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24 June, 20

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On anthropological events

In 1984 Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out in "The Moral Debate. Questions on the foundation of ethical values": "It is becoming increasingly evident that the real sickness of the modern world is its moral deficit".

He refers to the case of a Russian thinker who, on a visit to Regensburg, compared the humanity of today, with its fear of the missilesThe story of a man who lives in constant panic that his house will be consumed by fire and he can no longer think or do anything but prevent the fire. "But he does not realize that he has cancer and that he is not going to die in the fire but by the decomposition of his organism because of the cancer cells."

Well," observed this author, "humanity today is in a similar situation because of a decomposition morale that ruins it from within. And therefore the right concern for survival must be directed first and foremost to the therapy of this disease The deadly disease that is at the root of all other problems.

The then Cardinal Ratzinger considered this analysis to be valid, and in a meeting of doctors, he asked how we can know what is good for man, and from there how we can diagnose and cure what is not so good.

Sources of morality: science or conscience?

First of all, the question arises whether the source of morality can be science or rather the individual conscience. Part of the intellectual movement of modernity posits the alternative between the object and the subject. According to this, the object is the world that science confronts, which can be calculated; the subject is the incalculable and free, which is not objective - scientific - but subjective, because it cannot be subjected to the generally valid criteria of common knowledge: here would enter the religion and morality, which would not depend on science but on the taste of the individual. In this case conscience would be the "apotheosis of subjectivity", subjectivity erected as the ultimate norm.

But in this way - Ratzinger warns - neither science, which represents the object but does not know how to respond to the freedom-But is this really the way human consciousness is?

Consciousness and its formation

What and how is conscience and how should it be formed? Ratzinger finds three ways of understanding conscience:

  1. A participation of man in the knowledge that the divinity has; that is to say, the voice of God in us. But then the problem of contradictory moral evaluations arises. It is clear - as Spaemann rightly points out - that there can be no identification between particular judgments of conscience and the speech of God. Conscience is not an infallible oracle.
  2. Consciousness as the super-ego, that is, as the internalization of the will and convictions of another. This is Freud's position, according to which consciousness would be a totally heteronomous instance (alien norm), something made from outside of ourselves; as a reflection of the will But this does not explain everything, because - Ratzinger observes - there are children who, before receiving any education, rebel against injustice; and there are adults who rebel against learning or against what the majority does.
  3. A third possibility is the one held by Ratzinger: "The human being is, as such, a being who has an internal organ for knowing good and evil (something like the capacity for language). But in order to become what he truly is, he needs the help of others: conscience needs formation and education".

Here is a first and decisive element for the answer to our question about how the conscience:

"As human beings, we have received not only a calculating reason, but also a moral reason. In us there is a capacity to accept the truth for the good. Therefore, the formation of moral reason is a fundamental commandment and its neglect constitutes the decisive failure of this second explanation. We can recognize the moral to the extent that we become beings with conscience (...)".

The masters of morality

Where are the teachers of the "language of conscience", who help us to perceive the inner voice of our own being; teachers who do not impose on us a "super-self" foreign to us, which would take away our freedom?

Here - Cardinal Ratzinger explains - what the ancient human tradition calls the "witnesses of the good" intervene: virtuous people who were not only capable of making moral assessments, beyond their personal tastes or interests. They were also capable of discerning the basic moral "norms" that are transmitted in cultures, even though in some cases they may have been marred or corrupted.

These true moral teachers were able to assume not only reasonable experience but also the experience that surpasses reason because it comes from earlier sources, namely from the wisdom of the peoples, and in this way that experience underpins the very reasonableness with which they enter into the community regulations.

Thus we see that morality is not confined to subjectivity but depends on the human community. Every morality," Ratzinger maintains, "needs a we, with its pre-rational and supra-rational experiences, in which not only the calculation of the moment counts, but also the wisdom of the generations". A wisdom that implies knowing how to return always and to a certain degree to the "original virtues", that is to say, to "the fundamental normative forms of the human being".

This is a good explanation of how morality -necessarily referring simultaneously to values, virtues and norms- is based on the relationship between reason, experience and tradition; an explanation that overcomes the shortness of the individualistic horizon, incapable of perceiving the place of the transcendence of the person towards others and towards God.

Reason and experience, tradition and transcendence

Reason, experience, tradition and Christian faith. In order to guarantee the quality of the moral norms that can transmit the wisdom of human communities, the Judeo-Christian religion sustains the existence of a divine revelation.

The question is how to certify that these standards actually originate from a divine revelation. And here enters the reality of the nature of beings, that is, their way of being and acting. This nature - as the Christian tradition strongly maintains, supported by a certain philosophical tradition - speaks to us of morality.

The problem is that in modern times it is hard for us to admit the existence of a nature thus understood, because we reduce the world to a set of material realities that can be calculated in a utilitarian way. But then the alternative remains whether matter proceeds from reason -from a creative Reason that is not only mathematical, but also aesthetic and moral-, or the other way around: whether reason proceeds from matter (materialist position).

The Christian position is based on the rationality of being. This is so, and therefore every being has a dimension or aspect of reason, which implies a connection with truth, goodness and beauty, understood in profound unity, as glimpses of the Creator.

This in turn, Ratzinger notes, depends, and decisively so, on the issue of God. If there is no logos - reason - at the beginning, there is no rationality in things. For Kolakowsky this means: if God does not exist, then there is no morality, nor properly a human "being", that is, a way of being common to all people, which would allow us to speak of human nature.

Indeed, and this sounds like what a famous Dostoevsky character used to say: "if God does not exist, everything is permitted" (Ivan in "The Brothers Karamazov"). This, although it sounds radical to contemporary ears, has been sufficiently confirmed in recent centuries.

What, then, is to be done to understand and educate morality? Ratzinger argues that we do not need specialists so much as witnesses. And with this he returns to the question of the true teachers of morals. It is worth transcribing this paragraph in its entirety:

"The great witnesses to the good in history, whom we normally call santosThey are the real moral specialists, who continue to open up new horizons even today. They do not teach what they themselves have invented, and that is precisely why they are great. They bear witness to that practical wisdom in which the original wisdom of humanity is purified, safeguarded, deepened and broadened through contact with God, in the capacity to accept the truth of conscience which, in communion with the conscience of the other great witnesses, with the witness of God, Jesus Christ, has itself become man's communication with the truth".

From this, warns Joseph Ratzinger, it does not follow that scientific efforts and ethical reflection are useless, for "from the point of view of morality, observation and study of reality and tradition are important, they are part of the thoroughness of conscience".

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So much for Ratzinger's 1984 text.

We could say that it shows how moral education requires, indeed, rational arguments and science, or wisdom This, in turn, requires affective experience and contact with the great ethical traditions of humanity.

Each of these pillars (reason, experience, tradition) are living channels that, in each one, intercommunicate and open towards and from the center of the person; and the person, in order to understand himself fully and act according to that fullness, also needs to be open to absolute transcendence (extending his horizon towards God).

According to Christian faith and tradition, reason and experience as well as tradition and openness to transcendence find their center of reference in the Person of Jesus Christ. Christ and in the Mystery of Christ, which is given to us to participate in, through knowledge and loveby the saving action of the Trinity.

Therefore, the encounter with Christ, the reference to Him, the union with Him, the identification with His mind, with His feelings and with their attitudes of profound and unique solidarity for each and every one, are the channel for a full life, also morally speaking (the moral life of the Christian is "life in Christ" and life of grace). Christian moral education is understood from this center: Christian reason, Christian experience, Christian tradition, transcendence understood and lived in the Christian way. All this has to do with the training of conscience and the Christian message.

Consequently, knowledge of and personal contact with Christ-through prayer, the sacraments and charity-are the main channel that the Christian tradition offers for an education and experience of morality, understood as a response of loving knowledge of God (cf. Jn. 17:3; Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 25, 1691-1698). This response translates into a life of solidarity and service to all people and to the created world.

This is what Christ teaches by his own life and by his moral teaching, centered in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Beatitudes.

"Christian witness," Francis wrote, "after all, announces only this: that Jesus is alive and that he is the secret of life.

Mr. Ramiro Pellitero Iglesias
Professor of Pastoral Theology
Faculty of Theology
University of Navarra

Published in "Church and new evangelization".

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