The objectivity of Truth and Conscience
Pope Benedict XVI speaks much about the interplay between conscience and truth. In a culture that suggests that truth is relative and open to interpretation he wants to suggest that truth is something objective, it lies out with ourselves and is able to be grasped. Truth is not merely assented to intellectually but we are drawn towards it by our whole being because essentially it is something beautiful for which we are made. However, our conscience can alert us to the presence of truth although “we never have it; at best it has us.” In any event the pursuit of the truth can be personally costly. Benedict XVI wishes to witness to the ultimate truth of God revealed in Christ, the truth in person who shows us the way to be human. It is the darkening of this truth which has become a major problem of our age. Truth is not reliant on social custom and cultural forces of expression for it is independent of that; “Christ called himself truth, not custom.” It is the martyrs and saints who often through consciences that suffered, that are the greatest witnesses to the truth of Christianity, and like them we have to learn to become seekers or pilgrims of truth, for ultimately only the truth makes us free.
From His speeches
“As I speak to you in this historic setting, I think of the countless men and women down the centuries who have played their part in the momentous events that have taken place within these walls and have shaped the lives of many generations of Britons, and others besides. In particular, I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose ‘good servant’ he was, because he chose to serve God first.” (Pope Benedict’s address to Politicians, Diplomats, Academics and Business Leaders Westminster Hall, City of Westminster, Friday, 17 September 2010 7:10 pm)
Referring to the proximity of Tyburn: “where great numbers of our brothers and sisters died for the faith”…..“In our own time, the price to be paid for fidelity to the Gospel is no longer being hanged, drawn and quartered but it often involves being dismissed out of hand, ridiculed or parodied. And yet, the Church cannot withdraw from the task of proclaiming Christ and his Gospel as saving truth, the source of our ultimate happiness as individuals and as the foundation of a just and humane society.” (The Holy Father’s Hyde Park Vigil Address 18/09/2010 8:30 pm)
“He (Newman) saw clearly that we do not so much accept the truth in a purely intellectual act as embrace it in a spiritual dynamic that penetrates to the core of our being. Truth is passed on not merely by formal teaching, important as that is, but also by the witness of lives lived in integrity, fidelity and holiness; those who live in and by the truth instinctively recognize what is false and, precisely as false, inimical to the beauty and goodness which accompany the splendour of truth, veritatis splendor.” (The Holy Father’s Hyde Park Vigil Address 18/09/2010 8:30 pm)
And From His other Writings….
“The intermediate concept that holds these two together for Newman is truth. I would not hesitate to say that truth is the central idea in Newman’s intellectual striving. Conscience is central to his thinking because truth is the heart of everything. In other words, the centrality of the concept of conscience in Newman is linked to the antecedent centrality of the concept of truth; only this latter concept allows us to understand what Newman means by ‘conscience’.” (Values in a Time of Upheaval P.85-86)
“I believe that when we speak of ‘a man of conscience’ we are referring to these attitudes. A man of conscience is one who never purchases comfort, well-being, success, public prestige, or approval by prevalent opinion if the price is the renunciation of truth. Here, Newman agrees with that other great British witness to conscience St. Thomas More, who did not in the least regard conscience as the expression of his subjective tenacity or of an eccentric heroism. He saw himself as one of those timorous martyrs who reach the point of obeying their conscience only after hesitation and much questioning, and this is an act of obedience to that truth which must rank higher than every social authority and every kind of personal taste. This indicates two criteria for a genuine word spoken by the conscience: it is not identical with one’s own wishes and taste; nor is it identical with that which is more advantageous, socially speaking, with the consensus of a group or with the claims made by political or societal power.” (Values in a Time of Upheaval P.87)
“Here, it is said, there are in the final analysis no objective criteria. The ultimate instance that can decide here is therefore the subject alone, and precisely this is what the word ‘conscience’ expresses: in this realm only the individual, with his intuitions and experiences, can decide. Newman’s understanding of conscience is diametrically opposed to this. For him, ‘conscience’ means man’s capacity for truth: the capacity to recognize precisely in the decision-making areas of his life – religion and morals – a truth, the truth. At the same time, conscience – man’s capacity to recognize truth – thereby imposes on him the obligation to set out along the path towards truth, to seek it and to submit to it wherever he finds it. Conscience is both capacity for truth and obedience to the truth which manifests itself to anyone who seeks it with an open heart. The path of Newman’s conversions is a path of conscience – not a path of self-asserting subjectivity but, on the contrary, a path of obedience to the truth that was gradually opening up to him. His third conversion, to Catholicism, required him to give up almost everything that was dear and precious to him: possessions, profession, academic rank, family ties and many friends. The sacrifice demanded of him by obedience to the truth, by his conscience, went further still.” (Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI on the occasion of his Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia. Sala Regia Monday, 20th December 2010)
“With deep human insight, Saint Augustine clearly showed how we are moved spontaneously, and not by constraint, whenever we encounter something attractive and desirable. Asking himself what it is that can move us most deeply, the saintly Bishop went on to say: ‘What does our soul desire more passionately than truth?’Each of us has an innate and irrepressible desire for ultimate and definitive truth. The Lord Jesus, ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’ (Jn 14:6), speaks to our thirsting, pilgrim hearts, our hearts yearning for the source of life, our hearts longing for truth. Jesus Christ is the Truth in person, drawing the world to himself. ‘Jesus is the lodestar of human freedom: without him, freedom loses its focus, for without the knowledge of truth, freedom becomes debased, alienated and reduced to empty caprice. With him, freedom finds itself.’” (Sacramentum Caritatis, Introduction 2. The Food of Truth)
Questions for reflection, discussion and further study:
- Can conscience lead to the truth that is not simply subjective?
- How are the saints and martyrs, like Thomas More, prophetic witnesses to the sovereignty of conscience?
- Cardinal John Henry Newman’s life was an exemplary pursuit of the objectivity and obedience to truth, how was this personally costly for him?
 Benedict XVI, 2010, 50.
 Ratzinger 2004 b, 67. “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6).
 Ratzinger, 2004 b, 66-67.
 “In my view this is one of the rally great assertions of patristic theology.” Ratzinger, 2004, 141.
 Ratzinger, Joseph (Pope Benedict XVI) (2008), Church, Ecumenism & Politics. New Endeavors in Ecclesiology, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 170.
 Ratzinger, 2004 b, 243.
 Ratzinger, 2004 b, 83.
 Ratzinger, 2004 b, 258 & John 8:32.