If our conscience needs to be formed by truths propounded by the teaching authority of the Church, how, therefore, can our conscience be said to have within it “a law inscribed by God”? That would suggest that we don’t need anyone to tell us what the truth requires of us. External authority shouldn’t be needed.
This is one of the points that the then Cardinal Ratzinger addressed in a paper entitled “Conscience and Truth”, delivered in 1991.* In the paper he asks, isn’t ‘conscience the highest moral norm which man is to follow, even in opposition to authority? Authority, in this case, the Magisterium, may well speak of matters moral, but only in the sense of presenting conscience with material for its own deliberation. Conscience would retain … the final word.’
With a profound penetration of the subject, Cardinal Ratzinger’s paper explored the question of whether conscience exists in opposition to authority. We need to ask ourselves, he says, what faith is for the human person? What is truth for us? What does it do for us? There are those, said Joseph Ratzinger, who seem to feel that faith is a very heavy burden that makes their life difficult. There are those who feel that people who are weak perhaps shouldn’t be asked to shoulder the burden of faith, with all its moral obligations. For such people, he points out, it is not really the truth that sets them free; rather they somehow feel that they need to be set free from the truth in order to be happy. However, these are the attitudes that Cardinal Ratzinger’s paper challenges. These attitudes, he maintains, come from a misunderstanding that exists on a deeper level – in a concept of conscience that is false. To those who feel that faith and truth are burdens, he explains the misunderstanding they have about the nature of conscience. He says, for such people conscience
…does not appear here as a window through which one can see outward to the common truth which builds and sustains us all. Conscience does not mean man’s openness to the ground of his being, the power of perception for what is highest and most essential. Rather, it appears as subjectivity’s protective shell into which man can escape and there hide from reality.
Conscience does not open the way to the redemptive road to truth – which either does not exist or, if it does, is too demanding. It is the faculty that dispenses from truth. It thereby becomes the justification for subjectivity, which would not like to have itself called into question.
These deep and penetrating lines perhaps need to be unpacked. We can do this by simply reversing the negatives. Then one begins to see the beauty of Cardinal Ratzinger’s understanding of the human conscience. Conscience is a window onto the truth that builds and sustains all people; conscience is access to the ground of one’s being – one’s very heart; conscience is the capacity to perceive what is noblest and most vital in life; conscience is the redemptive road to truth. Surely our conscience, rightly understood, is a part of ourselves that we cannot do without, that we should never wish to suppress.
- [Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “Conscience and Truth, presented at the tenth Workshop for Bishops, February, 1991, Dallas, Texas, U.S.A., published in On Conscience, Two Essays by Joseph Ratzinger, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, 2007].