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!).


  1. Father Denis,
    Gees. Your brain is so big. I am probably getting less than a third of what you are writing. Part of it is that I missed the begginning of the your conscience stuff and now am arriving at the "guilt trip" :).

    Forgive me if you have explained this already.

    I am stumbling on the word guilt. Means different things to me on different days, I guess. (Can't always get my heart connected with my head.)

    My personal struggle has always been bewteen a kind of true and false guilt, A true remorse for a screw up and another kind a sort of self reproach that comes from a feeling of inadequacy.nit necessarily scrupulous..But not what God intends all the same.

    I think it is important to distinguish between the two. Does Ratzinger write about this? Just curious...

    1. Yes, thank you. Well, I was being provocative on purpose. Guilt has such a bad rap, because in part people do struggle with scruples and self-hatred.
      So we have distinguish. It's like this: while we don't like physical pain, personally I'm grateful when my bad knee starts telling me it's having a bad day - I need to favor it, reduce stairs, or whatever. If it didn't hurt, I'd end up destroying the joint and being crippled.
      While guilt can be false in us and careful discernment is needed, essentially it is 'moral pain' letting us know that some action we're doing is wrong and needs to be changed.
      Of course the missing piece for so many people is that we don't believe in God's mercy as deeply as we should... and so of course it all goes into shame and self-hatred and... the whole downward spiral.
      But of course my point in this post was not to address all these issues (if you stick with me, by the end of the essay the Pope gets there, actually!). Rather to show that guilt opens us up to their being a world of values and standards not established by our own likes and dislikes, and that this is an invaluable service to us.


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