There is a famous hymn written by Martin Luther which begins, "A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.." For all too many people today (including sadly, many Catholics) the conscience has become a "mighty fortress" built so as to shelter one from the exacting demands of truth. In the words of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "In the Psalms we meet from time to time the prayer that God should free man from his hidden sins. The Psalmist sees as his greatest danger the fact that he no longer recognizes them as sins and thus falls into them in apparently good conscience. Not being able to have a guilty conscience is a sickness...And thus one cannot aprove the maxim that everyone may always do what his conscience allows him to do: In that case the person without a conscience would be permitted to do anything. In truth it is his fault that his conscience is so broken that he no longer sees what he as a man should see. In other words, included in the concept of conscience is an obligation, namely, the obligation to care for it, to form it and educate it. Conscience has a right to respect and obedience in the measure in which the person himself respects it and gives it the care which its dignity deserves. The right of conscience is the obligation of the formation of conscience. Just as we try to develop our use of language and we try to rule our use of rules, so must we also seek the true measure of conscience so that finally the inner word of conscience can arrive at its validity.
For us this means that the Church's magisterium bears the responsibility for correct formation. It makes an appeal, one can say, to the inner vibrations its word causes in the process of the maturing of conscience. It is thus an oversimplification to put a statement of the magisterium in opposition to conscience. In such a case I must ask myself much more. What is it in me that contradicts this word of the magisterium? Is it perhaps only my comfort? My obstinacy? Or is it an estrangement through some way of life that allows me something which the magisterium forbids and that appears to me to be better motivated or more suitable simply because society considers it reasonable? It is only in the context of this kind of struggle that the conscience can be trained, and the magisterium has the right to expect that the conscience will be open to it in a manner befitting the seriousness of the matter. If I believe that the Church has its origins in the Lord, then the teaching office in the Church has a right to expect that it, as it authentically develops, will be accepted as a priority factor in the formation of conscience." (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Keynote Address of the Fourth Bishops' Workshop of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, on "Moral Theology Today: Certitudes and Doubts," February 1984).
In the same address, Cardinal Ratzinger explains that, "Conscience is understood by many as a sort of deification of subjectivity, a rock of bronze on which even the magisterium is shattered....Conscience appears finally as subjectivity raised to the ultimate standard."
A broken conscience, an ill-formed conscience, becomes a mighty fortress which shuts the truth out. Have we built an interior castle, as did St. Teresa of Avila, which remains open to the demands of truth and the promptings of the Holy Spirit? Or has our conscience become a mighty fortress built to prevent our encounter with truth?
Suggested reading: Catechism of the Catholic Church Nos. 1783-1785.