Goldwater, Benedict, Conscience


A reader writes:

In my childhood memory, the first two politicians I ever recognized were Nixon and Goldwater, and Nixon spooked me enough that I was one of only two in our 35-student first grade class who chose McGovern in our election day show-of-hands straw poll of 1972 - and I always thought that the girl who also raised her hand only did so because she liked me. I remember feeling as though Goldwater looked like the strictest principal I could envision, and now I come to find that he had the strictest principles one might envision.

I find it enlightening that your use of the idea of "conscience" in speaking of the senator dovetailed so closely with my reading of Christopher Hitchens' illuminating language in his Ratzinger article that "the man who modestly considers himself the vicar of Christ on Earth maintains a steady attack on the idea that reason and the individual conscience can be preferred to faith." I feel as though a great deal of what ails this administration is that our leader, who undoubtedly considers himself a vessel of Christ on Earth, maintains that same, steady attack. And though we might like to find in our current political landscape a Goldwater-styled defender of principles, even McCain has caved to the broader faith-based puppeteers whose grip on our democracy MUST be loosened if we are to advance our shared Constitutional freedoms.

It is surprising to me that I never before joined the two words individual/conscience in my assessment of my own, non-faith/religion-based beliefs. I hold no book to be the word of God, and I presume no church to be the church of God, but I presume every individual to have developed an individual conscience that defines them more truly than any book that they might carry, or any religion that they may promote. Hypocrisy is the truest barometer of an eroded conscience, and our world strains against the raging current of it that washes over all of the earth's shores.

I broadly agree. I would also note an important detail in the pope's address. He puts the word "conscience" in quote-marks:

The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective "conscience" becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. [My italics.]

This is no typo. Ratzinger has long disowned the notion of an individual conscience as we have long understood it in the West, as I explain at greater length in my forthcoming book. His view is that if your conscience goes against anything that the Pope says at any time, then it isn't really your conscience. It's a false conscience in a mirror of the Communist idea of "false consciousness". Your real conscience, Benedict insists, is always in agreement with the Pope. It's just that you are too befuddled by sin to recognize it. This Pope speaks eloquently of using reason in faith. And yet, no post-war Pope has waged a more ferocious war on the use of reason in the Catholic church than Ratzinger/Benedict. Maybe he should take the mote out of his own eye before he excoriates the beam in others'.

(Photo: Maurizio Brambatti/AP.)