Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Conscience and Fr. Ratzinger

 

 

Thanks to Rob for his joining me on the discussion on conscience and fidelity, a discussion we pursue frequently at the Mirror of Justice—and, I am confident, we will continue to discuss for some time to come. In view of Rob’s update regarding N. 16 of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern Worlds, Gaudium et Spes, it would be helpful to know what this provision states in its entirety in the chapter on the dignity of the human person:

 

N. 16. In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

 

The quotation offered by Rob in his update is not from Cardinal Ratzinger and his commentary on N. 16. It was by Father and Professor Joseph Ratzinger and written after the Council in the latter half of the 1960s. Substantively, Fr. Ratzinger developed the specific passage quoted in Rob’s update in his discussion of Cardinal Newman’s thoughts on the matter of conscience. But Fr. Ratzinger presented his own view of the conciliar text and went on to explain that, “Genuine ecclesiastical obedience is distinguished from any totalitarian claim which cannot accept any ultimate obligation of this kind beyond the reach of its dominating will.” Fr. Ratzinger continued by pointing out that this text from the Pastoral Constitution simply presents the general outline of the Christian doctrine regarding conscience. He, Ratzinger, took pains to emphasize in his discussion on this provision of the Council’s document that the text emphasizes the transcendent nature of conscience, its non-arbitrary character, and its objectivity—a point that I think is most important about the formation of conscience that is well-formed. I concur with Fr. Ratzinger’s assessment that conscience, in a Christian context and praxis, must not be subjectively determined—and I think this is precisely what the “Catholics for Marriage Equality” in Maine are doing—subjectively forming their consciences. Fr. Ratzinger stated, moreover, that,

 

The fathers [of the Council] were obviously anxious (as, of course, was repeatedly shown in the debate on religious freedom also) not to allow an ethics of conscience to be transformed into the domination of subjectivism, and not to canonize a limitless situation ethics under the guise of conscience. On the contrary, the conciliar text implies that obedience to conscience means an end to subjectivism, a turning aside from blind arbitrariness, and produces conformity with the objective norms of moral action.

 

A few lines later, Fr. Ratzinger penned that “the habit of sin can dull and practically blind the conscience.” Here, Fr. Ratzinger is critical of the conciliar text in that it fails to give a sufficient account of “the limits of conscience.” He further noted that the text offers an “evasive formula” regarding the “binding force of erroneous conscience.” Here, the good father who was a peritus at the Council notes his own concern about the erroneously formed conscience. This is why I often speak of the well-formed conscience rather than conscience, because I believe that there can be an erroneously formed conscience that some folks rely upon to justify the decisions they make in life. I turn to “Catholics for Marriage Equality” in the Maine referendum as a case in point. Fr. Ratzinger concluded his observations on the conciliar text that Rob has brought to our attention by stating:

 

The doctrine of the binding force of an erroneous conscience in the form in which it is propounded nowadays [the 1960s and, I would suggest, to the present day], belongs entirely to the thought of modern times.

 

Because of what I have presented here, I do not join Rob in his assessment “that a person is only obligated to follow a well-formed conscience is in some tension with significant strands of the Catholic tradition...” I think Rob makes a good point, in which I concur, that much, but not all of the issue we have been discussing, emerges from poor formation of conscience. A person may be most sincere in his or her following a poorly formed conscience, but that conscience remains poorly formed. That is a concern for me, and it was a concern for Fr. Ratzinger.

 

Rob concludes his last entry by arguing that framing the Catholic voter’s obligation as “a duty to disregard her own conscience in the voting booth, rather than a duty to prayerfully and intentionally seek to form her conscience in the light of Church teaching, also raises tensions with democratic notions of citizenship.” I am inclined to disagree. Folks rarely form their views in a vacuum. They turn to opinions they trust or that they like or that they hear all the time, etc. I think the Church and Her teachings can be such a source; for the person who declares to be a “faithful Catholic,” then they ought to turn to Her teachings and the wisdom on which they are based. This should not generate tension with democratic notions of citizenship. If some view the Maine group “Catholics for Marriage Equality” as one source of information for forming their views, the Church must be viewed as an alternative source, particularly for the “faithful Catholic.”

 

RJA sj

 

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