Address of Pope Pius XII
Soyez les Bienvenues (1952)
April 18, 1952
The Theme of the Congress
1. We welcome you, beloved daughters of the World Federation of Catholic Young Women. We greet you with the same pleasure, the same joy, and the same affection with which, given years ago, We received you at Castel Gandolfo, on the occasion of the great international meeting of Catholic Women.
The impetus and the wise counsels given you by this Congress, as well as the words which We addressed to you on that occasion have not remained without fruit. We know how you have worked in the meantime to realize the precise aims which were so clear to you. This is shown also by the printed memorandum which you presented to us when today’s Congress was being prepared: “The Faith of Youth—Problem of our Time.” Its thirty-two pages have all the weight of a large volume, and We have studied it with great attention, for it sums up and synthesizes the results of many different studies on the state of the Faith among the Catholic youth of Europe. Its conclusions are most instructive.
2. In Our allocution of September 11, 1947, at which you were present, as well as in many other allocutions both before and since, We Ourselves have treated of a whole series of questions which are touched upon in these pages. Today We should like to take the occasion of this meeting to tell you what we think of a certain phenomenon which is showing itself in some degree everywhere in the life of faith of Catholics, and which, in a manner, affects everyone, but especially youth and its educators, and which is referred to in several passages of your memorandum, especially when you say: “Confusing Christianity with a code of precepts and prohibitions, young people have the feeling that they are suffocating in this climate of the ‘moral imperative,’ and it is not a small minority among than who cast off this ‘cumbersome baggage.’”
A New Conception of the Moral Law
3. We could call this phenomenon a “new conception of moral life,” since there is in it a tendency which is clearly present in moral questions. Now it is on the truths of faith that the principles of morality are based, and you know how fundamentally important it is for the preservation and development of faith that the conscience of the young man and the young woman be formed at a very early age, and developed according to true and sound moral standards. Thus the “new conception of Christian morality” touches very directly on the problem of the faith of the youth.
We have already spoken of the “new morality” in our last radio message of March 23rd, to Christian Educators. What We say today is not merely a continuation of what We said then; We wish today to uncover the hidden sources of this conception. We might term it “ethical existentialism,” “ethical actualism,” “ethical individualism”—all understood in the restrictive sense that We shall later explain, and as expressed in what has otherwise been called “situationsethik,” or “morality according to situations.”
“Situation Ethics”—Its Distinctive Sign
4. The distinctive mark of this morality is that it is not based in effect on universal moral laws, such as, for example, the Ten Commandments, but on the real and concrete conditions or circumstances in which men must act, and according to which the conscience of the individual must judge and choose. Such a state of things is unique, and is applicable only once for every human action. That is why the decision of conscience, as the advocates of this ethic assert, cannot be commanded by ideas, principles and universal laws.
5. Christian faith bases its moral requirements on the knowledge of essential truths and their mutual relationship. This is what St. Paul, in his epistle to the Romans (1:19-21) teaches about religion as such, whether it be Christian or prior to Christianity. Through the creation of the world, says the apostle, man catches sight of, and, one may say, grasps the Creator, His everlasting power and His divinity—and this, so clearly, that he knows and feels himself obliged to recognize God and to do Him honor. Thus it is that to neglect this cult or to pervert it in idolatry is seriously sinful, for all men and at all times.
6. This is not the rule laid down by the ethic of which We speak. It does not deny outright general moral concepts and principles (although at times it comes very close to such denial). It may happen often that the decision of conscience will be in harmony with them. Yet they are not, so to speak, a body of premises, from which conscience draws logical conclusions. In a particular case, the case which “happens only once.” Not at all! At the center is found the good, which must be actuated or preserved, in its real and individual value—as, for example, in the domain of faith, the personal bond which links us with God. If a seriously trained conscience decided that abandoning the Catholic faith and joining another religion brings it closer to God, then such a step would be “justified,” even though it is generally classified as “giving up the faith.” Or again, in the domain of morality, another example is the corporal and spiritual gift of one’s self among young people. Here, a seriously trained conscience could decide that, because of a sincere inclination, physical and sensual intimacies are in order, and these, although allowed only between married persons, would become allowable expressions of this inclination. The open conscience of today would decide in this way because from the hierarchy of values it draws the principle that personality values, being the highest, could either make use of lower bodily or sensual values, or rule them out, according to the suggestions of each individual situation. It has been insistently claimed that, precisely in virtue of this principle, in what concern, the rights of married person, it would be necessary, in case of conflict, to leave to the serious and upright conscience of the parties, according to the demands of concrete situations, the power to frustrate directly the realization of biological values, for the benefit of personality values.
Such judgments of conscience, howsoever contrary they may seem at first sight to divine precepts, would be valid before God, because, they say, in the eyes of God a seriously formed conscience takes precedence over “precept” and “law.”
Hence such a decision is “active” and “productive.” It is not “passive” and merely “receptive” of the decision of the law which God has written in the heart of each one, and still less of the decision of the Decalogue, which the finger of God wrote on tables of stone, making it a duty of human authority to promulgate and preserve it.
The “New Morality” is Eminently Individual
7. The new ethic (adapted to circumstances), say its authors, is eminently “individual.” In this determination of conscience, each individual finds himself in direct relationship with God and decides before Him, without the slightest trace of intervention by any law, any authority, any community, any cult or religion. Here there is simply the “I” of man and the “I” of the personal God, not the God of the law, but of God the Father, with whom man must unite himself in filial love. Viewed thus, the decision of conscience is a personal “risk,” according to one’s own knowledge and evaluation, in all sincerity before God. These two things, right intention and sincere response, are what God considers! He is not concerned with the action. Hence the answer may be to exchange that Catholic faith for other principles, to seek divorce, to interrupt gestation, to refuse obedience to competent authority in the family, the Church, the State, and so forth.
All this would be perfectly fitting for man’s status as one who has come “of age” and, in the Christian order, it would be in harmony with the relation of sonship which, according to the teaching of Christ, makes us pray to God as “Our Father.”
This personal view of things spares man the necessity of having to ask himself, at every instant, whether the decision to be taken corresponds with the paragraphs of the law or to the canons of abstract standards and rules. It preserves man from the hypocrisy of pharisaical fidelity to laws; it preserves him both from pathological scruples as well at from the flippancy or lack of conscience, because it puts the responsibility before God on the Christian personally. Thus speak those who preach the “new morality.”
It is Alien to the Faith and Catholic Principles
8. Stated thus expressly, the new ethic is so foreign to the faith and to Catholic principles that even a child, if he knows his catechism, will be aware of it and will feel it. It is not difficult to recognize how this new moral system derives from existentialism which either prescinds from God or simply denies Him, and, in any case, leaves man to himself. It is possible that present-day conditions may have led men to attempt to transplant this “new morality” into Catholic soil, in order to make the hardships of Christian life more bearable for the faithful. In fact, millions of them are being called upon today, and in an extraordinary degree, to practice firmness, patience, constancy, and the spirit of sacrifice, if they wish to preserve their faith intact. For they suffer the blows of fate, or are placed in surroundings which put within their reach everything which their passionate heart yearns for or desires. Such an attempt can never succeed.
The Fundamental Obligations of the Moral Law
9. It will be asked, how the moral law, which is universal, can be sufficient, and even have binding force, in an individual case, which, in the concrete, is always unique and “happens only once.” It can be sufficient and binding, and it actually is because precisely by reason of its universality, the moral law includes necessarily and “intentionally” all particular cases in which its meaning is verified. In very many cases it does so with such convincing logic that even the conscience of the simple faithful sees immediately, and with full certitude, the decision to be taken.
10. This is especially true of the negative obligations of the moral law, namely those which oblige us not to do something, or to set something else aside. Yet it is not true only of these obligations. The fundamental obligations of the moral law are based on the essence and the nature of man, and on his essential relationships, and thus they have force wherever we find man. The fundamental obligations of the Christian law, in the degree in which they are superior to those of the natural law, are based on the essence of the supernatural order established by the Divine Redeemer. From the essential relationships between man and God, between man and man, between husband and wife, between parents and children; from the essential community relationships found in the family, in the Church, and in the State, it follows, among other things, that hatred of God, blasphemy, idolatry, abandoning the true faith, denial of the faith, perjury, murder, bearing false witness, calumny, adultery and fornication, the abuse of marriage, the solitary sin, stealing and robbery, taking away the necessities of life, depriving workers of their just wage (James 5:4), monopolizing vital foodstuffs and unjustifiably increasing prices, fraudulent bankruptcy, unjust maneuvering in speculation—all this is gravely forbidden by the divine Lawmaker. No examination is necessary. No matter what the situation of the individual may be, there is no other course open to him but to obey.
11. For the rest, against “situation ethics,” We set up three considerations, or maxims. The first: We grant that God wants, first and always, a right intention. But this is not enough. He also wants the good work. A second principle is that it is not permitted to do evil in order that good may result (Rom 3:8). Now this new ethic, perhaps without being aware of it, acts according to the principle that the end justifies the means. A Christian cannot be unaware of the fact that he must sacrifice everything, even his life, in order to save his soul. Of this we are reminded by all the martyrs. Martyrs are very numerous, even in our time. The mother of the Maccabees, along with her sons; Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, notwithstanding their newborn children; Maria Goretti, and thousands of others, men and women, whom the Church venerates—did they, in the face of the “situation” in which they found themselves, uselessly or even mistakenly incur a bloody death? No, certainly not, and in their blood they are the most explicit witnesses to the truth against the “new morality.”
The Problem of the Formation of Conscience
12. Where there are no absolutely binding standards, independent of all circumstances or eventualities, the situation which “happens only once” demands, it is true, in its uniqueness, an attentive examination, in order to decide which rules are to be applied, and how. Catholic morality has always, and extensively, treated this problem of the formation of one’s conscience with a preliminary examination of the circumstances of the case to be decided. The whole of its teaching offers a precious aid to the definite guidance of conscience, whether theoretical or practical. Let it suffice to mention to explanations of St. Thomas, still of value, on the cardinal virtue of prudence and the virtues connected with it (S. The. 2a, 2ae, q. 47-57). His treatise shows his understanding of a sense of personal activity and of actuality, which contains whatever true and positive elements there may be in “ethics according to the situation,” while avoiding its confusion and wanderings from the truth. Hence, it will be enough for the modern moralist to follow the same line, if he wishes to make a thorough study of the new problem.
The Christian education of conscience is far from neglecting personality, even that of the young girl and the child, or from strangling initiative. All sound education aims at rendering the teacher unnecessary, little by little, and making the one educated independent, within proper limits. This is also true of the education of the conscience by God and the Church. Its aim is, as the Apostles says (Eph, 4:13; cf. 4:14) “The perfect man, according to the measure of the fullness of the age of Christ,” that is to say, a man who is of age, and who also has the courage which goes hand in hand with responsibility.
It is necessary, however, that this maturity finds its place in the right plan! By means of His Church through which He continues to act, Jesus Christ remains the Lord, the head, and the master of every individual man, whatever may be his age and state. The Christian, for his part, must take up the serious and sublime task of putting into practice, in his personal life, his professional life, and social and public life, in so far as it may depend on him, the truth, the spirit, and the law of Christ. This is what we call Catholic morality, and it leaves a vast field of action for personal enterprise and the personal responsibility of the Christian.
Dangers to the Faith of Youth
13. We are anxious to say this to you. The dangers besetting the faith of our young people are today extraordinarily numerous. Everyone knew this and knows it, but your memorandum is particularly instructive on this subject. Nevertheless, We feel that few of these dangers are as great or so heavy in foreboding as those which the “new morality” creates for faith. The errors arising from such distortions, from such softening of the moral duties, which flow quite naturally from faith, would in time lead to the poisoning of its very well-spring. This would be the death of faith.
From all that We have said about faith, We shall draw two conclusions, two directives, which We should leave with you, in order that they may give direction and life to the whole of your conduct as valiant Christians.
The first: The faith of your people must be a faith that prays. Youth must learn how to pray. Let this prayer always be in the measure and in the form suitable to one’s years, but always with the realization that without prayer it is impossible to remain true to the faith.
The second: Youth must be proud of its faith, and acknowledge that it costs something. From earliest childhood, young people must accustom themselves to sacrifices for their faith, to walk before God with an upright conscience, and to reverence whatever He orders. Then youth will grow, quite readily, in the love of God.
May the charity of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the communication of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13:13) be with you all. This is Our wish for you with most fatherly affection. As a pledge of this affection We give, with all our heart, to each of you and to your families, to your movement, and all its branches throughout the world, and to all your members, the Apostolic Blessing.
[Original Source (French): Acta Apostolicae Sedis, vol. 44 (1952): pp. 413-419. Translation Source: Pius XII on Work and Commerce, Section II, pp. 63-68. Translated by Rev. Francis J. Ostrowski. Translator is not affiliated with Novus Ordo Watch.]