Sunday, March 18, 2012

Talking About Conscience XVI

The anamnesis which is given to us and is inherent in our being needs help from outside in order that it may become aware of its own self. But this ‘outside’ is not something opposed to anamnesis. It exists in order to serve it. It has a maieutic function, not imposing something alien upon our anamnesis but activating something that is its own, activating the openness of the anamnesis to receive the truth.

In the case of faith and the Church, whose radius reaches from the redeeming Logos over the gift of Creation, we must however add a further level, which is developed with particular care in the Johannine writings. John knows the anamnesis of the new ‘we’ that has been bestowed on us in our incorporation into Christ. We become one body, i.e., one ‘I’ with him. The Gospel observes several times that the disciples came to understanding only subsequently, when they remembered.

That first encounter with Jesus gave the disciples something that all generations now receive through their fundamental encounter with the Lord in baptism and the Eucharist: the new anamnesis of faith that, like the anamnesis of Creation, develops in the continuous dialogue between ‘inside’ and ‘outside.’ This is why John could reply to the presumption of Gnostic teachers, who wanted to persuade Christian believers that their na├»ve faith ought to be understood and formulated in quite different terms, by saying, you do not need that kind of instruction, because as ‘anointed’ (baptized) Christians you know everything (1 John 2: 20).

This does not mean that the faithful possess an intellectual knowledge of every single point of doctrine, but it does mean that Christian memory is unerring. It is always learning anew; its sacramental identity allows it to distinguish ‘from within’ between that which assists the development of its memory and that which destroys or falsifies it.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 94-5

Reflection – OK, so this is a pretty dense passage. Bear with me, and I will make it all clear (promise!).
So Ratzinger is talking, as he has been, about the primeval ‘anamnesis’—remembrance—in the heart of every human being, our inner knowledge of the moral law written in our hearts. The moral law does not come to us merely from outside, but is an interior reality, an essential part of our humanity. This is why the wage of sin is death: not because God is a vengeful tyrant obliterating us for our transgressions, but because in sin we destroy our own selves in their deepest core.

But Ratzinger is concerned here to show how the teaching authority of the Church in matters of morality relates to this inner core of anamnesis. And he hits upon the word ‘maieutic’, which may not be the first word you or I would come up with, eh?

Maieutic means ‘mothering.’ That’s all. The sense is that this primitive inner knowledge of the moral law needs some help from outside. Needs some nurturing to grow and become fully operative in us. The Church does not write the moral law, or impose the moral law on people as an alien force; it fosters, nourishes, calls forth, reminds, cares for, encourages the human person on his or her moral path.

Do the human beings who are actually in the Church’s magisterial office at any give time do a very good job of this? Well, that’s up for dispute, even if as Catholics we maintain the Church’s freedom from actual error in its teachings. But that’s what the teaching authority of the Church is for; it is at the service of conscience, not in replacement of it.

He goes on, though, to add an even deeper reflection. God has not simply left his creation in its primeval state. Remembrance is not only to know what God has made, but what God has done with what He has made. Christ, salvation, the Church itself, the sacramental flow of grace—this too is written on the hearts
of each baptized person, and the Church here too serves a maieutic role in reminding us of God’s gifts.

It is a very rich and beautiful picture Ratzinger unveils for us in this passage: God’s love for each of us, his personal gift to each of us both in the order of creation and of salvation, and then the communal dimension whereby these personal intimate gifts of God are fostered and strengthened so as to become the fundamental principles of action and mission for each of us in the world.

Conscience remains primary in this picture, mind you, as the individual faculty whereby each one of us makes this beautiful picture our own picture, what we have chosen to live. And this is why we must defend the rights of religious conscience against incursions of the state if we are serious about religious freedom in our society.

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