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William E. May, Senior Fellow

In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, no. 64,  John Paul wrote: “Christians have a great help for the formation of conscience in the Church and her Magisterium. As the Council affirms: ‘In forming their consciences the Christian faithful must give careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. Her charge is to announce and teach authentically that truth which is Christ, and at the same time with her authority to declare and confirm the principles of the moral order which derive from human nature itself  (Dignitatis Humanae, 14); It follows that the authority of the Church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians. This is so not only because freedom of conscience is never freedom "from" the truth but always and only freedom "in" the truth, but also because the Magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith (emphasis added). The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it.”

I will show that in the words emphasized in the text cited John Paul II is referring to conscience as essentially a kind of “rememoring,” what Plato called anamnesis. Pope Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Ratzinger, had written magnificently on this central meaning of conscience. I will first summarize his thought and then relate it to the teaching of John Paul II in Veritatis splendor.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger on Conscience

In a remarkable address, called “Conscience and Truth,” given at a conference on Catholic Conscience: Foundation and Formation (Proceedings of the Tenth Bishops’ Workshop 1991) and originally published as edited by Rev. Russell Smith by the Pope John XXIII Medical Moral Center, Braintree, MA (now the National Catholic Bioethics Center, Philadelphia, PA) and reprinted in On Conscience: Two Essays by Cardinal Ratzinger. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007 Ratzinger uses the thought of Cardinal Newman, Socrates and Plato, to develop what he regards as the central anthropological and ontological meaning of conscience as anamnesis. On Conscience: Two Essays by Cardinal Ratzinger. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007.

After first showing the falsity and solipsistic subjectivism at the heart of the understanding of “conscience” espoused by dissenting Catholic theologians who make one’s own conscience “infallible,” and how this notion of conscience was precisely that held by the Nazi Gestapo, Ratzinger then appeals to the thought of John Cardinal Newman and the Platonic Socrates in his battle against the Sophists to focus on what he calls conscience as anamnesis, which he regards as its central anthropological and ontological meaning.

He cites the famous citation from Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk: “I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards” (p.23).  Newman’s point was not to belittle the Pope nor put conscience above him but in contrast to Gladstone and other Anglicans to show that the papacy is correctly conceived only when viewed together with the primacy of conscience—“a papacy not put in opposition to the primacy of conscience but based on it and guaranteeing it” (23). Most important was that for Newman the middle term connecting authority with subjectivity is the truth.  “The centrality of the concept conscience for Newman is linked to the prior centrality of the concept truth (24). Conscience is the demanding presence of the voice of truth in the subject.  “Two standards become apparent for ascertaining the presence of a real voice of conscience. First, conscience is not identical to personal wishes and taste. Second, conscience cannot be reduced to social advantage,to group consensus, or to the demands of political and social power” (26).  Ratzinger  sees the contemporary relativisitic understanding of conscience paralleled by the Socratic-Platonic battle with sophistry. On one side Socrates anPlato were confident that man has the ability to grasp truth, while the Sophists were relativists who made each individual the measure of all things (28).  Ratzinger sees the “final meaning of the Socratic search and the profoundest element in the witness of all martyrs ” is that what characterizes man as man is not that he asks about the ‘can’ but about the ‘should,’and that he opens himself to the voice and demands of  truth” (29-30).

He then contrasts the medieval notion of “conscience” with “anamnesis”. The medieval tradition rightly recognized that two levels of conscience, while distinct, must be related to each other and that many unacceptable views of conscience result from neglecting either the difference or the connection between the two. “Mainstream scholasticism” expressed these two levels as synderesis and conscientia. The term synderesis entered medieval thought through the Stoic doctrine of the microcosm and its exact meaning was not clear and therefore became a hindrance to understanding conscience. Ratzinger proposes replacing this problematic word with the clearly defined Platonic concept of anamnesis, a term in harmony with key motifs of biblical thought and anthropology, e.g., the thought expressed by Paul in Romans 2:14-15 and by Sts. Augustine and Basil. (30-32). He then writes: “the first so-called ontological level of the phenomenon conscience consists in the fact that something like an original memory of the good and the true  (they are identical) has been implanted in us, that there is an inner ontological tendency within man, who is created in the image and likeness of God, toward the divine….This anamnesis of the origin, which results from the god-like constitution of our being, is not a conceptually articulated knowing, a store of retrievable contents. It is…as inner sense, a capacity to recall, so that the one whom it addresses, if he is not turned in on himself, hears its echo from within. The possibility for and right to mission rest on this anamnesis of the Creator, which is identical to the ground of our existence. The gospel…must be proclaimed to the pagans, because they themselves are yearning for it in the hidden recesses of their souls” (32). “We can now appreciate Newman’s toast first to conscience and then to the Pope. The pope cannot impose commandments on faithful Catholics because he wants to or finds it expedient. Such a modern, voluntaristic concept of authority can only distort the true theological meaning of the papacy….the situation is really quite different according to the anthropology of conscience, of which we have tried to come to an appreciation in these reflections. The anamnesis instilled in our being needs, one might say, assistance from without so that it can become aware of itself.  But this ‘from without’ is not something set in opposition to anamnesis but is ordered to it. It has a maieutic function…[bringing] to fruition what is proper to anamnesis, namely, its interior openness to truth” (34).

Because here we are dealing with the faith and the Church Ratzinger says we must take into account another dimension treated particularly in Johannine writings. “John is familiar with the anamnesis of the new ‘we,’ which is granted to us in the incorporation into Christ (one body, that is, one ‘I’ with him).  In remembering, they knew him….The original encounter with Jesus gave the disciples what all generations thereafter receive in their foundational encounter with the Lord in baptism and the Eucharist, namely, the new anamnesis of faith, which unfolds, like the anamnesis of creation, in constant dialogue between within and without….It does signify the sureness of the Christian memory…One can comprehend the primacy of the pope and its correlation to Christian conscience only in this connection. The true sense of the teaching authority of the pope consists in its being the advocate of the Christian memory. The pope does not impose from without. Rather, he elucidates the Christian memory and defends it….All the power that the papacy has is the power of conscience. It is service to the double memory on which the faith is based [creation/redemption] and which again and again must be purified, expanded, and defended against the destruction of memory…” 36).

It  is precisely to this memory or anamnesis to which John Paul II refers in the text from Veritatis splendor.


Copyright ©; William E. May 2009

Version: 18th July 2009

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