Religious extremism, dictatorships, totalitarian systems, or simply capitulation to the moral values promulgated by the powerful voice of the mass media can desensitise our conscience. Our conscience needs to be alive and well, and able to evaluate and resist such voices.
In saying that we need to be on our guard against dictatorships of all kinds, am I not saying that we need to be wary of all authority, even that of the Church? How do I know whether or not the teaching authority of the Church isn’t just another form of dictatorship? Joseph Ratzinger’s paper, ‘Conscience and Truth’ [reference, part VI], to which we have already referred in these posts, shows that our conscience holds the key to the answer.
Let us return to what The Catechism says: in our conscience we ‘are alone with God whose voice echoes in [our] depths.’ Cardinal Ratzinger says that in our depths we have a mysterious “memory” of divine love. This “memory” makes us alive to the fact that behind the commandments, behind the law of God, behind the moral truths enjoined on us by the Church, lies a truth that exists for us not as an imposition from without but as an expression, even a liberation, of what is deepest within the soul.
He says that this “memory” is not like the memory one might have of, say, one’s phone number, or the vocabulary of a foreign language. It is ‘not a conceptually articulated knowing, a store of retrievable contents.’ It is something much more profound. It is more like the knowledge of oneself that is awakened by a very deep human love. Human love can awaken the lover to a new depth of self-knowledge that both comes from the loved one and yet is experienced as a true aspect of oneself. In a similar but even more profound way, the ‘god-like constitution of our being’, as Joseph Ratzinger expresses it, gives us a capacity to “hear” on the level of our conscience the voice of God – a voice which is at once other and yet is experienced as one’s deepest, truest self. We say, “That’s it! That is what my nature points to and seeks.” There is a very real sense in which the truths that the Church proposes for belief liberate our true self and give us our deepest identity.
But – and this is why the authority of the Church is not a dictatorship – we cannot discover this true self and deepest identity in isolation. Cardinal Ratzinger says that ‘The “memory” instilled in our being needs, one might say, assistance from without so that it can become aware of itself.’ This assistance is what the authority of the Church gives. It is in no way set in opposition to our deepest identity. Rather, it awakens it and affirms it.
To grasp this is to grasp what the conscience is and is for.