Conscience and the Service of Authority

Drawing Pastoral Insights from Joseph Ratzinger

There is, at present, a crisis of authority within the Catholic Church, expressed no more clearly by the clamor for democratization outfitted by the various movements of protest which attempt to raze the “old guard” of bureaucratic establishment to the ground, compelled as they are to supply the momentum to, in the words of Jesuit historian John W. O’Malley, “an institution as large, lumbering and complex as the Catholic Church.”1 The election of Jorge Bergoglio to the papacy was seen as just the right matching movement from up top, with Francis’ apparent proclivities to upset the status quo being supposed to give credence to the optimism felt by many an uprising, as occasioned by events like the Synod on the Family a few years ago. This gathering naturally drew the attention of international media who seized upon the sensational debates to campaign for the moral viewpoints with which they sympathized that they simply took for granted as the Pope’s own agenda of ecclesial reform.

This was by no means an exclusive affair among journalists and secular observers, but some churchmen, too, have confidently raced to the masts, as if ready to set sail in the direction of the perceived wind of change. Overall, what is obvious is that the redress of the curia over its moral and administrative failings, which is being carried out under the current pontificate, is put in the same cart as the hoped-for reversal of certain standards of discipline that derive from the moral order, a higher plane wholly inaccessible to human maneuver.

As such, Church renewal cannot be conceived of going in the way of political takeovers, however ideal. Christians of whatever persuasion do realize that it relies, if nothing else, on the authority of truth, which human conscience bears a capacity, and as a capacity, it is held up by Christian teaching as an authoritative moral resource in the individual person. The conscience is the highest tribunal that a human being can have recourse to for judging his actions, but then can it also justify dissent from duly constituted Church authority, as those who challenge Catholic moral principles would like it to? Is there such a thing as conscientious objection by a Catholic to the Magisterium?

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, who was a theological expert at Vatican II that brought to birth the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, which contains the Church’s most important teaching on conscience,2 addresses this question in two keynote addresses: “Bishops, Theologians, and Morality” delivered in 1984 and “Conscience and Truth,” in 1991.3  At the heart of his teaching on conscience, which has been regarded as “Ratzinger’s most significant of his many contributions to moral theology,”4 is the reappraisal of the notion of authority.

Conscience, for Ratzinger, is nothing other than “the priority of truth,” and it attests to the “knowledge shared between man and the truth.”5 It is a “co-knowing with the truth,”6 which makes men “confidants of truth.”7 He regards conscience as “man’s openness to the ground of his being, the power of perception for what is highest and most essential.”8 As such, it “should represent the transparency of the subject for the divine, and thus constitute the very dignity and greatness of man.”9 In being the “direct bond between God and man [that] gives man absolute dignity,”10 conscience thus becomes the precise juncture of relationality implied in the ‘image of God,’ which reflection allows man to stand under God’s protection. Conscience, thus, shares in that inviolability bestowed upon man and becomes the true receptacle of freedom.

With respect to its divine origin, conscience, for Ratzinger, is fundamentally, anamnesis (ἀνάμνησις), the name, of Platonic origin, that he assigns to what medieval philosophers termed synderesis (συντήρησις), which, along with conscientia, make up the full account of conscience. While synderesis pertains to the natural habit that incites to good,11 which Ratzinger designates as “the ontological level of the phenomenon conscience,” conscientia is conscience considered in a narrow sense, that is, as “actus, an event in execution,” which he refers to as “the level of judgment,”12 whereby knowledge is applied to an individual case.13 With this scholastic distinction in the background, Ratzinger devotes much greater attention to the first of these two parts.14 To understand “anamnesis,” he cites the following passage from Paul’s Letter of Romans that speaks of the innate character of conscience:

When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness . . . (2:14–15)

The above passage affirms the transcendent character of conscience, which is “the ‘law written in the heart by God,’ the holy place in which man is alone with God and hears God’s voice in his innermost centre.”15 It stands as the “perceptible and demanding presence of the voice of truth in the subject himself,” that is, every human being.16

Conscience, as anamnesis of being, derives its “absoluteness” from being turned toward the absolute truth. This means that conscience, in its particular judgments, after all, only has a “relative” right which is subordinate to “an object common good of the highest level.”17 As such, conscience cannot be a leeway for personal whim or taste, or signify the “deification of subjectivity.”18 Mere subjectivity, in which conscience is reduced to “superficial consciousness” or autonomous self-determination, fails to liberate man but enslaves him, because it goes against his nature. Man has to be turned to God, to the truth that is greater than his own conscience.19

Otherwise, when conscience is nothing but the sum of subjective convictions adhered to with dogged enthusiasm, it could only stand for “a retreat from truth,”20 in the same way that the Sophists defended their ideas against Socratic questioning, sinking deeper and deeper in the quagmire of their smug falsehood.21 This results in an errant conscience to which the Psalmist’s scruples refer: “But who can discern his errors? Clear thou me from my unknown faults.”22 Subjective immunity that is conferred upon errors of conscience, or to be more precise, conscience on the level of judgment, renders man wholly vulnerable to pressures of social conformity that serves “as mediating value between the different subjectivities.”23 It is a collusion of deformed consciences that Ratzinger had known too well in the horrors of the Third Reich, which is presumably one of its worst manifestations to be recorded in recent history, in evidence of which are the words of Hitler’s fanatical henchman Hermann Görring: “I have no conscience, Adolf Hitler is my conscience.”24 History attests that the tragic blow to conscience through such “infectious collusion” was at the very root of the dictator’s barbaric intentions.25

The cathartic, if sometimes ruthless, shaping of human experience has led Ratzinger to posit that “the actual workings of the conscience are, of course, those of a living organism. It can, accordingly, either develop and grow in a person or wither and be stunted.”26  In making this claim, he shares27 the theory propounded by the contemporary moral philosopher Robert Spaemann, who provides an incisive reflection on conscience, as follows:

In every human being there is a predisposition to develop a conscience, a kind of faculty by means of which good and bad are known. This can be seen clearly in the way children behave, as anyone who has had anything to do with them will know. They have a developed sense of justice. They become outraged if they see justice violated. They have a sense of whether a musical note is in tune or not, and they have a sense of what is good and proper. But unless these values are embodied in some form of authority, this faculty withers away.28

This definition of conscience as an organ for recognizing good and evil puts conscience on a level with other human faculties in being constitutive of man’s nature, that is, “something that for us is a given, which belongs to our essence, and not something that has been made outside of us,”29 and, simultaneously, in requiring nurturance for its proper development. Indeed, for Ratzinger, conscience is an organ that “requires growth, training and practice.” He adopts the comparison Spaemann makes with speech, saying in his turn:

We speak because we have learned to speak from our parents. We speak the language that they taught us, although we realize there are other languages, which we cannot speak or understand. The person who has never learned to speak is mute. And yet language is not an external conditioning that we have internalized, but rather something that is properly internal to us. It is formed from outside, but this formation responds to the given of our own nature: that we can express ourselves in language.30

Man is as such a speaking essence, but he becomes so only insofar as he learns speech from others. In this way we encounter the fundamental notion of what it means to be a man: Man is “a being who needs the help of others to become what he is in himself.”31

For there to be a fully functioning conscience, Spaemann says that there must be a movement of “man beyond himself,” and this entails living in “the moral community” where the “constant exchange of information and ideas about goodness and justice” is fostered.32 For Ratzinger, this corresponds to being turned to the Other,33 that is, being in dialogue with God, which “operates only through men’s dialogue with each other,”34 understood as the vertical and horizontal dimensions of communion35 that constitutes the Church, which, for Ratzinger, resonates with the Platonic approach of familial discussion. He believes that the “constant ‘familial discussion’ within the Church must build up the community conscience” and this process includes “those who try to express their word in the teaching office, as well as those who wish to learn that word from within themselves.”36

Therefore, someone who would think himself Catholic but rejects the magisterium cuts himself off from “the sureness of the Christian memory”37 that abides in the “familial discussion” of believers.38 Hence, conscientious objection to the teachings the Church by a person who sincerely claims to be Catholic represents no small contradiction, and when this renunciation pertains to irreformable doctrine on matters of faith and morals, veritable apostasy is signified,39 something comparable to a person coming to an absolute decision not to use, in any measure, the language which one has learned, thought with, and spoken. Such a break is more serious than anyone would care to suspect, and this evokes, all the more, the solicitude of the Church along with that of her pastors toward personal faith that must be brought back to life.

At the forefront of this endeavor is the Pope, who is principally tasked with revitalizing and proposing the Christian Faith anew. He is, thus, vested with an authority due his immense pastoral responsibility, which the First Vatican Council lent indubitable clarity during its Fourth Session on July 18, 1870, when it declared the infallibility of the Pope when “he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.”40 In its defense Newman, ironically, declared in his treatise on conscience, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, whose writing was occasioned by the criticisms levied against the Catholic Church, something of a witticism, for which he is not infrequently quoted to this day:

Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink, — to the Pope, if you please, — still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.41

Ratzinger wholeheartedly agrees with Newman’s toast because the role of Peter as a privileged vanguard of truth does not override conscience, which for him as for his predecessor in the papacy, Karol Wojtyła (Pope John Paul II), has its function “determined by that dependence of freedom upon truth which appertains to the person alone.”42 It is at the service of truth kept in the heart of the Church that the Pope fulfils his own function, therefore, the papacy does not intend to make a strange bedfellow out of the individual conscience but endeavors to be its friend and partner in dialogue. Ratzinger concludes:

The true sense of the teaching authority of the pope consists in his being the advocate of the Christian memory. The pope does not impose from without. Rather, he elucidates Christian memory and defends it. For this reason the toast to conscience indeed must precede the toast to the pope, because without conscience there would not be a papacy. All power that the papacy has is power of conscience.43

As Pope Benedict XVI, he would put emphasis on this character of the Petrine ministry: “The important thing is that I do not present my ideas, but rather try to think and to live the Church’s faith, to act in obedience to his mandate.”44 The pattern of the Pope’s pastoral ministry informs the pastoral office of those under him, each of whom “acts from an authority which is not his own.”45 A priest, therefore, is to exercise his service of authority over the flock entrusted to him, taking to heart in his pastoral practice, among other things, “the ministry of formation of consciences.”46 The Magisterium performs a maieutic function, which “imposes nothing foreign, but brings to fruition what is proper to anamnesis, namely, its interior openness to truth,”47 a role proper to the Church which “brings conscience to expression.”48

On the part of the priest, “following the criteria of the Magisterium, he will not fail to attend to the correct formation of their conscience,”49 but will be, in the prophetic words of the young theologian Joseph Ratzinger, a courageous shepherd, “who does not stand on the sidelines, watching the game, giving official advice, but in the name of God places himself at the disposal of men, who is beside them in their sorrows, in their joys, in their hope and in their fear.”50 In no other way will pastoral authority become a real source to the faithful who seek after the living truth and to man who longs to see the face of God in his conscience, overcoming foibles of power that have for so long spoiled in too many an appetite for what is true, good, and beautiful. Here, Ratzinger points us to an ideal, or better, the true beginnings of Church reform.

  1. John W. O’Malley, “Opening the Church to the World,” The New York Times, October 10, 2012,
  2. Cf. Second Vatican Council, “Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes,” §17.
  3. Both speeches have been compiled in Joseph Ratzinger, On Conscience (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007).
  4. D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D., “Pope Benedict XVI on Conscience,” Inside the Vatican, October 2008,
  5. Joseph Ratzinger, The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God, trans. Brian McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 48.
  6. On Conscience, 27.
  7. The God of Jesus Christ, 48.
  8. On Conscience, 16.
  9.  On Conscience, 22.
  10. On Conscience, 60.
  11. ST I, 79, 12, co. Cf. Robert A. Greene, “Synderesis, the Spark of Conscience, in the English Renaissance,” Journal of the History of Ideas 52, no. 2 (1991), 195–199.
  12. On Conscience, 37.
  13. ST I, 79, 13, co.
  14. D. Vincent Twomey, Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age – A Theological Portrait (Ignatius: San Francisco, 2005), 135.
  15. Joseph Ratzinger, “The Dignity of the Human Person,” in Vol. 5 of Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, edited by Herbert Vorgrimler (New York: Herder & Herder, 1969), 134.
  16. On Conscience, 25.
  17. On Conscience, 58.
  18. On Conscience, 51.
  19. Augustine, Augustine on Romans: Propositions from the Epistle to the Romans, Unfinished Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, trans. Paula Fredriksen Landes (Chico: Scholars Press, 1982), 5. Ratzinger is opposed to the German idealist J.G. Fichte who said, “Conscience never errs and cannot err, for it is the immediate consciousness of our pure, original I, over and above which there is no other kind of consciousness; it cannot be examined or corrected by any other kind of consciousness. Conscience itself is the judge of all convictions and acknowledges no higher judge above itself. It has final jurisdiction and is subject to no appeal. To want to go beyond conscience means to want to go beyond oneself and to separate oneself from oneself.” Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Fichte: The System of Ethics, eds. Daniel Breazeale and Guenter Zöller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 165. Cf. On Conscience, 77.
  20.  On Conscience, 22.
  21. Cf. On Conscience, 28.
  22. Ps. 19:12–13 (RSV-CE).
  23. On Conscience, 16.
  24. Theodore Schieder, Hermann Rauschings “Gespräche mit Hitler” als Geschictesquelle (Opladen, 1971), 19, n. 25, cited in Ratzinger, Church, Ecumenism, and Politics: New Endeavors in Ecclesiology, 160.
  25. Hitler declared: “I liberate man from the coercion of a mind that has become an end in itself; from the dirty and degrading self-inflicted torments of a chimera called conscience and morality and from the demands of a freedom and personal autonomy to which only a very few can ever measure up.” Ibid.
  26. Joseph Ratzinger, God and the World: Believing and Living in our Time, A Conversation with Peter Seewald, trans. Henry Taylor (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 90.
  27. Cf. On Conscience, 60–61.
  28. Robert Spaemann, Basic Moral Concepts, trans. T.J. Armstrong (London & New York: Routledge, 1989), 63.
  29. On Conscience, 61.
  30. On Conscience, 61. „Wer nie sprechen hört, bleibt stumm, und wer an keiner Kommunikation teilnimmt, kommt nicht einmal dazu zu denken; denn auch unsere Gedanken sind eine Art inneres Sprechen. Und doch würde niemand sagen, die Sprache sei verinnerlichte Fremdstimmung.“ Spaemann, Moralische Grundbegriffe (München: Verlag C.H. Beck oHG, 1982), 79–80.
  31.  On Conscience, 62.
  32. Robert Spaemann, Basic Moral Concepts (London/New York: Routledge, 1989), 59.
  33. Cf. Joseph Ratzinger, Journey to Easter: Spiritual Reflections for the Lenten Season, trans. Dame Mary Groves (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2006), 81.
  34. Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 2nd ed., trans. J.R. Foster (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004), 95.
  35. Cf. John Paul II, “Letter of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith Communionis notio,” Heinrich Denziger Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals, 4920.
  36.  On Conscience, 64.
  37. On Conscience, 35.
  38. On Conscience, 63.
  39. In a speech delivered to the Pontifical Urbanania University in Rome on October 21, 2014, Ratzinger emphasized as much when he warned that the renunciation of the truth of Christ is “lethal to faith.” Sandro Magister, “L’espresso,” Chiesa (October 28, 2014), accessed May 28, 2015,
  40. First Vatican Council, “Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus on the Church of Christ,” Heinrich Denziger Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals, 3074.
  41. John Henry Newman, Conscience and the Papacy (Letter to the Duke of Norfolk), ed. Stanley L. Jaki (Pinckney: Real View Books, 2002), 73.
  42. Karol Wojtyła, The Acting Person, trans. Andrzej Potocki (Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1979), 158.
  43. On Conscience, 34.
  44. Joseph Ratzinger, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times, A Conversation with Peter Seewald, trans. Michael J. Miller and Adrian J. Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2010), 7.
  45. Joseph Ratzinger, “The Nature of the Priesthood” (speech, VIII Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on Priestly Formation, Vatican City, October 1, 1990) L’Osservatore Romano October 29. 1990, 6–7, accessed May 28, 2015,
  46. Congregation for the Clergy, Directory for the Ministry and Life of the Priests (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013), 101.
  47. On Conscience, 34.
  48. On Conscience, 57.
  49. Synod of Bishops, Document on the Ministerial Priesthood Ultimis temporibus (November 30, 1971), II, I, 2: l.c., 913., cited in Directory for the Ministry and Life of the Priests, 61.
  50. Joseph Ratzinger, Faith and the Future (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 115–116. The original German was published in 1970 by Kösel Verlag, München, under the title Glaube und Zukunft.
Fr. Niccolo Florencio About Fr. Niccolo Florencio

Rev. Niccolo Martin C. Florencio is a priest of the Diocese of Maasin in the Philippines. With degrees in development studies and theology, he is assigned to the educational apostolate and the ministry to migrants and seafarers.