Exercising our freedom: God's Law and the Judgment of our conscience.
WORD FROM THE FOUNDER
Deacon Georges Bonneval
“The Truth will set you free!” (Jn 8: 32)
Freedom of the human person involves the divine commandments
The simple idea of having to obey laws – even Divine Law – commonly provokes the negative impression of oppression and restricted freedom. However, a disciple of the Lord should not stop at this initial, psychological reaction, but rather seek in depth what the Holy Scriptures have to say on this subject.
Let’s illuminate our Lenten journey, on Freedom in connection with Truth, with several excerpts from the Encyclical of St. John Paul II: Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”).
“Those who live ‘by the flesh’ experience God’s law as a burden, and indeed as a denial or at least a restriction of their own freedom. On the other hand, those who are impelled by love and ‘walk by the Spirit’ (Gal 5: 16), and who desire to serve others, find in God’s Law the fundamental and necessary way in which to practice love as something freely chosen and freely lived out.”1
At the beginning of Creation, God set only one condition, one commandment for mankind: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (Gen 2: 16-17)
We all know how our first parents observed that one commandment
This image of the original discourse between God and Adam, transmitted by Sacred Scripture, teaches us in depth that the power to decide what is good and evil does not belong to the human person, but to God alone. Human freedom must therefore integrate the fact that all creation is a Gift from God, and an immense Gift at that: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden.” (Gen 2: 16-17) Nonetheless this Gift includes conditions, and among them is the divine commandment.
Saint John Paul II writes: “In fact, human freedom finds its authentic and complete fulfilment precisely in the acceptance of that law. God, who alone is good, knows perfectly what is good for man, and by virtue of his very love proposes this good to man in the commandments. God’s law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom; rather, it protects and promotes that freedom.” 2
According to the Holy Pope John Paul II, there is no conflict between freedom and the law. “Man, by the use of reason, participates in the eternal law, which is not for him to establish” 3. Our human reason, if isolated or left to itself, cannot assert absolute sovereignty with regard to the rules of moral conduct in this world. It is bound to seek this conduct in the Wisdom of Divine Revelation and not in human resource alone.
Many of our contemporaries are often led to doubt the "immutability of natural law" and thus also doubt the existence of "objective standards of morality".
In their conscience, the believer asks themself: "In today’s world, am I bound to obey and apply the divine commandments of the Old Testament as did the followers of this First Covenant?"
The Encyclical Veritatis Splendor responds: “The Church has always taught that one may never choose kinds of behavior prohibited by the moral commandments expressed in negative form in the Old and New Testaments. As we have seen, Jesus himself reaffirms that these prohibitions allow no exceptions: 'If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments... You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness.' (Mt 19: 17-18)4 ."
Above all, did not Christ Himself, the Logos of the Father, come to fulfill the Law in its fullness? According to His own words:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to
abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5: 17-19).
“When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (Jn 19: 30)
God revealed His first commandment at the very beginning, and then, together with Moses, He made known the commandments of Sinai. In virtue of God’s Law given to the Chosen People (the commandments of Sinai), and with the help of reason enlightened by Divine Revelation and faith, a person of God can exercise discernment of good and evil.
St. John Paul II continues: “Israel was called to accept and to live out God’s law as a particular gift and sign of its election and of the divine Covenant, and also as a pledge of God’s blessing.” 5
“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.” (Ps 1: 1-2)
“A The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes.” (Ps 19: 7-8)
As sons and daughters of the Church, we are called to welcome all the revelation contained in the First Covenant with gratitude and to preserve it with love. Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini presents us with the keys to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture6. This is God’s Law, authentically interpreted in the light of the Gospel and the present Magisterium. God’s design does not pose any threat to the authentic freedom of the human person. On the contrary, accepting God’s plan is the only way to live out and open up the gift of freedom.
The following excerpt from the letter of Paul, written to the Romans, can enlighten us about the work that God’s Word does in us when it unmasks hidden sin: “What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.” (Rom 7: 7-14)
Let us acknowledge with Paul that the Law is good, and that it is not the Law that we should complain about, distance ourselves from, or flee from. Rather, it is sin, revealed by the Law, which we must distance ourselves from, clinging to the Divine Law with all our heart and with all our mind.
Our personal consciousness, restored to working order, must be evangelized and formed
The mere automatic and external application of moral norms and duties is not enough in the face of the situations and circumstances that arise in the course of a person’s life. Each individual must enter “the most secret core and sanctuary... there he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.” 7.
The personal conscience of each of us is tainted by sin, which little by little, “grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.” 8
This is why there exists the need for personal and regular practice of "examinations of conscience" in the light of God’s Word; that each one may develop better discernment, a healthy "autonomy" and be able to progress on the path of moral maturity.
Personal conscience is a part of our freedom’s "equipment". We could describe its role through an image: a tuning fork. In a symphony orchestra, each instrument must play according to what its score asks of it, which was written by the composer of the musical work. The tuning fork is not an instrument like any other; it does not intervene at all during the interpretation of the work. However, it has the irreplaceable importance of “tuning” the instruments before hand and allowing “harmony” to exist between all of them before they interpret the musical work.
Personal conscience is like this: it does not have a role comparable to the faculty of intelligence, nor of imagination, nor of the will, nor of memory, which are like the great and noble instruments that make up our soul. Nevertheless, it is this necessary inner "little tuning fork" that will give the right tone, the little voice, the personal perception of what is lived or is to be lived.
St. Paul declares that conforming our natural human life to the Divine Will is not only the prerogative of Christians, but that pagans also have access to this through the "witness of their conscience".
“When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires,
these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law
requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness.”
(Rom 2: 14-15)
“The relationship between man’s freedom and God’s law is most deeply lived out in the ‘heart’ of the person, in his moral conscience. As the Second Vatican Council observed: 'In the depths
of his conscience man detects a law which he does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can, when necessary, speak to his heart more specifically: ‘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 (Rom 2: 14-16)'." 9
Far from confining or reducing personal human freedom, moral conscience gives our freedom access and openness – as if by inner intuition – to a deep and subtle listening to God’s call. This "place" is precisely what gives the human person dignity, this “sacred space where God speaks to man” 10.
On this subject, Saint Bonaventure writes: “Conscience is like the herald and messenger of God; what he says, it does not prescribe of itself, but it prescribes it as coming from God, in the manner of a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king. It follows that the conscience has the power to compel.” 11
This "power to compel" that the Franciscan Saint speaks of should be underlined, for whoever acts against the judgment of their conscience is condemned by their conscience, for it is the existing standard of their personal morality.
However, by God’s grace, a person remains ever open to the path of mercy, renouncing their error, imploring the Lord’s forgiveness and returning to the divine will – to the good which is always to be sought and to the evil to be endured.
“Consequently in the practical judgment of conscience, which imposes on the person the obligation to perform a given act, the link between freedom and truth is made manifest. Precisely for this reason conscience expresses itself in acts of ‘judgment’ which reflect the truth about the good, and not in arbitrary ‘decisions’.”12
The Apostle Paul’s pastoral letter to Timothy reminds us of three components that must accompany the service of Christian charity. Among them: "a good conscience". “The aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith. Some people have deviated from these and turned to meaningless talk.” (1 Tim 1: 5-6)
Then the Apostle affirms that in order for the conscience to be ‘good’, it must be enlightened by the Holy Spirit: “I speak the truth in Christ, I do not lie, my conscience bears witness to it in the Holy Spirit”. (Rom 9: 1)
It must also be "pure": “I am grateful to God - whom I worship with a clear conscience…” (2 Tim 1: 3)
Finally, according to the Apostle, one’s personal conscience must carefully remain in constant harmony with the Truth of God’s Word. That is, one’s conscience must not tolerate falsification or cunningness in interpreting the Word, but clearly manifest the Truth: “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.” (2 Cor 4: 2).
Veritatis Splendor, states: “It is always from the truth that the dignity of conscience derives.” 13.
“Jesus alludes to the danger of the conscience being deformed when he warns: 'The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!’ (Mt 6: 22-23).14”
The source of true judgment of the conscience: a heart turned towards the Lord and towards the love of all that is good.
With the help of the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity, and the cardinal virtues of Prudence, Temperance, Strength and Justice, the Christian receives a kind of "connaturality" with what is truly good (in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas) and corresponds to the discernment of the divine will
“In order to ‘prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Rom 12: 2), knowledge of God’s law in general is certainly necessary, but it is not sufficient: what is essential is a sort of ‘connaturality’ between man and the true good... This is the meaning of Jesus’ saying: ‘He who does what is true comes to the light’ (Jn 3: 21).” 1
The Church is always at the service of conscience. To this end, Christians receive precious help from the Magisterium to form their conscience in the times and circumstances in which they live.
“The authority of the Church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians. This is so not only because freedom of conscience is never freedom ‘from’ the truth but always and only freedom ‘in’ the truth.” 16
Finally, though the First Covenant transmitted the commandments God gave to Moses, Christ summarized them in two commandments of love: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ Th is is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Mt 22: 37-40). It is this Law of Love that makes us truly free.
From now on, to be in communion with God and with our brothers and sisters means "to be one with Christ and in Christ" in our lives. To be righteous means "to be adjusted" to Christ, and that is enough.
Benedict XVI even goes so far as to declare: “Further observances are no longer necessary. For this reason, Luther’s phrase ‘faith alone’ is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love. Faith is looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ, conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence to believe is to conform to Christ and to enter into his love... Paul knows that in the twofold love of God and neighbor the whole of the Law is present and carried out. Thus, in communion with Christ, in a faith that creates charity, the entire Law is fulfilled.”1
To conclude, let us say that there is only one freedom, only one true joy of the heart: to serve God and all our brothers and sisters! In this way, we will remain free. When we serve "the law of sin" (Rom 7: 23), we remain slaves.
As St. Augustine says: “‘Why’, someone asks, ‘Is it not perfect freedom?’ Because I see in my members another law that is against the law of my spirit. It is partial freedom and partial slavery; it is not yet total freedom, pure freedom, full freedom because it is not yet eternity.
For weakness weighs on us in part and we have received a share of freedom... Therefore, because we have been left with a certain weakness, I dare to say that in so far as we serve God, we are free, and in so far as we serve the law of sin, we are still slaves.” 18
We have received a Law of Love which makes us free, and at the same time it works through us when we place ourselves at the service of our brothers and sisters: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Gal 5: 6)
From Pope Francis: “Jesus is aware that it is not easy to live the Commandments in such an all-encompassing way. That is why he offers us the help of his love: he came into the world not only to fulfil the Law, but also to give us his grace, so that we can do God’s will, loving him and our brothers and sisters. We can do everything, everything, with the grace of God!” 19
1. St. John Paul II, The Encyclical Veritatis Splendor “The Splendor of
Truth", 1993, nº 18.
2. cf. Encyclical Veritatis Splendor No. 35.
3. cf. Encyclical Veritatis Splendor No. 36.
4. cf. Encyclical Veritatis Splendor No. 52 .
5. cf. Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, No. 44.
6. Pope Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, 2010, nº 29-49.
7. Gaudium et Spes, No. 16.
9. St. John Paul II Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, N° 54.
10. St. John Paul II, General Audience of August, 17th, 1983
11. St. Bonaventure, In II Librum Sent.., dist. 39, a1, q3, concl.: Ad
12. St. John Paul II, Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, N° 61.
13. St. John Paul II, Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, N° 61
14. St. John Paul II, Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, N° 63.
15. Encyclical Veritatis Splendor , N° 64.
16. Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, N° 64.
17. Pope Benedict XVI General Audience of November 19th, 2008.
18. St. Augustine, Iohannis Evangelium Tractatus, 41.10.
19. Pope Francis, Angelus, February 16th, 2020.