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Ramiro Pellitero, Professor of Theology

Conscience and Christian message

Thu, 12 Mar 2015 15:58:00 +0000 Posted in

Not only corruption and terrorism, social scourges that affect us every day, but also the normal functioning of institutions, communication and Education, politics and science, the world of sports and art, the family, etc., depend very much on how the role of conscience and personal attitudes towards it are approach . What does the Christian message contribute to conscience?

In a lecture pronounced by Joseph Ratzinger in Dallas (Texas) in February 1991, discussion precisely the meaning of conscience and the Education of conscience, and illuminates it from a Christian perspective.

He begins by pointing out how there is currently a tendency to present conscience as the bulwark of freedom, as opposed to the limitations imposed by authority. Thus, a "morality of conscience" is contrasted with an autonomous and even infallible conscience, as opposed to a "morality of authority" as equivalent to control and subjugation.

The then Cardinal Ratzinger criticizes such a contrast, arguing, first of all, that conscience is not always right, is not infallible; but that there can be, and in fact often is, an erroneous conscience. If the individual conscience were always considered infallible, there would be no objective truth - at least in subject of morality and religion - but only personal convictions, dependent on social conditions. But then it is Withdrawal to truth. Without truth, freedom loses its meaning. And without freedom, conscience is no longer possible. Finally, he examines some elements of conscience.  

1. First of all, it analyzes the curious claim of an erroneous saving conscience.

 "Once," Joseph Ratzinger recounts, "an older colleague, very interested in the status of being a Christian in our time, expressed the opinion in a discussion that we should thank God for having granted so many men the possibility of being non-believers in good conscience. If their eyes had been opened and they had become believers, they would not have been able, in a world like ours, to carry the weight of faith and its moral duties. However, and since they travel a different path in good conscience, they can equally attain salvation." We can already see that this professor was in favor of the "morality of conscience" and rejected the "morality of authority", as described at the beginning of lecture.

In this position, the cardinal observes, faith does not facilitate salvation, but rather hinders it; it would not be a grace but a burden and almost a punishment that no one would wish for others. And truth would become a yoke. Thus one can understand what many have thought about evangelization in recent decades: "Those who understand faith as a heavy burden, as an imposition of moral demands, cannot invite others to believe; rather, they prefer to leave them in the presumed freedom of their good faith".

With regard to conscience, it would not then be the window from which we observe reality in connection with the deep foundation of our being, which makes solidarity and responsibility possible; rather, conscience becomes a "shell of subjectivity", a refuge to flee from reality, remaining in conformism and superficial convictions. This, says Joseph Ratzinger, is the liberalist -not liberating- concept of conscience.

2. Conscience cannot renounce the truth. This, the lecturer points out, became clearer to him when he later encountered again the argument that the individual conscience was capable of justifying even the members of the Nazi SS: they were convinced of what they were doing, he says, so that they could not have acted otherwise. But according to the psychologist Albert Gorres, the ability to recognize guilt is a perfectly human mechanism that allows us to defend ourselves from conformism and prevents us from renouncing the truth, just as physical pain allows us to recognize illness. Whoever does not perceive guilt is spiritually ill, is - according to Gorres - "a living corpse, a theatrical mask", or simply a monster. But that does not automatically mean that he is not guilty.

In the biblical perspective, the believer asks God to help him to recognize his unconscious faults (cf. Psalm 19:13). Jesus highlights the hypocrisy of the Pharisees for believing themselves to be "just" (cf. Lk 18:9-14). And St. Paul criticizes those who do not discover the Creator from the creatures, especially when they themselves do not want to recognize him.

Joseph Ratzinger points out that conscience cannot be confused with subjective certainty, so often plagued by self-justifications, conformism and laziness; because in internship this does not liberate us but rather enslaves us staff and socially. The core topic is in that Withdrawal is to the truth and there lies the real guilt.

Newman, St. Augustine and Socrates were examples of people with conscience. For Newman conscience is the voice of truth within the subject, even if it is against one's own tastes, feelings or inclinations, against welfare, social consideration or dominant opinion. Similar was the case of Thomas More.

That is why our relativistic culture, which tends to substitute truth for progress, resembles the time when Socrates-Plato and the sophists disputed. Socrates defended - as did the martyrs on another plane - that man is capable of knowing the truth, and therefore open to true progress. The sophists substitute truth for power.

3. Conscience, "report" and guilt. In the last part of his talk, the German cardinal considers a fundamental element of conscience: synderesis (the natural capacity for right judgment, attraction to the good and repulsion of evil), which he prefers to call "anamnesis" (report of the Creator). Christianity teaches that the love of God is not something imposed from outside, but inscribed in us, as the original report of truth and good (which coincide in God).

This is why we are all capable of recognizing what is true and good if we do not close in on ourselves. To help us discover and exercise this capacity, the Church (the "we" of Christians, which dialogues between interiority and exteriority) guarantees us the "report of God". Christians proclaim it with their lives and arguments and the magisterium of the Pope defends it against the risks of subjectivism or cultural and social conformism. The conscience staff applies this report to particular situations.

At final, an erroneous conscience always obliges. "But in the same way," warns the now Pope emeritus, "it can be a guilt when one has come to form such mistaken convictions and has trampled on the repulsion towards them that the report of one's being warns. Then it happens that "the guilt is found elsewhere, deeper, not in the act of the moment, not in the judgment that the conscience gives at that moment, but in that inattention to my own being, which prevents me from hearing the voice of truth and its inner suggestions". And he deduces: "For this reason, even criminals who act with conviction remain guilty".

And all this should not serve to reassure us - who may not have committed such "macroscopic" faults - but to wake us up and make us take seriously both the training of our conscience and the examination of our conscience .

Is this not too difficult," asks the speaker in conclusion. Certainly, he replies, the path that leads to truth and goodness is not a comfortable path. But," he replies, "to remain quietly closed in on oneself does not liberate; on the contrary, by acting in this way we lose ourselves and become lost. Climbing the heights of the good, man discovers more and more the beauty that lies in the arduous toil of truth and discovers also that redemption lies for him in it".

Let us not forget," he concludes, illuminating the role of conscience from the Christian perspective, "that Christ is the Truth, but at the same time he is forgiveness and Love. Where this is not proclaimed or this center of the Christian message is not perceived, truth is in fact transformed into a yoke that invites us to free ourselves from it. On the other hand, "the yoke of truth has become 'soft' (Mt 11:30), when the Truth has come, has loved us and has burned our faults in its love. Only when we know and experience all this interiorly do we acquire the freedom to listen joyfully and without anxiety to the message of conscience".

How well Pope Francis' appeals to conscience can be understood from this point of view! Nineteen times this term appears in the exhortation Evangelii Gaudium: to denounce a conscience closed in on itself that proclaims itself independent of the "report" of God; to encourage the joyful advertisement of Jesus Christ, fullness of meaning and beauty; to encourage commitment to the most disadvantaged, overcoming all conformism; to open our eyes to the needs and challenges of the Church and of the world, becoming more capable of doing good and sharing life.