Jan. 14, 2010, at 12:29pm
His excellency, George H. Niederauer, Archbishop of San Francisco, has published a letter to Nancy Pelosi laying out the Church’s teaching on freedom and conscience. I find it very well done.
Freedom of will is the capacity to act with moral responsibility; it is not the ability to determine arbitrarily what constitutes moral right.
In reminding his readers of the objectivity of moral values, the Archbishop stresses not so much the binding character of the law as given by the Church, but rather the reality of conscience as the “core of the person” and the locus of his interior encounter with God. In other words, the Church teaches us not so much to “obey authority” as to listen to God within.
What, then, is to guide the children of God in the use of their freedom? Again, the bishops at the Council provide the answer—conscience: “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment . . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God . . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” (GS, No. 16) Conscience, then, is the judgment of reason whereby the human person, guided by God’s grace, recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act. In all we say and do, we are obliged to follow faithfully what we know to be just and right.
Even his instruction about our responsibility to form our consciences rightly emphasizes not obedience, but “mastering the law” and listening to testimony.
How do we form and guide our consciences? While the Church teaches that each of us is called to judge and direct his or her own actions, it also teaches that, like any good judge, each conscience masters the law and listens to expert testimony about the law. This process is called the education and formation of conscience.
These emphases (which come from the gospel and from the Church herself) are important and all too easily overlooked, leading to much misunderstanding and malformation.
Common caricatures of Christian morality portray believers as living in fear of punishment or concerned only with an eternal reward. Long ago, however, St. Basil the Great, a fourth-century bishop and theologian, taught that the Christian, in living a moral life according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, “does not stand before God as a slave in servile fear, nor a mercenary looking for wages, but obeys for the sake of the good itself and out of love for God as his child.” (CCC, No. 1828)
Three cheers for the Archbishop! And prayers for Nancy Pelosi and all Catholic public servants, that they may have ears to hear.
Hat tip Kathryn Lopez at the Corner.