00 6/14/2009 10:46 PM

Conscience and truth -
in a new book from Benedict XVI

by Lucetta Scaraffia
Translated from
the 6/14/09 issue of

It certainly is nothing new that a Pope intervenes in order to make more clear to the faithful an understanding of the problems of the times we live in, but we can say without fear of exaggeration that no one has done this with the acuteness and profundity of Benedict XVI.

To the point that his writings dedicated to a critical reading of the present are now considered classics which can - and should - interest everyone who wants to better understand the age in which we live, not only Catholics.

Because of this, the essays collected in a book recently published in Italy (Joseph Ratzinger/Benedetto XVI, L'elogio della coscienza: La Verità interroga il cuore, Siena, Cantagalli, 2009, 175 pp, euro 13,50) are particularly illuminating.

With his usual limpid and simple style - that simplicity that only deep and well-settled thinking can arrive at - the author confronts the principal theoretical problems of our time, denouncing their limitations and manipulations, and proposing a clear response, drawn from the treasury of Christian tradition.

All the essays revolve around two questions that are intimately linked: conscience and truth, both 'cancelled out' by contemporary culture which has replaced them with subjectivity and relativism, thinking that this is the way to guarantee individual freedom, the one true modernist fetish.

The book's title essay, 'The eulogy of conscience', clarifies a complex and often misrepresented subject, the role of conscience. In a culture which tends to oppose a 'morality of conscience' against a 'morality of authority', unhooking the problem of conscience from that of truth, the only guarantee of freedom appears to be the justification of subjectivity, whereas authority is seen to "restrict, threaten and outright negate such freedom".

Here we touch the truly critical point of modernity: "The idea of truth has been eliminated in practice and replaced with that of progress" which although seemingly exalted, is instead deprived on all sides. In a world without fixed points of reference, without truth, there are no longer any directions, either.

Choosing not to admit that in order to be human, it is possible to know the truth, leads to a lack of interest in content, in order to give pre-eminence to technique, to formalism.

A clear example in this respect is in art: "Today, what the work expresses is altogether a matter of indifference: the only criterion is its technico-formal execution".

Living in a society which influences and conditions individuals, it is difficult to hear that which was considered 'the voice of conscience', that is, "the perceptible and imperious presence of the voice of truth within the subject himself".

Even if the way to truth and goodness has been abandoned because it is arduous, inconvenient, and considered too difficult to follow, that doesn't mean we should renounce it: "We would dissolve Christianity into a moralism if there were no clear announcement that goes beyond our own faith".

In these conditions, the very truth about the good becomes unattainable, because the only reference for each man is that which he is able to conceive by himself as good, thus renouncing that minimum of objectively established rights - not those agreed upon through social conventions - as the only ones on which the existence of every political community can be established.

In essence, where God 'disappears', "the absolute dignity of the human person also disappears". and the dignity of everyone no longer depends on the mere fact of existence, on being wanted and created by God. That is why "the ultimate root of hatred and all the attacks against human life is the loss of God".

Benedict XVI discloses one of his principal concerns, which he has repeated many times: the fear that the modern notion of democracy cannot emancipate itself from the relativistic option, in a world where relativism appears to be the only guarantee of freedom.

On the other hand, the Pope knows well and repeats ceaselessly that "a foundation of truth - truth in the moral sense - appears irrenunciable for the survival of democracy itself". We must not forget, he writes, that, in fact, "all states have attained rational moral evidence - which allows them to deploy its very effects - from pre-existent religious traditions".

Benedict XVI often returns to the subject of the search for truth: "If God is truth, if truth is the true 'sacred', then renouncing truth means fleeing from God". Even when this comes within a religious confession because, the Pope denounces, there is also a 'fideist positivism' which 'is afraid of losing God by exposing itself to the truth about created beings".

Truth is the fundamental premise of every morality, but if instead, the criterion of utility or of results, as sustained by currently asserted political theory, takes the place of truth, then the world shatters into so many partialities because utility always depends on the viewpoint of the subject who acts.

What then does it mean to be a theologian in this cultural situation? This question is answered in unprecedented and exhaustive manner by the last essays in a volume which is fundamental for understanding the world today and for living in it as a Christian.

Too bad that the editor to whom we owe the admirable initiative of putting together these texts did not specify when each was written, and whether it was by Cardinal Ratzinger or by the Pope. As if this were irrelevant to the reader.

[I was under the impression from all the reviews so far that all these texts were from when the Pope was a cardinal. It is rather surprising, though, that date and author attribution is not provided for each text in any anthology.]

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 1/29/2010 11:08 AM]