Project Logo

Protection of Conscience Project

Service, not Servitude
Religious Believers

Rights, the Person, and Conscience in the Catechism

Catholic Dossier, Vol. 3, No. 1: Jan-Feb 1997
Reproduced with permission

Janet Smith *

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 holy.

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 career.

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 loving marriage.

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 one's duties.

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 (no. 2273):

...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 freedom.
Comparing Catechisms

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 and sin.

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 truth.

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 Catechism 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 modern culture.
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 the Catechism.

End Notes

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).


Print Friendly and PDF