Monday, March 5, 2012

Talking About Conscience XV

This is part of an ongoing series on the blog, the rest of which can be found here.

In the Gentile world, Israel had encountered something that was confirmed anew in the experience of the messengers of Jesus Christ: their preaching responded to an expectation. It encountered a basic prior knowledge of the essential elements of the will of God that had taken written form in the commandments, and this knowledge is found in all cultures.

This primal knowledge develops all the more purely where it is not distorted by the arrogance of ‘civilization’. The more a person leads a life guided by the ‘fear of God’ (see the story of the centurion Cornelius, especially Acts 10:34), the more concrete and clear will be the effect of this anamnesis…

St. Basil insists that the love of God, which takes on a specific form in the commandments, is not imposed on us from outside. Rather, it is infused into us a priori. “A basic understanding of the good is imprinted upon us,” says Augustine.

It is only on this basis that we can understand Newman’s celebrated remark correctly, that if he were asked to make a religious toast he would indeed toast the pope, but he would toast conscience first. The pope does not have power to impose on believing Catholics just because he wants to do so or because he thinks it useful to do so.

This modern voluntaristic concept of authority can only distort the true theological sense of the papacy. If the true essence of the Petrine ministry has become so incomprehensible in the modern period, this is surely because we can conceive of authority only on the basis of philosophical positions that exclude all bridges between  subject and object. In such a view, whatever does not come from the subject can only be a heteronomous imposition.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 93-4

Reflection – The Pope can’t tell me what to do! Underneath some of the admittedly technical vocabulary in this passage (heteronomous… anamnesis… voluntaristic…), what we have here is Ratzinger’s response to this basic and commonly expressed sentiment.

Voluntarism means roughly the exalting of the will over the intellect. I want what I want—that’s all. No reasoning, or minimal reasoning: just will. So if someone else tells me to do something, there is nothing going on except that they are imposing their will on me—that’s heteronomy (literally, rule by another). A voluntaristic view of the papacy is just that: the pope just gets to tell us what he wants me to do, that dirty bum. Hmph! Laying some Catholic moral guilt trip on me. Down with the Pope! Ecrasez l’infame! (Yesterday, Sofia Loren, today, Voltaire—can’t say I’m not trying to mix it up!)

What Ratzinger (and remember, he wrote this before he became pope) is developing throughout this essay is the thought that the moral law which is from God is, in fact, written in our hearts already, by virtue of our creation by God. It is not an imposition of an external will upon our frail subjectivity. Rather, it springs up from the depths of our hearts. This is the ‘anamnesis’ he refers to – the remembrance of the moral law.

For this reason the Pope is at the service of conscience. For this reason, religious groups have to be allowed in a free society to both preach and practice the moral truths they hold. It is essential to the mission of a religion, among its central tasks, to teach its people, those who freely choose to belong to any given religion, what is true and false, good and evil, what the specific contents are of this moral law written on the heart of man.

If religion is forced by the government to falsify its preaching by its practice, then it is being forced to not be itself. In other words, freedom of religion is null and void. And if people are not free in matters religious, they are actually not free at all. If government can suppress religious freedom, then there is no freedom it cannot suppress.

And that’s what’s happening in America right now, which is sad. I hope it can be turned around there. We’ll see. Meanwhile, I’ll keep talking about conscience from time to time on this blog, and maybe we can all understand a little bit just what we are losing, and what that means for our humanity. Sadly, we’ll see.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.