Today, especially within Catholic moral theology, conscience has become the core issue with regard to morality and our discovery of what constitutes moral conduct. This debate centers on the concepts of freedom and norm, autonomy and heteronomy, self-determination and determination by an external authority…
Two antithetical conceptions of Catholicism are proposed. On the one hand, we find a renewed understanding of the essence of Catholicism that understands Christian faith on the basis of freedom and sees this faith as a principle that sets people free. On the other hand, we find [an apparently] a superseded ‘preconciliar’ model that subjects Christian existence to an authority that issues norms to regulate people’s lives even in the most intimate spheres and attempts in this way to maintain its power over them.
It seems therefore that we have a conflict between two antithetical models, morality of conscience and morality of authority. The freedom of the Christian is safeguarded by the primal proposition of the moral tradition, that the conscience is the highest norm and that one must follow it even against authority. When authority—in this case the Church’s magisterium—speaks on matters of morality, is supplies material that helps the conscience form its own judgment, but ultimately it is only conscience that has the last word. Some authors express this ultimately decisive authority of conscience by saying that conscience is infallible.
Values in a Time of Upheaval, 75-6
Reflection – So Ratzinger here is laying out the basic problem with conscience today (aside from coercive state violations of it). Namely, does it mean, basically, “Nobody gets to tell me what to do! Hurray!”? Is it true that the only relevant moral principle we have is ‘follow your conscience’? For Catholics, the next question would be, well, what about the Church’s teachings, then? What point do they have? What function?
But, as Ratzinger will develop shortly, this is a problem for everyone, Catholic or not. If it’s just a question of ‘follow your conscience and everything will be fine,’ then I guess serial killers are fine, right? Sociopaths are not troubled by pangs of conscience, so I guess they’re fine!
We have to be really clear about this. So many people are persuaded by the seemingly reasonable ethics of sola conscientia—conscience alone! And it is close enough to the actual state of affairs (we do, in fact, have to follow our consciences), that it can be hard to spot the error. As Ratzinger will develop, and we will develop it along with him, this is a theory of conscience that inevitably and by strict logical necessity ends up justifying serial killers, Nazi concentration camp guards, and anyone else who is cold-blooded enough to do great evil without turning a hair.
When we do a mathematical equation (say, doing your taxes, which is coming up shortly!), and the answer we yield is ludicrously wrong, we know immediately that our calculations were off. “Gee, Martha, it looks like we have to pay $100 000 in taxes this year! Guess we’ll have to sell the kids!” Maybe you forgot to carry the one…
So it is when a philosophical theory yields an untenable result. A moral theory that ends up making the most cold blooded and heartless people the truly morally justified, and that by corollary finds the people wracked with moral sensitivity and self-misgiving to be, precisely because of that, morally suspect—well, we forgot to carry the one, or left some significant deduction out of our reckoning, or something. Back to square one. And that’s where Ratzinger will take us next. Let’s meet back here tomorrow: remember, we have to understand this business of conscience, so that we can argue it, preserve it, and resist those who wish to violate our freedom of it. À la prochaine!