Pope John Paul II on conscience

Conscience itself does not create norms but discovers them in the objective order of morality.

When Cardinal Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II in 1978, he was well prepared to teach the Catholic faithful about ethics. As a young man Karol Wojtyla thought about a career in acting, but he felt a call to the priesthood and soon found himself immersed in the study of philosophy and theology. He was particularly attracted to the study of moral philosophy. After his ordination Father Wojtyla pursued doctoral studies, writing his dissertation on one of the foremost moral philosophers of the twentieth century, Max Scheler. He then joined the faculty at the Catholic University of Lublin in 1954. He was appointed to the prestigious Chair of Ethics at that University in 1956. During these years, Wojtyla offered popular seminars and he wrote extensively about ethical issues, often focusing on the intimate connection between ethics and anthropology.

One of the moral themes that pre-occupied Wojtyla in these pre-papal writings was conscience. It is no surprise, therefore, that he would return to this theme many times in his magisterial teachings. The Pope recognized the need for a proper understanding of conscience, and he was concerned with those who sought to undermine the orthodox doctrine of conscience with more subjectivist notions. Not only has this doctrine been distorted by some revisionist theologians, who diminish the moral law’s decisive role in human development, it has also been corrupted in modern culture. In recent centuries the notion of authenticity has displaced the traditional conception of conscience. The person is supposedly guided by an “inner voice” to make authentic moral choices that are consistent with his or her particular value system. Conscience is also equated with a Freudian superego, which makes us aware of superficial and conventional social standards. The pre-cursor of this idea was Nietzsche, who reduced conscience to the sublimation of instinct.

In the face of all this confusion, conceptual clarity about the nature of conscience is essential. Thus, one of the aims of the Pope’s writings was to re-affirm the Church’s traditional understanding of conscience and to elaborate on Vatican II’s concise presentation on this theme. While the Pope’s treatment of conscience is generally consistent with the philosophy of Aquinas, there is a deeply spiritual dimension to his reflections that sets them apart from the tracts on moral theology used in the pre-conciliar Church.

The Second Vatican Council had emphasized the need for a renewal of moral theology, which should be properly “nourished” by scriptural sources. The council, however, had little to say about this pivotal issue of conscience. Perhaps the Council Fathers would have elaborated on this matter in more precise language had they known what was looming for the Church in the wake of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae and the claims that conscience was the ultimate arbiter of sexual morality.

Some theologians have maintained that Vatican II distanced itself from moral legalism while supporting the autonomy of conscience. They have also argued that John Paul II reversed Vatican II’s revised understanding of conscience. One theologian contends that the Pope has “re-contextualized” Vatican II’s presentation of conscience in Gaudium et Spes into a “framework of law.” Where the council had highlighted “the law of love” and a “communal search for truth,” John Paul II puts unwarranted emphasis on adherence to objective norms of morality.1 Moreover, the Pope has refused to acknowledge the apparent stipulation in Gaudium et Spes that conscience is only guided by moral laws that must be flexibly applied to concrete situations. According to this interpretation, Gaudium et Spes claims that through conscience the “objective norms of morality” function only as a “guide” for “persons and groups” in their search for truth.2

But a careful reading of the definitive Latin text of Gaudium et Spes says otherwise. First, the council is not referring to a general “law of love” in paragraph 16 but to the natural moral law which bids us to “do good and avoid evil,” a clear allusion to the first principle of the natural law. The council’s intentions in this paragraph should be apparent by its citation of Romans 2:15-16, which is the principal scriptural text for discussions of natural law. According to Gaudium et Spes, the “voice of this law…speaks to [a person’s] heart when necessary: do this, avoid that.”3  The natural law is fulfilled in loving God and our neighbor but it has a precise delineation, as evidenced by its expression in the Decalogue. Thus, Gaudium et Spes’ powerful image of conscience as the voice of the moral law strongly implies that a properly functioning conscience must be in harmony with a specific moral law which directs us to “do this” and “avoid that.”

Second, the search for truth referred to in the document is not some subjective, existential quest that leads people in contradictory directions to find their own customized version of the truth. Rather, we find the general moral truth specified in the objective norms of morality, such as the moral precepts revealed in or derived from the Decalogue. These specific norms allow us to work out true solutions to specific moral problems.4  The quest for moral truth might be a communal process, but this doesn’t imply that moral truth is arbitrary or that there is room for some type of “creative acceptance” of that truth. Finally, these objective norms are far more than a “guide,” which is a poor translation offered for the Latin word,conformari (conform).5  According to Gaudium et Spes, “to the extent that a correct conscience prevails, persons and groups are turning away from blind choice, seeking to conform to the objective norms of morality.”6

This same view of conscience bound by precepts of the natural law is confirmed in other Vatican II documents. In Dignitatis Humanae, for example, we are informed that “man truly perceives and understands the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience.”7  God makes man a “sharer” in this divine law through the natural human law so that “he can recognize more and more the immutable truth.”8  It is difficult to get the sense from these passages that the council has disavowed the natural moral law as the foundation of morality in favor of some vague “law of love.” Nor does the council suggest that the norms of morality are merely formal standards, a useful compass for conscience that can be applied with some pliancy depending upon the circumstances. On the contrary, the dignity of conscience lies precisely in its ability to discern these unchangeable and objective norms of morality so that particular actions will conform to those norms. According to John Paul II, “it is always from the truth that the dignity of conscience derives.”9

Moral principles take the form of universal natural laws that “flow from human nature itself.”  They direct us to unconditional respect for intrinsic human goods such as life, truth and marriage. These principles or laws are rules for individual cases. When the law is fully understood and has relevance for a particular case, that individual case is bound by this norm. For example, the Church teaches that direct abortion is always wrong because it is contrary to the basic human good of life. This norm applies to every individual case regardless of an individual’s set of circumstances.

It is evident from these Vatican II teachings that an immutable moral truth, objective moral criteria, serves as the foundation for the judgments of conscience. And the primary role of conscience is to apply these criteria so that one’s actions will be compatible with the moral law. Negative precepts of this universal law (such as “it is always wrong to kill an innocent person”) permit no exceptions or flexibility in their application. On the other hand, the application of affirmative precepts (such as “one is obliged to help the poor”) is more open-ended, so the person can conscientiously discern the most prudent course of action consistent with his or her particular circumstances.
If one carefully assesses the council’s pronouncements on conscience it becomes apparent that John Paul II is not re-interpreting Vatican II, but making sure that Vatican II is being interpreted correctly. At the same time, he provides a welcome amplification of its pronouncements on human conscience.

So what does the Pope teach about conscience and why should it interest us today? Why does he devote so much attention to this issue? Misinterpretations over the role of conscience are often at the source of the laity’s confusion about moral issues. Some Catholics still have the impression that conscience itself is the final criterion of sin. A sovereign conscience is seen as the triumph of human subjectivity and freedom. But conscience actually represents the overcoming of subjectivity because it brings us into direct contact with the moral truth revealed by God. Hence the need to clarify the notion of conscience which was not modified by Vatican II, despite these claims to the contrary. The Pope’s exposition provides a fresh perspective that is theologically profound but also imbued with a new spiritual depth.

Wojtyla on conscience

Before we explore John Paul II’s papal teachings on conscience it is instructive to briefly consider how he treated this issue in his copious pre-papal writings. We cannot do justice to this subject in this article, but an overview will help us put his later writings in context. The Lublin ethics professor’s discussion has a secular overtone as he tries to describe how conscience functions within the inner life of the person. Wojtyla undoubtedly advanced this secularized version of conscience for two reasons: he was looking at conscience as a philosopher and not as a theologian and he had to be cautious about references to God and divine law within the political milieu of Communist Poland.

In his philosophical treatise, The Acting Person, Wojtyla imputes several inter-related roles to conscience. Conscience, which “judges the moral value of an action,” represents the human person’s capacity to become aware of the moral goodness or values at stake in his or her prospective actions.  For example, as a person considers whether or not to seek out mortal revenge in the face of a slanderous insult, his conscience recognizes the value of human life, which rests on the truth that life is a choice-worthy, objective good. Second, conscience converts this recognition (or judgment) that “human life and health is truly good” into a duty: “I am obliged to respect the life and well-being of all persons.” The moral truth or value grasped by our practical intellect impresses itself upon us as a duty that we are obliged to follow. Finally, in its “complete function” conscience “surrenders” the will to the truth about the good which is experienced by conscience as a moral duty.

This presentation is generally consistent with the Thomistic view that sees conscience not as a separate faculty or power within the self but as each person’s practical intelligence at work in the moral sphere, which takes the form of judging the rightness or wrongness of actions. Aquinas stressed that conscience is the person’s last and best judgment of what one should choose, and the person can decide to follow that judgment or ignore it.

Wojtyla makes it clear that conscience does not have the power to make its own moral laws, for “conscience is no lawmaker.”  Conscience itself does not create norms but discovers them in the objective order of morality. Any suggestion to the contrary distorts the proper order determined by the Creator. The function of conscience is not to shape moral norms but to recognize the normative power of moral truth and to submit the will to that truth. According to Wojtyla, truthfulness is “the keystone of the whole structure.”  Once conscience apprehends the truth of moral norms the person appreciates that these norms are not alien to him or imposed from the outside. Rather they orient the person to his or her own good and personal fulfillment. For example, when a person’s conscience perceives the intrinsic value of marriage, that person subscribes to the norm forbidding adultery not because it is a burdensome external command, but because following this norm is in harmony with his or her nature and the objective order of goodness willed by God.

If conscience does have a “creative” role, it is in shaping our moral convictions. Conscience enables us to internalize and personalize the moral truth. Through conscience we appreciate the specific bearing the moral norms have on our lives for our own personal growth and emotional stability. Thanks to conscience we can determine how to best follow those affirmative norms and give them prominence in our lives. Conscience molds the moral norm into the unique and distinctive form which it takes within the experience and life of each person.

In summary, conscience, for Wojtyla the philosopher, is the exercise of practical intelligence as it makes judgments about the moral value of our actions. Through conscience unencumbered by the darkness of sin the human person constantly strives to grasp the moral truth. Conscience also enables us to realize the normative power of these truths (such as “life and health is an intrinsic human good”), which are transformed into duties that take the form of specific moral norms. Conscience surrenders the will to the moral truth apprehended by our practical intelligence, and so it is always subordinate to that truth.

Conscience in the encyclicals

Pope John Paul II spoke frequently about conscience in his homilies and talks. He exhorted his listeners to purify and form their consciences according to the teaching of Jesus Christ.  He also wrote extensively about conscience in two of his fourteen encyclicals: Dominum et Vivificantem and Veritatis Splendor. In these papal writings he departs from the strictly philosophical approach used in his early writings, but he continues to articulate the same issues about conscience as the working of practical intelligence whereby the person discovers and submits to the moral truth. In keeping with the teaching of Gaudium et Spes, he also insists that this truth is objective and based on the natural law known to some extent by every human person.

These writings also bear some affinity to Cardinal Ratzinger’s treatment of conscience, since they emphasize the transcendence of conscience, which brings us into contact with the divine.  For John Paul II, the moral life represents a powerful interfusion of the human and the divine, and this notion is pervasive in the Pope’s discussions on conscience. Following Aquinas, he maintains that the natural law is a participation in the divine law. The unique authority of the natural law, inscribed in our nature, cannot be questioned because its source is the Creator himself. Similarly, conscience is a way for God to speak to all men and women in the depth of their hearts through his law.

The Pope’s elaborate account of conscience in Veritatis Splendor (§ 54-64) begins with an assessment of the erroneous teachings of some theologians who have reinterpreted the function of conscience by emphasizing its “creative character.” In their view, conscience does not make judgments but “decisions.”  The norms of morality provide only a “general perspective,” which should influence but not necessarily determine a person’s decision. Hence, according to these accounts, the person has considerable leeway to interpret all of the moral norms within the context of his or her concrete situation. According to this perspective, personal moral decisions must be made “autonomously” so that “man can attain moral maturity.”  This specious conception of conscience, however, challenges its very identity and certainly conflicts with well-established Church doctrine on this matter.

On the contrary, the Pope once again insists that the proper function of conscience is twofold: making us aware of moral truth and making judgments which apply that truth to resolve specific moral questions. But conscience is more than the exercise of our practical intelligence in applying universal rules to specific actions. The Pope turns to a passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (2:1-16) to deepen our understanding of conscience so that we can appreciate its transcendent characteristics. In the passage cited by the Pope, Paul explains that what the moral “law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them” (Rom. 2:14-15). Thus, conscience is also a “witness” for man, a witness of God’s caring love that directs a person’s activities toward his or her own flourishing (and ultimately toward union with God). The dialogue of man with himself is indirectly a dialogue with God, since he is the author of the moral law. Even the non-believer who hears the moral law echo within hears God’s Word and implicitly engages in a dialogue with God as he ponders what to do.

Conscience, therefore, is a judgment by man and about man. Conscience makes evident what a person must do or not do, and so it is prospective. A person can choose to follow this practical judgment made by conscience or ignore that judgment and act otherwise. Second, when conscience assesses an act already performed by the person, it has a retrospective role to play. The person may have a “guilty conscience” because he knows that he made the wrong moral choice and should have done otherwise. In its retrospective capacity, conscience is “a moral judgment about man and his actions, a judgment either of acquittal or of condemnation” depending upon whether one’s action was “in conformity with the law of God written on the heart.”  This verdict of conscience remains within the person as a “pledge of hope and mercy.”

The transcendence of conscience is a further sign of its unimpeachable dignity, since conscience conveys to us a message from God who reveals himself through his moral law inscribed in our hearts. Moral reason’s awareness of this law is a sign of God’s immanence. God is with all persons, whether they realize it or not, through the work of conscience which brings them face to face with the divine Logos in the form of the moral law. According to the Pope, conscience is “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man, where he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.”

Pastoral implications

The faithful need to be taught about how to form their consciences, but they also need to be continually reminded about the proper role of conscience. Conscience should never be confused with a superego, misconstrued as the source of repressed guilt, or conflated with some mysterious “inner voice” that calls us to greater authenticity. Nor should conscience be invoked to validate society’s retreat from universal principles in favor of subjective or variable standards. Conscience expresses itself in informed judgments, not independent and arbitrary decisions. According to the Pope, “conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil.”  Conscience must act in conformity with the objective moral norms given to us by God, or it is in error. Conscience is always subordinate to moral truth. It is crucial, therefore, to dispel the myth that conscience is a lawgiver or represents the final subjective determination of what is good or evil. It is equally vital to repudiate any notion that Vatican II dramatically altered the Church’s teaching on conscience. Admittedly, the council’s exposition is thin, but Pope John Paul II has enriched our understanding of the doctrine of conscience, and his authoritative teachings cannot be casually dismissed.

What’s distinctive about Wojtyla’s treatment of conscience is its emphasis on the moral truth that directs the well-formed conscience. Conscience cannot be properly understood apart from the moral laws or duties derived from our apprehension of values. In the encyclicals, which give prominence to the spiritual and transcendent dimension of conscience, we learn about the divine origin of this law. When conscience functions correctly it reveals the moral law, which acts like a “herald and messenger” from God himself. We must bear in mind that when we hear the voice of conscience within us we hear the voice of God who is calling us to be true to ourselves as human beings made in his image.

Conscience, therefore, is far more than a rational judgment process. Through conscience man opens himself to the demands of moral truth and the voice of God who speaks to us through that truth. Conscience provides each person with the capability to transcend his own ego so that he can grasp those objective goods that perfect all persons and lead ultimately to the fullness of life.

Above all, pastors and teachers must re-emphasize that the moral life is no place for ungrounded freedom and experimentation. One of the modern heresies boldly confronted by John Paul II in many of his encyclicals is humanity’s inflated notion of freedom coupled with a Pelagian confidence in the powers of the creative self. On the contrary, the Pope emphasizes man’s receptive freedom that first receives the Word and acts accordingly. We do not spontaneously create the moral law, and thereby assume responsibility for our own moral or social evolution. Rather, we receive this law as a gift from God. Conscience should help each person to mirror his or her moral life on the fiat of Mary, which is anterior to all human activity.  According to the Pope, Mary “became the model of all those who hear the Word of God and keep it.”  Moral creativity should image the “perfect” creativity of Mary’s humble Magnificat, which calls us to first acknowledge the great things God has done for us by giving us the Word.

Through the mediation of conscience we accept the moral doctrine that is an integral part of this Word as a gift of truth. All human persons are called to make their best effort to submit their will to that truth. Accordingly, conscience must always be receptive and submissive to universal moral values before it is ever “creative.” The creativity of conscience hinted at in The Acting Person can take several valid forms, as conscience determines the optimal means of following affirmative moral norms. Conscience can also move the person to have strong moral convictions and to be proactive. For example, someone might be inspired by his conscience to devote his life so that a particular norm such as “respect for all innocent human life” is better protected by law and esteemed by the state.

Finally, thanks to a mature conscience any person can become acquainted with the universal moral law whose author is God himself. Conscience is the mysterious place where even the non-believer is cognizant of a compelling moral truth, even as he is tempted to take flight from that truth and seek refuge in the false security of satisfying his subjective whims. Although this person is unaware that he hears God’s voice above the din of secular culture, perhaps the way is now open for his evangelization. With God’s grace, conscience can gently lead someone on the first steps of a spiritual journey that ultimately points homeward to the fullness of truth abiding in the Incarnate Word and his Church.

  1. Mary Elsbernd, “The Reinterpretation of Gaudium et Spes in Veritatis Splendor,” Horizons 19 (2) (2002): pp. 233-234. 
  2. Ibid., p. 234, quoting Gaudium et Spes, par. 16. 
  3. Gaudium et Spes, Acta Apostolica Sedis 58 (1966), 1025-1115, par. 16 (my translation). 
  4. While the Abbott translation used by Elsbernd says that “Christians are joined with the rest of men…in the search for genuine solutions” to moral problems, the Latin text is “in veritate solvenda” more accurately rendered as “true solutions” (my emphasis). See Abbott’s translation of Gaudium et Spes in Walter Abbott, S.J. (ed.), Documents of Vatican II, New York: Guild Press, 1966. 
  5. See the Abbott translation of Gaudium et Spes, par. 16. 
  6. Gaudium et Spes, 16, (“Quo magis ergo conscientia recta praevalet, eo magis personae et coetus a caeco arbitrio recedunt et normis objectivis moralitatis conformari satagunt;” my emphasis and translation). 
  7. Dignitatis Humanae, 3, Acta Apostolica Sedis, 58 (1966), 929-946. 
  8. Dignitatis Humanae, 3.  In a footnote to the Latin text (Dignitatis Humanae, n.3) the Council Fathers cite St. Thomas Aquinas’ classic treatment on the natural law, which explains how everyone knows the “unchangeable truth.…the common principles of the natural law.” See Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 93, a. 2. 
  9. Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, Boston: Pauline Books, 1993, 62. 
Dr. Richard A. Spinello About Dr. Richard A. Spinello

Dr. Richard Spinello is an Associate Research Professor at Boston College where he teaches courses on philosophy, ethics, and management. He is also a member of the adjunct faculty at St. John's Seminary in Boston. He is the author of The Encyclicals of John Paul II: An Introduction and Commentary, and Understanding Love and Responsibility: A Companion to Karol Wojtyla's Classic Work along with numerous other books and articles on ethical theory and applied ethics.