The Agony of Conscience

Author: Raimondo Spiazzi, O.P.


Raimondo Spiazzi, O.P.

"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: Donot 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 manfar 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 thefree 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 thefuture, 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: Donot tread on consciences!


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 alternative.

In the lay version, or rather in therational, 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 vocation.

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 you like...

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 bad?

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.


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 attheir disposal.

Itis 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 atthe right moment is expressed as the voice of conscience: Dothis 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 in paradise".

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.


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 spectators.

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.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12 January 1978, page 9

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