Reflection by Fr. Ed Ondrako, OFM Conv.



October 11, 2022 marks the 60th Anniversary of the Opening of the Second Vatican Council as well as the Feast Day of Saint John XXIII

(Part Seven: What to Think about an Erring Conscience; How it Differs from a Muffled Conscience; How They Relate to Invincible Ignorance and Truth)
12 Days on Pilgrimage in August
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6).

In part six I began with Pope Emeritus Benedict’s pastoral clarity about Catholic teaching that a person must follow an erring conscience. I emphatically agree and ask: how can I help a searcher who may or may not understand and identify an erring conscience? The question of an erring conscience is a mega-question. Benedict does not develop the theme of how the voice of God becomes incapacitated in a person with an erring conscience. He knows a longer conversation is needed when he states: “the removal of truth, which took place earlier and now takes its revenge in the form of an erring conscience, is the real guilt that lulls man in false security and ultimately abandons him to solitude in a pathless wasteland.”[1]

I am highlighting Benedict’s “narrative” approach about an erring conscience. Recall his  colleague’s theory (see part six of this series) of the justifying force of the subjective conscience with the premise: a firm subjective conviction includes lack of any doubts and scruples. Benedict continues with his colleague: if it is generally true that an erring conscience could lead to salvation, the SS troops under Hitler would have been justified and would now be in heaven. They had committed their evil deeds out of fanatical conviction and without the least disturbance to their consciences. At that, another colleague intervened: “Yes, that is so!” Hitler and his collaborators were deeply convinced of their cause and could not have acted differently. Despite the objective horror of their deeds, they had acted morally, from a subjective perspective.

Benedict did not buy it. If you keep before you the theory of the subjective conscience and that it might lead to salvation; if you have not shut out the memory of World War II that is hard to revisit, then ponder deeply. Clear headed thinkers, from Pope Emeritus Benedict to one’s grandmother and mother, reply. The latter use simpler words than Benedict, yet their thought converges. The theory of the justifying force of the subjective conscience and concept of conscience that leads to such inferences is false, he concludes. To say that one has a subjective conviction without any doubts or scruples does not justify a person.

By using World War II as a symbol, Pope Emeritus Benedict is applying the lessons to our day with deep existential and spiritual gravity. He is awakening the problem of not listening by stirring up guilt feelings that shatter a conscience’s false security. If my existence lacks criticism made by my self-satisfied existence, maybe remembering or experiencing physical pain will wake me up. Several biblical texts (e.g. Lk 18: 9-14) debunk the theory of justification by means of an erring conscience that was put forward by Benedict’s two colleagues. Memory of the lie to neighbor, to self, to nation, the denial of responsibility that information of evil was known and deemed inconvenient truth amounts to: not listening being willed as not listening.

Related speculative problems need a theological cleanup about the erring conscience and how the voice of God in the person becomes incapacitated. Complacency in the modern age interlocks with listening to how we enjoy the gifts of modernity, while simultaneously not listening to one atrocity after another. More than the flag that Benedict has given is needed for a longer conversation. His essays offer a narrative style to decode why a person may never try to get to the truth that is intrinsically correctible. Formation of conscience is a luxury item, in the sense that a genuine conscience has and learns a correct and distinct vocabulary. Modernity pretends that conscience is incapacitated. Modernity rules out that “not willing to listen” is antecedent to inaction that has consequences of devastating evil on the world. Modernity excuses a counterfeit conscience. Modernity dampens down conscience.

A historical cleanup is needed as well. In the early 1990’s, a more peaceful time before the unjust Ukraine war (24 February 2022), Benedict praises the Patriarch of Moscow for lamenting the system of deceit that kept the people who lived in it as having lost much of their powers of perception. “Society had lost the ability to feel compassion, and human emotions had withered away…. We must bring society back to the eternal moral values.”[2] The Patriarch was pleading to develop anew the capacity to hear God’s voice in one’s heart, a capacity he saw as almost extinguished. Pope Emeritus Benedict parsed the Patriarch’s lament: It is only in an initial phase that error, the erring conscience, is comfortable.[3] He praised the Patriarch for drawing attention to the dehumanization of the world and a deadly danger when conscience falls silent and nothing is done to resist it. When I say that this forward looking vision of the Patriarch of Moscow needs a historical clean up, I mean that today Patriarch Kyrill and the Russian Orthodox clergy who are in league with him are complicit in Putin’s unjust invasion of Ukraine. Their plan is to liquidate the Greco-Catholic Church in Ukraine. Forgotten is the Christianization of the Kievan Rus in 988, which includes Ukraine, before Moscow was born.

Pope Emeritus Benedict’s “narrative” style embraces the conversation style of Vatican II. Truth wins because it is truth, with gentleness and power.[4] His critique of the German nation in World War II is for willfully not listening to conscience. By the willful ignoring of conscience, guilt has no excuse. Muffled consciences found truth[5] inconvenient. Nor can America as a winner get a free pass. Most urgently, Patriarch Kyrill once lamented and pleaded to develop anew the capacity to hear God’s voice in one’s heart, a capacity he saw as almost extinguished.[6] Yet now he has agreed with Putin’s invasion. What is the truth to the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kyrill?

Fr. Ed Ondrako, OFM Conv. Univ of Notre Dame


[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Values in a Time of Upheaval (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 81.
[2] Values, 83. The Soviet Union dissolved on Christmas Day 1991. Putin seeks its reversal.
[3] Values, 83. I find this insight of Pope Emeritus Benedict about the erring conscience riveting.
[4] Dignitatis Humanae Personae, Documents of Vatican II.
[5] Inconvenient truth is a soft word for total evil: what led up to, who were targeted for extermination, when, where, why, realities of transport to slave labor camps, decisions who will live, mass killings, disposal, lies, attempts to cover what few could believe was the truth, etc. Documentation continues to shock. See Ken Burns’ et al documentary: The United States and the Holocaust. My point is: no one gets a free pass.
[6] Is the Patriarch acting as Putin’s altar boy? Francis used the image fraternally. Kyrill was to meet Francis in Kazakhstan in September but canceled. Recall their meeting in Havana. Solely theater?

Fr. Edward J. Ondrako, OFM Conventual
Research Fellow Pontifical Faculty of St. Bonaventure, Rome
Visiting Scholar, McGrath Institute for Church Life
University of Notre Dame
60th Anniversary of the Opening of the Second Vatican Council
and the Feast Day of Saint John XXIII – October 11, 2022