By Anno Hellenbroich

In societies which have a strong craft tradition, the word “conscientious” means a lot: Those who work for example in the bakery trade or in mechanical engineering, are proud if the product is not only well done, but also created conscientiously. It implies that the work was carried out in accordance with all the rules of the art, carefully, forward looking and economically. Of course, “conscientious” also refers to services and in the broadest sense also to the action of individuals in politics, science, administration or journalism. It is clear that from a doctor, a surgeon or gynecologist, one expects a conscientious work. But in many professions this behavior is not any more specifically encouraged. Most of the time everything has to go fast, distractions happen more often (for example the use of the mobile phone while driving a car) and corrupt tendencies are increasing. The courts have more and more work for dealing with such cases. The consequences can be terrible, even catastrophic. “Irresponsible” is the mildest form of condemning unscrupulous “not conscientious” behavior.

In difficult cases, the individual often decides according to his “conscience”, how he should behave in professional, private or public life. So what can conscience do, or what is “conscience”? In different cultures one speaks of conscience as “the inner voice” that tells you what is good and what is bad. Others speak of an “internal court of justice” in which, first and foremost, the pros and cons are discussed in one’s own mind, until a decision or action is taken. It turns out that in many countries, in the US or Europe, or in South America, societies are increasingly losing the compass for a civilized coexistence. Violence and hatred, intolerance and even warlike conflicts are the order of the day.

There are many examples in history that show how individuals, guided by their own decisions of conscience, have faced mass hysteria, often at the expense of their lives. Some are later celebrated as heroes in history books.

The example of the members of the German resistance group “Weiße Rose” against the Nazi rule has become known worldwide: the students Hans and Sophie Scholl and others, who were executed for a leaflet against the regime in 1943. Or the writer of this leaflet, musicologist and philosopher Professor Kurt Huber, who stated in his defense that “the return to clear moral principles, to the rule of law, to mutual trust from person to person, (…) is not illegal, but the reverse—it restores legality.” In his defense speech before the Nazi-Court “Volksgerichtshof”, Kurt Huber denounced the National Socialist system of rule: “There is no more terrible verdict on a national community than the admission that we all have to make, that no one feels secure from his neighbor, the father no longer feels secure from his sons.” The members of the “Weiße Rose” attended Huber’s lecture “Leibniz and his time,” in which he emphasized the responsibility of intellectuals as citizens. Students who were returning from the front line of the war had informed Kurt Huber about the mass murders in Poland and the Soviet Union. Since summer 1942, he also meets privately with the core of the “Weiße Rose”. He decides to actively support their resistance work and writes the last leaflet with which Sophie and Hans Scholl are finally caught. Huber was also executed in 1943. Only in the historical distance the meaning of the drama which unfolded as result of Kurt Huber’s action,- an action guided by a decision based on his conscience and shaped by his Christian faith that led to his death by the Nazi executioner- can be fully grasped.

Today, conscience must be sharpened, because during the maturation of a personality, it is not „automatically” the case that conscience is being listened to – even if in all human beings there is an “inner authority” for “good and bad”. But if the individual during adolescence is getting brutalized, this “throbbing of conscience” is often ignored.

Professor Ratzinger has made many contributions concerning the question of “conscience”, even in his time as Pope Benedict XVI. On July 27, 2007 Benedict XVI met with the clergy of the dioceses of Belluno-Feltre and Treviso. One of the priests asked the Pope about the formation of conscience: “Holiness, I am Don Claudio. I would like to ask you a question about the formation of conscience, especially with regard to the younger generations, because today it seems to be increasingly difficult to develop a consistent, sincere conscience. Good and bad are confused with ‘feeling good’ and ‘feeling bad’, with the emotional aspect. I would like to ask you for your advice. Thank you.

The Pope responded by pointing out what conscience means and what that capacity and readiness to listen to the inner voice of man – being created in the image of God – really means: “This question reveals a problem that exists in the culture of the West, given the fact that the concept of conscience has profoundly changed in the last two centuries.

In a period where religion and morality have been completely banished from the usual public intellectual debate and merely reduced to the “subjective” of the individual, and where in the name of “liberality” they are publically being opposed, the Pope emphasized the unique role of “conscience” in the Christian sense of “informed knowledge”. The subjective conscience alone is not sufficient. “Today, the idea prevails that only that is reasonable, is part of reason, which is quantifiable. The other thing is that religion and morality do not belong to common reason because they are not verifiable or, as is said, cannot be experimentally refuted. In such a situation, where morality and religion are excluded from reason, the only definitive standard of morality and of religion is the individual subject, the subjective conscience, which knows no other authorities. In the final analysis it is only the subject that decides on the basis of his emotions, experiences and some eventual standards. But that way the subject becomes an isolated reality, and so, as you said, the parameters change from day to day.

Pope Benedict contrasted this with his own convictions guided by a Christian point of view: “Conscience following the Christian tradition, means ‘informed knowledge’ (Mit-Wissen): We are open, our being (existence) is open, it can hear the voice of Being (essence) itself, the voice of God. The voice of great values is thus inscribed in our being, and the greatness of man is precisely that he is not closed in himself, that he cannot be reduced to the material, the quantifiable things. But with his innermost being he is open to the essentials, capable to listen and hear.

From this Pope Benedict concludes: “I would therefore say that a first step is to make the human individual conscious about the fact, that our being (existence) itself carries a moral message, a divine message that needs to be deciphered and that we are getting to know better and better, to hear better, if our inner capacity to listen is opened up and unfolded. … Given the situation we are in, I would suggest to establish a link between a laic and a religious path, the path of faith ….

Not only do we have to care for the earth, but we have to respect the other – the others, the other in his uniqueness as a person. This is true in respect to my neighbor as well as in respect to the others who live on earth as a community and who have to live together. And hence we can see that things will only continue if we have absolute respect for the living creature of God, the human being which is created in the image of God, and if we respect living together on earth. And here we arrive at the point where we do need the great experiences of mankind.

A decision of conscience, as the Pope argued, depends not only on the parameters of the “subjective” personal conscience, but on the “knowledge” of the “great experiences of mankind”: “These experiences arose from the encounter with the other, with the community: the experience that human freedom is always a shared freedom and that it can only function if we share our freedoms while respecting the values that we all have in common. It seems to me that by taking these steps we can make clear the need to obey the voice of being, to obey the dignity of others, to obey the need to live together our freedoms as ‘one’ freedom. Thus one can recognize the value what it means to make a dignified cohabitation possible among human beings. That way we get to the great experiences of mankind, as I said before.

Given the polarization of people in great nations such as the USA or Brazil, these reminders of Ratzinger which he expressed more than 10 years ago, are characterized by a remarkable clarity. They may be able to do contribute more in clearing up the momentary confusion among the people than pompous announcements or the arbitrary use of force.