The capacity to hear God’s voice in the heart of man, a capacity that is almost extinguished, must be developed anew. It is only in an initial phase that error, the erring conscience, is comfortable. When conscience falls silent and we do nothing to resist it, the consequence is the dehumanization of the world and a deadly danger.
To put this in other terms, the identification of conscience with the superficial consciousness and the reduction of man to his subjectivity do not liberate but rather enslave. They do this by making us completely dependent on prevailing opinions, indeed lowering the level of these opinions day by day. To identify conscience with a superficial state of conviction is to equate it with a certainty that merely seems rational, a certainty woven from self-righteousness, conformism, and intellectual laziness. Conscience is degraded to a mechanism that produces excuses for one’s conduct, although in reality conscience is meant to make the subject transparent to the divine, thereby revealing man’s authentic dignity and greatness. At the same time, the reduction of conscience to a subjective certainty means the removal of truth.
Psalm 19 anticipates Jesus’ understanding of sin and righteousness and asks us to be set free from the guilt of which the one who prays is unaware. It thus indicates what we have just said: certainly, one must follow the erring conscience. But the removal of truth, which took place earlier and now takes its revenge in the form of an erring conscience, is the real guilt that lulls man in false security and ultimately abandons him to solitude in a pathless wilderness.
Values in a Time of Upheaval, 83-4
Reflection – Blog traffic is up since I started this series, so I assume I’m finding new readers through it. Welcome, new readers, whoever you mysterious people are! Now, that being said, this passage has to be read in light of what has gone before in order to make sense—otherwise it seems like Ratzinger is just making arbitrary statements here. We’re on number nine of the series: 1-8 flesh out some of what he says here.
What he touches on here is very important, though, in itself. If we identify the whole of conscience with ‘what I happen to think about abortion/contraception/homosexuality/car theft…’ and that is the only meaning, the beginning and the end of the matter, then we are indeed stuck in our own social norms and the opinions of the day, with no real way out.
Recently in the news there was a survey in
showing that more and more Brits, especially among the young, have no problem with lying, stealing, cheating on a partner. These most fundamental moral principles are being rapidly eroded in post-modern Britain , at least according to this survey. England
If all that matters is doing what we think is right, then there can be no problem with that, right? If I think it’s right to lie, cheat, and steal, as long as I stay one step ahead of the cops, I’m fine, right?
Most people who have not already succumbed to neo-barbarism know that this is not fine. And even the neo-barbarians (I speak from personal experience!) are kind of defensive in asserting that they can do whatever they want. Something in us knows that this is not really true.
If we are not listening to God, we eventually cease to be human. This is the great paradox of our being. And we see it happening all around us—the coarsening and vulgarizing of speech and act, the loss of transcendent meaning and purpose in so many, the above noted erosion of basic honesty and decency.
This is why we have to reclaim and deepen our commitment to real conscience, the constant breaking out of mere subjective opinion into a true encounter with reality and with God. And that is why I am dedicating my blog for this couple of weeks to this series.