Lit­er­ary look back: The fu­ture Pope Bene­dict speaks on con­science of man

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

Ig­natius Press was Joseph Ratzinger’s pri­mary U.S. pub­lisher long be­fore he was made pope. It re­leased the first Amer­i­can edi­tion of his book “Daugh­ter Zion: Med­i­ta­tions on the Church’s Mar­ian Be­lief” in 1983. Car­di­nal Ratzinger was then pre­fect of the Con­gre­ga­tion for the Doc­trine of the Faith, the Vat­i­can of­fice re­spon­si­ble for over­see­ing Catholic teach­ing.

That post made him a fig­ure of con­sid­er­able in­ter­est to Amer­i­can Catholics — es­pe­cially those on left and right en­gaged in the the­o­log­i­cal tug of war over the fu­ture of the Church. His books and ar­ti­cles and speeches were trans­lated, queued and re­leased at a trickle. The sales were un­spec­tac­u­lar but steady. When he was elected the 265th Bishop of Rome in April, 2005, “Daugh­ter Zion” was still in print.

His sur­prise elec­tion trans­formed his lit­er­ary sta­tus, from solid the­o­log­i­cal seller to Oprah’s Book Club-ter­ri­tory star. Ig­natius stuck bright gold “Pope Bene­dict XVI” stick­ers on all the books still in its ware­houses and made the ad­ver­tise­ments part of the cov­ers when it reprinted them. The pub­lisher also cranked up the presses to reis­sue some books and to re­lease pre­vi­ously un­pub­lished works.

Due to their size and sub­ject mat­ter, some of his books would likely have never been pub­lished had the pa­pal con­clave cho­sen a dif­fer­ent pope. In the case of On Con­science (Ig­natius, $14.95, 82 pages), that would have been a great shame. The small vol­ume col­lects two talks the CDF head de­liv­ered to Amer­i­can bishops at the Na­tional Catholic Bioethics cen­ter in 1984 and 1991.

In both speeches, he tried to ad­dress an er­ror that he per­ceived in how we think about con­science. The ex­ist­ing model, he ar­gued, was to view con­science as “the bul­wark of free­dom in con­trast to the en- croach­ments of author­ity on ex­is­tence.” One’s gov­ern­ment/ church/ boy scout group may or­der you to be­have one way, but if your con­science tells you to do dif­fer­ently, it is con­sid­ered more noble to fol­low your con­science. Ich kann nicht an­ders.

Car­di­nal Ratzinger told the bishops about a fac­ulty dis­cus­sion from when he was a univer­sity pro­fes­sor in Ger­many. The dis­pute was over “the jus­ti­fy­ing power of the er­ro­neous con­science.” One pro­fes­sor cre­ated a re­duc­tio ad ab­sur­dum us­ing Nazi true be­liev­ers. If we should fol­low our con­science above all else, he said, then we “should seek them in heaven, since they car­ried out all their atroc­i­ties with fa­natic con­vic­tion and com­plete cer­tainty of con­science.”

The ex­am­ple seemed straight­for­ward enough for most of the profs, but the ab­sur­dity was lost on one or two ob­servers. In fact, one col­league piped up “with ut­most as­sur­ance that, of course, this was in­deed the case.” Hitler went to heaven.

“Since that con­ver­sa­tion,” Car­di­nal Ratzinger ex­plained, “I knew with com­plete cer­tainty that . . . a con­cept of con­science that leads to such re­sults must be false. Firm, sub­jec­tive con­vic­tion and the lack of doubts and scru­ples that fol­low from it do not jus­tify man.”

He went look­ing for a dif­fer­ent con­cep­tion of con­science — one that didn’t pit “moral­ity of con­science” against “moral­ity of author­ity.” Fi­nally, he de­cided that con­science has to work like lan­guage, from both within and with­out.

One has the in­nate abil­ity to speak, but it has to be learned by ob­ser­va­tion, im­i­ta­tion and in­ter­ac­tion with oth­ers. So it is with con­science: If one thinks of it as only an in­te­rior, al­most oc­cult, guide to life, he is likely to go badly wrong.

As part of his first lec­ture, Car­di­nal Ratzinger made use of the in­sight of psy­chol­o­gist Al­bert Gor­res that “the ca­pac­ity to rec­og­nize guilt, be­longs es­sen­tially to the spir­i­tual make-up of man. This feel­ing of guilt dis­turbs the false calm of con­science and could be called con­science’s com­plaint against my self-sat­is­fied ex­is­tence.”

That is, if you feel bad about some­thing, maybe it’s be­cause you did some­thing bad.

Chalk it up to sheer con­trari­ness if you like, but this reviewer found it re­fresh­ing to read a fu­ture pope ex­pound­ing on the ben­e­fits of guilt.

Jeremy Lott is a con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor to Books & Cul­ture and au­thor of “In De­fense of Hypocrisy.”

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