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…

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