Literary look back: The future Pope Benedict speaks on conscience of man
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 The publisher also cranked up the presses to reissue some books and to release previously unpublished works.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.”