The ‘freedom’ to deny inconvenient truths and those who enable it

In a disturbing 2006 biography entitled “Mao: The Untold Story,” authors Jung Chang and Jon Halliday unearthed many previously unpublished details from the life of China’s Communist tyrant Mao Tse-Tung, including his thoughts on conscience.

As a college student in his 20s, Mao penned a series of class assignments within which, according to the biographers, he “expressed the central elements in his own character, which stayed consistent for the remaining six decades of his life and defined his rule.” The biographers later noted that, in following his conscience, Mao was responsible for more human deaths and suffering than anyone else in history.

“People like me,” Mao wrote, “want to . . . satisfy our hearts to the full, and in doing so we automatically have the most valuable moral codes. Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me.” He avowed that “I am responsible only for the reality that I know, and absolutely not responsible for anything else.” Again, “people like me only have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people.”

Conscience then, Mao believed, “could go to hell” if it conflicted with one’s impulses. “All our actions . . . are driven by impulse, and the conscience that is wise goes along with this in every instance,” he asserted. Moral commands such as “do not kill,” “do not steal,” and “do not slander” cannot be used to impose limits on one’s conscience, Mao contended, because they themselves are only products “of self-interest for self-preservation.” Thus, Mao concluded, the exercise of conscience must consist “purely [of] calculations for oneself, and absolutely not for obeying external ethical codes, or for [following] so-called feelings of responsibility.”

In a talk on conscience given to some American bishops at a forum of the National Catholic Bioethics Center before he became pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger related a story from his teaching days at a German university. The talk is found in a book entitled “On Conscience” published recently by Ignatius Press.

A discussion had arisen among the faculty, Cardinal Ratzinger explained, concerning whether another tyrant, an unrepentant Adolph Hitler, and his Nazi followers could have entered heaven. Were they saved from damnation by a “complete certainty of conscience”?

According to Cardinal Ratzinger, one of his colleagues argued that “the objective terribleness of their deeds notwithstanding, they acted morally, subjectively speaking. Since they followed their (albeit mistaken) consciences, one would have to recognize their conduct as moral and, as a result, should not doubt their eternal salvation.” That argument prompted a period of deep reflection on his part that led eventually to his address to the bishops.

The future pope told the bishops that the Church’s recognition of the self-binding nature of one’s ultimate exercise of conscience “does not signify a canonization of subjectivity.” Rather, the guilt stemming from such “askew convictions” as those harbored by deniers of human dignity and other truths “lies in a different place, much deeper--not in the present act, not in the present judgment of conscience, but in the neglect of [one’s inner] being that made [the actor] deaf to the internal promptings of truth. For this reason, criminals of conviction like Hitler and Stalin are guilty.”

In short, one can still be culpable for failing to properly form and purify one’s conscience at a stage of reflection occurring long before a final judgment of conscience is even applied.

My reference to Cardinal Ratzinger’s talk severely abbreviates a work that deserves to be read in its entirety. Nonetheless I’ve related enough here, in conjunction with my provocative description of Mao’s warped understanding of conscience, to introduce a brief commentary on two recent events in the Massachusetts political arena.

First, on May 12, Speaker of the House Salvatore DiMasi wrote a letter to his legislative colleagues defending his integrity against ethics charges accusing him of political favoritism. He offered as proof of his independence from undue influence the statement that he, along with other legislators, “have stood up to our Church on same-sex marriage and stem-cell research.”

Second, on May 18, Regis College, a Catholic institution, honored a willing accomplice in bucking fundamental truths in these two areas, House Majority Whip Lida Harkins, who also has voted to expand abortion access and funding. The honor was given, according to a Regis press release, because Rep. Harkins “is a Regis alumna who exemplifies public service.” Additionally, a Regis official explained in a letter to The Boston Globe that the institution closed its eyes to the “single issue of abortion” in deference to weighing the “whole lives given to the common good” of its honorees.

Objectively, it is wrong to vote for laws allowing abortionists and technicians to destroy defenseless human lives in the womb or on the workbench. Such voting promotes small scale tyranny whereby individuals wielding scalpels gain free reign to reject their moral duty towards the lives they are obliterating. It is also objectively wrong to use one’s political power to attack the natural definition of marriage, which respects the critical significance of involving both halves of the human family, man and woman. Such official exercise directly threatens the common good by giving in to what Pope John Paul II described as “an ideology of evil.”

One need not judge subjective intentions in nonetheless concluding that something deeply wrong infects even an adamantly “free” conscience that prides itself in standing up to “our Church” in order to promote evil. One’s “whole life” cannot truly be given to the common good at the same time common wrongs are approved. The Catholic Bishops’ policy forbidding the honoring of individuals who digress on “single issues” involving fundamental human rights, a policy violated by Regis College, has the goal of pricking even the satisfied conscience at variance against truth.

As observed by Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical on hope, “we,” all of us, not just politicians, “must learn to purify our desires and hopes. We must free ourselves from the hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves. . . . Failure to recognize my guilt, the illusion of my innocence, does not justify me and does not save me, because I am culpable for the numbness of my conscience and my incapacity to recognize the evil in me for what it is.”

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy & Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.