Prof. Isobel Camp: Truth, Conscience and the Pursuit of Eternity

By Prof. Isobel Camp

Rome Life Forum, 17 May 2018

In Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, the chief protagonist Raskolnikov decides to murder an elderly lady pawnbroker. The deed performed with an axe brings him not relief from his impecunious situation rather pangs of guilt. Justified by ridding the world of such a horrid woman, Dostoevsky’s protagonist initially justifies his crime through various circumstances yet comes to realize the dependence of conscience on truth. His reproving conscience ultimately allows him to see what he has done. He sought the apparent good, yet it is the truth which ultimately brings about his moral regeneration.  The Bible abounds with similar figures. Many authors from Dante to Shakespeare bring out the constancy of human nature to sin, know the guilt, and repent. Guilt is primarily a judgment of conscience to which all can relate, and in a normal person the feeling follows afterwards as a sign of this judgment. Man is the only animal who knows guilt. Dostoevsky does not envisage in this narrative the protagonist giving himself the notion of good and evil. Veritatis splendor does envisage such a scenario and it is that which I propose for the subject of this talk: the danger of the autonomy of the conscience and its justifying power to decide what is good and what is evil.

Conscience, as we shall see, is very much dependent on truth. In antiquity the crisis of the truth can be encapsulated in two chief protagonists: Protagoras or Socrates. For Protagoras man is the measure of truth. For Socrates, truth measures the human intellect. For him, to know the good was to do the good. St Thomas’s Christian anthropology perfects the notions of the ancients who distinguish between knowing the good, judgment of conscience and judgment of choice choosing the good. As we shall indicate, at stake is man’s inclination to the truth, a truth which is liberating and brings about man’s perfection. Man inclines to the truth and flees error. So, truth perfects the intellect and error distorts it.

In our times, too, the crisis of truth looms. Society is considered to have made progress, unshackled by the prohibitive norms of previous generations. Progress substitutes truth be it social progress, shifting paradigms of acceptable social conduct or by whatever postmodernity deems acceptable. Pope St. John Paul II refers to this crisis of truth in several encyclicals.  One of the most striking passages occurs in Fides et ratio concerning the pursuit of truth as known though reason and as known through the faith.[2] Five years prior to the publication of Veritatis splendour, with magisterial teaching authority he urged us to recapture the truth both speculative truth and practical truth. He notes that practical truth is needed to give us notions such as law, conscience and freedom.[3]

These same notions are developed in Veritatis splendor to affirm the Magisterium’s constant teaching situating conscience within the harmonious relationship of law and freedom. Thus, the purpose of my paper is to explain why this encyclical teaches that there can never be an opposition between the law and freedom which allows a creative conscience to decide what is good and evil. This paper will elaborate in three sections the role of conscience in the pursuit of beatitude. Firstly, it presents the notion of the autonomy of conscience as outlined in the encyclical. Next, it sets forth how man participates in the divine wisdom through natural law and specifically synderesis. Thirdly, it continues to refute the false notion of the autonomy of conscience since the act of conscience is a proximate norm of morality which needs to be integrated into a complete Christian anthropological vision of man as Imago Dei replete and armed with the infused cardinal virtues, the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the beatitudes in the quest for his eternal destiny.

1.The Notion of the Creative Conscience as Outlined in Veritatis Splendor

In the encyclical’s second chapter, Pope St. John Paul II evaluates the origins of the notion of creative conscience current in certain theological circles.[4] These differing schools of thought view a seeming tension or opposition between the law and freedom. .[5] The law is seen as authoritarian, juxtaposed against a notion of freedom “which is exalted to the point of idolatry.”[6] Such a separation results in theories of a creative conscience which “diverge from the Church’s tradition and her Magisterium.[7] Then, he explains that tensions or dualism between law and freedom leads to a creative conscience: “[t]hus the individual conscience is handed the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment which hands down categorical and infallible statements about good and evil.”[8]

Specifically, he notes that some authors have proposed a creativity within the judgment of conscience which establishes an opposition between the norm and the concrete action in some cases:

a kind of double status of moral truth. Beyond the doctrinal and abstract level, one would have to acknowledge a priority of a certain more existential situation, could legitimately be the basis of certain exceptions to the general rule and thus permit one to do in practice and in good conscience what is qualified as intrinsically evil by the moral law. A separation, or even an opposition, is thus established in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid in general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision about what is good and what is evil. On this basis, an attempt is made to legitimize so-called “pastoral” solutions contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium, and to justify a “creative” hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a negative precept.[9]

I think we can identify six key differences between participated theonomy and autonomy. These terms are explained in the encyclical as follows: autonomy signifies that “created things are not dependent on God and that man can use them without reference to their Creator.”[10] Participated theonomy concerns the relationship of the man as Imago Dei to his Creator. It is a “participated theonomy, since man’s free obedience to God’s law effectively implies that human reason and human will participate in God’s wisdom and providence.”[11] Man participates in the divine wisdom who is given the notion of the true and the good through natural cognition and natural inclination in order that he can know and love his Creator and be guided by his divine providence. Man is the only rational creature who freely cooperates or participates in the loving, wise plan of his creator.  Autonomy on the other hand, is a Kantian derivation of reason which does not depend upon things for their knowability and lovability. The mind sets its own criteria from which to judge.

Specifically, Veritatis splendor outlines six key points against the notion of an autonomous conscience.

1.Conscience is no longer a participated theonomy but detached from the divine law so, autonomous.

2. Conscience can no longer know that negative precepts are always binding. Now, so-called pastoral solutions justify a hermeneutic which rejects the binding character of the negative precepts.

3. The autonomous conscience no longer judges or gives the verdict about our concrete actions. Now conscience gives the verdict about good and evil.

4. Conscience no longer judges the concrete act in the light of the universal norm, now conscience gives priority to the concrete not the abstract.

5. Conscience is not regarded as what one ought to have done or should have done, rather it is regarded as a final decision.

6. Conscience no longer judges that chosen acts lead us to or away from happiness, conscience determines what will bring about happiness.

I should like to treat these in two parts since the first two it seems to me refer more to the participation of divine wisdom at the most universal level. The remaining four points refer more to conscience’s application to the concrete.

As we will see, Veritatis splendor clearly reject any separation or opposition on two counts these two short texts within sections 54 and 56. Firstly, it rejects any tension between the law and freedom which produce this creative conscience; secondly, concerning this creative conscience it rejects any opposition between the norms and concrete acts to affirm that while the negative precepts are always binding the positive precepts are not always binding.

Thus, the notion of autonomy seeks to separate the universal moral norms from concrete application in the moral life. In the next section, we show that far from separating the universal from the concrete, conscience essentially depends on these universal norms since conscience can only judge in the light of these universal moral norms. Conscience therefore is dependent upon the universal moral norms.

  1. Conscience: Participated Theonomy and Natural Law

Veritatis splendor initiates with the discourse on the rich young man who asks Jesus, “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?”[12] He speaks to each one of us through the rich, young man: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”[13] Thus, keeping the commandments are the starting point of the moral life, the initiation of beatitude, which is ordered to perfect beatitude. Keeping the commandments are the beginning of the spiritual life. The quest for perfection includes living the virtuous life, the infusion of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and to live out the beatitudes constitute progress in the spiritual life. Notice the rich young man is told to keep the commandments to enter eternal life, the fullness of freedom: the law in harmony with freedom. To aim and seek beatitude he needs orientation from his Creator so that he can know his end order his actions to that ultimate end. Hence, we now discuss how our Creator gives us these very inclinations to the good.

First, we consider the question of the participation of the natural law in the divine law, that is, man’s participation in divine wisdom. According to the encyclical, the natural law which inscribes universal moral norms is considered a participation in the divine wisdom and the divine governance of the universe.[14] Thus it is appropriate to call natural law a law. Also, St. Thomas does not speak of the natural law as derived instead he describes the natural law as founded upon natural inclination.[15] Thus, the question of whether the law is authoritarian needs to be addressed within the light of inclination.[16]

Remember we are answering the position that natural law is seen by some as authoritarian and not participated theonomy. To respond to this, however only tells us that we are inclined to the good, the good naturally known as appetitive. Why are we inclined to the good? We are inclined to the good because the very notion of the good presupposes the notion of the true. In an article published in the Angelicum journal, Fr. Lawrence Dewan discusses how we come to naturally apprehend the notion of the good. First let us take the notions of being and good.[17] At the beginnings of our intellectual cultivation we know what is more knowable in itself and to us. He sets out this order of being, truth and good as corresponding to mind’s grasp of being, being as intellective, being as appetitive.  In addition, this intellectual object of knowing for St Thomas participates in the per se object being. Thus, the notion of the good depends on truth which depends on being.

Good as appetitive includes a notion of cognition. Inclination presupposes knowledge of the proportion of the being known and the being of a thing in its own nature. More precisely, the notion of inclination presupposes the notion of truth. Our knowledge of the good arises from our knowledge of what it is to be a being which is seen in natural things known to us not as philosophers not as theologians. It is given to us as human beings.

St. Thomas’s term for this primal awareness of truth is synderesis: According to William May “St. Thomas had a special term for designating this level of awareness of moral truth, namely, synderesis or our habitual awareness of the first principles of practical reasoning and of morality.[18]

Medieval writers use the word synderesis to mean the habit of general moral principles, the habit of having such principles ready formed in mind and of using them as the basis of one’s conduct. What the broad metaphysical principles of contradiction, sufficient reason, causality, and the like, are to theoretical reasoning, the principles of synderesis such as, ‘Do good and avoid evil,’ ‘Respect the rights of others,’ ‘Do as you would be done by,’ are to practical moral reasoning.[19]

The primary precepts of the natural law are given to all and based on our natural inclinations.  As William May explains these precepts include:

those that are ‘proximate’ to the primary principles. They are so close to them, in Thomas’s view, that they can easily be known be everyone, even the simplest person, unless one’s practical reason is perverted by sin or one lives in a perverse society. These derivative but easily known (according to Aquinas) precepts of natural law are the moral precepts of the Decalogue. According to Aquinas, these natural law precepts are moral absolutes, exceptionless norms, from which not even God can grant a dispensation.[20]

Other precepts are not immediately grasped but are known only to the wise who need to teach others. May in describing this set of precepts which include “more remote moral norms, derived from the precepts of the Decalogue as from their principles, and known only after much consideration by the ‘wise’ – i.e., persons perfected in the virtue of prudence or, in Christian terms, saints.[21]

The moral precepts of the Decalogue, which perfect the precepts of the natural law though grace, are distinguished into positive and the negative precepts. Positive precepts are not always binding whereas the negative precepts in relation to man bind always and for all times (semper et ad semper) and as such they can never be disregarded according to the circumstances.[22]

Let us have some examples:

Adultery is an evil to be avoided

Jane is not my wife

I must avoid adultery with Jane[23]


Stealing is wrong.

But adding personal expenses to my expense account is stealing.

Therefore, adding these personal expenses is wrong.

But the cry that “my boss does not pay me enough,” cannot justify fiddling the expense account!

In the end, evil acts against others is due to lack of justice, at the most fundamental level. That is why no injustice can ever be committed to do a “good.” It would be like saying it is okay for two adulterers living together to receive communion because it brings them closer to God.[24]

Let us return to the position affirming the autonomy of the conscience, it can no longer know that negative precepts of the Decalogue are always binding. Now, the so-called pastoral solutions justify a hermeneutic which rejects the binding character of these negative precepts. The negative precepts, however, are at the level of the primary precepts. Since they are per se nota to all mankind, it is impossible to logically state that they are not immediately grasped. The injustice to one’s neighbour is obvious to all.

  1. The Application of Synderesis to the Concrete Act

This section will look at how reason syllogistically generates an act of conscience. In so doing we will evaluate these four points mentioned in Section One.

1.Whether conscience determines what will bring about happiness.

2. Whether conscience gives the verdict about good and evil.

3.Whether conscience gives priority to the concrete not the abstract.

4.Whether conscience is regarded as a final decision.

To being with let us distinguish between synderesis and conscience: According to Prümmer: “Moral habit (synderesis) is the habitual practical knowledge of the first principles whose proper act is to decide in a general way that good must be done and evil avoided, whereas conscience decides in an individual case what is to be done or omitted. The moral habit of man never errs, conscience may do so.”[25] Conscience is not synderesis but depends upon synderesis as conscience is the application of what is known through synderesis to concrete actions.[26]

The simplest judgment of conscience is constructed in what is called a practical syllogism containing two premises. The major premise does not necessarily always have to be from the habit of synderesis. In the major you just need a precept or general principle of action. Murder is evil (murder should be avoided), this act here is murder, this act is evil (that must be avoided). Certainly, the most radical form of the synderesis that good must be done and evil avoided, it is found in every precept of morality. Conscience is a practical moral judgment of an act to be done, being done, or having been done. Guilt is a consequence of going against this judgment.

At the same time, a person can correctly judge in conscience that a concrete act is to be avoided, he can nonetheless be so swayed by his passions that he errs in the judgment of choice. In the following text, St. Thomas in discussing how the judgement of conscience differs from the judgments of choice, gives the example of fornication to explain how the conscience can judge correctly yet errs in the judgment of choice:

Thus, it sometimes happens that the judgment of free choice goes astray, but not the judgment of conscience. For example, one debates something which presents itself to be done here and now and judges, still speculating as it were in the realm of principles, that it is evil, for instance, to fornicate with this woman. However, when he comes to apply this to the act, many circumstances relevant to the act present themselves from all sides, for instance, the pleasure of the fornication, by the desire of which reason is constrained, so that its dictates may not issue into choice. Thus, one errs in choice and not in conscience. Rather, he acts against conscience and is said to do this with an evil conscience, in so far as the deed does not agree with the judgment based on knowledge. Thus, it is not necessary for conscience to be the same as free choice.[27]

Obviously, within the process of reasoning one can err. But as the above case shows while having a true judgment of conscience, one can sin. One can also have erroneous conscience in two modes. In constructing the minor premise and in the reasoning process itself.[28] Each of these two modes of erroneous judgment can occur when dealing with invincible ignorance and when dealing with vincible ignorance.[29]

While the conscience with invincible ignorance does not lose its dignity neither does it contribute towards man’s moral perfection and flourishing. Hence, the need for those with invincible ignorance to develop well-formed consciences so that they can choose prudently. Ratzinger’s work On conscience makes it clear that one should never leave a person with an erroneous conscience, the formation of which is necessary to the flourishing and eventual beatitude.[30] It is never acceptable to confuse a subjective error with an objective truth or justify one’s weakness for reinterpreting the universal immutable moral norms. Hence, the vital importance of wise pastoral care.

As we have shown, judgment of conscience lies within the realm of cognition. Thus, not even a true judgment of conscience can move the will to a right judgment of choice. True judgment of conscience does not necessarily lead to a prudential choice. Even a true judgement of conscience is insufficient for a virtuous moral act. One can know the good to be done but choose otherwise to be it the case of weakness or malice. For instance, the true judgment of conscience can be made independently of prudence. One can err in the judgment of choice which involves both knowledge and appetite. Choice means a concrete preference of one particular good over others. It leads to action. In the cases we have examined murder, adultery. Conscience need to remain at the level of the particular. Otherwise, it could not dictate what to do what not to do. And that presumes the application of universal norms.

Thus, conscience cannot be a decision, it is a proximate norm of morality. This conclusion is syllogistically generated from the premises and causally dependent upon them. It is an act of the practical intellect, a concrete act.[31] As we have seen, conscience judges the concrete act in the light of the universal norm. So, every act of murder falls under the universal principle that murder is evil. Thus, it makes no sense to speak of conscience as giving priority to the concrete and not the abstract principle. Again, even to speak of the abstract as such seems reductive since it denotes a participation in the divine wisdom through immutable universal truths. We are created as Imago Dei principally through out reason and its first principles. Thus, to attempt to disassociate the universal from the particular, ultimately means denying the unity of our intellect, reasoning itself and the denial of human nature.

Let us recall another characteristic of the autonomy of the conscience as a final decision. It is not a choice or decision in itself but can lead to one. If this were so, then the true context of man’s moral life would merely consist in syllogistically reasoning through and generating true judgments. The moral life is richer than just the question of conscience which is why in the encyclical Pope St. John Paul situated conscience between the law and freedom. Freedom is the capacity to choose between one particular good and another. Certainly, the work of Servais Pinckaers enables us to easily grasp the notion of freedom as a freedom of excellence not simply one of indifference.[32] With the true Christian anthropological vision of man, conscience as dependent on immutable universal norms safeguards man’s freedom and his life of virtue and quest for eternity. Hence, freedom and virtue especially the virtue of prudence which aids and directs aiding the judgment of conscience as well as the judgment of choice for the person to choose well and with ease.

The further one descends into the concrete and the greater the complexity, the greater possibility of error. One may form a true judgment of conscience yet be confused as to how to arrive in complex situations at a judgment of choice. The virtue of prudence facilitates such perplexing situations and circumstances allowing one to deliberate well and find the suitable means to render the prudential choice easy. Even prudence itself is not infallible. It deals with the concrete and it is beyond the scope of prudence to foresee all future contingents. The creativity of infused prudence with the gifts of the Holy spirit indicate real genius in conducting oneself to one’s ultimate end.  Therein lies man’s “rightful autonomy.”[33]


Veritatis splendour teaches that there can never be an opposition between the law and freedom which allows a creative conscience to decide what is good and evil. To choose the good exceeds human nature. Man has an initial determination to the good in order that he can choose particular goods presented to the mind. Man cannot create truth ex nihilo and thus cannot create his own morality. Even when he tries to create his own morality it is always on the perversion of human nature, he cannot ultimately free himself from the reality of good and evil, even if he may desire to call good evil and evil good, he is always torn between that which is good or not, that which ought or not to be done.

In life there are ultimately two types of people those to the right of the cross and those to the left.[34] All moral action is framed within the work of divine providence. Both thieves looked at what they had done. Only one looked to Christ, his redeemer. He reflected upon what he had done and what he must now do to choose. Guilt can be very effective! To know the particular good is not to do the particular good in via but it is for the Blessed in heaven.

Veritatis splendor has much to contribute in current theological circles!


[1] I would like to express my thanks to colleagues Fr. Rafael Gonzalez and Dr. Paul Horrigan for helpful comments on previous drafts of this paper as well as providing me with numerous helpful secondary sources.

[2] John Paul II, Encyclical Fides et ratio, 45-48, (https://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-ix/la/documents/constitutio-dogmatica-dei-filius-24-aprilis-1870.html)

[3] Pope St. John Paul II, (http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/la/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_06081993_veritatis-splendor.html) The English translation is taken from the Vatican website (http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_06081993_veritatis-splendor.html). (Henceforth VS).

[4] Ibid., 46-47.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 54.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 56.

[10] Ibid., 39 which refers us to Gaudium et spes, 36. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et spes, (http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vatii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html).

[11] Ibid., 41.

[12] Matthew 19:16.

[13] “But temptations can be overcome, sins can be avoided, because together with the commandments the Lord gives us the possibility of keeping them: “His eyes are on those who fear him, and he knows every deed of man. He has not commanded any one to be ungodly, and he has not given any one permission to sin” (Sir 15:19-20). Keeping God’s law in particular situations can be difficult, extremely difficult, but it is never impossible. This is the constant teaching of the Church’s tradition, and was expressed by the Council of Trent: “But no one, however much justified, ought to consider himself exempt from the observance of the commandments, nor should he employ that rash statement, forbidden by the Fathers under anathema, that the commandments of God are impossible of observance by one who is justified. For God does not command the impossible, but in commanding he admonishes you to do what you can and to pray for what you cannot, and he gives his aid to enable you. His commandments are not burdensome (cf. 1 Jn 5:3); his yoke is easy and his burden light (cf. Mt 11:30).” VS, 102.

[14] VS, 41.

[15] St. Thomas Aquinas, (Thomae Aquinatis Opera Omnia, Summa Theologiae VII, iussu impensaque Leonis XIII P.M. edita. Romae: ex typographia polyglota et al. (1892), I-II, q. 94, a. 2. (Henceforth ST,).

[16] Several scholars have explained that in this encyclical natural law denotes the universal moral norms not our psychological or physical nature. Yet even the biological and psychological part of man participates in this natural law or natural law is inscribed in these acts without which one could not, at the very least, know its existence without revelation, and natural law could then be an imposition from the outside, something unnatural. In other words, natural law is real law. The very words imply that man is not, ab initio, his own legislator.

[17] Lawrence Dewan, O.P., “St. Thomas, Our Natural Lights and the Moral Order,” Angelicum, 67 3 1990.

[18] S.T., I, q. 79, a. 12. William May, An Introduction to Moral Theology, Second edition. (Our Sunday Visitor: Huntington, IN, 2003), p. 59 and p.70.

[19] Austin Fagothey, S.J., Right and Reason, (Tan Books, Rockford, IL, 2000, a reprint of the 1959 C.V. Mosby second edition, page 209).

[20] St. Thomas, ST, I-II, 94, 6.

[21] May, An Introduction to Moral Theology, p.70.

[22] St. Thomas, ST, II-II, q. 33, a. 2. See S.-T. Bonino, “Saint Thomas Aquinas In the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia,” The Thomist, 80 (2016) pp. 516-519.

[23] St. Thomas,  Scriptum super Libros Sententiarum Magistri Petri Lombardi Episcopi Parisiensis. Edited by P. Mandonnet, M. Moos. Paris: P. Lethielleux, 1929-1947, II, d. 24, q. 2, a. 2.

[24] VS, 52.

[25] Dominic Prümmer, O.P. Handbook of Moral Theology, (The Mercier Press: Cork, 1956), p. 59.

[26] “Synderesis, therefore, is the dictate of the practical reason having as its object these ‘general’ principles of moral conduct, just as conscience is the judgment or dictate of practical reason declaring that a ‘particular’ action is licit or illicit. Conscience, it will be observed, thus depends to a great extent on synderesis, because conscience applies the knowledge given through synderesis to individual actions.”  Celestine N. Bittle, O.F.M., Man and Morals: Ethics, (Bruce, Milwaukee, 1953), p. 144.

[27] De ver. q. 17, a. 1 ad. 4.

[28] See https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2010/06/aquinas-on-conscience.

[29] Citing Gaudium et spes, Veritatis splendor explains that conscience as an act of the practical intellect can err: “not infrequently conscience can be mistaken as a result of invincible ignorance, although it does not on that account forfeit its dignity; but this cannot be said when a man shows little concern for seeking what is true and good, and conscience gradually becomes almost blind from being accustomed to sin.” VS, 62 citing Gaudium et spes, 16.

[30] Joseph Ratzinger, On Conscience, (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2007) pp. 13-18.

[31] ST, I. q. 79, a. 8. According to Aquinas, in the process of judgment, reason returns to the first principles to judge the conclusions in their light.

[32] Servais Pinckaers, O.P., The Sources of Christian Ethics, (T and T Clark: Edinburgh 1995) p. 375.

[33] VS,38.

[34] VS, 15.