Holding out for a hero

Some months back I reviewed an important book: Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect. Its theme, using many examples, was that for the most part we take our moral judgments from the culture which surrounds us. Often it is only the “hero” who is ready to pay the price of rejecting the evil. It was in this context that I read a most inspiring address given by Cardinal Ratzinger in 1991 on the subject of conscience and truth. It is too long to reproduce here, and so I confine myself to reflecting on his main points – for Christians are called to be heroes.

Ratzinger starts by considering the modern understanding of the autonomy of conscience. In one sense conscience is always subjective in that it can only be exercised by an individual. In another, and deeper, sense it is always objective: that is, it is concerned with the discovery of truth. Modern man is rarely concerned with this – he sees conscience simply as his own decision. He thinks in terms of “my” truth or “his” truth, but not of the truth.

He uses dramatic examples such as a Nazi or a Stalinist who believed totally in their ideologies and what it justified. I find it more helpful to think in common terms: for example, the many ordinary people who believe sincerely that abortion is a moral good which defends the freedom of the individual. In such examples he speaks of a loss of sense of guilt. And what he means by this is that we can thrust into the back of our minds our natural consciousness of the law of God which is accessible to every rational person because, as St Paul tells us, it is written even in the heart of the pagan.

So his two-part analysis of conscience begins with anamnesis –  a Greek word, which means “recollection” or “calling to mind” (the commoner but less fruitful word is synderesis). The sincere person who does or advocates evil acts, such as abortion, has either stifled his capacity to look at the truth which is inside him, or he resists the pricking of his conscience (the sense of guilt) which urges him to examine his conscience more deeply. It is interesting that so many of the participants in evil acts which Zimbardo instances have just this sense of guilt which fear or psychological need for conformity induces them to keep at bay. They dare not recollect.

By contrast, the person who is truly open to this recollection of God’s law, and who works to conform to it, sees the truth more and more clearly. This, as it happens, is at the heart of what is known as “virtue ethics” – an approach which holds that our openness to truth and our growth in virtue is the essential background to choosing the right path.

Unless our ethical beliefs are tethered to this truth that we recognise inside us, they are tethered to nothing. They have become merely matters of relative opinion, and void of moral significance.

The second part of his analysis he terms conscientia. The Latin is appropriate because he relates it to Aquinas. For St Thomas this stage is an active process of judgment. This is rooted in the recollection of anamnesis and applied to the issue in hand. It is possible to have an erroneous conscience (which is nevertheless binding) but often the fault lies much deeper – in the failure of the individual to listen to, or to stifle, the law of God written in his heart. Thus, in my example, the advocate of abortion has smothered his natural recollection that human life is of intrinsic value, and so is able to conclude that abortion is justified. Thus the Nazi, thus the Stalinist.

The running theme, which gives the presentation its title, is that it is only truth which can make us free. As long as our concept of truth is confined to personal judgment unattached to the recognition of the law of God, present in the heart of every man, we are fettered to error, inevitably prone to the destruction of the deeper good and untrue to our deeper selves. Conversely, we can listen to our hearts, become true to ourselves and be able to move towards a full expression of our nature made in the image and likeness of God.

But modern man sees a contradiction between authority and freedom. How can we be free when we are required to obey a law imposed from outside? Ratzinger discusses this in terms of general papal teaching but of course it applies to the Magisterium in general. In the light of his analysis of conscience he sees this teaching not as a command but an invitation. That is, it displays to us the law of God, and asks us to recognise how it accords with our own deep sense of the good. It is, if you like, a prompt to our own recollection. Our response to it is essentially free: our autonomy is in no way impugned. When we are asked to conform our mind and judgment to its teachings we are not being asked to go through mental gymnastics, but we are being asked to try to relate it to our own grasp of truth. We are not being required to do things because the Church says so, but because, after listening to the Church, we may be ready to say so. The teaching is a service to our autonomy, not a block to it.

But this is no more than my scant summary of what I think to be a great document. The original, with all its nuances – including references to Newman’s famous toast to conscience first and to the Pope afterwards, and his description of Socrates as the prototype searcher for the truth through prompting anamnesis in his listeners – repays careful study.

I found these ideas which our Pope expressed several years ago not only inspiring but clarifying. I look forward to your reactions by way of comment or questions you think that we should discuss.

Link to Conscience and Truth – the complete Ratzinger text

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Holding out for a hero

  1. Lucius says:

    With respect to the issue of authority and freedom with authority being defined as a “law imposed from outside”, Pope Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) has emphasized, that the source of morality is not external. The source of morality is the way we are created. Our humanity as given contains the source of morality as part of a larger order. The source of morality is not legal but existential.

    The modern rebellion reflected in current notions of conscience is that the human being creates his or her own order and thus morality is self-determined. This is a notion of conscience unfortunately embraced by many Catholics. The Catholic teaching that a sincerely erroneous conscience binds has morphed among many to: my conscience can overrule what it does not agree with, whether it’s Church teaching or even the Ten Commandments.

    The spokeswoman for US Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, recently utilized this latter notion. While finally acknowledging the constant teaching of the Church against abortion, and that human life begins at conception as being Church teaching, she noted many Catholics disagree with this ergo these teachings don’t apply to Catholics like Pelosi.

    The growth/metastasis of this erroneous notion of conscience occurred in the dissent against Humanae Vitae and the Church’s teaching against contraception. The Church even fostered it. For example you had the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops telling Catholics that their consciences could allow them to use contraceptives. You had the other reality that the Holy See stopped disciplining dissenters fostering the impression that you could reject Catholic teaching and be in good standing with the Church.

    This was especially true with bishops and priests telling couples seeking advice on family planning: Follow your conscience. This is and was a grave dereliction of duty, a copout, and failure in charity to the faithful. Let me add further: simply stating Catholic teaching and issuing documents will not address the seriousness of this situation.

    The Pelosi-dissent on abortion has brought this issue again to the forefront and the Holy See is allowing this to go on because it refuses to insist that dissent has consequences ecclesiastically. It must tell the American bishops that they must deny Communion to those who facilitate abortions and contumaciously cling to moral error. It must not allow a situtation to go on where five bishops say no Communion, another five say yes Communion causing confusion among the faithful and a cognitive dissonance between the Pope’s insistence that these dissenters should not go to Communion.

    Recall that this dissent is based on conscience: my conscience does not agree with the Church! Nancy Pelosi’s bishop, the Archbishop of San Francisco will not even issue a statement until September 5!!! The ball is in the Holy Father’s court.

  2. kouin says:

    Temple Law.

  3. Juliana says:

    I thought that one of the key phrases in Quentin’s article concerned those who participate in evil acts and who reject any feelings of guilt often do so because of “fear or a psychological need for CONFORMITY”. There we go again…conforming to the world and surrounding culture. This cannot lead to the heroism so wanted by Christ.

    On the subject of abortion, I rather admire the Evangelical approach to moral questions which is to ask “What would Jesus do?” I cannot think that He could ever advocate abortion…but rather ask us to show faith and trust in God’s mysterious ways.

    If this sounds naive, so be it.

  4. I don’t think that the question:what would Jesus do? is the least bit naive. But it does require that we work continuously to form ourselves according to the mind of Jesus. Part of this of course is to study scripture and particularly the Gospels. But important too I think is to develop the virtues. St Augustine, I speak from memory, calls these habits which result in virtuous action. So faith, hope and charity, followed by prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance (properly understanding these old fashioned terms) are the order of the day. This is what I meant by ‘virtue ethics’ in the article. We are getting closer and closer to the mind of Jesus.
    Mind you I am much better at writing about all this than practising it.

  5. kouin says:

    Thankyou for the essays by Ratzinger.
    I read him in the original german -I only speak dutch!- years before. I felt lifted out of myself and realigned.
    The interpreter has done a good job, words like conscience and conscious easily being mixed.
    The holy community spends its time in mass creating a kind of giant spiritual ectoplasm that they can all feel and virtually touch.
    If in greeting and thanks they welcomed it with non-alcoholic transubstantiation the tiny drop of goodness might avoid distortion.
    All these avowals or espousals on morals might not then get taken as a lack of respect and be taken as read.

  6. Juliana says:

    I have dwelt on the words of Ratzinger in this article by Quentin quite a lot this week and have recently read up about Nancy Pelosi (as Lucius’ comments didn’t mean much when I first read them).

    The trouble with Pelosi is that she spoke as “an ardent practising Catholic” on a woman’s right to choose to destroy her unborn child.

    This is head-bangingly wrong! She can campaign all she likes for abortion but not as an “ardent practising Catholic”. Her words on the matter were, “The point is, it [when life begins] shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose”.

    This cannot be reconciled to Catholic morality nor even to the most basic of natural ethics and relates well to Quentin’s article where he comments
    on the temptation of those advocating abortion to “smother” their natural recollection that human life is of intrinsic value. Pelosi has done this but sadly in the name of a practising Catholic.

    Granted, to be a hero/heroine, conscience needs to be well-informed, in the light of Christ, to lead to the truth. Most heroes e.g. SS. Fisher and More and many others, found this inevitably leads to taking a stand against the world and the status quo which usually leads to martyrdom or derision.
    I await the Bishops’ statement on Pelosi with baited breath. Lucius says it will be Sept 5th.

  7. Frank says:

    I have just read the extracts from the Bishop of Lancaster’s great statement of what it means to be a Catholic, in the Catholic Herald. Inter alia, he states: ‘Those who dissent from the authority of the Church forget they are Catholic.” Nancy Pelosi has certainly forgotten.

    I often think the main problem with ‘dissenters’ is that they disassociate the Church from Christ; if they were to substitute the word ‘Christ’ every time they read ‘The Church requires the faithful to…’, they might not be in such a state of constant rebellion. Juliana reminds us of the Evangelical question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ For Catholics the question should be irrelevant – as Christ speaks through the Church (on matters of faith and morals, I hastily add, before someone asks: ‘Did Christ speak through the Crusades?’

  8. Juliana says:

    Frank makes an excellent point here of substituting the word Church for Jesus in the Evangelicals’ question “What would Jesus do?” in matters of faith or morals.

  9. Brighton says:

    The idea that the voice of the Church may be taken as the voice of Jesus yields some awkward points. For example was Vix Pervenit of Bendict XIV (read it through Google) which uncompromisingly taught the evil of usury Jesus speaking? Was the generally taught view that lawful sexual intercourse could not be performed without an admixture of sin the voice of Jesus? Was the condemnation of the proposition “Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.” the voice of Jesus? (Pius IX). Were Chrysostom’s vicious anti Semitic harangues the voice of Jesus? And so on. We have to be a little careful here, I think.

  10. Frank says:

    In that fine book ‘We Believe’ by the late Monsignor Alfred Gilbey, the author makes the point better than I do in my post above. He says ‘The Church is Christ, lived on in His followers.’ This is an elegant way of describing the Mystical Body, I presume.

    I understand that since the Council it has become politically correct to call ourselves ‘the people of God’. Are we still allowed to think of ourselves as Christ’s Mystical Body?? There is a subtle difference between the two definitions.

  11. By coincidence I discussed aspects of Mgr Gilbey’s book with him while he was seeking publisher.
    There is a difference between ‘People of God’ and ‘Mystical Body’. St Paul’s image of the Mystical Body is to me far deeper and richer. And certainly extant although, as you imply, not so fashionable nowadays. Nevertheless I see People of God as valid at its own level. Indeed a whole section of Gaudium et Spes is devoted to it.
    Perhaps we need a more up to date reflection on the Mystical Body (Pius XII, 1943). I do not recall any mention of it, for instance, in the full test of the Bishop of Lancaster’s Fit for Mission – Church. Nor does the phrase occur (as far as my computer can trace) in Gaudium et Spes.

  12. Horace says:

    Consciousness and Conscience are surprisingly similar.
    Both are essentially subjective but both are relevant to something external.

    Consciousness is how we perceive what we are doing.
    Conscience is how we perceive what we ought to be doing.

    Consciousness relates to the reality of the external material world. Some, however, contend that we cannot know the reality of the external world, only our perceptions of it.
    Conscience relates to ‘truth’. Some, of course, would say that there is no absolute truth – man alone sets standards for himself.

    There is a parallel in mathematics; the Platonist school holds that mathematical concepts have an independent existence and are simply discovered by mathematicians whereas the constructionist school holds that mathematical concepts are arbitrary constructions of the human mind.

  13. Frank says:

    Brighton’s points come under my ‘Crusades’ allusion. I don’t doubt the accuracy of Brighton’s references, though Chrysostom wasn’t a Pope, obviously, so wasn’t speaking ‘ex cathedra’. When the English bishops were all enjoining us more or less to vote Labour a few years back, I take it they were not speaking for the whole Church (they definitely were not speaking for me).

    I take it the other references were not ‘ex cathedra’ either, for when the Holy Spirit speaks through the Pope and the Bishops the Church cannot err. If the Church were to change her mind on fundamental questions of faith and morals (as Anglicanism seems able to do), there would be no point in being a Catholic at all. Some Catholics – I don’t mean Brighton – seem to spend all their time wracking their brains to discover which Church teachings they should accept or not. Obedience (not blind obedience but Pope Benedict-type obedience) is so much simpler.

    I quite agree with Quentin’s remarks about the Mystical Body!

  14. Brighton says:

    I don’t want to be unfair to Frank but I suspect that he is deciding the status of the examples I gave by whether or not the Magisterium later changed its mind. If it did they can’t have been ex cathedra after all. (By ex cathedra I take it he means infallible because of solemn Papal teaching but also teaching of dogmatic councils, and the general accepted teaching of the Church). The problem with retrospective judgements is that they don’t help the people at the time.
    As it happens we know that Humanae Vitae was presented as not being infallible and, despite a tiny number of theologians arguing that it qualifies, it is generally understood not to be so. Canon law tells us that for a teaching to be regarded as infallible it must manifestly be so. So should the teaching be changed (or lapse into desuetude over time) Frank and I, if we live long enough to see it, will be happy to consign it (like approval of slavery, encouragement of anti semitism, condemnation of usury, condemnation of religious freedom) into the dustbin of ancient curiosities.

  15. Iona says:

    Horace: 4th September: – does anyone hold that mathematical truths are NON-arbitrary constructions of the human mind?

  16. Fariam says:

    I came across the book, “The Lucifer Effect – Understanding how good people turn evil” last year, and have since acquired my own copy. As yet, I have only skim read it, but intend reading it in depth very shortly.

    I agree that it is an important book which has much to say about structual sin, complicity, cowardice, etc. It also brings out very clearly how evil is allowed to proceed by taking several modern examples (Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Guatamala Bay) and using them to illustrate the common links in the developement of evil: dehumanization, disassociation, peer pressure, etc.

    It is a sobering book, and shows clearly that every one of us can be swallowed up in this progression of evil if we are not vigilant and careful. I think the title is most appropriate, and the book an concrete exploration of Original Sin.

    I would strongly recommend a visit to the homepage of the same name: http://www.lucifereffect.com/index.html

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