Conscience and Reality

In a wonderful 1991 address on “Conscience and Truth,” then-Cardinal Ratzinger mentioned a comment a senior colleague had made to him to the effect that “one should actually be grateful to God that He allows there to be so many unbelievers in good conscience. For if their eyes were opened and they became believers, they would not be capable, in this world of ours, of bearing the burden of faith with all its moral obligations. But as it is, since they can go another way in good conscience, they can reach salvation.”

What especially shocked him, reported the future pope, was the notion “of a blindness sent by God for the salvation of those in question”:

What disturbed me was the notion that it harbored, that faith is a burden which can hardly be borne and which no doubt was intended only for stronger natures – faith almost as a kind of punishment, in any case, an imposition not easily coped with. According to this view, faith would not make salvation easier but harder. Being happy would mean not being burdened with having to believe or having to submit to the moral yoke of the faith of the Catholic Church. The erroneous conscience, which makes life easier and marks a more human course, would then be a real grace. . . .Untruth, keeping truth at bay, would be better for man than truth. It would not be the truth that would set him free, but rather he would have to be freed from the truth…. Faith would not be the good gift of the good God but instead an affliction. If this were the state of affairs, how could faith give rise to joy? Who would have the courage to pass faith on to others? Would it not be better to spare them the truth or even keep them from it? In the last few decades, notions of this sort have discernibly crippled the disposition to evangelize.

In an earlier article on “Conscience and Truth,” I asked the question whether, if you were doing something wrong, you would want someone to tell you. Hearing any sort of correction — especially moral correction is hard, I suggested, because it forces us to face difficult truths about ourselves. The ancient Greek proverb “Know Thyself” was a counsel of wisdom not because it was easy, but because so few people were willing to do it.


The question was meant to be a fairly simple, straightforward one, albeit existentially challenging. There are, however, as it turns out, many ways of avoiding a simple question. One strategy for avoiding asking it is to interpose unrelated narratives about the author’s “real” intentions or about the reliability of “objective” moral truth or about the Catholic Church. Some people asked me whether it made sense to begin from a position of moral superiority. Others questioned my supposition of an “objective” morality. Is such a thing even possible? Still others complained about the “oppressive judgmentalism” they had suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church until they “freed” themselves from it.

But my question wasn’t about any of these things. I wasn’t asking about the moral correction of others; I was asking whether we are at all open to hearing a potentially uncomfortable truth about ourselves.

The Church teaches that we are made in the image of God and thus have an infinite personal dignity. And yet we are also, at the same time, like the Triune God, fundamentally communal. So we are called upon to treat others with the dignity and respect we would wish for ourselves and which they too deserve as also being “in the image of God.” So let’s say I fail in that regard (and indeed, I do, pretty regularly). Am I willing to hear that message?

I agree that there are better and worse strategies for moral correction. But it seems to me we also have to ask ourselves whether we would only be open to listening to such correction from a perfect person with the greatest love possible and just the right sort of approach tailored to our specific psychic and emotional needs. If that’s what it would take, then let’s just admit to ourselves right now that we’re not open at all, because that person just doesn’t exist.We can, of course, strive continually to become wiser and more prudent in this regard. But perfection simply isn’t in the cards, this side of the Beatific Vision.

What’s especially disturbing about the comment made by Ratzinger’s “senior” German colleague is precisely that he was “senior,” thus he would have been alive during the Final Solution in Germany, when far too many German citizens satisfied themselves with living in a blissful ignorance of what was happening to their Jewish neighbors. Were they thus “freed from the truth”? Were they happier not being burdened with having to submit to the moral yoke of the faith of the Catholic Church? Did their erroneous, largely silent consciences, mark out for them “a more human course,” even though their blindness may indeed have made life for them, at least, in a certain sense, easier?

Is faith the good gift of the good God, or an affliction? Do we believe it gives rise ultimately to joy, even if that joy involves bearing the cross? Or do we believe that it would be better to spare people the truth? Is “untruth” really better for man than truth? Does our salvation lie in being “freed from the truth”? Or is it the Truth – especially the truth God has revealed about the human person – that will set us free? Could “sparing” people the Way of Truth really be the key to the “new evangelization” people keep talking about?

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.