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.

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