A recent talk by Father Bob Pierson 1 quoted Joseph Ratzinger (as he then was, now Pope Benedict XVI) as saying that the individual conscience must overrule ecclesiastical authority. I was intrigued by Pierson's claim and looked up the original source, which is an early commentary2 on Gaudium et spes, specifically its Article 16. I've put the section quoted by Pierson in italics.

For Newman, conscience represents the inner complement and limit of the Church principle. Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one's own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. This emphasis on the individual, whose conscience confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official Church, also establishes a principle in opposition to increasing totalitarianism. Genuine ecclesiastical obedience is distinguished from any totalitarian claim which cannot accept any ultimate obligation of this kind beyond the reach of its dominating will.

I am finding the final sentence quite difficult to parse. It seems like he is saying that genuine ecclesiastical obedience does accept a controlling role for conscience. But then it sounds like one can simultaneously disobey and "genuinely obey", which is odd. Elsewhere in the text, Ratzinger speaks about natural law and the Golden Rule as standards to diagnose and reshape the "erroneous conscience", and it surprised me that he doesn't also mention the Church there. Overall, I think I am missing something basic which would help me to understand what he means in the passage above.

So: What relationship between conscience and Church authority does the Pope actually envisage?

I'm looking for answers that draw on his other writings, up to the present day - in particular, sources that illuminate what he personally thinks, as opposed to those which are primarily about what the Church as a whole accepts.

1. Video and transcript here; I'm linking to Daily Kos because they're the only site I can find which provides a text transcript, not because I endorse Pierson, Kos, etc. The original talk was on homosexual civil marriage, but this question is emphatically not; I'm not asking whether he's right or wrong, just using his quotation to ask a different question.
2. Monograph by Joseph Ratzinger collected in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, volume 5, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler (Herder and Herder, 1969). Translated by W. J. O'Hara from Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil, Dokumente und Kommentare (1968). The quoted text starts on page 134.

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    The priest doesn't mention where exactly Joseph Ratzinger said those words and in what context. Until that is known with certainty, it would be foolish to attribute those words to Ratzinger. Jun 14, 2012 at 0:44
  • Besides, it should be mentioned that the opinion of a Cardinal (such as Joseph Ratzinger) is not necessarily official Catholic teaching. Jun 14, 2012 at 0:46
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    @LoveTheFaith, he doesn't mention it, but I Googled the words, found a citation, went to the library to find the book, read the relevant section, and copied out the text quoted above. The chapter is definitely by Ratzinger, and draws on his experience as a theological expert at the Council. I don't think there is any doubt that this is the text that Pierson meant.
    – James T
    Jun 14, 2012 at 1:48
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    Methinks Joseph Ratzinger may have a slightly more subtle and developed understanding of "conscience" than most of us do. Here's a brief primer on Ratzinger's thinking about conscience, from an expert in moral theology and former student of Ratzinger's: catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=8598
    – Ben Dunlap
    Jun 14, 2012 at 4:30

4 Answers 4


Hmmm. Thanks for this question. First, it prompted me to read the relevant section in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraphs 1776-1802). In brief, the Catechism says this-

  1. Man must obey his conscience.
  2. Man must recognize that his conscience can be erroneous and seek to inform it.
  3. Conscience can remain in ignorance, and such ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. So man cannot say that "well, my conscience compelled me to do it, so I cannot be blamed". (In the case that the priest refers to, this 3rd clause most definitely applies. Those people whose consciences tell them to vote in opposition to Catholic teaching must ensure that they inform their consciences).

We can safely assume that Pope Benedict XVI, being a practicing Catholic, holds all of the above three.

Now, coming to the text you cited, what struck me was the first two words -

"For Newman..."

This means that Joseph Ratzinger is referring to Newman's views on the subject. Now, Newman is quoted in the Catechism, paragraph 1778. The footnote for CCC 1778 says -

John Henry Cardinal Newman, "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk," V, in Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching II (London: Longmans Green, 1885), 248.

If we read the letter cited in the above footnote, we find that Newman explains his position on conscience. According to Newman, conscience must always be obeyed. He also says that conscience and papal infallibility can never be in conflict. According to Newman, conscience and ecclesiastical authority can be in conflict in matters that do not pertain to infallibility. But Newman also agrees that it is possible to have an erroneous conscience. I suppose that Ratzinger holds the same, namely that conscience should be obeyed over and above the pope in matters where the pope is not infallible, whereas genuine ecclesiastical obedience is expected in matters where he is.

  • Where are you getting the sense that Newman was still an Anglican? In the letter you linked he says things like "I deeply grieve that Mr. Gladstone has felt it his duty to speak with such extraordinary severity of our Religion and of ourselves". Gladstone was very much an Anglican, so Newman must have already converted when he wrote this.
    – Ben Dunlap
    Jun 14, 2012 at 4:18
  • Newman was received into the Catholic Church in 1845, and Gladstone wrote his "expostulation" in 1874. That said, Newman did indeed reject ecclesiastical authority and the Church of England, when he followed his informed conscience and joined the Roman Church. Jun 14, 2012 at 7:13
  • @BenDunlap You are right. I made a mistake. I have edited my post. Thanks. Jun 15, 2012 at 2:02
  • Where in the world does Newman say that conscience and papal infallibility can never be in conflict!?
    – zippy2006
    Mar 22, 2020 at 18:59

This might give you a deeper understanding of Ratzinger's development of thought on conscience. He gave a keynote address to Bishops in 1991 titled 'Conscience and Truth'. There is also a book 'On Conscience' Which contains both this address and an address he gave to in 1984 titled 'Bishops, Theologians and Morality'. He makes some very interesting points and asks some very interesting questions. He does say that we must follow our conscience but he also says we must form them well:

'It is never wrong to follow the convictions one has arrived at—in fact, one must do so. But it can very well be wrong to have come to such askew convictions in the first place, by having stifled the protest of the anamnesis of being. The guilt lies then in a different place, much deeper—not in the present act, not in the present judgment of conscience but in the neglect of my being which made me deaf to the internal promptings of truth. For this reason, criminals of conviction like Hitler and Stalin are guilty. These crass examples should not serve to put us at ease but should rouse us to take seriously the earnestness of the plea: "Free me from my unknown guilt" (Ps 19:13).'
From a 1991 Keynote address titled 'Conscience and Truth' by Ratzinger at a workshop for bishops

Obviously he writes here when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith; I think this coincides pretty well with what the catechism states.

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    – Caleb
    Jan 13, 2013 at 7:52

I suggest you can ask Pope Benedikt XVI directly. You can write to the "Emeritus Pope Benedikt XVI, Secretariat of State, the Apostolic Palace, Vatican State". They DO read and answer all letters, one by one, and will forward it to him.

Ratzinger grew up in the National Socialism (Nazi) environment of his home country when he was a teenager (he was born in 1927) and saw how one own consciousness is more important in front of blind orders, however it would be obvious to point out that he knows perfectly that the Church is NOT a human creation nor a human ideology because it was created by Jesus in person.

In my opinion, no one can interpret anything and do whatever his/her "consciousness" says because Jesus was and IS very clear on what to do. Again, when the Pope (and so the Church) speaks officially about "things" of the Faith he does so because, it's Jesus himself speaking. So in case of doubt, just follow the official documents of the Church like the Catechism, as one person quoted here.


This is a great question. I see no one gave you a proper answer about what he personally thinks as opposed to what the Church as a whole (e.g. the Catechism) teaches. I recently read On Conscience: Two Essays by Joseph Ratzinger as well as a fair bit of material from Newman on the same topic (namely his letters and treatises from around the time of the First Vatican Council). Although I had to return those sources to the library, I can give you an answer from memory.

First, it is important to note that a 1967 monograph by Joseph Ratzinger does not contain the words or thoughts of Pope Benedict XVI, who was not elected until 2005. 38 years is a long time and Ratzinger's views surely evolved.

Let's begin with the tricky sentence:

Genuine ecclesiastical obedience is distinguished from any totalitarian claim which cannot accept any ultimate obligation of this kind beyond the reach of its dominating will.

The point here is that the Church, when She is genuine, recognizes the transcendence of the individual conscience in a way that totalitarian regimes do not. He is not saying that sometimes genuine obedience is disobedience. He is distinguishing two claims: the claim of ecclesiastical obedience, and the claim of totalitarian obedience. Totalitarian obedience is total and encompassing. It admits of no legitimate denial of its authority. Ecclesiastical obedience is different. When ecclesiastical obedience is genuine it cannot claim that it is due the total/encompassing obedience that totalitarian regimes demand.

As far as I can tell Ratzinger follows Newman on this topic quite consistently throughout his career. Newman's position was essentially that although conscience can legitimately "trump" ecclesiastical authority, the two are properly symbiotic and presuppose one another. That is, Christ's Church cannot be Herself without human conscience, and human conscience cannot be itself without Christ's Church. Their essence is bound up in looking beyond themselves and acknowledging a higher power, and it is the very same higher power that they both bow down to. Further the conscience requires a guide to form and tutor it, and the Church requires free human beings who worship "in spirit and truth." If conscience did not recognize the divine guide of Christ's Church, it would fall into error and malformation. If the Church did not recognize human freedom and conscience, it would be a totalitarian regime rather than a communio of worship.

Now, in Ratzinger's early years he emphasized conscience. In his later years he emphasized ecclesiastical authority. This was largely circumstantial. At different times he was confronted with different problems in the culture and in the Church, and thus emphasized different sides of the coin. As head of the CDF theological dissent was fomenting in the decades following Vatican II, and he felt that he had to take a strong stand against theological liberalism and the overemphasis on conscience. When he became Pope he moved away from such polarities and emphases and took more moderate, balanced stances.

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