I suspect, before long to obligation.
We have focused here primarily on the dangers of "rights language." We noted
early that "rights language" does serve useful purposes, among them the
purpose of advancing the view that some elements of morality are universal
and absolute. The association of "rights language" with freedom and liberty
is also important and salutary, even though the understanding of freedom and
liberty to which it is attached is excessive or distorted. The Church is
rightfully eager to ally itself with the advancement and protection of human
It is in its teaching on conscience that the Church clarifies its
understanding of authentic human freedom. The growing importance of freedom
in the Church's moral vision and the difference between the Church's
understanding of freedom and the modern view of freedom can perhaps be seen
with some clarity by comparing the recent Catechism of the Catholic
Church with the Roman Catechism.
The Roman Catechism, the last official catechism of the Catholic
Church, was issued in 1566. Such a great distance between universal
catechisms perhaps serves to unfairly magnify differences that have
gradually taken place over centuries. Comparing a renaissance city to a
modern city would reveal such differences as to cause some to think one had
perhaps moved to a different universe. Yet the beauty of centuries-old
structures and adaptability to modern use and, indeed, their frequent
superiority to modern structures suggests that we can hardly say the past is
without relevance to the present; nor can we make the boast of unrelenting
progress that we might like to. A change in treatment of a topic does not,
of course, suggest a change in teaching; it most likely suggests rather the
differing concerns of the time in which the topics are addressed. The
Roman Catechism was written to counter the Protestant Reformation and
properly reflected the concerns of that time. The present Catechism of
the Catholic Church was written during a time of considerable confusion
within the Church about Church teaching and in an age saturated with the
values of modern secularism.
The section in the Roman Catechism that covers morality deals
exclusively with the Ten Commandments. The Catechism of the Catholic
Church, on the other hand, places a discussion of the Ten Commandments
as a second section in the part of the catechism entitled "Life in Christ."
The first section of this part is entitled "Man's Vocation: Life in the
Spirit." Chapter One, "The Dignity of the Human Person," covers many topics
such as man's freedom, the morality of the passions, the conscience, virtues
The second chapter in the first part is entitled "The Human Community," and
the third chapter deals with Law and Grace. Only then follows a treatment of
the Ten Commandments. The absence of many of the topics of the Catechism
of the Catholic Church
from the Roman Catechism
does not suggest,
of course, that the Church did not draw upon these sources of morality in
the past. A more comprehensive treatment of the sources of morality may be
present in the Catechism of the Catholic Church
because there has
arisen in the intervening centuries greater dispute about what constitute
the sources of morality.
From Lawgiver to Model of Perfection
One can, though, discern a theme threaded through the moral portion of
the Catechism of the Catholic Church that seems to have a prominence
one could not quite imagine in the Roman Catechism. The new
Catechism picks up the Christological and personalist emphasis of the
Second Vatican Council which had moved some distance from the cosmological
and natural law emphasis of the past. To oversimplify matters, one could say
that the Church has shifted from an emphasis on God the Father as Lawgiver
who has written His will into the laws of nature, to an emphasis on Christ
as our model of perfection, and human dignity as the grounding of morality
in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Whereas the Roman
Catechism stressed God as the author of nature and the author of all
moral laws, the Catechism of the Catholic Church stresses that all
moral law is in accord with the dignity of the human person. These are
emphases that began to emerge in the documents of Vatican II and come to a
fuller flower in the new Catechism.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not reject or abandon a
view of the cosmos as ordered by God or of natural law as a guide to
morality but goes well beyond them in its presentation of morality. Hence in
the Catechism we find the emergence of the "dignity of the human
person" as a focal point of moral teaching. And I would like to note further
that the dignity of the human person is seen as rooted not so much in his
status as a rational creature whose mind is able to grasp reality but in his
status as a free and self-determining creature who must shape himself in
accord with the truth. Such key themes of personalism permeate the moral
vision of the new Catechism. A personalist cast imbues all discussion
of morality; that is, there is a constant reference to man's dignity as
manifested in his power to determine himself freely in accord with the
The moral section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins
with this passage:
The dignity of the human person is rooted in his
creation in the image and likeness of God (article 1); it is fulfilled in
his vocation to divine beatitude (article 2). It is essential to a human
being freely to direct himself to this fulfillment (article 3). By his
deliberate actions (article 4), the human person does, or does not, conform
to the good promised by God and attested by moral conscience (article 5).
Human beings make their own contribution to their interior growth; they make
their whole sentient and spiritual lives into means of this growth (article
6). With the help of grace they grow in virtue (article 7), avoid sin, and
if they sin they entrust themselves as did the prodigal son to the mercy of
our Father in heaven (article 8). In this way they attain to the perfection
of charity (no. 1700).
In this passage we can see several of the main concepts that inform a
personalist approach to ethics: man as made in the image and likeness of
God, man as determining himself by his deliberate and free actions, a
concern with the interior life, the need of conforming our actions to the
good that is made known to us by our conscience, and the goal being
attainment of perfect charity. These themes play a major role in both the
and in Veritatis Splendor.
They are, of course, also
central to natural law ethics and have been a constant part of Church
teaching. Simply the fact that the passages cited in support of the
teachings of the first portion of the moral section of the Catechism
are all from non modern sources indicates the timelessness of these themes.
But these themes have been knit together in a certain fashion that is new,
and that is a response to developments within the Church and within the
Speaking the Language of Modernity
Let us emphasize the phrase, "It is essential to a human being freely to
direct himself to [beatitude]." The emphasis on self-determination emerging
in Church documents reflects the concerns of Pope John Paul II in his
philosophical work, which in turn are a response to modern philosophic
concerns. Again, while Pope John Paul lI is fully aware of the undue
emphasis that our age puts on human freedom, he also recognizes interest in
it as a positive development of the modern age. Veritatis Splendor,
no. 31 states:
Certainly people today have a particularly strong sense of freedom. As
the Council's Declaration of 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."
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." In
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.
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.
Pope John Paul II embraces what is good about the language of rights and
the emphasis on freedom and seeks to find a foundation for them in the
Christian view of the human person. There is a surprising passage in
Veritatis Splendor that indicates how willing Pope John Paul II is to
adopt the language of the modern age. I have not done a thorough word
search, but I suspect the word "autonomy" has made few appearances in Church
documents. Veritatis Splendor no. 40 states: "At the heart of the
moral life we thus find the principle of a 'rightful autonomy' of man, the
personal subject of his action."
The word is one allied closely with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant
(though Veritatis Splendor no. 38 cites a passage from Saint Gregory
of Nyssa that speaks of the soul being "swayed autonomously by its own
will"). In its etymological roots it means "self-rule"; in Kant it is used
to describe the necessity that man be a self-legislating entity; that he not
be heteronomous or one who is ruled by another - and for Kant, even being
ruled by God is unacceptable heteronomous submission.
Autonomy would seem to be very much at odds with Christianity for humans
are to do God's will and obey God's law rather than to be willful and to be
their own sources of what is lawful. Kant, of course, was not a relativist;
indeed he wished to formulate all moral dictums in terms of universal
absolutes. Relativism, however, quite naturally grew out of Kant's
metaphysical skepticism, and his rejection of any heteronomous source of
moral norms. So both the Kantian understanding of autonomy, which roots
moral obligation in the rational nature of the human person, and a more
modern notion of autonomy which is identical with relativism, makes the term
an unlikely candidate for being a part of the Church's moral vision.
Yet, the Church's understanding of conscience in some very important ways
amounts to an advocacy of autonomy. Certainly we are not to be the source of
moral norms; we are to recognize that God is the source of moral norms. God,
however, wrote the first principles of practical reasoning on man's
consciousness and directed man to devise laws for his governance in accord
with these principles that are a part of his nature. Man, then, in being a
law unto himself is not a law apart from God.
The Catechism, in fact, quite directly though very briefly
addresses the concern of autonomy:
Atheism is often based on a false conception of human autonomy,
exaggerated to the point of refusing any dependence on God. Yet, "to
acknowledge God is in no way to oppose the dignity of man, since such
dignity is grounded and brought to perfection in God ..." "For the Church
knows full well that her message is in harmony with the most secret desires
of the human heart" (no. 2126).
In the Church's understanding, it is only when one is acting in accord with
the most secret desires of the human heart that one is acting truly
autonomously, and since God placed those desires there, there is no conflict
in following the most secret desires of one's heart, following God, and
being fully autonomous.
Genuine Autonomy and the Law of God
The Church denies that true autonomy risks putting the moral agent at
odds with God; it also denies that there can be a conflict between the
conscience and the Church; the Catechism states: "No opposition
between individual conscience or reason on the one hand, and the moral law
or the Church's teaching authority on the other, can be admitted" (no.
2039). Veritatis Splendor states that
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. 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 (no. 40).
The dignity of the human person lies in his ability to understand that
the good he is to do freely is indeed a good for him. For a human to do good
out of fear or coercion is not to do good in a human and meritorious way.
Human dignity lies in the ability to do what is good, freely. He is to make
the good his own good. He is to personally appropriate what is good. Man is
to form his conscience to be so in accord with the good that when he is
acting out of obedience to the good he is actually acting in accord with the
good that he dictates to himself. Veritatis Splendor no. 52 states:
"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." Such a cooperation between God and the human
person, leads Veritatis Splendor no. 41 to suggest that we ought to
speak neither of autonomy or heteronomy but of a participated theonomy -man
is not under God's law but participates in God's law.
What is ultimately good for the human person is a proper relationship
with God. Man is to worship God freely. Thus the Church places such an
enormous emphasis on the importance of conscience because conscience is
properly allied not with radical autonomy but with the freedom to worship.
In letter on the eve of the Madrid Conference on European Security and
Cooperation, (Sept. 1, 1980), Pope John Paul II stated:
... freedom of conscience and of religion ... is a
primary and inalienable right of the human person; what is more, insofar as
it touches the innermost sphere of the spirit, one can even say that it
upholds the justification, deeply rooted in each individual, of all other
liberties. Of course, such freedom can only be exercised in a responsible
way, that is, in accordance with ethical principles ...
Several themes of this essay come together in this passage. Pope John
Paul II speaks of the freedom of conscience of and of religion being the
primary and inalienable right of the human person and that it is the
foundation of all other liberties. It is because he has a conscience that
man should be free and that freedom, thus, must be exercised responsibly,
that is to say, in accordance with ethical principles.
The above discussions on "rights language" and "conscience" provide just
the slightest of glimpses into the riches of the moral vision of the
Catechism. What I have attempted to do is to show how responsive the
Catechism is to modern concerns while also suggesting that it is
altogether faithful to the inherited moral vision of the Church. While I
have focused on rights and on conscience, I hope I have left no one with the
impression that Christian morality is primarily about rights or man's
wrestling with his conscience in order to formulate correct moral norms.
Christianity is about the desire and attempt to do what is good out of love
for the person of Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life." It is
not so much about following the dictates of conscience as it is about
following the promptings of the Holy Spirit. As the Catechism states:
"Life in the Holy Spirit fulfills the vocation of man" (no. 1699). Those who
seek holiness through receiving the sacraments, will develop a special
relationship with Christ and the Holy Spirit and will find themselves drawn
to live lives of loving service. And ultimately, that is the moral vision of
1. Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk. The Impoverishment
of Political Discourse (The Free Press" New York, 1991), p. 14.
2. Catechism of the Catholic Church (Ignatius
Press: San Francisco, 1994).
3. For a fuller explanation of the compatibility of
personalism and natural law see my "Natural Law and Personalism in
Veritatis Splendor, " Chapter 13 in Veritatis Splendor: American
Responses, edited by Michael E. Allsopp and John J. O'Keefe (Sheed &
Ward: Kansas City, 1995), pp. 194-207. Portions of this article are taken
from that chapter.
4. For a discussion of the emerging interest in
autonomy in Church documents, see Walter Kaspar, Theology and Church
(Crossroad: New York, 1992).
5. The Catechism makes reference to an erroneous
view of autonomy: "Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by
others, enslavement to one's passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of
autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church's authority and her
teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of
errors of judgment in moral conduct" (no. 1792).