In Chapter Five of Values in a Time of Upheaval, entitled "If You Want Peace..." the Holy Father begins by introducing two opposing concepts of morality, and the journey that brought him to the Christian understanding of how our conscience must function to create peace within our souls and peace within the world.
Morality of Conscience
The first view of morality holds that conscience is the highest rule, that the fundamental system of accountability in safeguarding human freedom lies in following our own conscience, even when it leads us to oppose authority. According to this view, conscience ultimately has the last word. Some even take this so far as to believe that a person cannot go wrong by following their conscience, that conscience is infallible.
"One must always follow a clear verdict of conscience....But it is quite a different matter to assume that the verdict of conscience...is always correct, i.e. infallible--for if that were so, it would mean that there is no truth, at least in matters of morality and religion, which are the foundations of our very existence...there would exist only the truth of the subject."Isn't this view, what Pope Benedict refers to as" the idea of conscience found in liberalism," precisely what we see prevailing in our world today? This is exactly what leads to the phenomenon the Holy Father has referred to as the "dictatorship of relativism." On the surface, its initial promise, that it would "enable human beings to live together" in peace, without our conflicting views rubbing up against each other, seems tantalizing. But this quickly comes to an end where it meets the reality of the darkness that remains in the human soul. We have seen examples of this time after time in history, and what seems to be almost weekly in the news headlines, of the terrible consequences when this darkness festers and erupts into the world in violent, often murderous, action. If this darkness is not exposed (often painfully) to the outside light, it remains with nothing to quell it, twisting conscience more and more until the conscience itself becomes unrecognizable. Under this idea, even the worst mass murderer would be justified in his actions if, in the deepest part of himself, he believed that what he was doing was right.
So what is the antidote? In one word: guilt. In a few more words, a properly formed conscience that guilt leads us to recognize we need.
Morality of Authority
This opposing view of morality of conscience argues that, basically, our conscience is fallible and needs help from outside (or, above). The conscience can be led into error and distorted, and so it is not reliable as a final source of moral authority. It forces us to look outside ourselves for another, authoritative source. When we allow the darkness and sin within us to be exposed to that outside source of light, it creates a feeling that is painful, often deeply so. It's like a cancer being exposed to radiation treatment, but in this case the "radiation" is Divine. The pain that comes each time the cancer festers and is exposed to light is guilt. Guilt comes when we recognize the difference between who we are and who we ought to be, and destroys any false notion of the conscience as absolute. The Holy Father reflects upon this idea of guilt as he first came upon it in an essay by German psychologist Albert Gorres:
"The guilt feeling that shatters a conscience's false claim and the criticism made by my conscience of my self-satisfied existence are signals that we need just as much as we need the physical pain that lets us know our normal vital functions have been disturbed. One who is no longer capable of seeing his own guilt is psychologically ill..."Guilt is what sounds the alarm bells that something within us has violated our conscience, but more importantly has violated the objective Truth that conscience is designed to remind us of. Guilt gives us the ability to look inwardly and realize that, for whatever reason, we have closed the window on that cleansing light, even if momentarily, and allowed the cancerous growth of sin to start accumulating again. The Pope continues, "Jesus can work effectively among sinners because they have not become inaccessible behind the screen of an erring conscience, which would put them out of reach of the changes that God awaits from them--and from us." This is why, in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), "the tax collector with all his undisputed sins is more righteous in the eyes of God than the Pharisee with all his genuinely good deeds."
The world today, which in so very many places subscribes to the morality of conscience, would have us believe that guilt is a bad thing, something to be done away with. "We have lost sight of truth as such, the absolute, the basic point of reference of our thought," the Holy Father says, "and this is why...there is no longer any 'up' or 'down.'" There are no directions in a world that lacks fixed points for measuring." In reality, guilt is absolutely necessary for our proper spiritual and psychological functioning. We need it to let us know when the compass of our conscience is not working as it should, or that, if it is properly formed, we have disregarded it and allowed ourselves to be deceived that East, West, or South are North.
This all leads to the question of where we can turn to make sure that our conscience works the way it should. To what--or, to who--can we can look to find the source of cleansing and healing that the Psalmist begs for in Psalm 19:12: "But who can discern his errors? Clear thou me from hidden faults"? That, and the "working examples" of the saints, whose lives are lived and whose example lives on for us as benchmarks of properly formed conscience, will have to wait for another post.
In the meantime, please pray for the Holy Father, that he will continue to be blessed with grace and strength as he leads the Church to remain a beacon of light in a world of darkness.