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Pope Benedict XVI on Conscience

by Fr. Vincent Twomey, SVD


In this essay Fr. Vincent Twomey, SVD, a former student of Joseph Ratzinger, examines the central role conscience has played in the life and writings of Pope Benedict XVI.

Larger Work

Inside the Vatican


48 – 51

Publisher & Date

Urbi et Orbi Communications, New Hope, KY, October 2008

Addressing the symposium held in Rome, April 1990, to commemorate the centenary of John Henry Newman's death, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger acknowledged his debt as a theologian to Newman. Newman's influence goes back to Ratzinger's early days as a seminarian in Freising (Bavaria), when in January 1946 he began his study of theology. His prefect at the time was Alfred Lapple, who had begun his dissertation on Newman's theology of conscience before the war and returned to it after the war with renewed vigor. "Soon we were bonded by a personal friendship, wholly centered on the great problems of philosophy and theology. Newman was always present to us."

"For us at the time," Ratzinger recalls, "Newman's teaching on conscience became an important foundation for theological personalism, which was drawing us all in its sway." This was against the background of the totalitarianism they had experienced so closely during the Nazi period, which in effect negated the conscience of the individual. Ratzinger quotes, not for the first time, Goring's confession: "I have no conscience. Hitler is my conscience." It was liberating, Ratzinger says, to discover that "the 'we' of the Church [her collective nature] does not rest on a cancellation of conscience but that, exactly the opposite, it can only develop from conscience." In a sense, one could say that Ratzinger's life as a Catholic theologian demonstrates that early insight. His later writings on conscience develop its significance.

Conscience, it seems to me, is a central theme that runs through his entire theological endeavor, helping to give his writings that inner consistency which, despite the breadth of topics he covers, despite the fragmentary nature of his work, and despite developments within his writings, marks all his thought. Conscience is also at the root of that personal integrity, courage, and inner calm, which became ever more evident as he increasingly became the object of attacks by the media for the unpopular stands he had to take on various controversial issues as prefect of the Congregation for the Faith.

When, elected Pope Benedict XVI, he captured the imagination of the world in a positive sense (thanks to the same media), it was because ordinary men and women recognized that they were confronted with someone who was completely his own man, markedly different in personality from his revered predecessor, but, like him, a man of integrity — of course, in his own way. The unprecedented media coverage he received after the death of his predecessor, followed by his election and inauguration as Pope, revealed to a mostly-surprised public a man of deep joy and simple humanity, shy but fearless — because he is a man of conscience. To echo his own words, he is someone who, prompted by the voice of God in his heart, listens to the Word of God resounding through history in the Church, in her Scriptures and Tradition, in order, in season and out of season, to speak a word of truth to the conscience of his contemporaries.

It is conscience, at its deepest level, that spurs us on to know the truth. Listening perhaps sums up the most evident personal characteristic of our present Pope. As a student of his in Regensburg, I was fascinated by the way he conducted his seminars and doctoral colloquia. He listened to what anyone had to say — and so created an atmosphere of openness and genuine debate as we all sought to understand the faith more deeply and articulate it more adequately. His lectures were the fruit of his attentive, critical "listening" to the voices of the past and the present, recognized thinkers and scholars as well as his fledgling students. He once remarked in passing: "Education should not try to relieve the other person of anything. It must have the humility to go along with the other person's [insight], and to help it mature . . . " On another occasion, he wrote that education must be understood in terms of the Greek philosophers who sought "to break open the prism of positivism and awaken man's receptivity to the truth, to God, and thus to the power of conscience . . . " In the context he was referring to the Church's task in the political sphere. Indeed, this understanding of education is at the core of his own philosophy of politics, according to which the Church "must give men the courage to live according to conscience and so keep open the narrow pass between anarchy and tyranny, which is none other than the narrow way of peace."

1. Conscience, Freedom and Courage

Discussing the relationship between freedom and authority within the context of the revision of the Code of Canon Law, Ratzinger asks: What is freedom? Turning to Scripture, Ratzinger examines the Pauline notions of "liberty" and "outspokenness." These are terms Paul took from the Greek tradition and culture and transformed in the light of faith, making them suitable to express and unfold the implications of the faith. The first term, "liberty," is taken from Greek social life: the notion of the free citizen as opposed to the slave. According to Gal 4:2131, it is the baptized who are now the freeborn. "To be free means to be an heir, to be oneself the possessor: freedom is identical with the status of a son — and brings with it the rights and obligations of a son, to fulfill the law of Christ" We are full citizens of the People of God, now that we (as pneumatikoi Gal 6:1) share Jesus' own status of being and must live in accord with that status, even to the point of crucifixion of the flesh. "Undemanding . . . is something this freedom is not."

The second term, frankness or outspokenness, Ratzinger develops in the light of 1 Thess 2:1-12. This means speaking the truth in a world dominated by appearance, even though the speaker, St. Paul, rouses hostility thereby. It is the courage of the free man, as opposed to those whose speech is molded by flattery, covetousness or the thirst for glory, and who are thus dominated by the need for publicity, material gain and public opinion respectively. The latter are three forms of enslavement. Each brings about a diminution, in fact a destruction of being: "People live for appearances and thus their lives become a sham."

Ratzinger's main point in that article is that the Church exists to make freedom possible in the most profound sense, i.e. the possibility of sharing in the Divine Being. Consequently the ". . . fundamental organization of the Church's freedom must therefore be to ensure that faith and sacrament, in which this sharing in the Divine Being is mediated, are accessible without diminution or adulteration. The fundamental right of the Christian is the right to the whole faith." All other rights and obligations lead to or from this basic right. He also highlights the contribution of the Church to freedom in the world, the right to believe and worship being the source of all human rights. More specifically, it was the Church that differentiated faith from the sphere of the State and so made freedom of conscience possible. Conscience — the secret core of one's being where one is face to face with God — is the place of true freedom. "Where Church authority remains fully true to her mission and where conscience becomes pure, the antinomy between freedom and constraint is dissolved."

2. Conscience, Theology, and Church Authority

Not surprisingly, conscience plays a central role in Ratzinger's ecclesiology, in particular when dealing with the nature of the Church's teaching authority and the role of the theologian vis-à-vis the Magisterium. Arising from the complementary personal and communal structure of the faith, a certain tension between theology and the Magisterium is inevitable. This is often described as the tension between conscience and authority conceived as an impersonal institution, but perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as the tension between individual conscience and that conscience which is social by nature. The communal conscience of the Church is the conscience of those who in God's design are ultimately responsible for the Church and her mission, the bishops in communion with the Successor of St. Peter. Both are distinct forms of responsibility. Both have truth as their object. Both are intrinsically interrelated. They need each other: theology is needed to prevent Church teaching from becoming a dead letter, enabling it to engage with (and transform) contemporary culture, the Magisterium to inspire theology and keep it rooted in sacred Tradition of divine origin and so pastorally relevant. Irresolvable tension arises, however, when conscience is understood in a typically modern way as pure subjectivity and invested with a false autonomy, while authority is seen as heteronymous, if not ultimately arbitrary. "Theology is born when the arbitrary judgment of reason encounters a limit, in that we discover something which we have not excogitated ourselves but which has been revealed to us." That encounter with the Word, which always precedes our initiative, we call "conversion," a turning from the "I" to the "no-longer-I" and thus the entrance into the "we" of the Church. In a word, the "Church is not an authority which remains foreign to the scientific character of theology but is rather the ground of theology's existence and the condition that makes it possible." Church here is not limited to the Magisterium but includes the sensus fidei of the entire People of God, present perhaps especially in the "simple" faithful (lay and clerical), whose faith and practice the teaching authority has an obligation to defend in the face of irresponsible theological speculation. (The term "simple" is understood here in terms of Mt 10:16; Phil 2:15, namely single-minded in one's love of Christ.) Neither can what is binding in the teaching of the Magisterium be limited to what has been declared infallible, as happened with the rejection of Humanae Vitae by many theologians.

Ratzinger rightly rejects such a limiting of authoritative teaching to infallible statements as a form of legalism. As a moral authority, its teaching evidently lacks mathematical precision and admits of degrees. For these reasons it is itself open to theological investigation and continual clarification, both at the level of scholarship and by the Magisterium itself. But no aspect of authoritative tradition can be ignored, much less opposed.

3. Conscience and the Church's Apostolic Constitution

On several occasions, Ratzinger has examined the implications of conscience for the exercise of authority. "Christ governs through conscience, by way of [his followers'] consciences. Christ is able to exercise governance over the Church much more effectively the more open and pure are the consciences of those to whom is entrusted the care of their flocks." Bishops' conferences should not simply aim at making resolutions and producing documents but should work "towards consciences becoming more enlightened and thus, on the basis of truth, more free. It is the only way that the true liberation of mankind to which the Church is summoned can be accomplished." In his well-known criticism of episcopal conferences, Ratzinger reminds us: "The Council . . . wanted specifically to strengthen the role and responsibility of bishops . . . [but this new emphasis] . . . is in reality restrained or actually risks being smothered by the insertion of bishops into episcopal conferences that are ever more organized, often with burdensome bureaucratic structures" (Vitterio Messori, The Ratzinger Report, San Francisco, 1985, p. 59). In other words, instead of increasing the personal responsibility of bishops, episcopal conferences seem to have created an impersonal institution or bureaucracy that lacks the conviction of a human voice and into which individual bishops are absorbed, and so subservient to the collectivity.

This development is in danger of undermining the divinely-instituted apostolic constitution of the Church, according to which each bishop is directly responsible for his own local Church (diocese) and indirectly responsible for the universal Church. Since conscience is where faith dwells, "both the local and the universal Church are most fully represented by someone who follows his conscience . . . Hence harkening to one's conscience contributes more to genuine 'representation' than majority decisions that are often prepared by a few and accepted by many more for the sake of peace than out of any deep inner conviction." The collegial authority of the bishops finds expression in their moral unanimity in faith and morals. It is not simply a matter of majority decisions. "The pattern whereby truths are defined as such is not the majority decision but the recognition becoming generally clear that the guardians of the faith united in sacramental communion jointly recognize a statement as a consequence of the faith they hold."

The centrality of conscience for a proper understanding of the significance of the Bishop of Rome as Successor of St. Peter is developed by Ratzinger on two interrelated planes. In the first place, the nature of the faith is that it makes absolute claims that relativize all other claims, including those of the State when the latter give way to totalitarian tendencies. Truth alone is universal and absolute. This is why the Church is built on the witness of the martyrs, who remained true to their consciences in refusing to compromise their faith. In the second place, Rome's authority is based on the fact that through his martyrdom Peter bore final witness to Christ there. Peter's witness had a definitive character in more senses than one. From the New Testament, we know that he was the spokesman of the Twelve, chosen by Christ to be the Rock on which he would build his Church. This mission — Peter's proclamation of, and so his public witness to, the truth — he completed in Rome with the shedding of his blood for Christ. As a result, the early Church recognized the special role of the See of Rome in bearing authoritative witness to the truth, which is marked by the cross.

The martyrological structure of the Pope's primacy has a further twofold significance. On the one hand the papacy bears authoritative witness to the truth revealed in Christ. On the other hand, this confession of the faith implies a rejection of the totalitarian tendency present in all secular authority, a rejection realized through the very powerlessness of conscience.

Ratzinger draws out the implications of this understanding of the primacy of truth — and so of conscience — for ecumenism as follows. Since unity in the Church is essentially moral unanimity based on truth, ecumenism must be understood precisely in terms of the search for truth. No one can foresee how the various confessions will achieve unity. History teaches that it cannot be imposed from above, as it were, but must be the result of interior preparation. Consequently, all Christian communities must "passionately seek the truth together" without attempting to impose anything that does not come from the Lord and at the same time safeguarding what He has entrusted to us. With Christ at the center of ecumenism, perhaps it is possible, according to Ratzinger, to see in the institutional separation something of the significance for salvation history that St. Paul saw in the division between Israel and the Gentiles (Rom 11:11).

4. Conscience and Politics

Ratzinger's theology of politics is a development of the Lord's apodictic statement: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" (Mt 22:21). This amounted, in effect, to the desacralization of secular authority represented by the emperor and so the liberation of politics from the sphere of the sacral, opening politics up to the sphere of human judgment and decision, the sphere of practical reason, ethics. It implied the separation of State and Church, the former a community of necessity (we are born into it), the latter a community of freedom or conviction (we are baptized into it). It also defined the limits set to political authority: it does not extend into the sphere of worship and faith, but rather is defined by justice in temporal affairs. Conscience is the only effective barrier to any abrogation of these limits. And so freedom of worship is the basis of all human rights and the ultimate barrier to totalitarianism. "The right to believe is the real core of human freedom; where this right is lacking, the loss of all further rights of freedom follows with an inner logic. At the same time this right is the real gift of freedom that Christian faith has brought into the world." The recognition of two separate authorities, Church and State, was the historical precondition for the emergence of freedom as the basic value in Western civilization. Since neither authority could claim total allegiance in every sphere of human existence, a space was created where personal responsibility and conscience could emerge and flourish. This was essentially the unique contribution of the martyrs to the progress of civilization.

5. The Nature of Conscience

Finally, a word about Ratzinger's most significant of his many contributions to moral theology, namely his understanding of the nature of conscience, when he re-articulates for our own day what Newman did a century and a half ago. Ratzinger recovers the ontological level of conscience, which had effectively been ignored in the Scholastic tradition, and which is to be distinguished from the level of practical reason, more specifically the exercise of the virtue of prudence. Both levels of conscience interrelate, but the more significant is the ontological, which he (following Josef Pieper) calls the Ur-Gewissen, that basic or primal sense for the good, which arises out of our being created in the image and likeness of God.

The classical tradition used the Stoic term synderesis (or synteresis) for this primal consciousness of attraction to the good and revulsion of evil. Ratzinger prefers the Platonic term anamnesis, which also has sacramental connotations. It is a memory of the good that enables us to recognize the good.

To be activated, it needs a midwife, as it were. For Ratzinger, this role is played by the Church's authoritative teaching. Rooted in our nature as capax Dei, the primordial memory of the good urges us to search for the truth, to seek out the moral parameters of what we can do, so that in a particular situation, we can prudently judge precisely what we ought to do, which is always unique.

In modern post-scholastic theology the ontological level was, with the exception of thinkers like Josef Pieper and Dietrich von Hildebrand, effectively forgotten, with the consequent shriveling of conscience to the second level, that of practical judgment. This led in our time to two apparently contradictory but in fact closely related perversions of the notion of conscience, that of the erroneous conscience and that of the infallible conscience. The former has come to mean in effect that it does not matter what one does, provided one is sincerely convinced that it is right, while the latter affirms that conscience cannot err, that what you think is right is in fact right. Conscience is reduced to an "excuse mechanism," and so neither Hitler nor Stalin can be condemned. Both notions receive their persuasiveness, if not their inspiration, from the prevailing relativism of modernity, the end product of the Enlightenment project built on the autonomy of the subject and the absolute claims of reason. It is now floundering in uncritical conformity to convention and the reduction of reason to empirical or quantitative rationality.

The first, as it were, ontological level of conscience, then, consists in the fact "that something like a primal memory (eine Urerinnerung) of the good and of the true (both are identical) is implanted in us; that there is an inner tendency of being in man made in the likeness of God towards that which is in conformity with God . . . This anamnesis of the origin, which results from that constitution of our being which is in conformity with God, is not a conceptual, articulated knowledge, a treasury of recallable contents. It is, as it were, an interior sense, a capacity of re-cognition, so that the person who is thereby addressed and interiorly is not opaque recognizes the echo of it in himself." St. Augustine formulated it more simply as the sense for the good that is imprinted in us.

Ratzinger also recalls that, for the Christian, there is also, as it were, a parallel primal conscience at this deeper level as a result of our incorporation through baptism into the "we"-structure of the faith. It is that intuitive sense of what is in harmony with the deposit of faith, which enables the faithful to sense what is true — census fidei — and what is false in what they hear in sermons or read in theological literature, though they may not be able to articulate it themselves.

In sum, one has to follow an erroneous conscience, but the guilt for acting in a way that is objectively wrong or evil — as in the case of Hitler and Stalin — is not to be found at that (second) level of conscience but at the deeper level, in failing to listen to the Voice of God that is the ontological conscience. That level of conscience cannot ever be obliterated and so remains as the a priori for repentance. It is also the basis for evangelization and mission. And it is the deepest ferment in every culture and religion, keeping societies open to the transcendent and enabling them to change and develop.


Conscience has played a central role in the life and writings of Pope Benedict XVI first as theologian, then as bishop, and later as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He has also plumbed the depths of its meaning and significance. Conscience is our subjective capacity to know objective truth — and ultimately Truth itself. To do justice to this topic would require a separate paper on truth and the central role truth plays in his life and writings. When he was elected archbishop of Munich, he chose as his motto: co-operatores veritatis, "co-workers of the truth," to designate his role as one among many workers, whose task it is to discover, declare, and defend ever anew the truth. His whole life has been dedicated to truth, whatever the price. In an interview, he once wrote, "To the Church falls the role of prophetic contradiction, and she must also have the courage for that. Precisely the courage for the truth — even though at first it seems to do damage, to lose popularity, and to force the Church into the ghetto — is in reality her great power."

The truth, however, is not to be understood as an ideology, a closed system, or a series of abstract doctrines — the dead letter of the law, as it were — but is, in the final analysis, (inter) personal, dynamic, existential and ineffable. It must suffice here to illustrate this by quoting a passage from one of his most significant, strictly theological works, Principles of Catholic Theology, where he comments on a passage by Dietrich von Hildebrand about the need to be open to truth even after one's conversion:

"It means, first of all, that after his conversion the Christian cannot simply jettison his readiness to change, his metanoia, as a burden belonging to the past. For there will remain in him the conflict of two opposing forces of gravity: the gravitational pull of interest, of egoism, and the gravitational pull of truth, of love. . . . This means that truth remains always a way, a goal — that it never becomes something wholly one's own. Christ, who is the truth, is in this world also as the way, precisely because he is the truth."

Father D. Vincent Twomey, SVD, a former student of Joseph Ratzinger is professor emeritus of moral theology at St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, Ireland

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