Mgr. Livio Melina: Conscience and truth in the magisterium of Cardinal Caffarra

By Mgr. Livio Melina

Rome Life Forum, 18 May 2018

In the apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis hopes that “individual conscience (will be) better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage” (paragraph 303), adding that “naturally, every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor.” But what precisely do these assertions mean?

1. The primacy of conscience?

There are those who wish to interpret them as an invitation to a radical “paradigm shift” (Paradigmenwechsel), to be implemented throughout Catholic moral theology, a turning point in which the Church finally acknowledges the primacy of conscience, to the point of relativization of its precepts, which should thus not simply be applied, but always interpreted subjectively and variously depending on the situation and circumstances, which only conscience can know and evaluate [1]. Without the necessity of denial of these precepts, the hermeneutic of “case-by-case discernment” would become the “pastoral” key offered by Amoris laetitia, finally enabling peace to be made with the entire moral magisterium on life and sexuality, in particular that of Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, while toning down its excessive regulative demands, condemned as rigorous rigidity. There would therefore be no need to change the doctrine of Humanae vitae on contraception, Evangelium vitae on abortion and euthanasia, Donum vitae on artificial procreation. It would be sufficient to interpret them pastorally, giving conscience the authority to discern according to the specific case.

Given these interpretations, widespread not only among theologians and pastors, but even in addresses by a number of bishops and at regional Episcopal conferences, four Cardinals submitted a number of Dubia to the Pope, to which they have not yet received a reply. The last of these doubts relates specifically to the matter of conscience. It reads as follows: “After Amoris Laetitia (paragraph 303), should validity continue to be accorded to the teaching of Saint Paul II’s Encyclical Veritatis splendor, paragraph 56, founded on Holy Scripture and the Church’s Tradition, which excludes a creative interpretation of the role of conscience and affirms that at no time has conscience been authorised to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral precepts which prohibit acts whose purpose makes them intrinsically bad?».

I would now like to reread with you the enlightened teaching of Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, one of the four Cardinals who were signatories of the  Dubia on the matter of conscience and demonstrate how it decisively distances itself from ambiguity and at the same time safeguards the dignity of conscience and absolute respect for human life and love.

2. The question of the truth and destiny of man

Human history  – as asserted by the Cardinal of Bologna last year in this very circumstance – is a confrontation between the attractive force of the truth, which has its source in the Heart of the Crucified-Resurrected One, and the power of Satan, who builds a culture of lies[2]. For the Cardinal, theology was not merely an academic question, but part of the drama of the history of salvation. It is at the same time a liturgy of worship and conflict, a militant response to the love of God, a testimony of faith and an act of charity on which the Church is built.

Man’s destiny is played out primarily on the question of truth, inspired by St Augustine, who wrote: “no one can be a friend of man unless he is above all a friend of truth” [3], and Karol Wojtyla, who said: “Man is himself through truth. His relationship with truth decides his humanity and constitutes the dignity of the person” [4].

This is not an abstract truth, but a truth based on what is good, on the ultimate purpose which renders a human life truly good [5]. The lie imposed in contemporary culture negates the possibility of awareness of a truth based on what is good, which guides our actions and forms the rules of “a common moral grammar”, which preserves the peace and common good of society. We will follow with Caffarra the different stages of this drift towards an ethic without truth and without good, before regaining with him an adequate anthropological horizon.

Practical reason has in fact been humiliated and reduced to utilitarian reason, incapable of attaining a universal truth on good and on evil and serving the interests of the individual. It is purely instrumental in value and chooses the most suitable means, but is unable to judge the purposes of an act, which are left to subjective discretion. Ethical relativism can only seek a remedy in the social contractualism of conventional rules, established to make coexistence possible; yet there is no possibility of escaping the aporia that no rule can impose on me an obligation to respect rules.  A utilitarian person lives “in the anthropological horizon constituted by his needs and interests  (…) whose criterion of satisfaction is paralysed by the centripetal psychology of his self-love” [6]. In the climate of post-modernity, he is a prisoner of emotivism, which makes stable bonds for existence impossible.

In breaking the bond consisting of truth based on good, freedom becomes “devoid of foundation”, lacking in content and arbitrary: this is a freedom of indifference, theorised by the nominalism of the late Middle Ages, according to which moral precepts make no reference of truth to the good, but merely exert a coercive power of extrinsic interpretation of what is lawfully right.

In this context, conscience forfeits its original characteristic of witness to the truth based on good and becomes a simple personal opinion which no one has authority to judge. It is this “counterfeiting of conscience”, against which Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman fought, identifying the factor of mystification in what he termed “liberal principle”, which negates any reference to a truth superior to the person.

In an unpublished address due to be given in London on 21 October 2017, Cardinal  Caffarra announced the extraordinary current relevance of Newman’s theology on conscience, according to which the sense of duty only acquires full authority and positive value when joined in the depths of conscience with moral sense, which is capable of recognising its dependence on the truth, on God and the Church[7]. If this is not the case, the exhortation of autonomy without a search for and subordination to the truth is transformed into unconscious dependence on the dominant mentality or enslavery to one’s own interests and desires.

Hence, the fundamental alternative confronting our interpretation of conscience becomes evident. It is here represented in the words of Cardinal Caffarra: “either being proceeds from conscience (…), or conscience proceeds from being. The alternative is so radical that it admits of no  tertium quid. In the background (…) is the radical alternative of the significance of good, and hence the nature of morality. The essential difference pertains to the thesis of simple ideality: either conscience proceeds from good and is the conscience of good, or good proceeds from conscience and is the good of conscience” [8].

The counterfeiting of conscience becomes a “factor destructive of man” [9]. This happens when, severed from the link of dependency constituting the truth, it deludes itself that it is the source of good and evil, the principle of auto-creation. Subjectivism and relativism assume the form of a neo-Gnostic personalism, which identifies man with an autonomous spirit, able to mould its very corporeal being according to its own desires and plans [10]. Such claims exalt man in appearance only, deluding him with the mirage of possessing creative power over reality and absolute authority on good and evil: in reality, they lead him to the suicide of a diabolical anti-creation.

It is however in the depths of conscience that what is termed by Caffarra: “the original memory of the good and true” [11] shines irreducibly, as the light in which the Mystery is originally made present, as a primitive revelation which guides man. The Cardinal includes at this level certain “spiritual intuitions, perceptions of reality, lived experiences” [12], which form the fundamental structure of an adequate anthropology and waymarks to the truth of good. Above all, the unrepeatable uniqueness of each person, worthy in itself and meriting the homage of my freedom; thereafter the value of the body, as the visible sign of the person, which belongs to his being and not merely to his having, because the human being is the substantial unity of body and soul; sexual dimorphism, as the original symbol of the call of the person to live in relation to others.

According to Thomist thought, the Cardinal from Emilia reinterprets, in a personalist key, natural inclinations towards the fundamental human goods of life, sexuality and sociality [13]. He speaks of the  “reciprocal indwelling of natural inclinations in practical reason and of practical reason in natural inclinations, of the bios in the logos and of the logos in the bios”. While aspirations to particular human goods provide the content of reason, it is in the hermeneutic reference to the good of the person that they acquire the properly ethical form of virtue.

To conclude this first point, we note the two fundamental premises for Caffarra’s vision, which establish the link between truth and the destiny of man in his vision of moral conscience; they are: firstly, an adequate anthropology capable of integrating corporeity and its dynamisms in the person, and secondly, assumption of the practical perspective of the first person, after which, through action, the person seeks fulfilment. It is this realist concept which is able to counter the fragmentation of the human being and the utilitarian and emotivist notion of its actions.

3. Respect for human life and the dignity of love

The strength of Cardinal Caffarra’s concept of moral conscience is that it hinges on dependence on the truth, the truth of God’s plan, inscribed in human nature and revealed in Christ, through the Word of God. Adequate anthropology, that is the truth on man, gifted in the “Principle” which is Creation, enlightens conscience in its concrete and practical judgements. It has no connection with an external law, according to which it is always possible to seek extenuations and exceptions, subjective and flexible interpretations. It has to do with the truth on the good, to which it must bear witness by attesting to its relevance. The path of conscience is the path of truth on the good, it is the path of the “Principle”.

“If we do not follow this path, inevitably we will enter the path of the Pharisees, that is the path of casuistry” [14], the path of “case-by-case” and exceptions, which considers extenuations and hence succeeds in justifying abortion, contraception, adultery.  “If we consider Humanae vitae to be principally and fundamentally a moral law (to be construed according to conscience), we necessarily enter the logic of casuistry, that is, of the application of the universal to the particular”.

But Caffarra assures us that Saint John Paul II at no time endorsed this viewpoint: it is the testimony of the truth on conjugal love, asked to be lived in the dimension of the gift of self, respect for human life and the body, not of use of the person of the other for one’s own pleasure or one’s own use. In the Encyclical Humanae vitae, Paul VI affirmed with  clarity that the Church is not the author, and hence cannot be the arbiter, of moral law, but merely its custodian and interpreter“ and can therefore never declare to be lawful that which is not lawful due to its inherent and immutable opposition to the true good of man” [15].

The person created in the image and likeness of God is called to give itself in love, to recognition of this vocation in the sexual difference between male and female: this is the great truth which enlightens conscience. The Cardinal of Bologna concluded: “Only the Catholic Church now remains to allow us to feel the breath of eternity in human love. And if even the Church ceases to allow us to feel this?”, through complicity, fear or false compliance. His last address, which could not be given due to his sudden death, evoked the betrayal by Peter (cfr. Mark 14, 66-76) who, through fear and in the presence of a servant, denied the truth: “We know that Peter betrayed the truth and wept. He was the author, victim and witness of prevarication of the truth” [16].

On this matter, Carlo Caffarra also warned against the equivocation of the belief that “the criteria for discernment should be deduced from mercy”: this “is false and dangerous”, he admonished. False, because charity, of which mercy is an essential dimension, denotes a general attitude, which motivates acts of healing, but cannot determine  judgement on the nature of the sickness to be cured. And it is dangerous because mercy, understood in this sense, can lead to avoidance of recourse to the necessary bitter medicines [17].

On the matter of conscience, he frequently cited a maximum of  Feodor Dostojevski in his Diary of a writer: I never tell anyone to follow their conscience, without adding that they must first concern themselves with the development of a true conscience, because otherwise I would be indicating  the quickest path to self-ruination”.

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For this reason, Cardinal Caffarra is in full agreement with the invitation of Pope Francis in Amoris laetitia regarding enhancement of the conscience of persons. He shared with Newman the idea that the Pope should be praised, but “first conscience, and then the Pope”. He was however also convinced that dignity of conscience derives from its dependence on the truth and therefore the fundamental task of pastors is not to brandish the illusion of self-sufficiency, but form the conscience of the faithful in the truth, without giving way to a presumption of autonomy, relativism or compromise. It is not a paradigm shift of which we stand in need, but a conversion of the heart, so that our conscience is open to the truth and realises it in our acts.

[1] In this sense: S. Goertz – Witting (Hrsg.), Amoris laetitia – Wendepunkt für die Moraltheologie, Verlag Herder, Freiburg im Breisgau 2016; M. Chiodi, “Conscience and precept, what relationship? On Chapter VIII of Amoris laetitia”, in Review of the Italian Clergy 5 (2017), 325-338.

[2] Cfr. Speech given at the Rome Life Forum on 19 May 2017.

[3] St Augustine, Letter 155, 1.

[4] K. Wojtyla, Sign of contradiction, Life and thought, Milan 1977, 133, cited in the address “The reconstruction of man” which, although scheduled to be given on 10 September 2017, did not happen due to his death four days previously.

[5] “The crisis of ethics in the West”, Rome, 26 May 2009.

[6] Lecture “Comparison of ethical matrices: ethics of the third and ethics of the first person ”, 8 March 2012, with an internal reference to F. Botturi, The generation of the good, Life and thought, Milan 2009, 275.

[7] Address “The education of moral conscience according to Newman”, scheduled to be given in London, at the John Henry Newman Cultural Centre on 21 October 2017.

[8] “The Church and the moral order”, in L’Osservatore Romano of 16 January 1976.

[9] Address “The reconstruction of man”,  cit.

[10] See the recent Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Placuit Deo, on certain aspects of Christian salvation, which denounces the emergence of neo-pelagianism and neo-gnosticism, Città del Vaticano 22 February 2018.

[11] Address “The education of moral conscience according to Newman”, cit.

[12] In “The mystery and dynamics of human love”, Santuario di San Luca, 24 October 2014.

[13] Address “Nature, practical reason, marriage according to St Thomas”, Rome, Pontificia Accademia San Tommaso, 25 June 2016.

[14] Seminar on John Paul II, Rome, 20 March 2014.

[15] Humanae vitae, no. 18.

[16] Address “The reconstruction of man”, scheduled to be given on 10 September 2017, cit.

[17] Address to the International Conference “Remaining in the truth of Christ”, Rome, Angelicum, 30 September 2015.