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"Proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ since 2007."

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The Boundaries of Human Freedom

by Michael Ruggiero, M.A.

Many Catholics have wondered what is morally acceptable when it comes to the expression of human freedom in thoughts, words and deeds. A clear answer was provided to the Church by our late Holy Father, John Paul II, in his timeless encyclical, “Veritatis Splendor”: boundaries of human freedom do exist and we must be mindful of them if we are to render due measure to God, ourselves, and our neighbor.

The Natural Law

 Written on every person’s heart is an instinctive knowledge of what is right and wrong, what is to be practiced and to be shunned. This natural law springs from our very being and has its definitional origin in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (Rom. 1:18-32). In particular, verses 20 through 21 note that the gentiles were given the ability to perceive God but became “vain in their reasoning and their senseless minds were darkened.” Their ability to reason should have directed them to moral understanding, to living humanely. Hence, the apostle implies that all human beings can discern through reason what is right and wrong and put the natural law into practice.

 Adherence to the natural law can be seen in the many choices we make each day. Most people who shop for goods instinctively find it fair that they should pay for the items they want. Most people who approach a red light while driving feel morally compelled to stop. When a homeless man begs on a street corner, most people feel compelled to give him something. Thus, the instinctive knowledge of how we should or shouldn’t act is evidence that the natural law exists within us and that we comprehend its demands.

 Our late Holy Father, John Paul II, confirmed this when he noted that, “only God can answer the question about the good because He is Good. But God has already given an answer to this question: He did so by creating man and ordering him with wisdom and love to his final end through the law which is inscribed in his heart, the ‘natural law.’ The latter “is nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided.”1

 The natural law, then, is the very essence of man directing him through the use of human reason. Daniel Sinisi, TOR (1983) noted that “man’s own being serves as the basis for his actions and through his reason the person can grasp the main moral implications of his human nature.”2

 The natural law and our conscience work together to lead us not only away from grave sin but to help us climb the mountain of personal holiness. In essence, our conscience consists of our own inner voice informed and influenced by God to the extent we possess union with God. It is also comprised of three distinct inter-relating elements: Synteresis, Moral Science and Conscience Proper.3

 Within our souls there exists a fixed disposition (nature) – Synteresis -- which comprehends the basic moral values/beliefs reflected (present) in the order and form of creation. The understanding gained from this disposition flows from the work of our mind, which is oriented toward truth and our will which is concerned with what is good.4

 The second element, Moral Science, is comprised of the knowledge we possess of the moral law.5 Ultimately, the quality of our moral opinions /concrete judgments depend upon the degree of accurate moral theological knowledge we possess. Thus, it is essential that every Catholic gain a complete moral theological education, one comprised not only of an understanding of the objective sources of moral norms but of the traditional interpretive stances that enable us to accurately view/evaluate moral acts.

 The final element, Conscience Proper, consists of the total evaluation of a particular act. It is a “concrete judgment” drawn from all of the knowledge we possess of the moral law and the process of Synteresis, “a supernatural intuition that flows from the life of grace we have with God.”6

 Thus, the three elements of conscience are all utilized in the evaluation of human acts. When we consider potential acts in light of the natural law, utilizing the twofold disposition of the mind toward truth and our will toward what is right (Synteresis), in light of the precepts of the Church and in accordance with the objective sources of moral norms (Moral Science) the natural law and conscience are used complimentarily, rationally and fully.

Moral Autonomy

 In the discovery of moral truths, human reason is totally dependent upon divine knowledge. However, some have concluded that man has a right to complete autonomy (independence) when it comes to deciding what is morally right or wrong, and is justified (in his opinion) when he relies solely upon human reason to discern what is good and evil. This belief, known as moral autonomy, has its roots in our human freedom but unfortunately twists this freedom to declare that man can decide for himself what is good and evil. Hence, the problem with the moral autonomy belief is that it elevates human freedom above truth itself, as noted by John Paul II (1993):

“Human freedom would thus be able to create values and would enjoy a primacy over truth, to the point that truth itself would be considered a creation of freedom. Freedom would thus lay claim to a moral autonomy which would actually amount to an absolute sovereignty.”7

 All morality previously defined by Divine Revelation (the moral truths God revealed through three channels of revelation) would be cast aside for a human morality, a code of ethics, if man is allowed to decide for himself what is good and evil. Prudence reveals that acceptance of moral autonomy inevitably leads to the denial of valuable moral content (issued by the Church’s Magisterium). “Naturally, an autonomy conceived in this way also involves the denial of a specific doctrinal competence on the part of the Church and her Magisterium with regard to particular moral norms which deal with the so-called human good.”8

 The issue of whether or not to have sexual relations outside of marriage perfectly illustrates this point. Our Lord Jesus Christ insisted that we be chaste in thought as well as in word and action. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery in his heart” (Mt. 5:27-30). A young couple, convinced they possess the right of moral autonomy, would ignore our Savior’s command to be chaste in favor of their feelings (it feels right, so it’s OK).

 Hence, a great danger associated with the moral autonomy perspective is its negative influence on conscience. Once Divine Revelation is discarded in favor of personal reflection and human reason, man’s will is placed above God’s, his (man’s) conscience immediately misinformed and his ability to distinguish good from evil diminished.

 Boundaries exist when it comes to the expression of our human freedom. If we want to be reasonable, to become causes of goodness and make ourselves more into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ, to affirm the order and form of creation with our actions, we must respect these boundaries by keeping our consciences informed and choosing at every moment to do God’s will (as revealed through Sacred Tradition) and not our own.


Ruggiero, Michael. The Boundaries of Human Freedom. Source of Grace Journal. Summer/Fall 2013. CES Publications: NY.

1,7,8 John Paul II. Veritatis Splendor. N. 22,51-53. Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1993.

2-6 Sinisi, Daniel. Christian Moral living. Steubenville, OH: Steubenville University Press, 1983, p. 16.