Sunday, May 13, 2018

On the Conscience

Here is an old blog entry I wrote but never published. They're notes on a philosophical speech, about the conscience. I tried cleaning it up a bit, but it's still pretty heavy philosophy. I wrote this before Pope Francis' election.


Someone led me to Conscience and Truth, a presentation that Pope Benedict XVI made in Dallas, Texas.  He did this in 1991, years before he became Pope, but the issues he speaks about are still important today.
  • People like to think that conscience is opposed to authority.  They say that conscience must be followed at all times, even in opposition to authority.
  • "It is of course undisputed that one must follow a certain conscience or at least not act against it. But whether the judgment of always another question." Why? "Judgments of conscience can contradict each other". This can lead to subjectivism.
  • Ratzinger gives two stories on the topic.  Story #1 is from a man who believes that Catholic faith is a burden, what with all the rules and things it forces on people. Unbelievers are super-lucky in comparison, because they can get to Heaven merely by following their consciences.  It's a convenient "get out of rules" free card. This notion of faith as a punishment or a burden has severely crippled evangelization.
  • The above argument relies on the idea that the conscience shields someone from the truth.  "Conscience appeared here not as a window through which one can see outward to that common truth which founds and sustains us all...Rather, it appears as subjectivity's protective shell into which man can escape and there hide from reality."
  • Conscience in this argument is used as a justification for subjectivity.  It no longer looks at the truth. Conscience also becomes a justification for social conformity, which is a mediation between two different subjective people.
  • Story #2 is the question of what happens to Hitler and the other Nazis.  The argument is that all of them are obviously in Heaven right now, because they followed their consciences with firm conviction.  "There is no doubting the fact that Hitler and his accomplices who were deeply convinced of their cause, could not have acted otherwise. Therefore, the objective terribleness of their deeds notwithstanding, they acted morally, subjectively speaking. Since they followed their albeit mistaken consciences, one would have to recognize their conduct as moral and, as a result, should not doubt their eternal salvation."
  • And those two stories led Ratzinger to stop and say, "Whoa, something is wrong here.  Conscience can't work like that. Those are obviously false conclusions; ergo, the conception of conscience is flawed."
  • Gorres, a psychologist who studied these things, says that a conscience incapable of feeling guilt--as is the case with Hitler, Himmler and Stalin--is basically an inhuman monster, incapable of morality.  Gorres questions if these people were incapable of feeling guilt, or if they were really good at repressing guilt.
  • By the way, a good Biblical scholar should be able to avoid the false notions of conscience, by looking carefully at Psalm 19:12-13 ("But who can detect his errors? Cleanse me from unknown faults"), Luke 18:9-14 (the tax collector and the pharisee) and Romans 2:1-16.
  • It doesn't work to identify your conscience with mere self-consciousness, which brings you certainty about yourself and and your moral behavior. On the one hand, this gives you a conscience which is only a reflection of the social surroundings and the currently popular opinions. On the other hand, this gives you a conscience completely devoid of self-criticism, one that is unable to listen to the depth of one's own soul.
  • "To put it differently, the identification of conscience with superficial consciousness, the reduction of man to his subjectivity, does not liberate but enslaves. It makes us totally dependent on the prevailing opinions and debases these with every passing day." Conscience is used to rationalize our behavior, rather than guide our behavior. To say that "conscience/my feelings are what prove I'm right all the time" is to retreat from truth, not to follow it.
  • Blessed Cardinal Newman was an Anglican, before becoming Catholic. He had problems, understanding how the Pope functions in the Church. Newman knew that truth lies somewhere in between authority and subjectivity. He wanted the Pope "not put in opposition to the primacy of conscience, but based on it and guaranteeing it. Modern man, who presupposes the opposition of authority to subjectivity, has difficulty understanding this."
  • But our modern age replaced "truth" with "progress" as the ultimate goal of humanity.  This is bad, especially when progress is not defined.  Progress requires truth; it requires fixed measuring points, by which we can judge progress.  "And what is called conscience in such a worldview is, on deeper reflection, but a euphemistic way of saying that there is no such thing as an actual conscience, conscience understood as a 'co-knowing' with the truth. Each person determines his own standards." And so no one can be of much help to another.
  • Socrates and Plato had similar issues with the Sophists, who didn't want to follow truth.  They thought people can create truth, and so they focused on formal categories.  We see this again today.  "The verdict on someone's thinking is ready at hand as long as you can assign it to its corresponding, formal category: conservative, reactionary, fundamentalist, progressive, revolutionary." He makes a good point that many people will judge the truth of what you're saying, based on what kind of speech you're using, rather than the actual content of your speech.
  • Ratzinger comes to the conclusion that conscience is made up of two levels.  The first level is synderesis or synteresis. This is something akin to natural law, written on the hearts of all men.  It is their connection to God.  The love of the law which is implanted in humans beforehand; "the sense for the good has been stamped upon us, Augustine puts it."
  • "The true sense of this teaching authority of the Pope consists in his being the advocate of the Christian memory. The Pope does not impose from without. Rather, he elucidates the Christian memory and defends it."
  • The second level is conscientia, which is the level of judgment. As just stated, each person has an inner repugnance to evil and an attraction to the good. The second level of conscience "applies this basic knowledge to the particular situation. It is divided according to Thomas into three elements: recognizing (recognoscere), bearing witness (testificari), and finally, judging (judicare)."
  • And this is how you deal with the question of Hitler and the others. They completely stifled the first level of conscience. "It can very well be wrong to have come to such askew convictions in the first place, by having stifled the protest of [the innate conscience]. The guilt lies then in a different place, much deeper—not in the present act, not in the present judgment of conscience but in the neglect of my being which made me deaf to the internal promptings of truth. For this reason, criminals of conviction like Hitler and Stalin are guilty. These crass examples should not serve to put us at ease but should rouse us to take seriously the earnestness of the plea:  'Free me from my unknown guilt' (Ps 19:13)."
  • Ratzinger talking about two levels of conscience reminds me that Fulton Sheen spoke of conscience as having three parts, like the US government. One part makes the laws, one part oversees them and the other part enforces them.
  • The CDF stated in 1994: “The mistaken conviction of a divorced-and-remarried person that he may receive holy communion normally presupposes that personal conscience is considered in the final analysis to be able, on the basis of one’s own convictions, to come to a decision about the existence or absence of a previous marriage and the value of the new union. However, such a position is inadmissible.”

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