Conscience and Truth...

In 1991, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gave an address in Dallas to the American bishops entitled "Conscience and Truth"; it was published and distributed by the Pope John XXIII Medical-Moral Center. Because this topic is a very important in our society today I decided to posted some notes form Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger address.

"In the contemporary discussion on what constitutes the essence of morality and how it can be recognized, the question of conscience has become paramount especially in the field of Catholic moral theology. This discussion centers on the concepts of freedom and norm, autonomy and heteronomy, self-determination and external determination by authority. Conscience appears here as the bulwark of freedom in contrast to the encroachments of authority on existence. In the course of this, two notions of the Catholic are set in opposition to each other...Morality of conscience and morality of authority as two opposing models, appear to be locked in struggle with each other. Accordingly, the freedom of the Christian would be rescued by appeal to the classical principle of moral tradition that conscience is the highest norm which man is to follow even in opposition to authority. Authority in this case, the Magisterium, may well speak of matters moral, but only in the sense of presenting conscience with material for its own deliberation. Conscience would retain, however, the final word. Some authors reduce conscience in this its aspect of final arbiter to the formula: conscience is infallible."

"Certainly the high road to truth and goodness is not a comfortable one. It challenges man. Nevertheless, retreat into self, however comfortable, does not redeem. The self withers away and becomes lost. But in ascending the heights of the good, man discovers more and more the beauty which lies in the arduousness of truth which constitutes redemption for him. We would dissolve Christianity into moralism if no message which surpasses our own actions became discernible. Without many words an image from the Greek world can show this to us. In it we can observe simultaneously both how the anamnesis of the creator extends from within us outward toward the redeemer and how everyone may see him as redeemer, because he answers our own innermost expectations. I am speaking of the story of the expiation of the sin of matricide of Orestes. He had committed the murder as an act of conscience. This is designated by the mythological language of obedience to the command of the god Apollo. But he now finds himself hounded by the furies or erinyes who are to be seen as mythological personifications of conscience which, from a deeper wellspring of recollection, reproach Orestes, declaring that his decision of conscience, his obedience to the "saying of the gods" was in reality guilt.

The whole tragedy of man comes to light in this dispute of the "gods," that is to say, in this conflict of conscience. In the holy court, the white stone of Athena leads to Orestes' acquittal, his sanctification in the power of which the erinyes are transformed into emends, spirits of reconciliation. Atonement has transformed the world. The myth, while representing the transition from a system of blood vengeance to the right order of community, signifies much more than just that. Hans Usr Von Balthasar expressed this "more" as follows: "...Calming grace always assists in the establishing of justice, not the old graceless justice of the Erinyes period, but that which is full of grace..." This myth speaks to us of the human longing that conscience's objectively just indictment and the attendant destructive, interior distress it causes in man, not be the last word. It thus speaks of an authority of grace, a power of expiation which allows the guilt to vanish and makes truth at last truly redemptive. It is the longing for a truth which doesn't just make demands of us but also transforms us through expiation and pardon. Through these, as Aeschylus puts it, "guilt is washed away" and our being is transformed from within, beyond our own capability. This is the real innovation of Christianity.

The Logos, the truth in person, is also the atonement, the transforming forgiveness above and beyond our capability and incapability. Therein lies the real novelty upon which the larger Christian memory is founded and which indeed, at the same time, constitutes the deeper answer to what the anamnesis of the creator expects of us. Where this center of the Christian anamnesis is not sufficiently expressed and appreciated, truth becomes a yoke which is too heavy for our shoulders and from which we must seek to free ourselves. But the freedom gained thereby is empty. It leads into the desolate land of nothingness and disintegrates of itself. Yet the yoke of truth in fact became "easy" (Mt 11:30) when the truth came, loved us, and consumed our guilt in the fire of his love. Only when we know and experience this from within, will we be free to hear the message of conscience with joy and without fear."

*For reference see:http://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/RATZCONS.HTM

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