To assume that the verdict of conscience (or what one takes to be such a verdict) is always correct, i.e. infallible… would mean that there is no truth, at least in matters of morality and religion, which are the foundations of our very existence… No door or window would lead out of the individual subject into the totality or into that which is shared with other subjects… if we think this through, we realize that this means that there is no genuine freedom and that the supposed verdicts of conscience were mere reflexes to antecedent social circumstances.
Values in a Time of Upheaval, 76-7
Reflection – So I continue to reflect with Ratzinger on the key subject of conscience and moral decision making. Here, he is distinguishing between the primacy of conscience and the infallibility of conscience.
The first is Catholic moral teaching; the second is not. The first means that we have brains and we are expected to use them to discover moral truth, and that we must, having discovered the truly good thing to do, do it. The second means that it is impossible for us to make a mistake. People are, by definition, infallible.
We can see, I hope, that this makes the notion of moral truth and moral reasoning absurd, right? I mean, we all know that we have to use our brains to do math, to do our taxes or whatever. But we all know that we can get the sum wrong. And we know this because we know that there really is an objective answer to 2+2.
To say that we cannot make an error in our conscience because the only absolute principle given us is ‘follow your conscience’ is to say that there is no moral equivalent to 2+2. It’s just ‘whatever’ – whatever you feel, whatever you want… whatever.
Ratzinger is great here, though, in pointing out the isolation this puts us into. The only way we can truly encounter each other in the fullest and deepest level of our humanity is if there is a common ground. If extreme moral subjectivism is embraced, there simply is no common ground for us to meet on. We might meet to do business of some sort, or band together with a common interest, or be bound together by mutual liking or affection… but there’s no real unity, because there is no reality, really. We’re a bunch of disconnected fragments floating in a meaningless universe, unless there is an objective order of reality upon which all of us stand. And this is the ground of religious and moral truth.Conscience, then, is the faculty of our minds to actually seek, not what we want to be right, but what really is right. It draws us out of ourselves and into a genuine quest for what is real and true and bigger than us. It bids us to seek, find, and obey this bigger reality. And this (ironically, it may seem) is the path of freedom, the invitation to step out of our own subjectivity and its imperatives and truly embrace the universal truth and goodness that overarches all our life and alone makes a communion of love possible for humanity.