Thursday, December 02, 2010

From Synderesis to Anamnesis

“Pure Objectivity is An Absurd Abstraction”[1]

The facts: In the Seewald interview, “Light of the World,[2] to the remark that “Critics, including critics from the Church’s own ranks, object that it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms,” Benedict XVI commented on the sensation of being provoked in a previous interview on the plane to Cameroon on March 17, 2009 by the complaint that the Catholic Church “is often considered unrealistic and ineffective” in the struggle to stop the contagion of AIDS.[3] Benedict commented to Seewald: “In my remarks I was not making a general statement about the condom issue, but merely said, and this is what caused such great offense, that we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms. Much more needs to be done.”

In the Cameroon interview, he spoke of two elements that had to be done: “bringing out the human dimension of sexuality, that is to say a spiritual and human renewal that would bring with it a new way of behaving towards others, and secondly, true friendship…”[4] Here, with Seewald he says that “the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.”[5]

These are important words in that he is referring to the “banalization of sexuality” as a reduction of sexual activity to procreation and pleasure, rather than as involving the whole structure of the person. He is alluding to an anthropology of relation that he perceives deep within the condom issue. And he discloses it in the next paragraph: “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.”

Seewald then smells blood: “Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?” Benedict responds: “She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”

This last statement is most risky in that it could be taken – was in fact taken - by the press to trumpet a change in the teaching of the Catholic Church with regard to contraception and homosexual activity. It has been commented to me: you would think that the pope, intellectual lightning rod that he is, would have anticipated that his rather down-scale remarks on condom use would generate a huge reaction from the media in the direction of a change in the apparently settled position of the Church on contraception and gay activity. Because of the sensitivity of this issue of the condom, one would have expected that more would have been forthcoming by way of clarification.

But, no. And perhaps for the following reason. This condom brouhaha has created the opportunity to give a concrete example of the development[6] that has taken place in the Church during the Second Vatican Council and after. That development was the meaning of the Council as “pastoral” in that the concern of the fathers integrating it was not to hammer out the meaning of this or that objective truth in the deposit of faith under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but rather to fix on the reality of Revelation itself as the Person of Christ and the act of faith as the reception of that Person such that the believer, like the Virgin, takes the Word into self and incarnates Him.[7] In a word, this tiny observation of Benedict that perhaps the condom could be a “first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality”[8] demands an interpretation that the so called liberal press misunderstands as a loosening of the moral absolute, and the so called conservative and orthodox will consign to subjective intentionality[9] without grasping that he is talking about a gesture to retrieve a personalist relational anthropology that will change a whole style of thought to a “new trajectory of thinking”[10] and a “broadening of reason.” Benedict has been trying to get across forever that the person of today has to enter “a new trajectory of reason” which is “a broadening” of same so as to escape from a world of abstraction and ideology and enter into the fully real world of the Word of God and His creation. In a way, we are like C.S. Lewis’s Prince Rilian and companions in the underworld under the spell of the Wicked Witch. There in the underworld, they still remembered Narnia (“Overworld”) but could not come to their right minds until one of the company, Puddleglum, put his foot into the fire burning the intoxicating incense, the pain of which returned him to his right mind, and the stench of the burning foot the same for the others.[11]

Benedict has been trying to do the same thing with regard to the Church and is using this surprising and scandalizing assertion about condoms to get our attention. What is he saying? And what is he not saying? He is saying – I submit - that the human person is not adequately described by a Greek metaphysic, nor is morality adequately established on the metaphysical anthropology of substance,[12] nor is its rational dynamic adequately accounted for by the intellectualist interplay of reason and will within the horizon of that anthropology. Such an anthropology, and the epistemological horizon it works in, says that contraceptive as well as homosexual activity is contra-naturam, and this because both kinds of acts violate right reason which feeds on the reality known as “nature.” And the nature of sexual activity demands a one-flesh union of male and female with openness to procreation. As difficult as it is to give a persuasive account of this, these have been the metaphysical and anthropological terms that a Christian scholastic tradition has bequeathed to the third millennium.

However, Benedict does not ground his thought on a metaphysic of substance nor an epistemology reducible to only concepts, nor a rational psychology of faculties of intellect and will. He works with a metaphysic of person as relation and knowledge as consciousness of self. He reads “knowledge” as legere ab intus = to know from within.[13] Since the Person to be known in Christ is pure relation to the Father and when incarnate, prayer, then the proportionate medium to know Christ is prayer. He calls this “theological epistemology.”[14] In like manner, since like is known by like, “only God knows God,”[15] as revealed in Mt. 11, 27: “no one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and him to whom the son chooses to reveal him.” One must become “another Christ” in order to know Christ, and therefore, the Father. He works on two levels of experience – sense and self transcending self.

He works appreciatively with Greek reason but most literally transformed by Christian faith as the experience of the self–in-transcendence, such that the supreme reality – Being – that reason perceives is the human person as image and likeness of the divine Persons of the Trinity.[16] Hence, knowledge of reality does not take place primarily in discrete concepts corresponding to “natures,” – not even human nature – perceived in the material world, but rather the Word of God[17] as present in the material world, but not of it. And the mode of perception is the consciousness of self as imaging the revealing divine Person. The meaning of reality, then, is to be relational as in “being for” another. This is true for the Trinitarian Persons, and it is true for persons made in the image and likeness of God.

What does this have to do with condoms? When Benedict speaks positively of the use of the condom, he is not speaking about the moral use of the condom in terms of nature. He is not speaking about the moral use of condoms at all. Rather, he is addressing the human person, turned back on himself and trapped in that turn, and hence unable to see reality and the evil of his actions. I take this to be the case the pope suggests of the male prostitute using the condom with an apparently irretrievable erroneous conscience. The media who/which work only with a pre-established agendum, when reading the conjunction of “condom” and “male prostitute” (presumably homosexual) smell blood and move in to translate reality into propaganda. The orthodox Catholic in the pew, who may have some education in the scholastic metaphysic and ethic of nature, first principles and practical syllogisms, will tend to trivialize the brouhaha around the condom remark and attribute it to media “condomania” and “Salvation by Latex” as Weigel suggests,[18] and therefore not to pay attention to it.

But, as my interlocutor suggested this morning, this pope is not so foolish as to think that he can say what he said about condoms having a positive role in the rehabilitation of, say, a gay prostitute, without some follow-up clarification. Also, to say “condom” in the orthodox Catholic world is to speak approvingly of contraception and homosexuality, which is the equivalent of brandishing a red flag. And so, a clarification should be forthcoming from some official quarter.

Before going on, it will be important to note that the context in which Benedict XVI speaks of the use of the condom is the person whose conscience is dead to the true-to-reality good. He is speaking of the dehumanized person for whom sexuality is totally trivial as an exercise of humanity and is reduced to the level of “a drug that people administer to themselves.” Sexuality in such a person is a pleasure seeking activity extrinsic to the person as person. It is not a fully human act and is cause or effect of their not fully exercising themselves as persons.

To plumb the depths of the pope’s mind on the relation of action and thought, it may be helpful to pass review of an address by Benedict in 1991 entitled “Conscience and Truth.”[19] Here Benedict confronts the issue of the so-called “invincible erroneous conscience” whereby a person, in the case of the article, Hitler/Stalin, does evil but is allegedly unable to overcome the moral ignorance of it. This, for the young Benedict beginning his studies of theology, raised the issue of the source of morality and conscience.

After offering his own theologically derived thought that there are two levels of conscience, (1) the moral agent as ontological tendency (relation) towards the divine (as image and likeness thereof) which he calls anamnesis (remembering = not forgetting), and 2) a second which is the act of the intellect and will that go through a process of deductive, practical reasoning from a first practical principle – synderesis (Good must be done, and evil avoided). Benedict comments that “the word synderesis (synteresis [Greek]) came into medieval tradition of conscience from the stoic doctrine of the microcosm. It remained unclear in its exact meaning, and for this reason became a hindrance to a careful development of this essential aspect of the whole question of conscience.”[20]

The first level is “ontological tendency,” a dynamic of the human person as imaging the relational self-giving of the Trinitarian Persons. The dynamism of the tendency is toward the divine, and as ontological, it is an experience of the reality of the self with the consciousness of the self that accrues to it. This anamnesis is a sense, i.e. “the spark of the divine that has been hidden in us” that is not conceptual as “a conceptually articulated knowing, a store of retrievable contents” but “an inner sense, a capacity to recall, so that the one whom it addresses, if he is not turned in on himself, hears it is echo from within. He sees: That’s it! That is what my nature points to and seeks.”[21] We have here the kernel of the explanation of the condom as medium of rehabilitation of the male prostitute. Turned in on himself, he is what has been considered invincibly ignorant because he cannot hear the language of his own being. The concern that another is not infected with AIDS from him could be the first ontological act of his persona in the service of another, and therefore the enlightening of his consciousness (conscience) as to human good and evil.

The second account of conscience that has come down almost universally in its Greek-scholastic form is an intellectualist-deductive-syllogistic act of intellect and will working in tandem to give us a practical judgement as conclusion that we can never violate even if it be objectively erroneous. Benedict comments: “On this level, the level of judgment (conscientia in the narrower sense), it can be said that even the erroneous conscience binds. This statement is completely intelligible from the rational tradition of Scholasticism. No one may act against his convictions, as St. Paul had already said (Romans 14, 23). But this fact – that the conviction a person has come to certainly binds in the moment of acting – does not signify a canonization of subjectivity. 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 palace, by having stifled the protest of the anamnesis of being.”[22]

And there we have the deeper point. Benedict is not canonizing male prostitution, nor condomizing contraception, nor the use of condoms for “safe sex” in a homosexual interaction. Rather, he is trying to move the Church to move on to think on a new trajectory of reason. That “new trajectory” is the human person as constitutively relational. Only as actually and existentially relational can the person become conscious of God and himself.

In his most recent encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” he wrote: Pope Paul VI noted that “the world is in trouble because of the lack of thinking” He was making… a wish: a new trajectory of thinking is needed in order to arrive at a better understanding of the implications of our being one family; interaction among the peoples of the world calls us to embark upon this new trajectory, so that integration can signify solidarity rather than marginalization. Thinking of this kind requires a deeper critical evaluation of the category of relation….

“As a spiritual being, the human creature is defined through interpersonal relations. The more authentically he or she lives these relations, the more his or her own personal identity matures. It is not by isolation that man establishes his worth, but by placing himself in relation with others and with God. Hence these relations take on fundamental importance….”[23]


Benedict is trying to set the Church on a distinct epistemological level, that of the person as constitutively, not merely accidentally, relational. The very meaning of the human person, as the revelation of Christ as Son of the Father, is to be “for” the other. Made in the image and likeness of God, and chosen in him “before the foundation of the world… He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ as his sons” (Eph. 1, 4). Sin is the turning back on self, the loss of relationality that has darkened our intellects and weakened our wills.[24] There can be a liberation from that state by an action of generosity and giftedness, no matter how polluted the context. The ignorance is not invincible as long as there is some freedom of self-mastery, self-possession and self-gift. Since knowledge of the self as image of God, and therefore knowledge of God – and therefore, the Absolute – can come from a “first step in the direction” of giftedness, and therefore “moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.” This is not a canonization of the use of the condom, but it is pointing toward the anthropology of person as gift that is the key to Vatican II, and awaiting its release into consciousness.

[1] J. Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” The Essential Pope Benedict XVI, Thornton and Varenne, Harper, San Francisco (2007) 247.

[2] Benedict XVI, “Light of the Word,” A Conversation with Peter Seewald, Ignatius (2010) 118-119.

[3] Ibid 193.

[4] Ibid. 193-194.

[5] Ibid 119.

[6] Karol Wojtyla, “Sources of Renewal,” Harper and Row, (1979) 17: “If we study the Conciliar magisterium as a whole, we find that the Pastors of the Church were not so much concerned to answer questions like ‘What should men believe?, ‘What is the real meaning of this or that truth of faith?’ and so on, but rather to answer the more complex question: ‘What does it mean to be a believer, a Catholic and a member of the Church?’”

Having established this turn to the subject as the meaning of the “enrichment” of faith, Wojtyla then divides the book into two parts: “Formation of Attitudes” and “Formation of Consciousness.” The attitude of faith is the self-transcendence of oneself as gift to the revealing Christ. The consciousness is the awareness of what it means to be “another Christ.” This division of the book after the notion of “enrichment” or development into “attitude” and “consciousness” squares with the Christian anthropology offered in Gaudium et spes #24: “man, the only earthly being God has willed for itself, finds himself by the sincere gift of himself.” Attitude is the “gift of self;” consciousness is “the finding of the self.” Wojtyla subsumes the entire Council, and all its parts, into the above.

[7] Wojtyla comments: “A ‘purely’ doctrinal Council would have concentrated on defining the precise meaning of the truths of faith, whereas a pastoral Council proclaims, recalls or clarifies truths for the primary purpose of giving Christians a life-style, a way of thinking and acting;” Sources of Renewal op. cit. 18. Consider also the immense impact of Benedict XVI on the Council with his habilitation thesis on Revelation and Faith that he sums up thus: “`Revelation’ is always a concept denoting an act. The word refers to the act in which God shows himself, not to the objectified result of this act. And because this is so, the receiving subject is always also a part of the concept of ‘revelation.’ Where there is no one to perceive ‘revelation,’ no re-vel-ation has occurred, because no veil has been removed. By definition, revelation requires a someone who apprehends it;” Milestones – Memoirs 1927-1977” Ignatius (1997) 108. It is this immense intellectual development by the retrieval of the subject both as Revelation and Faith that has proven so elusive in assimilating the Council. Benedict’s reference to the condom is neither contraceptive nor to immunize against AIDS but as a gesture of self-gift from within a thoroughly immoral absolute.

[8] Ibid 119.

[9] Both Janet Smith and George Weigel speak about subjective intention and psychological change that can be brought about by this first step. The pope also uses the word “intention.” But within a complementary and higher epistemological horizon, Benedict has consistently understood “person” from Trinity through Christ to man as constitutive relation. He makes the analogy of this mystical epistemology of the person with Quantum physics and its indeterminacy. He is also firm that the Greek metaphysics of substance is completely inadequate to account for anything in the theology of the Trinity, Christology or anthropology. This means that this strange reference to the use of the condom neither for contraception nor AIDS prevention, and without determinant to the axiological absolute, suggests that he is talking about the rehabilitation of a constitutively relational anthropology by a gesture.

[10] Benedict XVI “Caritas in Veritate” #53-55.

[11] C. S. Lewis, “The Silver Chair,” Collier Books (1953) Chapter XII.

[12] Consider Benedict’s remarks on the notion of substance as deployable in theology: “one sees what tremendous effort and intellectual transformation lay behind the working out of this concept of person, which was quite foreign in its inner disposition to the Greek and the Latin mind. It is not conceived in substantialist, but… in existential terms… Remaining on the level of the Greek mind, Boethius defined ‘person’ as naturae rationalis individual substantia, as the individual substance of a rational nature. One sees that the concept of person stands entirely on the level of substance. This cannot clarify anything about the Trinity or about Christology; it is an affirmation that remains on the level of the Greek mind which thinks in substantialist terms;” J. Ratzinger, “Concerning the Notion of Person in Theology,” Communio 17 [Fall, 1990] 448.

[13] J. Ratzinger, “Behold the Pierced One,” Ignatius i(1986) 25.

[14] Ibid 26.

[15] Benedict XVI, Brazil, Aparecida Conference, Keynote Address (Celam) May 13, 2007.

[16] In like manner, John Paul II wrote in “Fides et ratio” #83: “In a special way, the person constitutes a privileged locus for the encounter with being [actu essendi], and hence with metaphysical enquiry.” Reason can perceive Being in its fullness only when the “I” of the believer –actus essendi – is self-transcending in faith.

[17] Benedict XVI, Address to the Synod on The Word of God, October 6, 2008: “the Word of God is the foundation of everything, it is the true reality. And to be realistic, we must rely upon this reality. We must change our idea that matter, solid things, things we can touch, are the more solid, the more certain reality. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount the Lord speaks to us about the two possible foundations for building the house of one's life: sand and rock. The one who builds on sand builds only on visible and tangible things, on success, on career, on money. Apparently these are the true realities. But all this one day will pass away. We can see this now with the fall of large banks: this money disappears, it is nothing. And thus all things, which seem to be the true realities we can count on, are only realities of a secondary order. The one who builds his life on these realities, on matter, on success, on appearances, builds upon sand. Only the Word of God is the foundation of all reality, it is as stable as the heavens and more than the heavens, it is reality. Therefore, we must change our concept of realism. The realist is the one who recognizes the Word of God, in this apparently weak reality, as the foundation of all things. Realist is the one who builds his life on this foundation, which is permanent;”

[19] J. Ratzinger “Conscience and Truth,” On Conscience Ignatius (2007)

[20] This is an important observation since Benedict’s whole thrust is to explain the human person and knowing in the existential terms of revelation as created in the image and likeness of the divine Persons, and therefore with a “remembering” of who one is and what one is to do according to who one is

[21] J. Ratzinger, “Conscience and Truth,” On Conscience Ignatius (2007) 32.

[22] J. Ratzinger, “Conscience and Truth” On Conscience op. cit. 38.

[23] Benedict XVI, “Caritas in Veritate,” #53.

[24] Veritatis Splendor, 1.

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