Pope Francis- The Church: A Merciful Mother


CNS reports Pope Francis at his weekly public audience in St. Peter's Square yesterday, elaborated on his previous week's talk on the subject of the "church as mother."

The Pope said the Church should approach its members with the face of a patient, merciful and understanding mother, who always forgives her erring children and never ceases to pray that they resume the path of Christian living.

"I like this image very much," he said, "because I think it tells us not only how the Church is, but also what sort of face the Church, this Church of ours, should have, more so every day."

A mother teaches her children the right way of life "with tenderness, with affection, with love," he said, because she "didn't learn it from books, but learned it from her own heart."

"The university of mammas is the heart itself," the pope said, in one of several uses of the informal Italian term "mamma."

Pope Francis said the Church's moral teachings, particularly the Ten Commandments, are similarly the "fruit of the tenderness, of the very love of God who gave them to us."

"You might say to me: But they are commands! They are set of 'no's,'" he said, before suggesting the audience "read them -- maybe you have forgotten them a little -- and then think of them positively."

The Ten Commandments, the pope said, "show us the road to take in order to grow mature, giving us stable points of reference for our behavior. ... They invite us not to make material idols that then enslave us, (but) to remember God, to respect our parents, to be honest, to respect others."

Pope Francis likened the Church to a mother who never gives up on her children even when they err.

"I think of the mammas who suffer for their children in prison or in difficult situations," he said. "They don't ask themselves if (their children) are guilty or not, they keep loving them and often experience humiliations, but they have no fear, they do not cease giving of themselves."

It is the same for the Church, the pope said, which seeks always to help and encourage its wayward children: "never shuts the church's doors; does not judge, but offers God's forgiveness, offers the love that invites even those children who have fallen into a deep abyss to return to the path."

Invoking the example of St. Monica, who never ceased praying for the conversion of her son, St. Augustine, the pope said that mothers never tire of praying for their children, "especially the weakest, the neediest, those who have pursued dangerous or mistaken ways of life."

"The church does the same thing," he said. "She puts in the hands of the Lord, through prayer, all the situations of her children."

I thought this was a beautiful image of the Church, and one that bears much reflection. I feel that Pope Francis is ministering for the world, caring for the people, in the way we see so many good priests ministering to their flock. He sees the broken people and he draws them in with love. This strikes me as very Christ-like. My personal definition of being Catholic is someone who tries to live life to the fullest and loves people, all people, with compassion for their personal circumstances and hope for the gift of salvation which God has bestowed on all of us. I feel this idea resonate with this papacy.

Many people see religion as a set of rules which need to be followed. This is a common misconception I encounter from people who are not religious. In fact I see what the Church teaches as being about true freedom, which is ordered to what is best for us. And what is best for us is God.

This reminded me of something else Pope Francis said recently, and which I friend reminded me of last night.


My initial attention was drawn to the inference that the Pope has somehow changed what the Church believes. Of course, it can seem that way because the Church is old and language has changed much over the centuries she has guarded the faith deposited by Christ and the Apostles. But our faith is Apostolic and Revelation was complete with the death of the last Apostle. It can evolve, organically, to explain new situations, but it doesn't change. Indeed the Church has never said that anyone is in Hell, although we do know it exists. By contrast, the Church has declared many, many people are in Heaven. We call them Saints, and we know they are in Heaven because they have communicated that to us through the efficacy of their prayers.

I think my own understanding about what Heaven and Hell are was most helped by Pope John Paul II. I struggled to see Heaven and Hell as physical places we are sent to because we broke rules. That seemed very unsophisticated to me. It is the kind of thinking often criticised by Atheists who consider that Christianity and Islam are faiths which work on the basis of a threat. In other words, if you don't do what the authority says, you are punished with the rather nasty prospect of eternal torment. Actually it makes much more sense that living a Christian life is about being the best we can be, and that when we are the best we can be, we are conformed to God, to the Trinity. Life is a journey into God, the idea being that when we die, we are conformed to such an extent, by grace and the Sacraments, that we go to live with God in perfect fulfillment we call Heaven.

Similarly, as we are made by and for God, when our relationship with the Trinity is completely broken in such a way that we consciously reject the Gospel of Life, turn our back on love, relationship, charity, and hope, we become so inward looking and selfish, that we are in Hell.

Taking Sacred Scripture as his base-line as always, the great philosopher Pope explained it like this in three controversial Wednesday Audiences:

Heaven is Fullness of Communion with God

Heaven as the fullness of communion with God was the theme of the Holy Father's catechesis at the General Audience of 21 July 1999. Heaven "is neither an abstraction not a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity. It is our meeting with the Father which takes place in the risen Christ through the communion of the Holy Spirit," the Pope said.

1. When the form of this world has passed away, those who have welcomed God into their lives and have sincerely opened themselves to his love, at least at the moment of death, will enjoy that fullness of communion with God which is the goal of human life.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, "this perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed is called "heaven'. Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfilment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness" (n.1024).

Today we will try to understand the biblical meaning of "heaven", in order to have a better understanding of the reality to which this expression refers.

2. In biblical language "heaven"", when it is joined to the "earth", indicates part of the universe. Scripture says about creation: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gn 1:1).

Heaven is the transcendent dwelling-place of the living God

Metaphorically speaking, heaven is understood as the dwelling-place of God, who is thus distinguished from human beings (cf. Ps 104:2f.; 115:16; Is 66:1). He sees and judges from the heights of heaven (cf. Ps 113:4-9) and comes down when he is called upon (cf. Ps 18:9, 10; 144:5). However the biblical metaphor makes it clear that God does not identify himself with heaven, nor can he be contained in it (cf. 1 Kgs 8:27); and this is true, even though in some passages of the First Book of the Maccabees "Heaven" is simply one of God's names (1 Mc 3:18, 19, 50, 60; 4:24, 55).

The depiction of heaven as the transcendent dwelling-place of the living God is joined with that of the place to which believers, through grace, can also ascend, as we see in the Old Testament accounts of Enoch (cf. Gn 5:24) and Elijah (cf. 2 Kgs 2:11). Thus heaven becomes an image of life in God. In this sense Jesus speaks of a "reward in heaven" (Mt 5:12) and urges people to "lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven" (ibid., 6:20; cf. 19:21).

3. The New Testament amplifies the idea of heaven in relation to the mystery of Christ. To show that the Redeemer's sacrifice acquires perfect and definitive value, the Letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus "passed through the heavens" (Heb 4:14), and "entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself" (ibid., 9:24). Since believers are loved in a special way by the Father, they are raised with Christ and made citizens of heaven. It is worthwhile listening to what the Apostle Paul tells us about this in a very powerful text: "God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus" (Eph 2:4-7). The fatherhood of God, who is rich in mercy, is experienced by creatures through the love of God's crucified and risen Son, who sits in heaven on the right hand of the Father as Lord.

4. After the course of our earthly life, participation in complete intimacy with the Father thus comes through our insertion into Christ's paschal mystery. St Paul emphasizes our meeting with Christ in heaven at the end of time with a vivid spatial image: "Then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words" (1 Thes 4:17-18).

Sacramental life is anticipation of heaven

In the context of Revelation, we know that the "heaven" or "happiness" in which we will find ourselves is neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity. It is our meeting with the Father which takes place in the risen Christ through the communion of the Holy Spirit.

It is always necessary to maintain a certain restraint in describing these "ultimate realities" since their depiction is always unsatisfactory. Today, personalist language is better suited to describing the state of happiness and peace we will enjoy in our definitive communion with God.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up the Church's teaching on this truth: "By his death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ has "opened' heaven to us. The life of the blessed consists in the full and perfect possession of the fruits of the redemption accomplished by Christ. He makes partners in his heavenly glorification those who have believed in him and remained faithful to his will. Heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ" (n. 1026).

5. This final state, however, can be anticipated in some way today in sacramental life, whose centre is the Eucharist, and in the gift of self through fraternal charity. If we are able to enjoy properly the good things that the Lord showers upon us every day, we will already have begun to experience that joy and peace which one day will be completely ours. We know that on this earth everything is subject to limits, but the thought of the "ultimate" realities helps us to live better the "penultimate" realities. We know that as we pass through this world we are called to seek "the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God" (Col 3:1), in order to be with him in the eschatological fulfilment, when the Spirit will fully reconcile with the Father "all things, whether on earth or in heaven" (Col 1:20).

To the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors the Holy Father said:

I extend a special welcome to the young people taking part in the Forum of the European Youth Parliament, as well as to the St Vincent Ferrer Chorale from Kaohsiung, Taiwan, and the Taiwanese Native Folklore Group, accompanied by Cardinal Shan. Upon all the English-speaking visitors and pilgrims, especially those from England, Scotland, Korea, Taiwan, Canada and the United States, I invoke the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ. May you have a happy and blessed summer!
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Hell is the State of Those who Reject God

At the General Audience of Wednesday, 28 July 1999, the Holy Father reflected on hell as the definitive rejection of God. In his catechesis, the Pope said that care should be taken to interpret correctly the images of hell in Sacred Scripture, and explained that "hell is the ultimate consequence of sin itself... Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy".

1. God is the infinitely good and merciful Father. But man, called to respond to him freely, can unfortunately choose to reject his love and forgiveness once and for all, thus separating himself for ever from joyful communion with him. It is precisely this tragic situation that Christian doctrine explains when it speaks of eternal damnation or hell. It is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life. The very dimension of unhappiness which this obscure condition brings can in a certain way be sensed in the light of some of the terrible experiences we have suffered which, as is commonly said, make life "hell".

In a theological sense however, hell is something else: it is the ultimate consequence of sin itself, which turns against the person who committed it. It is the state of those who definitively reject the Father's mercy, even at the last moment of their life.

Hell is a state of eternal damnation

2. To describe this reality Sacred Scripture uses a symbolical language which will gradually be explained. In the Old Testament the condition of the dead had not yet been fully disclosed by Revelation. Moreover it was thought that the dead were amassed in Sheol, a land of darkness (cf. Ez. 28:8; 31:14; Jb. 10:21f.; 38:17; Ps 30:10; 88:7, 13), a pit from which one cannot reascend (cf. Jb. 7:9), a place in which it is impossible to praise God (cf. Is 38:18; Ps 6:6).

The New Testament sheds new light on the condition of the dead, proclaiming above all that Christ by his Resurrection conquered death and extended his liberating power to the kingdom of the dead.

Redemption nevertheless remains an offer of salvation which it is up to people to accept freely. This is why they will all be judged "by what they [have done]" (Rv 20:13). By using images, the New Testament presents the place destined for evildoers as a fiery furnace, where people will "weep and gnash their teeth" (Mt 13:42; cf. 25:30, 41), or like Gehenna with its "unquenchable fire" (Mk 9:43). All this is narrated in the parable of the rich man, which explains that hell is a place of eternal suffering, with no possibility of return, nor of the alleviation of pain (cf. Lk. 16:19-3 1).

The Book of Revelation also figuratively portrays in a "pool of fire" those who exclude themselves from the book of life, thus meeting with a "second death" (Rv. 20:13f.). Whoever continues to be closed to the Gospel is therefore preparing for 'eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might" (2 Thes 1:9).

3. The images of hell that Sacred Scripture presents to us must be correctly interpreted. They show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God. Rather* than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy [emphasis mine]. This is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the truths of faith on this subject: "To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell'" (n. 1033).

"Eternal damnation", therefore, is not attributed to God's initiative because in his merciful love he can only desire the salvation of the beings he created. In reality, it is the creature who closes himself to his love. Damnation consists precisely in definitive separation from God, freely chosen by the human person and confirmed with death that seals his choice for ever. God's judgement ratifies this state.

We are saved from going to hell by Jesus who conquered Satan

4. Christian faith teaches that in taking the risk of saying "yes" or "no", which marks the human creature's freedom, some have already said no. They are the spiritual creatures that rebelled against God's love and are called demons (cf. Fourth Lateran Council, DS 800-801). What happened to them is a warning to us: it is a continuous call to avoid the tragedy which leads to sin and to conform our life to that of Jesus who lived his life with a "yes" to God.

Eternal damnation remains a real possibility, but we are not granted, without special divine revelation, the knowledge of whether or which human beings are effectively involved in it. The thought of hell — and even less the improper use of biblical images — must not create anxiety or despair, but is a necessary and healthy reminder of freedom within the proclamation that the risen Jesus has conquered Satan, giving us the, Spirit of God who makes us cry "Abba, Father!" (Rm. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).

This prospect, rich in hope, prevails in Christian proclamation. It is effectively reflected in the liturgical tradition of the Church, as the words of the Roman Canon attest: "Father, accept this offering from your whole family ... save us from final damnation, and count us among those you have chosen".

To the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors, the Holy Father said.

I am pleased to greet the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today's audience, especially those from England, Scotland, Nigeria, Hong Kong and the United States of America. I wish you a pleasant visit to Christian Rome and I invoke upon you the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

*[Note: The original Italian says, "(Più che) More than a place, hell indicates..." This suggests correctly that although hell is not essentially "a place," rather the definitive loss of God, confinement is included. Thus, after the general resurrection the bodies of the damned, being bodies not spirits, must be in "some place," in which they will receive the punishment of fire.]
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Purgatory Is Necessary Purification

Before we enter into full communion with God, every trace of sin within us must be eliminated and every imperfection in our soul must be corrected

At the General Audience of Wednesday, 4 August 1999, following his catecheses on heaven and hell, the Holy Father reflected on Purgatory. He explained that physical integrity is necessary to enter into perfect communion with God therefore "the term purgatory does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence", where Christ "removes ... the remnants of imperfection".

1. As we have seen in the previous two catecheses, on the basis of the definitive option for or against God, the human being finds he faces one of these alternatives: either to live with the Lord in eternal beatitude, or to remain far from his presence.

For those who find themselves in a condition of being open to God, but still imperfectly, the journey towards full beatitude requires a purification, which the faith of the Church illustrates in the doctrine of "Purgatory" (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1030-1032).

To share in divine life we must be totally purified

2. In Sacred Scripture, we can grasp certain elements that help us to understand the meaning of this doctrine, even if it is not formally described. They express the belief that we cannot approach God without undergoing some kind of purification.

According to Old Testament religious law, what is destined for God must be perfect. As a result, physical integrity is also specifically required for the realities which come into contact with God at the sacrificial level such as, for example, sacrificial animals (cf. Lv 22: 22) or at the institutional level, as in the case of priests or ministers of worship (cf. Lv 21: 17-23). Total dedication to the God of the Covenant, along the lines of the great teachings found in Deuteronomy (cf. 6: 5), and which must correspond to this physical integrity, is required of individuals and society as a whole (cf. 1 Kgs 8: 61). It is a matter of loving God with all one's being, with purity of heart and the witness of deeds (cf. ibid., 10: 12f.)

The need for integrity obviously becomes necessary after death, for entering into perfect and complete communion with God. Those who do not possess this integrity must undergo purification. This is suggested by a text of St Paul. The Apostle speaks of the value of each person's work which will be revealed on the day of judgement and says: "If the work which any man has built on the foundation [which is Christ] survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire" (1 Cor 3: 14-15).

3. At times, to reach a state of perfect integrity a person's intercession or mediation is needed. For example, Moses obtains pardon for the people with a prayer in which he recalls the saving work done by God in the past, and prays for God's fidelity to the oath made to his ancestors (cf. Ex 32: 30, 11-13). The figure of the Servant of the Lord, outlined in the Book of Isaiah, is also portrayed by his role of intercession and expiation for many; at the end of his suffering he "will see the light" and "will justify many", bearing their iniquities (cf. Is 52: 13-53, 12, especially vv. 53: 11).

Psalm 51 can be considered, according to the perspective of the Old Testament, as a synthesis of the process of reintegration: the sinner confesses and recognizes his guilt (v. 3), asking insistently to be purified or "cleansed" (vv. 2, 9, 10, 17) so as to proclaim the divine praise (v. 15).

Purgatory is not a place but a condition of existence

4. In the New Testament Christ is presented as the intercessor who assumes the functions of high priest on the day of expiation (cf. Heb 5: 7; 7: 25). But in him the priesthood is presented in a new and definitive form. He enters the heavenly shrine once and for all, to intercede with God on our behalf (cf. Heb 9: 23-26, especially, v. 24). He is both priest and "victim of expiation" for the sins of the whole world (cf. 1 Jn 2: 2).

Jesus, as the great intercessor who atones for us, will fully reveal himself at the end of our life when he will express himself with the offer of mercy, but also with the inevitable judgement for those who refuse the Father's love and forgiveness.

This offer of mercy does not exclude the duty to present ourselves to God, pure and whole, rich in that love which Paul calls a "[bond] of perfect harmony" (Col 3: 14).

5. In following the Gospel exhortation to be perfect like the heavenly Father (cf. Mt 5: 48) during our earthly life, we are called to grow in love, to be sound and flawless before God the Father "at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints" (1 Thes 3: 12f.). Moreover, we are invited to "cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit" (2 Cor 7: 1; cf. 1 Jn 3: 3), because the encounter with God requires absolute purity.

Every trace of attachment to evil must be eliminated, every imperfection of the soul corrected. Purification must be complete, and indeed this is precisely what is meant by the Church's teaching on purgatory. The term does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence. Those who, after death, exist in a state of purification, are already in the love of Christ who removes from them the remnants of imperfection (cf. Ecumenical Council of Florence, Decretum pro Graecis: DS 1304; Ecumenical Council of Trent, Decretum de iustificatione: DS 1580; Decretum de purgatorio: DS 1820).

It is necessary to explain that the state of purification is not a prolungation of the earthly condition, almost as if after death one were given another possibility to change one's destiny. The Church's teaching in this regard is unequivocal and was reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council which teaches: "Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed (cf. Heb 9: 27), we may merit to enter with him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed, and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where "men will weep and gnash their teeth' (Mt 22: 13 and 25: 30)" (Lumen gentium, n. 48).

6. One last important aspect which the Church's tradition has always pointed out should be re-proposed today: the dimension of "communio". Those, in fact, who find themselves in the state of purification are united both with the blessed who already enjoy the fullness of eternal life, and with us on this earth on our way towards the Father's house (cf. CCC, n. 1032).

Just as in their earthly life believers are united in the one Mystical Body, so after death those who live in a state of purification experience the same ecclesial solidarity which works through prayer, prayers for suffrage and love for their other brothers and sisters in the faith. Purification is lived in the essential bond created between those who live in this world and those who enjoy eternal beatitude.

To the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors the Holy Father said:

I am pleased to greet the English-speaking visitors and pilgrims present at today's Audience, especially those from England, Ireland, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Japan and the United States. Upon all of you I invoke the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Happy summer holidays to you all!
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Now, if we return to what Pope Francis says about Atheists, we can perhaps understand it in the context of Church teaching, what we refer to as the sensus plenior. But first, it is important to understanding that journalists span this story mercilessly (as is their wont).  Completely ignoring the strong Gospel message of the Pope’s letter, they instead chose to focus on one paragraph in which Pope Francis addresses the question of whether God can forgive agnostics and atheists. The Daily Telegraph’s Nick Squires reports that the Pope says, “God forgives those who follow their conscience.” However, in the Zenit translation of the letter, these words do not even appear! The Pope writes:
First of all, you ask me if the God of Christians forgives one who doesn’t believe and doesn’t seek the faith. Premise that – and it’s the fundamental thing – the mercy of God has no limits if one turns to him with a sincere and contrite heart; the question for one who doesn’t believe in God lies in obeying one’s conscience. Sin, also for those who don’t have faith, exists when one goes against one’s conscience. To listen to and to obey it means, in fact, to decide in face of what is perceived as good or evil. And on this decision pivots the goodness or malice of our action.
I feel the question has resonance with the ecclesiastical issue of the holiness of the Church. I caught a great article in Malta Today recently which reported on the full text of Maltese Cardinal Prospero Grech's meditation to the papal electors of the Conclave which gave us Pope Francis. Cardinal Grech warned fellow cardinals of the 'smoke of Satan' inside the Vatican. Pope Francis released the entire meditation delivered to the cardinal-electors behind the closed doors of the Sistine Chapel, immediately before the start of the voting that concluded in the election of the pope in March.

Grech called on cardinals to "humble" themselves before God and men in the face of revelations concerning paedophilia in the Catholic Church, "and seek to uproot the evil at all costs, as did, to his great regret Benedict XVI" - hinting at the possible reasons behind the last pontiff's decision to resign.

"Only in this way can we regain credibility before the world and give an example of sincerity. Today many people do not arrive at believing in Christ because his face is obscured or hidden behind an institution that lacks transparency," Grech said. This is interesting, because I have often felt that if someone was hurt by abuse from someone they trusted in the Church, and as a result of that abuse, they rejected the faith, could God consign them to Hell? In the light of the discussion so far, perhaps we can see that, in fact, it is not God, but ourselves who consign ourselves to Hell, and that if God was going to punish anyone for such an instance, it would surely be those who distort and misuse His Church to do harm?

So can atheists go to Heaven? As Pope Francis teaches us; it is not for us to put limits on God's mercy, nor to judge what is in people's hearts. But to always give good witness to the benefits we receive from Heaven when we conform our lives to Christ. I believe that if someone lives a good life, they are Christian in deed, even if they do not confess allegiance to the Church with their lips. Let's face it, the worldly Church has become an institution with flaws that many see and reject. That is our failing, not God's.

The Pope's words on conscience in the paragraph above are in continuity with the teaching of Vatican II; The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes which states in n.'s 16 & 17:
16. In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.(9) Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.(10) In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor.(11) In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.
17. Only in freedom can man direct himself toward goodness. Our contemporaries make much of this freedom and pursue it eagerly; and rightly to be sure. Often however they foster it perversely as a license for doing whatever pleases them, even if it is evil. For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within man. For God has willed that man remain "under the control of his own decisions,"(12) so that he can seek his Creator spontaneously, and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to Him. Hence man's dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure. Man achieves such dignity when, emancipating himself from all captivity to passion, he pursues his goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good, and procures for himself through effective and skilful action, apt helps to that end. Since man's freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God's grace can he bring such a relationship with God into full flower. Before the judgement seat of God each man must render an account of his own life, whether he has done good or evil.(13)
Vatican II identified the essential link between freedom and conscience which is required as a basis for human dignity and John Paul II unpacked Gaudium et Spes wonderfully in Veritatis Splendor (The Splendour of Truth). In it, regarding conscience, he explains how the human issues most frequently debated and differently resolved in contemporary moral reflection are all closely related, albeit in various ways, to a crucial issue: human freedom.

Certainly people today have a particularly strong sense of freedom. As the Council's Declaration on 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.

John Paul II saw that this heightened sense of the dignity of the human person, of his or her uniqueness, and of the respect due to the journey of conscience, represented one of the positive achievements of modern culture. However this perception, authentic as it is, has been expressed in a number of more or less adequate ways, some of which however diverge from the truth about man as a creature and the image of God, and thus need to be corrected and purified in the light of faith. Veritatis Splendor presents us with the information we need to make sense of this divergence.

The problems occur because certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values. This is the direction taken by doctrines which have lost the sense of the transcendent or which are explicitly atheist. The individual conscience is accorded the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment which hands down categorical and infallible decisions about good and evil. To the affirmation that one has a duty to follow one's conscience is unduly added the affirmation that one's moral judgment is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience. But in this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and "being at peace with oneself", so much so that some have come to adopt a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgment.

As is immediately evident, the crisis of truth is not unconnected with this development. Once the idea of a universal truth about the good, knowable by human reason, is lost, inevitably the notion of conscience also changes. Conscience is no longer considered in its primordial reality as an act of a person's intelligence, the function of which is to apply the universal knowledge of the good in a specific situation and thus to express a judgment about the right conduct to be chosen here and now. Instead, there is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly. Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others. Taken to its extreme consequences, this individualism leads to a denial of the very idea of human nature.

These different notions are at the origin of currents of thought which posit a radical opposition between moral law and conscience, and between nature and freedom.

"Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?". The question of morality, to which Christ provides the answer, cannot prescind from the issue of freedom. Indeed, it considers that issue central, for there can be no morality without freedom: "It is only in freedom that man can turn to what is good".(GS 17) But what sort of freedom? The Council, considering our contemporaries who "highly regard" freedom and "assiduously pursue" it, but who "often cultivate it in wrong ways as a licence to do anything they please, even evil", speaks of "genuine" freedom: "Genuine freedom is an outstanding manifestation of the divine image in man. For God willed to leave man "in the power of his own counsel" (cf. Sir 15:14), so that he would seek his Creator of his own accord and would freely arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to God".(Ibid) Although each individual has a right to be respected in his own journey in search of the truth, there exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known.58 As Cardinal John Henry Newman, that outstanding defender of the rights of conscience, forcefully put it: "Conscience has rights because it has duties".59


Certain tendencies in contemporary moral theology, under the influence of the currents of subjectivism and individualism just mentioned, involve novel interpretations of the relationship of freedom to the moral law, human nature and conscience, and propose novel criteria for the moral evaluation of acts. Despite their variety, these tendencies are at one in lessening or even denying the dependence of freedom on truth.
If we wish to undertake a critical discernment of these tendencies — a discernment capable of acknowledging what is legitimate, useful and of value in them, while at the same time pointing out their ambiguities, dangers and errors — we must examine them in the light of the fundamental dependence of freedom upon truth, a dependence which has found its clearest and most authoritative expression in the words of Christ: "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (Jn 8:32).

So you can see that John Paul II highlights the essential connection between individual conscience and objective truth, which is no less than what Christ promised us. This connection is a well informed conscience, which is essential for proper moral reasoning. You can read more of John Paul II's teaching on this here.

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