Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Shaping of Reality

The essential problem of our times, for Europe and for the world, is that although the fallacy of the communist economy has been recognized… the moral and religious question it used to address has been almost totally repressed. The unresolved issue of Marxism lives on: the crumbling of man’s original certainties about God, himself, and the universe.

“The Spiritual Roots of Europe,” in Without Roots: Relativism, Christianity, and Islam, 73-4

Reflection – Communism may seem to most people today to be, outside of a few small enclaves like North Korea or Cuba, a historical phenomenon. China, ostensibly communist, has a thriving free market economy combined with a repressive central government: problematic for sure, but not exactly Marxist.
Ratzinger rightly points out, though, that while communism collapsed as an economic system in the 1990s, its spiritual and moral underpinnings have never collapsed, but take new and strange outward forms in the world today.

Who or what is God, or is there a God? Who or what is man, the human person? What is the relationship of man to the world? Underneath the specific tenets of Marxist theory lie certain answers to those questions, namely, that there is no god, that man is the sole shaper of reality, that this shaping of reality is wrought through seizing control of the levers of power. Along with this can come a certain historical determinism, a sense of inevitability of social progress along this or that line, which can then be used as a pretext to rather ruthlessly suppress dissent.

Might makes right! This is the crude expression of the underlying stance of Marxism. Whatever group has the upper hand is thereby endowed with moral probity and can punish its enemies as it sees fit.

And so… opponents of same-sex marriage routinely receive death threats. Those who question the ‘consensus’ on global climate warming (oops, I mean change), are compared to Holocaust deniers who should be jailed. And yes, those who question the ideology of sexual libertinism by suggesting that contraception is not a good thing are to be driven out of public life, by way of government mandates.

Underneath all of this is a sense that is fundamentally Marxist, that the whole point of the human project is to seize control of reality and shape it to our unfettered will. The corrosive crushing power of ideology, when man himself, the human person is to be shaped and fashioned according to the agendae of those who are in power.

This is indeed, as Ratzinger says, the central problem of Europe and of North America in our days. The answer—well, I’ve written a whole book about that! Suffice to say we need to recapture a vision of humanity that is first and fundamentally receptive and contemplative. Only from this receptive contemplative humanity can we fashion the world in peace and in love. That is our response.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Greetings, Shea Readers... Now About That Conscience Blogging...

Oh, I see that Mark Shea just gave me a link (thanks, Mark!). My series on conscience just wrapped up, at least for now, but is just down a few posts, or you could click on the 'talking about conscience' label at the bottom of this post. I do think it's crucial for us all to get clear as we can in our own minds about what conscience is, since it appears we are facing serious attacks on it and will be for the foreseeable future. What we don't understand, we will not fight to preserve.

Treasury of Compassion

There used to be a form of devotion—perhaps less practiced today but quite widespread not long ago—that included the idea of “offering up” the minor daily hardships that continually strike at us like irritating “jabs”, thereby giving them a meaning. Of course, there were some exaggerations and perhaps unhealthy applications of this devotion, but we need to ask ourselves whether there may not after all have been something essential and helpful contained within it. What does it mean to offer something up? Those who did so were convinced that they could insert these little annoyances into Christ's great “com-passion” so that they somehow became part of the treasury of compassion so greatly needed by the human race. In this way, even the small inconveniences of daily life could acquire meaning and contribute to the economy of good and of human love. Maybe we should consider whether it might be judicious to revive this practice ourselves.

Spe Salvi, 40

Reflection – A good Lenten reflection here! I am old enough (just) to have been taught the spirituality of ‘offer it up’. Somehow, I never experienced the ‘exaggerations and unhealthy applications’ of the practice, and in fact I don’t really know what they were or would be. So not only do I remember being taught this, I never got out of the habit of doing it, either!

It’s a simple practice, like all authentic spiritual practices. To simply give to God the little headaches and irritations of daily life. Getting stuck in traffic, aches and pains, plans gone awry—all the little stuff that irks and annoys us and can make us really crabby on any given day. It’s there anyhow, all that negative stuff—we may as well do something with it!

 To offer it to Christ to be a sharing in his passion—now that’s something to do with it! Our lives truly can become a sharing in his redemptive work, his love for the world. Of course it’s not only in the negative and painful aspects of our life that this is true; he wants our joys and our fun, our productive labor, our prayer—all of us.

But we can see, usually, that the good stuff is all blessed and somehow going up towards God, if we have any faith at all. It’s the ‘bad’ stuff, and especially all the petty little stuff that trips us up and seems to have little or no value, that we need to consciously unite with Christ.

So up goes the headache, up goes the traffic jam, up goes the missed appointment, the mean boss, the jangled nerves. All this dross and rubbish of our days, up to God. If we can truly believe (and I believe it is simply true) that all this offered to God with sincerity and devotion can be transformed by his grace into a blessing for the world, what a difference it makes to us!

Our lives are filled from top to bottom with blessings and gifts. The good stuff, the joyous stuff, and all the nuisances and annoyances. All of it is gift: tout est grâce, St. Therese of Lisieux said—the good, the bad, and the ugly, because all of it can be united to Christ and become part of his offering to save and heal the world.

What else do we want our lives to be about, anyhow? And if there is something else we want our lives to be about—well, isn’t that what Lent is for, to purify us of that stuff? Offer it up.

Monday, February 27, 2012

That's Where the Money Is

In a world based on calculations, it is the calculation of consequences that determines what should be considered moral and immoral. In this way, the category of the good vanishes, as Kant clearly showed. Nothing is good or evil in itself; everything depends on the consequences that may be thought to ensue upon an action.

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 31

Reflection – Consequentialism is the recurring decimal of modernity. The persistent idea that we can do evil because good things will result from it crosses all lines of political persuasion and ideological commitment. We can torture prisoners to get information to save lives; we can abort babies to relieve women who are in distressing circumstances; we can lie to advance our political/social cause; we can calumnize, detract, slander, savage people who oppose our agendas; we can have sex with anyone and in any way we please because… well, because it feels good! And that’s a good consequence!

On and on it goes. The rigorous commitment to a binding moral law, to an absolute sense that we simply must not, cannot, shalt not do an evil act, no matter what good may emerge from it—this is rare nowadays. Conservatives advocate torture; liberals advocate abortion; almost everyone advocates fornication and contraception and lying for a good cause.

Now the Church has always posited the principle of double effect, when a single act has two consequences, a good and an evil one, but the key point there is that the act itself cannot be intrinsically evil, nor may the evil consequence be desired.

Consequentialism is attractive because, of course, we ultimately get to do whatever we want. We just have to pinpoint the good effect we are going for. Like the bank robber asked why he robbed banks who answered, “Because that’s where the money is.” Why tell lies? Because that’s how I get what I want, duh!

But the price we pay is too high. The price we pay is that the very idea of good and evil is drained of meaning. All that is left is power, and getting what I want. And this plunges us into a world of the jungle, of raw struggles for domination and control. Who will have the upper hand? Nature is red of tooth and claw, and when human beings jettison the moral law we too get bloodied in the fight for survival and dominance. A bloody mess is what we’re left with.

The only way to preserve a world that is human and humane, where there is a sense of right and of rights, is to maintain a world of moral order, of intrinsic good and evil that must be acknowledged, even as we struggle to live righteously. Consequentialism in all its forms must be recognized, called what it is, and vigorously resisted and rejected. We are all called in this struggle to moral effort which may at times rise to the level of moral heroism—fidelity to the moral law is sacrificial. But the alternative is bestial and demonic—the naked worship of power. So we gotta choose: what’s it going to be?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Let It Go!

Modern “man enters the world, no longer as a gift of the Creator, but as the product of our activity – and a product that can be selected according to requirements that we ourselves stipulate. In this way the splendor of the fact that he is the image of God – the source of his dignity and of his inviolability – no longer shines upon this man; his only splendor is the power of human capabilities.”

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures,  26

Reflection – Designer babies, genetic engineering, eugenics—these are still somewhat science fiction scenarios. So this is not exactly what Ratzinger is referring to in this passage.

Rather, he is referring to a certain attitude that is rather common. “We are made, we are not born,” the Parachute Club sang when I was a wee lad back in the 1980s. In other words, life is not a gift, but a product. My humanity is not a given, but an achievement. I make myself human by my choices; humanity itself is an utter blank slate.

Now the Parachute Club (and many who agree with this) are thinking of freedom from the moral law, the license to do whatever one pleases that follows when there is no human ‘nature’ to adhere to. And while that is problematic in itself, proponents of this view forget a whole slew of other implications that follow upon this ‘made not born’ paradigm.

For one thing, the value of any individual is only commensurate with the value of his accomplishments, with what he or she had made. People who make the ‘wrong choices’ or who fail to maximize their potential are intrinsically of less value than the ubermen who excel. The whole business of ‘lives not worth living’ and the specter of the gas chamber looms large all of the sudden.

For another thing, we do not live as isolated monads. When we are ‘made not born’ and that’s the ultimate reality of humanity, then the powerful people in society may decide that they will do the making, thank you very much, rather than leave it to the messy process of human personal choice. And if there is no intrinsic freedom or value to human life, then what cogent objection can be raised to that? Let the government-media-entertainment complex tell you what a human being should think, feel, and do—let yourself be made, since you were born with nothing. So much easier!

The denial of human nature, then, which seems to be liberating (“Let it go, let it free your body, let it move your soul…”) actually paves the way pretty quickly for nothing less than fascism, and there is no brakes to halt our precipitous slide thataway. Oops.

As I have said more than once on this blog, when a philosophical position leads necessarily to a monstrous conclusion, it’s time to go back and reconsider. Yes, an intrinsic and binding human nature implies logically a moral law, things we must not do that violate the nature we have been given. But without any human nature, the rich and powerful are free to manipulate, suppress, program, socially engineer, and virtually obliterate the rest of us.

And this is not exactly a theoretical possibility, eh? Recent court cases in Quebec and Alberta, and current legislation in Ontario make it clear that the government considers children to be primarily subjects of the state, and parents at best to be agents of the state thus compelled to educate their children according to central planning dictats (see Lifesite News for details). Very serious—the dictatorship of relativism waxing strong in Canada these days.

So let us be perfectly clear: we are born, not made, or if made, made by our Heavenly Father, and what we need to let go of to be freed in our bodies and souls is the terrible weight of moral and ontological nullity which makes us hopelessly vulnerable to tyranny and oppression. What we need to do in the political sphere is far from clear, but we need to start by clear articulations of the truth, strong arguments for our position, to be able to even begin to resist the growing tide of tyranny in the Western world.

And I’m sorry for getting that stupid Parachute Club song stuck in your head. Let it go!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Talking About Conscience XIV

The first level, which we might call the ontological level, of the phenomenon ‘conscience’ means that a kind of primal remembrance of the good and the true (which are identical) is bestowed on us. There is an inherent existential tendency of man, who is created in the image of God, to tend toward that which is in keeping with God. Thanks to its origin, man’s being is in harmony with some things but not with others.

This anamnesis of our origin, resulting from the fact that our being is constitutively in keeping with God, is not a knowledge articulated in concepts, a treasure store of retrievable contents. It is an inner sense, a capacity for recognition, in such a way that the one addressed recognizes in himself an echo of what is said to him. If he does not hide from his own self, he comes to the insight: this is the goal toward which my whole being tends, this is where I want to go.

This anamnesis of the Creator, which is identical with the foundations of our existence, is the reason that mission is both possible and justified. The gospel may and indeed must be proclaimed to the pagans, because this is what they are waiting for, even if they do not know this themselves (see Is 42:4). Mission is justified when those it addresses encounter the word of the Gospel and recognize that this is what they were waiting for.

This is what Paul means when he says that the Gentiles ‘are a law unto themselves’—not in the sense of the modern liberalistic idea of autonomy, where nothing can be posited higher than the subject, but in the much deeper sense that nothing belongs to me less than my own self, and that my ego is the place where I must transcend myself most profoundly, the place where I am touched by my ultimate origin and goal.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 92-3

Reflection – This will be my last blog post for the time being on this series on conscience. There’s more stuff in this essay, and I’ll probably get back to it in a bit, but perhaps enough is enough for the time being.

Anamnesis—this is a good ‘word for the day’. It means ‘remembrance’, of course, and here the Pope is arguing that beneath and below the conscious operations of our conscience, that concrete decisions we have to make about right and wrong, good and evil, lies a fundamental remembrance of God, of truth, of goodness, and of beauty in the depths of our souls.

In the depths of our hearts we belong to God. Obedience, that fearful word, is not a tyranny imposed on us from without, but something that corresponds to our deepest being. We are made to transcend ourselves, and it is in the depths of our hearts that this call to self-transcendence is encountered.

So freedom of conscience remains the deepest freedom, not because the most important thing in the world is that “I get to do just as I please,” but because it is in the inner encounter of the human person with his or her own conscience that the true living out of our human destiny is fulfilled. If people are forced to do things by the state that violate their consciences, a terrible violence has been done.

This violence is currently what the Obama administration is pursuing in the United States right now, and this is a woeful thing, a path which, if not repented of, will lead to great destruction of much that is good in America. Let us pray for them, for one another, for the bishops, and for ourselves, that we may each respond to the call of God resonating in the depths of our hearts and so attain the fullness of life for which God has made us.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Talking About Conscience XIII

If we look more closely, we will see that talk about ‘conscience’ in a [relativistic] world view is merely a way of saying that there is no genuine conscience in the sense of a con-scientia, a ‘knowing with’ truth. Each one decides on his own criteria. In this universal relativity, no one can help anyone else in this matter, still less lay down rules for another person to follow.

This shows us how radical the modern debate about ethics and about the center of ethics, the conscience, really is. I believe that the only parallel to this in the history of ideas is the dispute between Socrates/Plato and the Sophists, which explores the primal decision to be made between two basic attitudes, namely, the confidence that man is capable of perceiving truth and a world view in which it is only man himself who posits the criteria he will follow…

If we detach Socrates’ controversy from the contingent elements of its historical framework, we soon see that this is essentially the same controversy that rages today (with other arguments and other names). If we give up belief in the capacity of man to perceive truth, this leads initially to a purely formalistic use of words and concepts.

In turn, the elimination of substance from our words and concepts leads to a pure formalism of judgment, in the past as in the present. One no longer asks what a man actually thinks. The verdict on his thinking is readily available, if one succeeds in cataloguing it under an appropriate formal category—conservative, reactionary, fundamentalist, progressive, revolutionary. The assignment to a formal schema is enough to dispense one from actually looking at the contents of what is being said. The same tendency can be seen even more strongly in art. It is irrelevant what it depicts; it may be a glorification of God or of the devil. The only criterion is the formal skill employed by the artist.
Values in a Time of Upheaval, 88-90

Reflection – Again, Ratzinger is taking us into deep philosophical waters here. But despair not – let me make it perfectly clear to you. What he is talking about is the triumph of style over substance, form over content. In other words, it’s not what you say but how you say it that counts.

The Sophists essentially held that language was a tool to use to get what you want. Socrates/Plato and the whole tradition following this, which was taken up in Christian philosophy and theology into the High Middle Ages, held that language was about truth.

The Sophists were like Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass, insisting that when he used a word, the word meant whatever he decided it meant. When Alice commented that it sounded a bit confusing, he retorted to the effect that ‘all that matters is who is master.’

Well, welcome to the Internet, Humpty! Where clever packaging, rhetorical flourish, and snazzy graphics are what really count. Rules of logic and rigorous accuracy regarding facts are old-fashioned, ignored or derided.
So we see in the current controversy over the HHS mandate in the States forcing religious groups to pay for procedures that are morally repellent to them, that the battle is being fought, not over the actual facts of the matter, not over the true meaning of religious freedom in a pluralistic democracy, not over the limits of government power, certainly not over basic facts of the price and availability of contraception in America today.

Instead, the battle is waged on how the discussion is to be framed. “The mean old Catholic Church is trying to deprive women of life-saving, absolutely-necessary-for-freedom-and-happiness birth control! Boo, hiss, to the Catholic Church!” Now, absolutely nothing the Catholic Church is doing or could do in this situation could possibly deny women access to birth control. But that fact does not matter. It’s all about ‘who is master’ – who will frame the discussion and control its flow. Humpty and the Sophists have won.

Well, they might have won or even be winning in the political sphere, where sophistry always has had its best innings. But truth has a way of asserting itself in the end. Reality has a way of having the last word. But if we flout truth, and the justice and integrity that flow from living in the truth, reality’s last word has a way of being a pretty sharp one. When truth is not welcomed and acknowledged as the master, it remains master still—just not a very nice one.

And this is the abyss America is teetering at the edge of right now. Let us pray for them, and for all men and women, that we know the truth, and the truth will set us free.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Talking About Conscience XII

I believe that when we speak of a ‘man of conscience’ we are referring to these attitudes: a man of conscience is one who never purchases comfort, well-being, success, public prestige, or approval by prevalent opinion if the price is the renunciation of truth. Here, Newman agrees with that other great British witness to conscience St. Thomas More, who did not in the least regard conscience as the expression of his subjective tenacity or of an eccentric heroism. He saw himself as one of those timorous martyrs who reach the point of obeying their conscience only after hesitation and much questioning, and this is an act of obedience to that truth which must rank higher than every social authority and every kind of personal taste.

This indicates two criteria for a genuine word spoken by the conscience: it is not identical with one’s own wishes and taste; nor is it identical with that which is more advantageous, socially speaking, with the consensus of a group or with the claims made by political or societal power.
Let us look briefly at the problems that vex our own age. The individual may not purchase his rise in society and his well-being at the price of betrayal of the truth that he has come to recognize; nor may humanity as a whole do so.

It is here that we touch on the neuralgic point of the modern age: the concept of truth has in practice been abandoned and replaced by the concept of progress. Progress itself ‘is’ truth. But this apparent elevation deprives progress of all contents; it dissolves into nothing. For if there is no direction, everything can be interpreted either as progress or as regress.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 87-8

Reflection – Happy Lent, everyone! Well, our reflections on conscience with then-Cardinal Ratzinger have taken us to a nice little Lenten spot today—the challenge conscience poses to us to be willing to risk persecution, suffering, loss of status or comfort, income or approval because we value the truth over all these things.

Ouch. And while Ratzinger promptly extends his reflection to humanity as a whole, society as a whole, I think it is salutary for us to linger on the individual level, given the political situation in America which has prompted this blog series.

We have to be willing to suffer for the truth. I’m sorry—it’s rough, and it’s very unfortunate that civil society is increasingly hostile to the truth claims of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, and seems bound to make us suffer for them. But we really have to summon up the courage of  Thomas More and John Fisher in our time.

More, before his eventual imprisonment and death, was reduced with his family to a state of considerable poverty as he had been forced to resign his office as Chancellor in an effort to avoid taking a public stand against the king. This was not easy for him, especially since his family themselves were far from clear about why he had to do this.

In the play A Man for All Seasons (which would make good reading right about now), the figure of More is contrasted with that of the Common Man (sadly omitted from the otherwise splendid film version starring Paul Scofield). The Common Man is the regular guy trying to make a living, trying to keep his head down and not get into trouble, trying not to rock the boat. He appears in various guises in the play. In the end, he is More’s executioner.

At one point, he is a prison guard and is dragging Lady Alice and Meg away from visiting More in the tower. When More begs him for one more minute with his loved ones, he says, “I’m just a plain man, I’ve got my orders.” More cries out, “Deliver us from plain men!” (I quote from memory, and may not have the exact words.) This is what we have to watch out for in our day. To just slide through and not make waves, to keep your head down—after all, you’ve got a family to feed, bills to pay! And suddenly, without quite knowing how you got there, you’re throwing your neighbors into jail and maybe even chopping off their heads, literally or figuratively.

I don’t think I’m being dramatic. Cardinal George of Chicago said that he expects to die in bed, his successor will die in jail, and his successor will be executed in the public square. Cardinal George is a serious, sober, measured man. These are serious times we’re living in. What are you going to do? What am I going to do?

It’s Lent. Season of prayer and fasting. Lots to pray and fast about in our world today. Happy Lent to you—make it a good one.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Talking About Conscience XI

In other words, the centrality of the concept of conscience in Newman is linked to the antecedent centrality of the concept of truth; only this latter concept allows us to understand what Newman means by ‘conscience.’ The dominance of the idea of conscience in Newman does not mean that this nineteenth-century theologian maintains a philosophy or theology of subjectivity in opposition to ‘objective’ neo-scholasticism… his attention [to the knowing subject] echoes that of Augustine, not that of the subjectivist philosophy of the modern period…

For Newman, conscience does not mean that it is the subject that has the final word vis-à-vis the claims made by authority in a world devoid of truth, a world that lives on the basis of a compromise between the claims made by the subject and the claims of a societal order. Rather, conscience signifies the perceptible and commanding presence of the voice of truth in the subject itself.

Conscience means the abolition of mere subjectivity when man’s intimate sphere is touched by the truth that comes from God… Newman’s conversion to Catholicism was not a matter of his own personal taste or of a subjective need of his soul. As late as 1844, on the threshold of his conversion, he wrote that no one could take a more unfavorable view than he himself of the contemporary state of Roman Catholicism. He was convinced that he must obey the truth that he had recognized, rather than his own taste, even at the price of his own feelings and of the ties of friendship formed with those who until then had been his companions… Newman, when listing the virtues, places truth above goodness—or, to make this point in language with which we are more familiar today, above consensus, above what is acceptable within the group.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 86-7

Reflection – OK, this is a bit heady, I grant you. I considered omitting this part of the essay, except for the small detail that this is precisely where Ratzinger develops the key point he wants to convey to us. It is this: “conscience signifies the perceptible and commanding voice of truth in the subject itself… where man’s intimate sphere is touched by the truth that comes from God.”

This is far from the modern notion where conscience puts me in the driver’s seat, so no one can tell me nothing about what is right and wrong, because I have a conscience and conscience is supreme, man! Conscience rules! The pope drools!

OK, most moderns might put it a leetle more respectfully than that. But nonetheless that’s the basic gist. My conscience means I decide and no one can tell me I’m wrong. Here, instead, conscience means that in the depths of my being, in the innermost chasms of my mind and heart, I have a voice that is telling me the truth—not my truth, not the truth I want to hear, not my likes and dislikes dressed up as truth, but Truth.

This places each human being under a terrific responsibility, if you think about it. Each one of us must give an account of ourselves to this Truth; each one of us is a true actor, a true agent, a protagonist in a great drama, a morality play if you will.

No one is simply to be borne along on the waves of social conformity; no one is a helpless victim of circumstance; no one can say ‘I had no choice! I had to go with what everyone else was doing!’
We always have a choice. Not an easy choice, not a choice that is free from suffering and even death (see the martyrs, indeed see Christ Himself), but a choice nonetheless. God is at work in every human heart, every human soul, through the faculty of conscience, calling us to seek what is true and good, not what is convenient and pleasing. And it is right here, right in the call to listen to the voice of conscience and pursue it, that we are in an encounter with God Himself, where “man’s intimate sphere is touched by the truth that comes from God.”

This is why conscience claims cannot be messed around with. For the state to put people in a position of facing jail time, heavy fines, or cataclysmic shutterings of social, charitable, educational, and health care institutions due to an insistence on a course of action that is literally (in Cardinal Dolan’s words) unconscionable, is horrifyingly wrong, really. It is striking at the very heart of the human project, the call of each human being to deep moral responsibility at the heart of their own personal subjectivity. It cannot stand.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Talking About Conscience X

Let us pause for a moment here, before we attempt to formulate comprehensive answers to the question about what conscience truly is. We must first extend somewhat the basis of our considerations, going beyond the personal sphere that was our starting point…

[I want to] begin with the figure of Cardinal John Henry Newman, whose entire life and word could be called one great commentary on the question of conscience… To speak of Newman and conscience is to evoke the famous words in his letter to the duke of Norfolk (1874): “Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing), I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”

Newman intended this to be a clear confession of his faith in the papacy, in response to the objections raised by Gladstone to the dogma of infallibility. At the same time, against erroneous forms of ultra-montanism, he meant it to be an interpretation of the papacy, which can be understood correctly only when it is seen in connection with the primacy of conscience—not in opposition to the papacy, but based on it and guaranteeing it.

It is difficult for people today to grasp this point, since they think on the basis of an antithesis between authority and subjectivity. Conscience is seen as standing on the side of subjectivity and as an expression of the freedom of the subject, while authority is regarded as the limitation of this freedom, or indeed a threat to it, if not its actual negation. We must look somewhat more deeply here if we are to learn once again how to understand a vision in which this kind of antithesis has no validity.

The intermediate concept that holds these two together for Newman is truth. I would not hesitate to say that truth is the central idea in Newman’s intellectual striving. Conscience is central to his thinking because truth is the heart of everything.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 86-7

Reflection – Ratzinger now launches into his positive presentation of conscience in earnest, and takes Newman’s famous after-dinner toast as his starting point. Now, I am no expert of any kind on Newman, so I can’t provide any bigger commentary on his words here and how they fit into his whole thought.

But these words often get quoted badly out of context, as if Newman is somehow ‘dissing’ the papacy. Since offering an after-dinner toast to somehow is not normally seen as an act of disrespect, I am not sure how this interpretation can be credibly offered. Wishful thinking on the part of those who offer it, I suspect.

Newman is praising the papacy precisely as an instrument at the service of conscience. And this is the whole key to the matter. We exercise our conscience, but our conscience must be formed. We have to make up our minds about good and evil, but good and evil are objective realities ‘out there’, not constructs of our mind. We are obliged to our conscience… but our conscience is obliged to the truth, and that’s the key to the whole matter.

This is why freedom of conscience and freedom of religion are so intertwined. Both are concerned with the capacity of human beings to seek the truth and live it out. And this capacity to seek and live the truth in freedom is central to the entire human project.

This is why, and I will keep repeating this, what President Obama is doing is not so much an attack on the Catholic Church (although it certainly is that) or even on religion. He is attacking humanity, and every human being of good will should be ready and determined to resist this attack in peaceful ways: the political and legal process, and civil disobedience if necessary.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Talking About Conscience IX

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 Britain 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 England, at least according to this survey.

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.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Talking About Conscience VIII

Paul tells us that the Gentiles knew without the law what God expected of them (Rom 2:1-16). This passage deals a death blow to the entire theory of salvation through ignorance. Truth is present in man in a manner that cannot be rejected: and this is the same truth of the Creator that also took written form in the revelation of salvation history. Man can see the truth of God in the foundations of his created being. To fail to see this is guilt. If we refuse to see the truth, this ‘no’ of the will that prevents knowledge is guilt. The warning lamp fails to light up because we deliberately avert our eyes from something we do not want to see.

At this point in our reflections, we can draw our first conclusions to help answer the question about the essence of conscience. We can now say that it is impossible to identify man’s conscience with the self-awareness of the ego, with his subjective certainty about himself and his moral conduct. This consciousness may be a mere reflex of the social environment and of the opinions widespread there. It may also indicate a lack of self-criticism, a failure to listen to the depths of one’s own soul.

In the aftermath of the collapse of Marxist systems in Eastern Europe the situation that came to light confirms this diagnosis. The most alert and honest spirits among the newly liberated peoples speak of a terrible neglect of the soul that arose in the years of false education. They speak of a blunting of the moral sensitivity, which represents and more terrible loss and danger than the economic damage that occurred.

At the beginning of his time in office, in the summer of 1990, the patriarch of Moscow emphasized this in impressive words. He lamented that those who lived in a system of deceit had lost much of their powers of perception. Society had lost the ability to feel compassion, and human emotions had withered away. An entire generation had become impervious to the good and was incapable of human deeds. “We must bring society back to the eternal moral values,” he said.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 82-3

Reflection -  Well, now we’re getting somewhere! After exploring at length (see Talking About Conscience I-VII) the inadequacy of the modern notion of conscience and its infallibility, Ratzinger now starts to develop a response, a better and deeper understanding of the word and the reality.

And this development shows clearly what a perilous condition we are all in. I started this series because of the alarming developments in America with the outright violation of conscience being imposed by the Obama administration. Some may ask me, “Well, what’s it to you? You’re Canadian, dude! Chill out.” OK, so they wouldn’t say the last three words unless they were surfers or something.

Well, first, I love America. I know Canadians aren’t supposed to do that; I don’t care. I lived in the States for two years, and it is a wonderful place with wonderful people. Also (and I know this is a very unfashionable thought in Canada), America is indeed a beacon of freedom in the world. If America collapses as a free society, the implications are global and severe.

But also, and in that, the questions and challenges raised by the Obama Administration’s assault on religious liberty are of the essence. And the above passage from Ratzinger shows that, I think. When societies turn away from the moral law, when the state and those who control it impose their own subjective certainties upon society, when the voice of conscience is silenced, then man is not only alienated from God, but from his own deepest self.

There is a truth about humanity and about life that is written in the depths of the human heart. We may struggle to read it; we may disagree about some of the things written there. But if the state can say to us, “Your heart and its moral knowledge are irrelevant—submit to me,” then the human person is crushed, annihilated, denied. And this has societal and personal consequences that I am afraid we will all have to live with, as Russia has had to live with the terrible consequences of the Soviet repression of freedom.

At the risk of sounding a bit dramatic: repent, President Obama. Repent, members of his administration. Repent, anyone reading this who may support this evil initiative. You are striking at the very heart of America, and its very survival is at stake in this issue.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Talking About Conscience VII

One who no longer pays heed to the fact that killing is a sin has fallen more deeply than one who still recognizes the abhorrent quality of his actions, since the former person is further away from truth and from repentance. It is not by chance that the self-righteous person is revealed in the encounter with Jesus to be the one who is really lost: when the tax collector with all his undisputed sins is more righteous in the eyes of God than the Pharisee with all his genuinely good deeds (Luke 18: 9-14), this is not because the sins of the tax collector were not sins or the good deeds of the Pharisee not good deeds. Jesus does not intend to say that man’s good deeds are not good in God’s sight or that his evil deeds are not evil (or, at any rate, not all that serious).

The reason for this paradoxical verdict by God is directly connected to the question we are examining here. The Pharisee is no longer aware that he too is guilty. He is perfectly at ease with his own conscience. But this silence of his conscience makes it impossible for God and men to penetrate his carapace—whereas the cry of conscience that torments the tax collector opens him to receive truth and love. Jesus can work effectively among sinners because they have not become inaccessible behind the screen of an erring conscience, which would put them out of reach of the changes that God awaits from them—and from us. Jesus cannot work effectively among the righteous because they sense no need for forgiveness and repentance; their conscience no longer accuses them but only justifies them.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 81-2

Reflection – In short, there is nothing worse than being smug. And I think we kind of know this, even if in our classic human weakness fail to spot it in ourselves. But we know that we can take a lot from a person who is quick to admit his own faults and failings… and not so tolerant towards someone who thinks he is God’s gift to humanity.

It is this whole business of being open or closed to the world outside one’s own ego. The guilty conscience, the troubled mind that reproaches us that we have done wrong—this is actually a great gift to us. There is something within us, something in our very being, that bears witness to us that we are not sufficient unto ourselves, that we are not the center of the universe, that we are not the standard of judgment for all reality.

Now of course conscience, like everything else in us, can get derailed in various ways. We can become beset with neurotic scrupulous guilt, for one thing. But I think it is far more common in our time to see the other thing, what Pope Benedict and I have been reflecting on together: the disabled conscience, the silenced conscience. And this is a terrible curse. It locks us up in the castle keep of our own subjectivity. It prevents us from adopting the basic stance of humility towards life which opens us up to God and man, to the world that is bigger than us.

The inability to admit one’s own guilt, which is held out as such a great liberation by some, actually is the deepest imprisonment possible for human beings. We become trapped in a hall of mirrors, unable to see anything but our own petty judgments and standards for life.

Guilt frees us: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” even if part of that truth is ‘you done wrong, son!’ For the gift of guilt, then, let us thank the Lord (hey, Lent is coming up, so this is very timely!).

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Talking About Conscience VI

(Ratzinger begins this section by describing a conversation in which the argument was made that Hitler, etc., were in heaven since they were following their consciences.)

…Since that conversation, I have been absolutely certain that there is something wrong with the theory of the justifying force of the subjective conscience. In other words, a concept of conscience that leads to such inferences is false. A firm subjective conscience, with the consequent lack of doubts and scruples, does not justify anyone.

Later, I read an essay by the psychologist Albert Görres that summarized briefly the insights I had slowly tried to formulate for myself and that I wish to set out here. Görres points out that guilt feelings, or the ability to recognize one’s guilt, is an essential element of man’s psychological makeup. The guilt feeling that shatters a conscience’s false calm and the criticism made by my conscience of my self-satisfied existence are signals that we need just as much as we need the physical pain that lets us know that our normal vital functions have been disturbed. One who is no longer capable of seeing his own guilt is psychologically ill, ‘a living corpse, a theatrical mask’ as Görres puts it. ‘In human persons, monsters—it is people like these who have no guilt feelings. Hitler may have had none; nor may Himmler or Stalin. Mafia bosses may have none, but it is more likely that they have merely suppressed their awareness of the skeletons in their closets. And the aborted guilt feelings… everyone needs guilt feelings… everyone needs guilt feelings.’

There is in fact a scriptural text that could have prevented the diagnoses put forward by my colleagues and shown them that the theory of justification by means of an erring conscience is untenable. Ps 19:12 contains words that deserve constant meditation: ‘But who can discern his errors? Clear thou me from hidden faults.’

The wisdom of the Old Testament takes a very different line from my professorial colleagues: the loss of the ability to see one’s guilt, the falling silent of conscience in so many areas, is a more dangerous illness of the soul than guilt that is recognized as guilt.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 80-1

Reflection – In other words, guilt in itself is a good thing! So counter-cultural, this. Our whole idea is that we can or should be able to do just anything we want, and that the worst thing to do to someone is to tell them they are doing something immoral. ‘Don’t you dare call me a sinner!’ is the general attitude.

And yet once we realize that there is nothing worse than killing one’s conscience, that to do this is essentially to make oneself sub-human, than of course we can understand why one of the spiritual works of mercy is to admonish sinners. If someone (like, say, President Obama) is engaging in an evil course of action, then the bishops are doing him a great act of charity in pointing it out to him with great vigor and resolve. And I think almost anyone of good will can at least see the truth of this. If someone is doing a terrible evil and does not know even slightly that they are doing this evil, something has gone very badly wrong with them at a deep level.

Now of course the implication of this is that we live in a universe where moral behavior is not simply a matter of subjective choice. If morality simply means doing what you think is right, then the above analysis is literally nonsense. And we cannot have it both ways. If Görres is correct then we live in a world of moral order that surpasses our subjective ideas; if there is nothing to morality except our own subjective thoughts on the matter, then we are back to square one: Dexter as moral exemplar, etc…

Ratzinger is about to take this in a provocative direction—tomorrow (God willing) we will see that guilt and what it implies for us actually breaks us open from the prison of our self, and opens us up to a broader and deeper, more beautiful reality. To be continued…

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Talking About Conscience V

(This is continued from the previous blog post, below)

Is the truth about the human person and God so sad and so difficult, or does truth not lie precisely in overcoming such legalism? Does it not lie in freedom? But, then, where does freedom lead? What path does it show us?..

I was initially shocked by the caricature of faith that I thought I saw in my colleagues’ argument. Further reflection suggested that he was employing a false concept of conscience.

His argument was that an erring conscience saves man by protecting him from the terrifying demands made by truth. Conscience was not envisaged here as a window that makes it possible for man to see the truth that is common to us all, the truth that is our basis and sustains us…

Conscience was not the decision made by man in favor of the foundations that supported his existence; it was not the power to perceive the highest and most essential of all realities. On the contrary, here conscience was a cloak thrown over human subjectivity, allowing man to elude the clutches of reality and to hide from it… Conscience does not reveal the road of truth, which we can take and so be saved—for either truth does not exist at all, or else it is impossible for us to meet its demands.

And this makes conscience the justification of a human subjectivity that refuses to let itself be called into question, as well as of social conformism that is meant to function as an average value between the various subjectivities and thereby enable human beings to live together.

There is no longer any need to feel obliged to look for truth, nor may one doubt the average attitude and customary praxis. It suffices to be convinced of one’s own correctness and to conform to others. Man is reduced to his superficial conviction, and the less depth he possesses, the better off he is.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 78-9

Reflection – So in this extended exploration of conscience, we are very much still in the introductory phase. Ratzinger here is continuing to look at the idea of the infallible conscience, that the only relevant moral standard is to be quite convinced that what one is doing is correct. Previously (see below) he has shown the absurdity of this position; now he shows the outcome of this position.

In praise of shallowness! That’s where this view of conscience leads us. And there is a long human tradition of this. Let sleeping dogs lie, don’t think too hard, don’t bother your head with things too deep. Why so serious?

The whole idea that the only important thing is to get along, to fit in with the crowd, and to be complacent in one’s own proper behavior—this has long been among the great strategies employed by the human race.

Well, what’s wrong with it, then? People seem to get through life OK that way, and probably don’t commit too many heinous crimes. Why not? Well, in part the problem is that it doesn’t make sense—it is predicated upon, in fact, not thinking too hard, since it actually is a wholly irrational way to live.

Second, to simply live on the surface of life and go along to get along is not commensurate with our human dignity. We are made for greatness, for a truly heroic way of life, even if that heroism is lived out in very ordinary surroundings. To bob along on the surface of things does not conform to the truth of our humanity in all its awesomeness.

Finally, and this is relevant to what has occasioned my blog series on conscience, what happens when a society and its norms goes astray? This is hardly theoretical—the past century has seen multiple human societies go badly awry in horrific ways.

Our current society believes (generally) that it should be legal to tear tiny human beings into little pieces and suction them out of their mother’s wombs. Our current society believes that the sexual acts of two men or two women are absolutely identical to the sexual intercourse between a man and a woman out of which springs new human life. Human life then is a mere accidental by-product of some other process. Our current society believes that people who disagree with this and say so are expressing hate speech and should be silenced.

And in the States, it is entirely possible that Obama will succeed in pulling the wool over people’s eyes, and religious groups will indeed be forced to pay for products we believe are evil and harmful, and in fact homicidal.

A person who has chosen to live by social convention, to not think too deeply, and to go along to get along, has no defense against monstrous evils, once they become social norms. And that’s why we cannot ignore the demands of truth and the arduous struggle to learn it and live by it.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Talking About Conscience IV

A colleague, who was deeply moved by the difficulties involved in being a Christian in our time, stated in a debate that we ought really to be grateful to God that he had given so many people the gift of being unbelievers with a good conscience. For if their eyes were opened and they became believers, they would not be able to endure the burden of faith and its moral obligations in this world of ours. As things were, since they were traveling in good conscience along another path, they could nevertheless attain salvation.

What shocked me in this assertion was not so much the idea of an erring conscience bestowed by God himself, a cunning device that allowed him to save men—as if he saved them precisely by blinding their eyes. No, I was disturbed by the idea that faith was a virtually intolerable burden, something only the really strong could shoulder.

Perhaps it would be going too far to call faith a punishment, but it certainly posed extremely high demands that were difficult to satisfy. In other words, faith made salvation harder, not easier. One should therefore rejoice if the obligation to believe is not imposed upon one, since that would mean being bowed down by the yoke of the morality of the Catholic Church. An erring conscience, which makes life easier and points to a more human path in life, would be a genuine grace, and even the normal way to find salvation. Untruth, remaining far away from truth, would be better for man than truth.

Truth would not be something that sets us free, but something from which we need to be set free. Man would be more at home in the darkness than in the light. Faith would not be a good gift of the good God, but a terrible fate.
Values in a Time of Upheaval, 77-8

Reflection – Having offered clear critiques of the current idea of sola conscientia, - guidance by conscience alone, the theory of the infallible conscience, showing how it necessarily means exalting moral monsters as ideals and destroys any real notion of freedom, Ratzinger now begins to clear out another erroneous idea that lies beneath the exaltation of conscience at the expense of authority.

It’s this whole idea that the truth is a bad thing. ‘Human beings cannot stand much reality’, T.S. Eliot wrote. It is the idea that the real state of affairs of the cosmos is such a grim awful thing that we are better off not bothering with it.

Just ignore it and get back to doing whatever you want—that’s the only response possible, if we decide that the actual truth of life, God, the universe, humanity is a heavy burden that makes our lives sad and grim.

He is clear to point out in this essay that the man presenting this theory was a good and sincerely Christian man who practiced his own faith sincerely and truly wanted to help people. And this has been a common attitude in the Church in the last decades. We know priests who won’t talk about contraception or pre-marital sex precisely because they do not want to put people in bad conscience. Leave them in invincible ignorance! That’s the spirit. Often in the contemporary church, the word ‘pastoral,’ which should refer to being a shepherd guiding the flock into right paths, is degraded into ‘tell people what they want to hear, so they don’t leave the Church.’ We all know that.

We have to be clear. Did God create a universe where the truth is horrible for us? Where living a moral life is a curse? Where to obey God’s law is nothing but a heavy burden? What kind of God would that be? A God anyone should want to follow?

Questions of conscience have to start there, at the most basic level. Is there a truth to be known about how we should live, and does this truth, in fact, set us free? To put it simply, is God good? If not, then (excuse my bluntness) to Hell with the whole thing and, yes, do whatever you want. Which means that Dexter is indeed a good role model and you are indeed a slave to your desires. But hey, better that than enslaving yourself to the laws of a loveless God.

If we’re not happy with that picture of reality, then we have to carry on with Ratzinger, and see if the truth might indeed be better for us than error, if light is indeed preferable to darkness. Until next time…

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Talking About Conscience III

It is indisputable that one must always follow a clear verdict of conscience, or at least that one may not act against such a verdict. But it is quite a different matter to assume that the verdict of conscience (or what one takes to be such a verdict) is always correct, i.e., infallible—for if that were so, it would mean that there is no truth, at least in matters of morality and religion, which are the foundations of our very existence.

Since verdicts of conscience contradict one another, there would exist only a truth of the subject, which would be reduced to the truthfulness of that subject. 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 would also mean that there is no genuine freedom and that the supposed verdicts of conscience were mere reflexes to antecedent social circumstances.

This reflection surely shows that the proposed antithesis between freedom and authority leaves out something important and that there must be something deeper than this if freedom and human existence itself are to have a meaning.

This shows that the question about conscience leads us to the core of the moral problem and, hence, to the question of human existence itself.
Values in a Time of Upheaval, 76-7

Reflection – Ratzinger is leaping along here at great speed, capacious and world-class intellect that he is, and it is just possible that some reading the above passage are not quite following his thought (hence, the existence of this blog!).

So to do a bit of slow-motion instant replay: first, it is the unanimous view of our moral tradition that one must follow one’s conscience, even if it is in fact erroneous. If I sincerely believe it is morally wrong to eat meat, I must not eat meat! If I sincerely believe I would sin if I failed to floss my teeth every day, then floss I must. Conscience must be obeyed.

But conscience can be wrong—this is the key point. If all we say is that the only salient moral principle is to follow one’s conscience, and that is the beginning and end of the matter, we are indeed locked in a radical individualism. There is, then, no morally significant universe outside of my own being and its determinations.

If there is nothing to say except ‘follow your conscience’, then that degrades immediately and necessarily into ‘do what you want!’ But if all there is to say is ‘do what you want’, and there is no relevant information about what should be done to inform our choices, then we are indeed locked in a world without freedom.
Why is that? Because all we can do is whatever we want to do. The great irony is that this is not freedom at all. If all there is to do is whatever we want to do, then we are utter slaves to our desires, and a little reflection is all that is needed to show us that our desires in any situation are formed entirely by our physical urges and our social conditioning. We are thus slaves to our bodies and to society and it dictates.

Remember—all this flows immediately and with strict logical necessity from the fundamental modern stance that says ‘no one can tell me what to do!’ The rejection of the concept of moral authority, of a teaching authority in moral matters. We saw yesterday that the infallible conscience theory leads to the exalting of serial killers and sociopaths as moral exemplars; today we see that it actually means the total destruction of any real freedom. The very theory that was supposed to secure human freedom against the tyranny of the Church instead reduces us to automatons chained to our physio-sociological programming.

Oops, I did it again, to quote the immortal words of Britney Spears. I must have taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque, to quote the immortal words of Bugs Bunny. Our reasoning has gone wrong, and this wrong reasoning strikes at the very heart of our human existence, its value and meaning. This is why questions of conscience and its violation by the state are so crucial.

Hey, I know—let’s see if this Joseph Ratzinger fella can help us put it right! Until tomorrow…

Friday, February 10, 2012

Talking About Conscience II

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!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Talking About Conscience I

[Today in many circles the primacy of] conscience is presented as the bulwark of freedom against those who seek to narrow our lives through the use of authority.
Values in a Time of Upheaval, 75
Reflection – Well, conscience is certainly the word of the day, isn’t it! In case you’ve been incommunicado the last weeks and have missed the story of the day (in which case, why are you reading this blog??), President Obama has clarified that the Affordable Care Act (popularly known as ObamaCare) will indeed force all insurance-providing employers in the States to pay for contraceptive medications and devices, including those with known abortifacient effects, with a religious exemption so narrow that, as has often been said, Jesus Christ wouldn’t have qualified for it.
In other words, Catholic hospitals, schools, and other social agencies will be forced to do something we believe is gravely evil, or be forced to pay millions of dollars in fines, or be forced to shut our doors, thus removing one of the major agents of social care of the poor from the American scene. Those really are the only three possibilities: a radical reduction in care for the poor (courtesy of the party that trumpets its unceasing compassion for the poor), heavy and probably financially unsustainable penalties specifically targeted against Catholics, or state coercion to commit acts tantamount in the judgment of our consciences to murder.
Last time I blogged about this a few days ago, a commentor was deeply troubled that I used the word ‘war’ to describe the Obama administration’s actions. I don’t know what other word is appropriate, honestly, although ‘persecution’ leaps to mind. Also, ‘grave evil’. Or ‘atrocity.’ Or ‘radical dismantling of religious freedom which is the backbone of the American way of life.’ Fortunately, there are elections coming up, and there is a Supreme Court who have shown signs of having basic awareness of what seems to elude Obama, Sibelius, Pelosi, and Biden (hint, freedom of religion does not end with the final blessing and dismissal on Sunday morning)—hopefully Americans will figure out that this whole business simply cannot stand and take appropriate democratic and peaceful measures to put a stop to this nonsense.
But back to conscience, because this is the key word. You may disagree with the Church’s teaching about contraception and abortion; you may disagree with any and all other Church teachings. But do we have a right to freedom of conscience against coercive state authority? And what is our understanding of this word ‘conscience,’ anyhow? I am going to spend the next few days going through some of Pope Benedict’s writings to shed some light on this question. By the way, the book cited above is just about the best concise source for this: a short little book, quite affordable, and he lays out the Church’s mind on the subject with his characteristic lucidity.
Interestingly, the above passage actually sets up a discussion of how conscience (i.e. the individual’s faculty of judgment regarding moral questions) is not opposed to authority (i.e. the moral teaching office of the Church). So often people hear the word conscience as a fancy way of saying “You’re not the boss of me! Don’t tell me what to do!”
It is not that, not precisely. Human freedom is an irreducible reality, but our freedom exists in a universe we did not create and we do not determine. Morally good behavior is a question of discerning the truth of things and the purpose of life, especially human life. Conscience then kicks in to guide our choices, not to what we decide is good or evil, but to what we discern as good or evil—big difference. There is an authority, or rather, An Authority, who determines good and evil, and who communicates His determinations to us. Conscience, first, is receptive, contemplative, passive in the sense of being a student, of regarding, of being given the moral law, not writing it.
Anyhow, more to follow—but we need to get as clear as we can on this question, since, as I say, conscience is the word of the day, and what we don’t understand can easily be stripped from us if we are not careful.