"It is a question of faithfulness to the Gospel"
Some time ago I saw again in the public gardens of Sestri Levante the
correction made by an unknown hand in the municipal notice: Do not
tread on the flower-beds; instead of flower-beds it read: consciences.
Do not tread on consciences: what problem is behind this
correction? It is the problem, in fact, of conscience, of its right not
to be oppressed or repressed, to enjoy real freedom. It is the
fundamental human right claimed in modern times with the name of freedom
of conscience, which it would have been a good thing, perhaps, to
change into freedom of consciences: a less abstract and generic
expression, and more indicative of the real holders of the right.
Fundamentally, this is what the second Vatican Council says.
For illuminism and the Encyclopédia, freedom of conscience
was—with reason—battle horse; liberalism made its own claim for
human and civil rights hinge on it. Today, too, certain groups of
radicals appeal to it, starting from the premise that freedom of
conscience is not at all in accepted fact in modern civilization. On the
contrary! Hence the writing, which has the sense of a protest, a
recrimination against the violence and hypocrisy of society, and at the
same time a hope: Do not tread on consciences!
Fundamentally, on this as on other knotty points of the modern and
contemporary civil debate, there are expressed ferments deposited by
Christianity in the human spirit.
Benedetto Croce had realized this. Interpreting Christianity as a
great revolution of the spirit, he wrote, from the time of Etica,
that the civil world, especially in the West, could not but call itself
Christian because it had received from Christianity the revaluation of
conscience. Many years afterwards, at the crucial moment of the war, he
repeated the same thesis in that famous article: Why we cannot but
call ourselves Christians.
Actually, Christianity gave man far more, that is, the
objective and transcendent foundation of man's dignity and freedom. It
did this precisely with that core of truth which Croce, considering them
irrelevant philosophically, relegated to the world of myths: God creator
and lord, father and saviour, legislator and judge; God who imprinted on
man his image and likeness, that is, a participation in his
spirituality, which is the root of freedom; God who gave man an eternal
vocation, to which every value of his is proportioned, every action of
his referred, and by which every hope of his is sustained.
This relationship with God is the foundation of man's right to
freedom. It gives him courage and a voice to ask for liberation from all
oppressions, manipulations and massifications which trample upon or
destroy his dignity.
But when the sense of God has been wiped out, or his primacy denied,
and even (just think) his law abolished, what remains of man's freedom?
The very preachers of freedom of conscience, to the extent to which
they did not base it on the religious principle, created tragic
illusions and, in fact, were not infrequently the first to fail to
respect it. It is enough to recall the persecutions of believers and of
the Church; the suppressions of religious orders and of other
ecclesiastical agencies; the vexations against the exercise not only of
freedom of worship but of teaching, association, charity and welfare,
under governments—or regimes—which nevertheless hoisted the signs of
freedom. If it is said that on the political plane they did, indeed,
proclaim the freedom of citizens, but did not give the possibility of
realizing it truly for lack of the necessary conditions of social
justice, on the religious plane they trampled on it shamelessly.
And today front every court we receive, it is true, messages of
freedom, promises of liberation. But how many men, how many young people
feel oppressed in a society in which, at least in the West, the space
for the free circulation of persons, of their ideas, their
activities—and even their delinquency—is certainly in continual
expansion, but the capacity for personal reflection, for interior life,
is reduced more and more?
The continuous pressure, exercised above all with the media of social
information and hidden persuasion, the enforced fabrication of public
opinion, the mystification of ideas, facts and values (it is sufficient
to glance at the school texts on the book market), are all coeficients
of that system of lies which, as Fausto Gianfranceschi has recently
denounced, absorbs the most fundamental freedom: that of the spirit
which needs truth.
There are, moreover, many writers, sociologists and psychologists who
repeat this denunciation, even before the advance of industrialized and
technocratic society. "The danger once was that men would become
slaves. The danger, for the future, is that they may become
robots". In fact, today already "men have become tools of
their tools" (Thoreau). Is the age of the Computer arriving, or has
it already come? Certainly many people rely on this new regal and
magisterial authority for the programming of everything: not only of
production and food but also of the birthrate (and of abortions), of
education, even of love. And His Majesty often amuses himself.
"Computers are fantastic: in a few moments they make mistakes that
men succeed in making only in some months, and in large numbers" (Meacham).
Shall we arrive at the planning of spiritual life? Up to now,
fortunately, there are those who rebel and cry: Do not tread
THE CRISIS OF CONSCIENCE
But perhaps in this protest-invocation there is not included the
thought of the interior dimension of conscience, where the root of its
true freedom is and where a real conflict exists, sometimes reaching
peaks of agony that present dramatic aspects.
Here are the impressive facts of everyday news: the boldness, the
brutality, and at the same time the meticulous organization of crime; in
fact, what is far worse, the propaganda and the school of crime, even
the legal liberalization of sin (there is no need to specify,
unfortunately). And another constant phenomenon: the irresponsibility
with which people neglect great and little everyday duties, without
reflecting, without feeling interior qualms, without remorse or anguish.
And this in the business world, in work relationship (on both sides), in
the management and operation of public services, in amusement, in sexual
relations, in the spread of pornography, in nudism on principle or out
of frivolity, in lies and mutual fraud, in non-critical following of
so-called current morals, in conformism with fashions, in subjection to
the new Powerful.
What is particularly painful is the sight of those maiores,
particularly those "intellectuals" who sell pen, words and
themselves in the service of the barons of the moment, and not of their
neighbour, not of the minores, as St. Thomas calls them, not even
of the minimi among their brothers, according to the Gospel. A
painful sight because of those "ecclesiastical traitors"! This
is also because they generally show the frailty of their personality—conscience
and intelligence—and justify the lashing criticism of Vittorio G.
Rossi: "Intellectuals do not think; they venerate ideas and caress
them like a horse that has finished the race, while there was some one
else on him to make him race". This is painful because of the
"scandal," in the evangelical sense, which they give today, in
such a decided and shameless way, and because of the hypocrisy with
which they try to label their bad actions in the name of art, freedom,
the new human maturity, the overcoming of old taboos, etc. The angelic
trumpet would be necessary to ring out in their ears Christ's vae
mundo a scandalis. Or better, a powerful wave of Spirit, so much
that it would shake from within a conscience—personal and even
collective—which seems to be in a comatose state.
Certainly the man of today needs to find his own conscience again:
this means interiority, and in it the faculty of discernment, that is,
of personal critical judgement. But to judge what? It is no use
complicating with difficult words a very simple question: it is a matter
of discerning good and evil. It is a problem that, like man, is always
ancient and always new. The terms and the approach to it may change, but
experience and reflection continually lead back to that crucial
In the lay version, or rather in the rational, humanistic one,
does this action make me more myself or not, more authentic,
positive and free? From Socrates to Kant, not to descend to the more
complex formulas of modern ethics, this question is recognized as the
foundation for human activity. In any case the answer depends on the
relationship of the action, by means of conscience, with the first
principles or categorical imperatives which express the fundamental
exigencies of the human spirit with regard to its own existential
In the religious version, is this action in conformity or not
with God's holy law?
In both version, the problem shifts from conscience to the law, and
the agony of conscience involves the agony of the law, as Cardinal Siri
admonished in an incisive discourse in 1976. Also the editorial of the
last issue of Renovatio (June '77), with its unmistakable style,
is a strong appeal, made especially to the moralists of a certain
movement, on the indispensable exigencies of God's law. Conscience
cannot be saved unless God's law, that written in hearts and that of the
Gospel, is recognized and respected.
Here there arises another agonizing problem, no longer on the ethico-sociological
plane, but on the psychological level.
Conscience may come into conflict with itself. This is either because
it hesitates between the dictates and laws of reason and the attractions
of lust, undergoing the conditionings of biologisms and psychisms,
environmental influences and social pressures, the temptations of
practical interests and perhaps the manias and the caprices of an
incurably childish psychology. All these are factors that exert pressure
on reason to sweep it along on their path and to make conscience say,
finally, in a moment of confusion: yes, you are right, one must do as
Who has not felt this interior conflict? Video bona proboque:
deteriora sequor. St. Paul has described this drama more drastically
than Ovid. Most sins (the religious version of the problem) are due to
the state of confusion and weakness in which conscience finds itself, as
a result, doubtless, of guilty neglect.
But the agony may occur at an even deeper level: when conscience, in
the very sphere of good, does not see what it must dictate, what choice
it must propose, what decision must be taken in the concreteness of the
existential situation. They are cases of doubt, uncertainty, perplexity.
Here we have a wife, a mother: in that difficult case, what is she to
do, how is she to behave with her husband or with her children. To speak
or to be silent, to be rigid or tolerant, to let the girl, for example,
frequent certain friends or not, to oblige her to come home by a certain
time or not, and in any case, what space of autonomy to grant her?
Here we have an entrepreneur, a worker, a trade unionist, an
executive, an official: to what extent does l'esprit de corps oblige
him, or permit him, to "fall into line" in actions which
personally he does not see if they are right, or even considers to be
Let us not speak of politicians, for whom the case of conscience is
an everyday matter, and the temptation to elude it in the name of
reasons of State or of party (and how many others!) is so strong.
But there is no condition or status of life in which problems do not
arise that are often difficult to solve, and that cause, at least in
finer and more sensitive spirits, a deep agony.
RECOURSE TO THE SOURCES OF LIGHT
It is certain that in external and internal conflict the strength of
conscience lies in recourse to principles, laws (those of reason and
those of the heart), and in short, to the Gospel. There can be no
claiming to repeal natural law by the decree of some moralists! No
abandoning of conscience to itself or to the creative impetus of
existential experience! It would be to take away from conscience all
resource on which to draw to give validity to its own act, and even to
be able to function as a mechanism of interior life.
For the Christian conscience, laws and principles are, above all,
those of the Gospel, which comprises, moreover, also natural law,
transferred to the sphere of divine revelation.
In Christian tradition they have found their expression in the maxims
of life and in the very formulas of catechism, where generations and
generations of believers have drawn light and inspiration to solve their
problems, even when they had no counsellors and spiritual directors at
It is like a charge of "divine counsel", which by
means of those words is accumulated in the human spirit, constituting a
kind of dynamic subconscious which at the right moment is
expressed as the voice of conscience: Do this and you will
live! Do this and you will be free!
Recently, at Bardonecchia, at the annual meeting with holiday-makers
in August, I was able to explain to the public some of those maxims,
using a souvenir-postcard that the parish priest had left in the
individual houses during the Easter blessing, as "thoughts for a
moment of reflection". Here is the first of these thoughts:
"I am the Lord your God... You shall have no other gods before
me" (Ex. 20, 3). And some others: "He who fears the Lord does
not disobey his words, he who loves him follow his ways" (Wis. 2,
15, 16). "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that
proceeds from the mouth of God" (Mt 4, 4). "For here we have
no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come" (Heb. 13,
14). And the last one: "When must we pray? Let us not ask men but
Jesus who tells us: ‘It is necessary to pray always and never tire’".
We could add the humble, clear, golden answer of the old catechism to
the question: "Why did God create us?": "To know him,
love him and serve him in this life and then enjoy him in the other life
Many priests, particularly among parish priests, continue to transmit
those divine words, not falsified, not minimized, not submerged in a sea
of meaningless phraseologies. Many theologians, generally among those
who make less stir, continue to explain them and develop them, but
precisely as divine words, far from the temptations and ambiguities of
the "anthropological turning-point". But there is another sign
of hope in our times, though amid the trepidations and the tribulations
of the agony: many young people are returning to Holy Scripture, reading
it, studying it, seeking in it the eternal maxims of life. Their numbers
are increasing more and more. Even in this holiday period they are found
gathered everywhere, even in the most unlikely places, to meditate, pray
and help their neighbour. Not only hearers, but "doers of the
law" (Rom 2, 13). Not only theorizers, but messengers.
THE MESSAGE OF THE YOUNG
One evening not long ago, I attended a concert by a choral group from
Cuneo, "Pupils of the sky", who also form a youthful
community. Some hundred boys and girls, with healthy, clean faces, who,
anonymous and poor, pass through these little towns of the Riviera to
offer their brothers what they have at their disposal, their voice, and
to ask help for those who are suffering hunger and thirst in some
African countries. They sang pieces of excellent music: from Handel to
Rossini, from Brahms to Beethoven, from the spirituals to the sound
tracks of some recent films. The Alleluia and the Vieni Signore from
Handel's "Messiah" aroused enthusiasm in the numerous
The concert was entitled Gospel of liberation. And I thought
that the first liberation is, indeed, that of consciences in this hour
of moral violence excercised on millions of men, especially young
people, by too many smugglers of old and new myths. I saw that the task
and merit of the Church, of her ministers, and of young people of
Christian inspiration, is to rekindle continually in the world the hope
of a freedom that is not illusory and fallacious: the freedom brought by
the One who said: "He who follows me does not walk in
darkness". And I remembered meeting in the mountains a fine group
of young people from Prato, one of whom had said to me, at the moment of
leave-taking, as if concluding an unconscious but true dialogue:
"We realize that the important thing is to be united with Christ in
the Church; this is the truth we need".
The agony of conscience, which is at the centre also of the present
crisis of culture, morals and civilization, will be overcome by the
young and by the ministers of God if they continue, or begin again, to
walk along the way of that truth which operates freedom within man. It
is a question of faithfulness to the Gospel.