Cardinal Cupich Misreads Vatican II on Conscience

Just a few short weeks after the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, spoke about Amoris Laetitia as a paradigm shift for the Church, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago has reiterated the same portentous message. In a lengthy address given to the Von Hügel Institute of St. Edmund’s College on February 9, Cupich describes Pope Francis’ revolution of mercy as a “new paradigm of catholicity.” In his speech, the Cardinal takes us down a sinuous path of new hermeneutical principles and paradigm shifts that will presumably allow the Church to confront the diverse challenges of contemporary culture, including the “complex realities” that families and married couples currently encounter. Family life has always been a challenge, and it’s never really clear what makes the situation so overwhelmingly complex today that it demands a whole new moral synthesis or a radical revision of pastoral practice. While much of this rambling speech is plagued by oversimplification and ambiguity, I want to concentrate on one section that is especially problematic.

According to Cardinal Cupich, the synodal church envisioned by Pope Francis is called to “accompany” families and married couples through a dynamic balance between teaching and learning. The Church and its minister can no longer approach moral issues from a perch in the clouds. There is no room for paternalism or authoritarian intervention. When confronted with the acute challenges of marital life, the Church cannot simply refer to the law or provide general solutions for resolving “complex,” particular problems. Rather, each person must be invited to assume more responsibility for their own moral development and engage in sincere moral discernment.   The primacy of universal moral law must be replaced by the primacy of conscience. Therefore, we cannot even begin to comprehend this process of delegating responsibility and accompaniment without also understanding the plenary role of conscience in the moral life. Cardinal Cupich declares that Amoris Laetitia gives us a new hermeneutic (or interpretation) of conscience, which traces its roots back to the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes.

In that document, the Council Fathers addressed the theme of conscience in a single succinct paragraph called “The Dignity of Conscience.”  Here we supposedly find a more nuanced and supple understanding of conscience that has been obscured in the post-Conciliar Church. Cardinal Cupich cites the work of moral theologians like Conor Kelly, who claim that Gaudium et Spes represents a new moment in the Church’s perception of conscience. Kelly finds warrant for this interpretation in one revealing line of paragraph 16 that describes conscience as “the most secret core and sanctuary of man … [where] he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.” This presentation of conscience as a sort of personal sanctuary, where humanity and divinity meet, demands that the Church take seriously the discernment of married couples and families, since, in Cupich’s words, conscience now represents God’s “personal guidance for the particularities of their lives.”

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The new definition does not necessarily imply something unsatisfactory with the traditional view. The problem is that the traditional definition is insufficient because it underestimates the capacity of conscience. Conscience is far more than a judgement of reason concerning one’s moral choices, which should always conform to the objective norms of morality since they orient us to those basic human goods that promote human flourishing. Conscience has greater powers that must be brought to light and accommodated by the Church and its pastoral ministers. According to Pope Francis, “conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God Himself is asking” (Amoris Laetitia, 303; my emphasis).

Kelly argues that Pope Francis’s “personalist account” of conscience presupposes and builds on the revised definition articulated in Gaudium et Spes. Conscience is that sacred place of encounter with God who sheds light on the correct moral path amid the conflicting demands of daily life. And, as Cardinal Cupich observes, that voice of God, echoing in one’s conscience, “could very well affirm the necessity of living at some distance from the Church’s understanding of the ideal,” even if that “ideal” is one of the fundamental moral laws that forbids adultery. For Kelly and Cupich, by finally embracing this “conciliar understanding” of conscience, the Church begins to retrieve a tradition that has been present but subdued since Vatican II.

Cardinal Cupich’s reflections on conscience, however, raise far more questions than they answer. Foremost among them is whether or not Gaudium et Spes really represents such a radical reformulation of the Church’s conception of conscience rooted in the works of theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas. Conscience has always been regarded as an opening to the moral truth, including those true and fixed norms which allow for no exceptions. These norms which forbid the taking of innocent life, adultery, bearing false witness, and theft constitute the boundaries of morality, and their application in a particular context is not a matter for discernment. Is conscience now to be conceived as an opening to making exceptions to these and other moral laws, based on the concrete circumstances and contingencies of one’s life? The voice of conscience cannot be the direct voice of God since, however it is understood, we apprehend its message only through the mediation of our fallible human reason which is shaped by our own personal development as well as by cultural conventions and prejudices. How then do we guard against subjective moral certitude and rationalization? Couldn’t we be easily seduced into believing that God is calling us to lighten the burden by finding that broad and easy way rather than the narrow path that Jesus talked about?

The fundamental problem with this misinterpretation offered by some moral theologians along with Cardinal Cupich is that they seize on this one theme from paragraph 16 of Gaudium et Spes while ignoring its broader context. To properly understand the doctrine of conscience we must examine what the Council is referring to in its depiction of the union of the human with the divine in the moral life. What precisely is the teaching of Gaudium et Spes on the dignity of conscience?

When viewed objectively, it is surely hard to reconcile the conciliar doctrine on conscience presented in Gaudium et Spes with the novel teachings of Cardinal Cupich and Pope Francis. In the very first sentence of paragraph 16, the Council Fathers provide a description of moral conscience fully in line with the Catholic tradition: “In the depth of conscience man discovers a law which he does not impose upon himself but which ought to be obeyed; the voice of this law [my emphasis], always calling him to love and do the good and to avoid evil, proclaims when necessary in the ears of his heart: ‘do this, avoid that.’” Inscribed by God in the hearts of all men and women is this moral or natural law, “whose observance is their dignity.”

Quoting Pope Pius XII, the authors go on to describe conscience, which bears witness to that law, in more metaphorical terms as “the most intimate center and sanctuary of a person, where he or she is alone with God whose voice echoes within them.” In a footnote to this sentence they call attention to the need for the proper formation of conscience by directing readers to Pope Pius XII’s 1952 radio message, “La Famiglia.” The pope explains that this “spiritual faculty” called conscience, where every person “takes refuge” as he “determines himself for good or evil,” must be informed by the natural law along with the “commands of Christ,” which reinforce that law. A person’s conscience is the “faithful echo, a clear reflection of the divine rule for human actions.” What resounds in conscience for Pius XII is the precepts of the divine or natural law through which God speaks to each person about what is right and wrong.   There is no suggestion or hint that the role of conscience goes beyond beckoning each person to conform his or her actions to those objective moral norms. There is no intimation that “conscience can do more” than judge that this act is a good to be done or an evil to be avoided.

In Gaudium et Spes, the Council Fathers go on to say that conscience unites all people in the “search for truth and in finding true solutions (veritate solvenda)” to moral problems. To the extent that a correct conscience prevails, a person turns away from capriciousness and blind passion and conforms his or her actions to “the objective norms of morality.”  Throughout the entire paragraph there is a continuous insistence upon the objective moral law and its imperative character.

Thus, a close inspection of paragraph 16 leads to an inescapable conclusion: it is simply inconceivable that the authors of Gaudium et Spes or Pope Pius XII had in mind a revolutionary conception of conscience as a privileged inner sanctuary where we enjoy an immediate encounter with God, who sometimes temporarily dispenses us from a certain moral law (not “ideal” as Cupich says) like the prohibition of adultery until that law can be carried out more easily. When considered in its totality, the text of Gaudium et Spes offers no foundation for such a revisionist account that expands the role of human conscience into a locus of incessant moral discernment aimed at seeking ways to better approximate “the objective ideal” (Amoris Laetitia 303).

As John Finnis has pointed out, the thrust of the Council’s concise teaching on conscience is that the dignity of human conscience consists in its capacity to make known to every moral subject the objective truth about what should be done; conscience reveals both the universal moral norms and how they are to be applied in a particular case. What we hear in our conscience is the voice God. But that voice speaks to us through our natural inclination to follow those moral laws, inscribed in our hearts by the Creator, that will lead to our personal fulfillment and ultimately to union with him. If properly formed, conscience admonishes us and commands us to act in accordance with the moral truth, which always supersedes the demands of subjective feeling or social conformity. The mature conscience described by Pope Pius XII is the guarantee against the arbitrariness of the purely subjective, not a gateway to escaping the exacting demands of morality or adapting those demands to one’s circumstances.

Of course, while everyone has a conscience and is capable of moral judgement the operation of conscience is enhanced for the baptized Christian who can take advantage of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. As Father Norris Clarke has explained, through this supernatural grace we come to appreciate that the obligation to follow the moral law is not an impersonal imperative but a personal call of God who bids us to unite our will with his by following his commands. We see more readily that by adhering to the law we grow in goodness and truth, and thereby become transformed into a closer likeness to the divine.

Cardinal Cupich and those theologians who are eagerly carrying the torch for Amoris Laetitia may want to revise and expand the role of conscience so that it becomes a more resilient power that allows people to flout the moral law as they adapt to those new social realities described by the cardinal. Such a heterodox view fits nicely with the paradigm shift that both Cupich and Parolin claim to find embedded in the text of Amoris Laetitia. But this is a dissonant vision that is alien to the Catholic tradition’s ethical discourse. It is also a vision totally incompatible with Gaudium et Spes’s eloquent but inadequate treatment of the dignity of conscience.

(Photo credit: CNA / L’Osservatore Romano)


  • Richard A. Spinello

    Richard A. Spinello is Professor of Management Practice at Boston College and a member of the adjunct faculty at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. He is the author of Four Catholic Philosophers: Rejoicing in the Truth along with The Splendor of Marriage: St. John Paul II’s Vision of Love, Marriage, Family, and the Culture of Life.

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