Today we appear to have two different approaches to morality. One is founded in obedience to the Church’s teaching on moral matters; the other is the absolute requirement to follow our subjective conscience. These two notions appear to stand in opposition to each other. I explore this anomaly with help from Benedict XVI’s address, as Cardinal Ratzinger, to his fellow bishops in 1991. I hope that some will examine his text which, at some 7,000 words, is rather too long for this column.
While we are not inclined to doubt the principle that conscience is sovereign, we must be aware of a possible contradiction. The glorifying of conscience can quickly lead to a subjective approach in which the objectivity of the moral tradition becomes no more than material presented to us for consideration. Our grasp of truth becomes subjective, and the only criterion is sincerity. But we know that subjective conclusions vary from one person to another, and may well reflect special circumstances. They cannot be a certain guide to truth.
Subjectivity may lead to some surprising conclusions. We might find ourselves accepting the possibility that a Nazi guard pitchforking a Jew into a gas chamber was obliged to do so in good conscience. And some have even argued that those who have little knowledge of Revelation and the divine law have an advantage since their ignorance allows them a range of behaviour forbidden to us. There is irony in the thought that our faith may condemn us while lack of faith goes free.
We may approach this by considering the need for guilt. Luke describes this in the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee. It is the tax collector who goes away justified because he recognises his guilt and his need for mercy. The Pharisee, complacent in his virtue, renders himself impermeable to God. Far from regarding guilt as some kind of weakness, it is our recognition that we continually fall short of the truth within us. Our Nazi guard may not be to blame at the moment of decision. But he is to blame for not recognising the moral truths which lie within him. In a sense, he is sinning against his better self.
Ratzinger uses the word anamnesis, or recollection, in this context. It is exactly described in Romans as “[The Gentiles] show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness…” It tells us that two elements are involved. The first is our native ability, directly created within us, to recognise the good. The second is the judgment of conscience which is necessarily based on our recognition of the good.
We must not separate the two. By doing so, we find ourselves with a wholly subjective judgment of conscience. This is what leads us to decisions which are grounded in our inadequacies, in immediate circumstances, in the fashions of our culture. Precisely because it is our own we give it a superiority which smacks of the Pharisee. But when it is grounded in the law in our hearts it is a decision made in humility. The Second Vatican Council does not speak of our subjective decisions but of a conscience which “is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man.
There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.” We do not pick and choose the voice of God: we listen, we recollect. You can’t get more objective than that.
The Church is the witness of the moral good – a compendium of Christian understanding, developed and refined over the centuries. While it is authoritative to us as Catholics by Christ’s commission, its expression does not trump our recognition of the good as it applies in our own decision. We remain responsible.
It is not a burden; rather it lifts the burden by helping to clarify the demands of the good within us. It is not a law which requires reactive obedience. On the contrary we must, as far as possible, understand how it leads towards, or possibly detracts from, the good we recognise. We are responsible, too, when our uncertainty properly requires us to defer to the Church’s teaching – much as we might responsibly rely on an expert in other contexts.
For the Pharisee, compliance with the law was the objective since salvation came through the law. Our understanding is different. Christ is the harbour light and the laws are the buoys which mark the entrance to the channel. As a distinguished theologian put it: “The Ten Commandments protect the outer periphery in which Christ will be formed in us.” We come back, as always, to our growth in Christian virtue. It is through this that we see more clearly, and choose more freely, the good implanted within us.