A Voice to Listen To

Stephen Vincent recommends Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age, by D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D.


By Father D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D.

Ignatius Press, 2007

202 pages, $19.95

To order: ignatius.com


Confusion over the nature of conscience is the crux of the crisis today facing the Church and society. From his days as a professor at Regensburg, Pope Benedict XVI has sought to reclaim the traditional understanding of conscience. In this sense, he stands as the pivotal figure for the future of the Church and Western civilization.

This is the well-presented, thoroughly documented thesis of this enlightening book. Father D. Vincent Twomey, a Divine Word Missionary who was a doctoral student under Professor Ratzinger in the 1970s, knows the mind of the Pope and explains his ideas in an accessible manner. “Conscience” he writes in the first chapter, “might well be the key concept to understanding both the personality of the man and his theology. More accurately, it is the link between the two.”

Father Twomey situates his study within the context of what he considers the most significant occasion within the Church since the Second Vatican Council: the promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae and the widespread dissent from the teaching on contraception. Fueling the reaction was new understanding of the nature and role of conscience that Benedict has sought to correct.

“In the wake of Humanae Vitae,” Father Twomey writes, “an understanding of conscience emerged and was adopted by a number of episcopal conferences that, in effect, justified an opposition between the teaching authority of the Church and the individual believer. … It combined the strand of an impoverished tradition of Catholic moral theology that affirmed the obligation to follow one’s conscience, even if erroneous, with the subjectivity of modernity.”

The result has been what Benedict called a “dictatorship of relativism.”

Returning to a more traditional and intellectually rigorous understanding of conscience, in which one can be held guilty for failing to properly form one’s conscience, has been a central theme of Benedict’s life. The author points out that this theme is more than an academic pursuit. Benedict saw firsthand the dangers of relativism in the rise of Nazism, which relied not on the free consent of informed consciences but on an emotional response of a mob mentality that overcame the demands of conscience, says Father Twomey.

Father Twomey also debunks the view that there is a distinct break from Benedict’s earlier “progressive” period to a more “conservative” stance. The author sees more of a development of seeds that are evident in the earlier works.

There are a few drawbacks to the book, most notably the arrangement of some chapters. There are chapters on the role of conscience in various fields before the one titled “What Is Conscience?”

Still, Father Twomey has written a book that every thinking person should read as a means of understanding his or her own conscience and the nature of the moral life, as well as gaining a glimpse into the thinking and personality of our Holy Father.

Stephen Vincent writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.