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.