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Conscience and the Magisterium

From The Moral Theology of Pope John Paul II

by Charles E. Curran
Published by Georgetown University Press. Washington D.C. 2005

curranConscience and the judgments of conscience are susceptible to problems and obstacles, but Veritatis splendour points out, “Christians have a great help for the formation of conscience in the Church and her Magisterium” (64.2). The encyclical then cites the Declaration on Religious Freedom of the Second Vatican Council: “Her charge is to announce and teach authentically that truth which is Christ, and at the same time with her authority to declare and confirm the principles of the moral order which derive from human nature itself.” In keeping with his opposition to the false conflict between truth and freedom, the pope insists that the magisterium thus does not oppose the true freedom of conscience because it “does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess. . . . The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience….. helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to obtain the truth with certainty and to abide in it” (64.2).

John Paul II reiterates this teaching in a number of places in his encyclicals. For example, “ When people ask the church the questions raised by their consciences, when the faithful in the Church turn to their Bishops and Pastors, the Church’s reply contains the voice of Jesus Christ, the voice of the truth about good and evil. In the words spoken by the Church there resounds, in people’s inmost being, the voice of God who ‘alone is good’ (cf. Mt 19:17), who alone ‘is love’ (1 Jn 4:8, 16)” (VS 117.2; see also VS 25.2, 27.3-4). Thus, the magisterium gives certitude to the Christian conscience. Such an approach derives from the pope’s emphasis that Christ has revealed “the truth about man” and has entrusted his teaching mission to the church that exercises it through the magisterium.

The status of the nature of papal teaching on specific moral issues (e.g., sterilization and artificial insemination) has received much discussion in the past forty years that cannot be repeated here. But Catholic moral theologians agree that the teaching of the hierarchical magisterium on some specific moral issues does not always arrive at certitude.(7) Three considerations support this thesis. First, papal moral teachings in the past have been changed in the course of time. Think of such issues as religious freedom, democracy, slavery, usury, the right to silence, capital punishment, the ends of marriage, and the role of women in family and society. The very fact that such changes have occurred despite papal teaching to the contrary indicates that such papal teachings cannot always claim certitude and at times have been wrong.(8)

Second, all agree that some of the papal teaching on moral issues belongs to the category of non-infallible teaching. By definition, non- infallible means fallible—the teaching can be wrong. So all Catholics have to recognize that some of the papal teaching on moral issues does not give or guarantee certitude. Blanket statements that the magisterium’s teaching on moral issues provides “certitude” or contains “the voice of Jesus Christ, the voice of the truth about good and evil” are neither accurate nor truthful.

Yes, there is some discussion within Catholicism about whether specific moral teachings—such as the condemnations of artificial contraception, homosexual genital relationships, and direct abortion—are infallible. John Paul II has given some fuel to such a position by inserting into the Code of Canon Law a second type of teaching between the infallible teaching of a divinely revealed truth and the noninfallible teaching to which the faithful owe religious assent of intellect and will. The new category inserted into canon law by the pope is definitive (i.e., infallible) teaching by the magisterium of a doctrine concerned with faith and morals that is not directly revealed but is necessarily connected with revelation. The faithful must firmly and definitively hold this teaching.(9) Although this is a new category in canon law, it has some relation to what older theologians at times call the secondary object of infallibility, that is, truths necessarily connected with revelation.

Those defending the infallibility of some specific moral teachings today generally do not argue from the extraordinary ex cathedra magisterium of the pope but rather from the ordinary universal magisterium that the pope and all the bishops down through the centuries have authoritatively taught something to be held definitively by the faithful.(10) Perhaps John Paul II gives support to such a position by the way he phrases the condemnations of euthanasia and direct abortion in Evangelium vitae: “Therefore, by the authority that Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops—who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine—I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium” (62.3).

This is not the place for a lengthy discussion about such infallibility. My own position is that the condemnation of artificial contraception, direct abortion, and other practices is not definitive or infallible teaching.(11) Infallible teachings of the universal ordinary magisterium of pope and bishops must have been taught by all of these as something to be held definitively and not merely as something to be held and followed. But, in these cases, this cannot be proven. The Code of Canon Law (Canon 749.3) maintains, “No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident.”(12) Some theologians, such as Germain Grisez, maintain that the Code of Canon Law refers directly only to the case of the extraordinary papal magisterium in its claim that infallibility must be certain.(13) But the obvious intent is broader and inclusive of all possible infallible statements. Something cannot be presumed to be infallible. If there is doubt about the infallibility of a teaching, it is not infallible.(14)

The third reason supporting the fact that some specific moral teachings of the hierarchical magisterium are not absolutely certain and that Catholics might in theory and practice disagree with such teaching comes from the inability to arrive at certitude on complex moral issues. In the Catholic tradition, as mentioned in chapter 1, Thomas Aquinas recognized this reality. Speculative truth and moral truth differ. Speculative truth is always and everywhere true, a triangle always has 180 degrees. But moral truths, in the form of secondary principles of the natural law such as deposited goods should always be returned to the owner, are not always and everywhere true and obliging. In the midst of the complexity and specificity of human affairs, circumstances might arise in a few cases where you should not return a deposit. The same is true for promises that generally oblige but not always. On occasion it might be morally impossible to keep the promise.(15)

The examination of the papal teaching condemning direct abortion also shows that on this complex issue one cannot arrive at certitude. Notice the insistence on direct abortion. But it was only in the twentieth century that the hierarchical magisterium came to its present understanding of direct abortion.(16) All have to recognize that the difference between direct and indirect abortion is based on one particular philosophical system or method that is not intimately connected with revelation and that cannot really claim absolute certitude. Very significant in the question of abortion is the fact that to this day the hierarchical magisterium recognizes in theory the possibility of delayed animation, because of which there would not be truly individual human life present from the moment of conception. Veritatis splendor (60.2, 61.4) obliquely recognizes this theoretical debate about animation. However, in practice, the Catholic teaching holds that one has to act as if there is truly human life present from the moment of conception. But there is no theoretical certitude about the beginning of truly individual human life. Below, the section of this chapter on norms against unjust killing will develop these points in greater detail.

Thus, the teaching of the papal magisterium on complex moral issues is not always a certain truth. To be truly accurate even in the words of the Catholic tradition itself, the papal teaching should recognize at the very minimum that most, if not all, of its teaching on controverted specific moral issues is noninfallible, or, in other words, fallible.


7. For a recent survey of Catholic theologians on this subject, see Bern Hoose, “Authority in the Church,” Theological Studies 63 (2002): 107-22; also Hoose, ed., Authority in the Roman Catholic Church: Theory and Practice (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2002).

8. Charles E. Curran, ed., Change in Official Catholic Moral Teachings: Readings in Moral Theology No. I3 (New York: Paulist Press, 2003).

9. Pope John Paul II, Ad tuendam fidem, in Origins 28 (1998): 113-16.

10. See, for example, Germain Grisez, “The Ordinary Magisterium’s Infallibility: A Reply to Some New Arguments,” Theological Studies 55 (1994): 720-32; Lawrence J. Welch, “Replay to Richard Gaillardetz on the Ordinary Universal Magisterium and to Francis Sullivan,” Theological Studies 64 (2003): 598-609.

11. Charles E. Curran, Faithful Dissent (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1986).

12. John P. Beal, James A. Coriden, and Thomas J. Green, eds., New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (New York: Paulist Press, 2000), 913-14.

13. Grisez, “Ordinary Magisterium’s Infallibility,” 731.

14. Francis Sullivan, “Reply to Germain Grisez,” Theological Studies 55 (1994): 732-37; Richard Gaillardetz, “The Ordinary Universal Magisterium: Unresolved Questions,” Theological Studies 63 (2002): 447-71. There has been much literature on this subject. A good summary of the discussions can be found in two different “Quaestio Disputata,” found in Theological Studies 55 (1994): 720-38, and Theological Studies 64 (2003): 598-615.

15. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 4 vols. (Rome: Marietti, 1952), la IIae q.94, a. 4.

16. John Connery, Abortion: The Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1997), 225-303.