Your basic modern dissident is pretty enamored of freedom of thought and speech and, as I can testify from my own experience, uses "conscience" to monitor what is read and heard and compare it with existing knowledge and beliefs for "acceptibility." Not surprisingly Pope Benedict has some thoughts on that.
[....Snip] Due to their size and subject matter, neither of the books under review would likely have been published had the papal conclave chosen a different pope. In the case of On Conscience (Ignatius, $14.95, 82 pages), that would have been a great shame. The small volume collects two talks the CDF head delivered to American bishops at the National Catholic Bioethics center in 1984 and 1991.
In both speeches, he tried to address an error that he perceived in how we think about conscience. The existing model, he argued, was to view conscience as "the bulwark of freedom in contrast to the encroachments of authority on existence." One's government/church/boy scout group may order you to behave one way, but if your conscience tells you to do differently, it is considered more noble to follow your conscience. "Ich kann nicht anders."
Cardinal Ratzinger told the bishops about a faculty discussion from when he was a university professor in Germany. The dispute was over "the justifying power of the erroneous conscience." One professor created a reductio ad absurdum using Nazi true believers. If we should follow our conscience above all else, he said, then we "should seek them in heaven, since they carried out all their atrocities with fanatic conviction and complete certainty of conscience."
The example seemed straightforward enough for most of the profs, but the absurdity was lost on one or two observers. In fact, one colleague piped up "with utmost assurance that, of course, this was indeed the case." Hitler went to heaven.
"Since that conversation," Cardinal Ratzinger explained, "I knew with complete certainty that . . . a concept of conscience that leads to such results must be false. Firm, subjective conviction and the lack of doubts and scruples that follow from it do not justify man."
He went looking for a different conception of conscience -- one that didn't pit "morality of conscience" against "morality of authority." Finally, he decided that conscience has to work like language, from both within and without.
One has the innate ability to speak, but it has to be learned by observation, imitation and interaction with others. So it is with conscience: If one thinks of it as only an interior, almost occult, guide to life, he is likely to go badly wrong.
As part of his first lecture, Cardinal Ratzinger made use of the insight of psychologist Albert Gorres that "the capacity to recognize guilt, belongs essentially to the spiritual make-up of man. This feeling of guilt disturbs the false calm of conscience and could be called conscience's complaint against my self-satisfied existence."
That is, if you feel bad about something, maybe it's because you did something bad.
Chalk it up to sheer contrariness if you like, but this reviewer found it refreshing to read a future pope expounding on the benefits of guilt. [....Snip] Washington Times