The Conscience of Our Age
Interview With Father Vincent Twomey
MAYNOOTH, Ireland, JUNE 25, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The modern conception of conscience reduces it to an excuse mechanism, that it cannot err and that what one thinks is right is in fact right, said author Father Vincent Twomey.
Father Twomey, retired professor of moral theology at the Pontifical University of St. Patrick’s College, in Maynooth, is the author of “Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age,” published this year by Ignatius Press.
In this interview with ZENIT, he comments on the Holy Father’s role in providing a way to return to a deeper understanding of conscience.
Q: You were a doctoral student of Father Joseph Ratzinger. How has that experience uniquely prepared you to write this book?
Father Twomey: I joined professor Ratzinger’s doctoral colloquium in the spring of 1971, and studied under his supervision for the doctorate, which I was awarded in 1979.
Since his election as archbishop of Munich in 1977, he has met with his former doctoral and postdoctoral students each year for a weekend colloquium, a practice that continued even after his election as Benedict XVI.
I think that, as a result, I have a personal knowledge of the Pope that is, perhaps, unique.
Sitting at his feet as a student, studying his writings, and participating in discussions with him over some 36 years has also given me a certain insight into his thought, which in turn has influenced my own theology profoundly.
Q: What do you think are the most defining characteristics of the writings of Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI?
Father Twomey: The most defining formal characteristics of his writings are originality, clarity and a superb literary style that is not easy to render in translation.
Ratzinger is more than a world-class scholar and academic: He is an original thinker.
He has the Midas touch, in the positive sense that whatever he touches, he turns to gold, in other words, whatever subject he examines, he has something new and exciting to say about it, be it the dogmas of the Church or a mosaic in an ancient Roman church or bioethics. And he writes with amazing clarity.
With regard to his style, Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne is reported as commenting that Ratzinger is the Mozart of theology — he writes masterpieces effortlessly.
With regard to its content, as Ratzinger once said himself, “God is the real central theme of my endeavors.”
There is hardly an area of theology — dogma, moral, political life, bioethics, liturgy, exegesis, music, art — that he has not examined in-depth. And everything he examines, he does so from God’s viewpoint, as it were, namely trying to discover what light revelation — Scripture and Tradition — can shine on a particular issue.
On the other hand, his theological reflection is firmly rooted in contemporary experience: the questions and existential issues posed by modernity and post-modernity, by contemporary thinkers and the epoch-making events of our times.
However, his pastoral and administrative duties as archbishop and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were such that he had little time to write extensive monographs, with the result that most of his writings are of a fragmentary nature. But what fragments!
Each has the capacity to convey that insight into truth that touches the mind and heart of the reader — and can effect in many a change of heart.
Q: You describe Benedict XVI as unafraid of making mistakes, and as “having the courage to be imperfect.” Can you explain this further?
Father Twomey: Having the courage to be imperfect is more than being afraid of making mistakes, though it may include it.
Basic to his whole attitude to life and to theology is the assumption that only God is perfect, that human effort is always imperfect.
Perfectionism of any kind is inimical to man, but above all in the political sphere. Most political ideologies aim to create a perfect world, a perfect society and usually end up making hell on earth.
That is a frequent theme of his writings on political life. But also with regard to the human effort to do theology, as it were. That, too, will always be unfinished business, always capable of improvement, of correction and deepening.
We cannot know everything, least of all God and his design for man. I have described his writings as “fragmentary.” Most of his writings are unfinished — like his classic book, “Introduction to Christianity,” and, more recently, his “Jesus of Nazareth.” And yet he has the courage to publish them in their unfinished state.
This attitude gave Joseph Ratzinger that inner calm and detachment which the world is now experiencing in Benedict XVI. But it also is, perhaps, the secret of his gentle humor and wit.
Q: You suggest that there has been a distortion of the word conscience. What is this distortion and how has it affected the Church?
Father Twomey: The starting point is the traditional notion of an erroneous conscience, which in the wake of the turbulence that followed “Humanae Vitae,” was falsely interpreted to mean, in effect for many, that it does not matter what one does, provided that one is sincerely convinced that it is right.
Sincerity now becomes the criterion of morality and, taken to its logical conclusion, it would be impossible to condemn a Hitler or a Stalin, since it could be claimed that they too acted according to their “lights,” according to their sincere convictions.
The traditional insistence on the primacy of following your conscience, even if erroneous, led to a new notion, that of the “infallible conscience.” This amounts to the claim that conscience cannot err, that what you think is right is in fact right.
This is to reduce conscience to an excuse mechanism. This notion receives its persuasiveness, if not its inspiration, from the prevailing relativism of modernity.
It is sometimes claimed today that each one can adopt whatever moral principles he or she decides best for them. These are the fruit of their conscientious choice, after having looked at the options.
This is indeed a very attractive theory. But it amounts to the claim that each person can determine for himself what is right or wrong, the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden.
Often, it is given the title “a la carte” Catholicism, picking and choosing what suits us. Morality is reduced to an ultimately irrational personal preference.
This prevailing notion of conscience has had a devastating effect on the Church and Christian living.
Q: You describe Benedict XVI as a guide for the conscience in today’s age. In what ways do you believe this to be true?
Father Twomey: First of all, as theologian and later as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger has been the voice of the Church’s conscience in affirming the objective truth when it was denied either theoretically or in practice.
It is astonishing that secular thinkers, those outside the Church, as it were, seem to recognize this more than those inside. Thus, for example, the French Academy honored him as the apt successor to Andrey Sacharov, the dissident atom physicist during the tyranny of the Soviet Union.
It was their recognition of a courageous thinker who was in effect the great “dissident” under the “dictatorship of relativism” that has swamped Europe and America over the past half-century.
Secondly, conscience is not only a central theme of his writings, he has also made a major contribution to correcting the false understanding of conscience outlined above, to which I devote a whole chapter in my book.
Q: How did the experience of growing up in Nazi Germany helped to prepare Joseph Ratzinger for the papacy? What particular lessons did he learn then that he still puts into practice today?
Father Twomey: The answer to this question is to be found in a comment he made in an interview in 1999: “As a result [of living through the Nazi period], I learned to have a certain reserve with regard to the reigning ideologies.”
Evidently, he meant “ideologies” also to cover those found within the Church, which are fashionable since they reflect current ideological trends in society.
His experience of living under a political ideology and its bureaucracy made him sensitive to the need for the exercise of moral responsibility on the part of each one, but in particular on the part of those who hold public office in the Church or in the state. Moral responsibility is but another word for conscience.
His skepticism regarding episcopal conferences is rooted in the experience of how, as a collective, the German bishops, to put it mildly, had not quite matched up to the witness given by individual bishops such as Bishop Clemens von Galen of Muenster and Archbishop Michael Faulhaber of Munich.
He calls on all bishops to give personal witness and not wait for the collective conference to rubber-stamp some document prepared by an anonymous commission.
Likewise, his theology has been marked by a personal search for the truth, urged on by his conscience. All his life, he has exercised his personal moral responsibility, even when it earned for him the negative title of “rottweiler” or “grand inquisitor” — or, indeed, “the enemy of humanity,” as one journalist put it.
To speak the truth in love is to be in opposition, very often, to the prevailing fashions and so to make oneself unpopular.
Now, as Benedict XVI, he continues to exercise that moral responsibility, not least in the way he writes most of his own speeches, which speak to the heart of his audience because they are spoken from his own heart and not from a prepared schema.