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…

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