No one may act against his own convictions. But the fact that one’s conviction is naturally binding at the moment one acts does not mean a canonization of subjectivity. One who follows the conviction at which he has arrived, never incurs guilt. Indeed, one must follow such a conviction.
But guilt may very well consist in arriving at such perverse convictions by trampling down the protest made by the anamnesis of one’s true being. The guilt would then lie on a deeper level, not in the act itself, not in the specific judgment pronounced by conscience, but in that neglect of my own being that has dulled me to the voice of truth and made me deaf to what it says within me. And this is why criminals like Hitler and Stalin, who act out of deep personal conviction, remain guilty. Such grotesque examples are of course not meant to lull us into security about ourselves. They are meant to give us a shock that will bring home to us the seriousness of the prayer: “Clear thou me from hidden faults.” (Ps 19:12).
We are left with our starting question: is truth—at least, in the way the faith of the Church presents it to us—too lofty and difficult for human beings? After all our reflections, we can stay that the steep path to truth, to the good, is not easy. It makes great demands of man. But remaining comfortably at home will not redeem us. That leads only to atrophy and the loss of our own selves. If we set out on the mountainous path to the good, we will discover more and more the beauty that lies in the efforts demanded by truth, and we will grasp that it is this that redeems us.
Values in a Time of Upheaval, 97
Reflection – Well, we’re on the home stretch here of this lengthy essay on conscience that I’ve been blogging about off and on these past months. Ratzinger has earlier described the deepest level of conscience—what he calls the anamnesis (remembrance) of the good and the true—that lies at the heart of every human being made in God’s image.
I have jumped ahead a bit in the essay, omitting a rather technical description of the second level of conscience, which is that of conscious decision-making about what actions are permitted in general and what I will do right now. He concluded that section by saying that it is on that level that ‘an erring conscience’ excuses. We do, indeed, have to do what we think is right at any given moment.
But ‘any given moment’ lies in the larger context of our lives. If we drift along ‘comfortably at home,’ not making any serious effort to form our consciences and to truly learn what is good and evil even at the cost of our own comfort and complacency, then we may indeed never commit any great act of evil, but our guilt remains.
Every human being is charged with a great responsibility. The mountain of truth and goodness stands before each one of us; each of us is obliged to go into the depths of our being, to open to the breadth of human experience and knowledge, and to ascend the heights of spiritual wisdom. Each is obliged to do this according to his or her own capacities and gifts, but nonetheless this is the human task, the human experience.
Holy Week is upon us. The depth of life and love that opens up around us at this time of year is essential in all these questions. We live our human lives in freedom, called to exercise that freedom in truth and love, and this is morality.
But Ratzinger is about to take this essay in a wholly different direction. Morality and our own life of free choices is not the last word of reality. As we contemplate the deeds of God in this next week, we are inexorably pulled into this ‘last word’ by what we contemplate. Our moral strivings and the great responsibility placed on us to live thoughtful moral lives is nothing but a vehicle—although for sure a necessary vehicle—to bring us to this deeper reality, about which I will blog tomorrow.