Earlier in these reflections I said that conscience shouldn’t be seen merely as an irritating little guilt generator. I was implying that guilt often shakes an admonitory finger at us for doing things that aren’t really bad at all. Granted, neurotic guilt is crippling and needs to be healed. It originates in our emotions and not in our true conscience. But not all guilt is neurotic. The ability to experience guilt when guilt is appropriate does come from our conscience and it is vitally important. In his paper, “Conscience and Truth”*, delivered in 1991 , the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger affirmed that guilt safeguards the health of our conscience, indeed, of our very existence.
Let us turn to St. Thomas Aquinas for a few moments. His teaching can help us to understand Cardinal Ratzinger’s ideas.
St. Thomas Aquinas says [Summa Theologiae I, 79, 13] that our conscience is what enables us to apply our knowledge of the truth to a given situation. It does this in several different ways. Our conscience is what “binds” or “incites” us, says St. Thomas, when we are considering a course of action. When our conscience judges that something should be done it “incites” us to do it; when it judges that something should not be done, it “binds” us – or keeps us from doing that thing.
Further, says Aquinas, our conscience is the part of us that “witnesses” our deeds, sees us as we live our life and attempt to negotiate all kinds of challenging situations. If we have lied, for example, our conscience witnesses this. After seeing us lie, our conscience doesn’t turn around and go away, it judges us, telling us that it was wrong of us to do so. In that sense, its judgment “accuses” us, and may well “torment” us, he says, until we have made amends.
Let’s consider another, very different, situation. Perhaps, for example, we were misinformed about something and the on the basis of the wrong information, said something that was untrue without realising it. Fortunately, as St. Thomas teaches, under those kinds of circumstances, our conscience is the very thing that tells us not to worry. It “excuses” the deed. Although others may blame us for saying that untrue thing, our conscience knows that we were not lying; we were merely misinformed. It excuses us. But our conscience, if it is functioning properly, will surely incite us to apologize and explain to anyone we might have unknowingly misled that in fact we were misinformed.
Something is wrong when wildflowers, like these cowslips, no longer surface. MMB
In eight words, then, St. Thomas’s teaching can be summarised: conscience binds, incites, witnesses, judges, accuses, torments, accuses and excuses. Not every word is a word that is comfortable to consider. We do not really want to be judged, tormented or accused. Yet, these are words that St. Thomas uses in a positive way and in conjunction with other words that are easier to accept. They all work together to help us, if we will be open to this process of growth.
Guilt can help us to grow, then. Paradoxically, guilt can affirm my deepest self. It can tell me that I am alive inside, that I am there, and that I am – or can be – better, greater than one might think from looking at the wrongs I have committed. When guilt no longer surfaces within me when I do something wrong, then something else, very basic, is very wrong.
* [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].