VATICAN II: A RELIGION OF CONSCIENCE
The analysis of conciliar texts has confirmed the dominant place given to the conscience, as “sanctuary”, in what the first Paris Theological Symposium called “the religion of Vatican II”.
1. Dignity of the human conscience,
place of Revelation
Vatican II defines the human conscience as “ the most secret core and sanctuary of a man . There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths” (GS 16). It also states that, “For his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience” (DH3).
These texts may allow one to believe man raises himself up, through his conscience, not only to the recognition of the eternal law (what saint Thomas Aquinas calls “ratio gubernationis rerum”), but also to a perception of the positive divine law, that is revelation.Indeed the explicite absence of distinction between the two terms and the confusion of the references to saint Thomas given in the official version (DH 3)1, maintain the ambiguity: the text vaguely bestows on the conscience, a veritable supernatural status. Hence, man is described as a receptacle of “Godlike seeds”(GS 3,2): by following his conscience in religious matters, he will attain divine truth.
The Council, in conferring on the unrestricted searching by an upright conscience, the power to arrive, inevitably at the divine truth (DH 3), inverses the metaphysical principle of Saint Thomas Aquinas: it gives, in the end the right of liberty to search for the truth. The traditional moral perspective of the natural law disappears, in favor of an ethic of the “dignity of man” and of his freedom (GS 17), of a personal and subjective inspiration. Thus through the concepts of progress and the “spiritual moral maturity of the human race” (GS 55), the Council renders legitimate the Kantian doctrine of the autonomy of the moral subject (morality), an autonomy “which culture claims for itself” (GS 56, §6).
In the political domaine, the conscience is exalted, to the point of being able to call in to question the civil law (the principle of conscientious objection in times of war, GS 79 § 3). But the Council omits to specify that this objection of conscience is legitimate only if it is founded on justice. Vatican II declares, moreover, that the laws of States must respect, in religious matters, “the right” of an erroneous conscience (DH 2). The dignity of the human conscience, the source of this right, confers on it therefore an unconditional superiority over the natural law (which is never cited), over the civil law and even over the divine law (right of an erroneous conscience). For the Council Fathers, the conscience constitutes, in place of the truth, the foundation of a new religious liberty (DH).
From the point of view of basic theology, the intimate dialogue, through which God “converses” with every man, through the mediation of his conscience (DH 3), is not distinguished from “revelation itself”(DV 2; DH 1 and 3). Whilst affirming that “there will be no further public revelation”, since the Scriptures are complete (DV 4), the Council would have us understand that history remains the bringer of a progressive revelation: “The Church constantly moves forward to the fulness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her” (DV 8b) with which she appears never to be able to correspond. Furthermore, the non-Christian traditions harbor “seeds of the Word” (AG 11), and thus themselves constitute unofficial sources of revelation. From that moment, Tradition must be ceaselessly reinterpretated by dialogue, the liturgy, interpretation and theology (DV 10); it is produced by the Magisterium of the day and standardized by it (DV 10) – instead of the contrary; it must aim at integrating more and more, the different religious traditions of mankind by a “dialogue of salvation” (Ecclesiam suam) which has echoes of the dialogue of conscience with God (AG 11). Constant and new source of revelation, the “living Magisterium”, in dialogue with non-Christian traditions, prevails on this title over Tradition, (DV 10), itself soon re-named “living”.
2. “The Church becomes aware of herself”
The Council was the occasion for the Church of a certain essential “self awareness”: the ontological and universal “dignity” of the “human person” (DH 1; GS 26, 73), independently of the shamefulness of sin; “the unity of mankind” (GS 4 and 90) as a religious and ontological reality; or even the “imbalances” and the social injustices from which the world suffers (GS 8) and which mask this unity, this dignity.
What is more, according to Paul VI and the future John Paul II, the Church, apart from the fact that she analysed herself as “object”, was also, at Vatican II, the “subject”of a unique experience2. It was for her the occasion to deepen and clarify the consciousness which she had of herself3, the departure point of an objective enrichment of the faith and a new definition of her own nature4: “God gathered together as one, all those who, in faith, look upon Jesus as the author of salvation and the source of unity and peace, and established them as the Church, that for each and all, it may be a visible sacrament of this saving unity”(LG 9).
Persuaded to listen to what the spirit was saying to her “for our time ”5, the Conciliar Church would have understood better the necessity of associating dialogue with faith (LG 3, GS 25 etc.) and realised that she belonged to a “People of God”, whose limits remain undefined (LG 9-17); she would consitute a sacrament, the effect of which would be to signify to the world, the unity, not of Christians, but of all “mankind” (LG 1). In this analytical process of self awareness, Vatican II exalts the sensus fidelium, which puts forward a collective awareness of this People of God made active subject of the living Tradition: “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief” (LG 12; DV 8 and 10). The “living Magisterium” becomes the sign and the product of ecclesial awareness, sustained by the Holy Spirit (ibidem).
The Church defines herself from now on, less as the ark of salvation than an “aid”, a means (among others) at the service of the conscience of man, in his search for the truth (DH 3). According to this theology of service, it is therefore not man who serves the Church, but the Church which serves man: “the Church claims no other title than that of being at the service of man” says the Council (AG 12). Paul VI drew inferences from this new doctrine, declaring in his famous closing speech: “We too, more than all others, have the cult of man”. The new liturgy, promulgated in 1969, reflects this change in perspective.
The mission of the Church, called new evangelization, is henceforth to promote mainly temporal ideas like the “construction of the world” (GS 55, 57 §1, 92, 93, etc.), admittedly, generous ideas, but ambiguous and indeed, non-Christian ones.
Its role would be to “create for all mankind a new spritual conscience in harmony with religious traditions, in order that the principle of respect for religious liberty and liberty of conscience should prevail”.6
AG: Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church Ad Gentes.
DH: Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae.
DV: Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum.
GS: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes
LG: Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium.