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The Conscience of Our Age

6/26/2007 - 6:05 AM PST

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Interview With Father Vincent Twomey


MAYNOOTH, Ireland, JUNE 26, 2007 (Zenit) - The modern conception of conscience reduces it to an excuse mechanism, that it cannot err and that what one thinks is right is in fact right, said author Father Vincent Twomey.

Father Twomey, retired professor of moral theology at the Pontifical University of St. Patrick's College, in Maynooth, is the author of "Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age," published this year by Ignatius Press.

In this interview, he comments on the Holy Father's role in providing a way to return to a deeper understanding of conscience.

Q: You were a doctoral student of Father Joseph Ratzinger. How has that experience uniquely prepared you to write this book?

Father Twomey: I joined professor Ratzinger's doctoral colloquium in the spring of 1971, and studied under his supervision for the doctorate, which I was awarded in 1979.

Since his election as archbishop of Munich in 1977, he has met with his former doctoral and postdoctoral students each year for a weekend colloquium, a practice that continued even after his election as Benedict XVI.

I think that, as a result, I have a personal knowledge of the Pope that is, perhaps, unique.
Sitting at his feet as a student, studying his writings, and participating in discussions with him over some 36 years has also given me a certain insight into his thought, which in turn has influenced my own theology profoundly.

Q: What do you think are the most defining characteristics of the writings of Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI?

Father Twomey: The most defining formal characteristics of his writings are originality, clarity and a superb literary style that is not easy to render in translation.

Ratzinger is more than a world-class scholar and academic: He is an original thinker.

He has the Midas touch, in the positive sense that whatever he touches, he turns to gold, in other words, whatever subject he examines, he has something new and exciting to say about it, be it the dogmas of the Church or a mosaic in an ancient Roman church or bioethics. And he writes with amazing clarity.

With regard to his style, Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne is reported as commenting that Ratzinger is the Mozart of theology -- he writes masterpieces effortlessly.

With regard to its content, as Ratzinger once said himself, "God is the real central theme of my endeavors."

There is hardly an area of theology -- dogma, moral, political life, bioethics, liturgy, exegesis, music, art -- that he has not examined in-depth. And everything he examines, he does so from God's viewpoint, as it were, namely trying to discover what light revelation -- Scripture and Tradition -- can shine on a particular issue.

On the other hand, his theological reflection is firmly rooted in contemporary experience: the questions and existential issues posed by modernity and post-modernity, by contemporary thinkers and the epoch-making events of our times.

However, his pastoral and administrative duties as archbishop and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were such that he had little time to write extensive monographs, with the result that most of his writings are of a fragmentary nature. But what fragments!

Each has the capacity to convey that insight into truth that touches the mind and heart of the reader -- and can effect in many a change of heart.

Q: You describe Benedict XVI as unafraid of making mistakes, and as "having the courage to be imperfect." Can you explain this further?

Father Twomey: Having the courage to be imperfect is more than being afraid of making mistakes, though it may include it.

Basic to his whole attitude to life and to theology is the assumption that only God is perfect, that human effort is always imperfect.

Perfectionism of any kind is inimical to man, but above all in the political sphere. Most political ideologies aim to create a perfect world, a perfect society and usually end up making hell on earth.

That is a frequent theme of his writings on political life. But also with regard to the human effort to do theology, as it were. That, too, will always be unfinished business, always capable of improvement, of correction and deepening.

We cannot know everything, least of all God and his design for man. I have described his writings as "fragmentary." Most of his writings are unfinished -- like his classic book, "Introduction to Christianity," and, more recently, his "Jesus of Nazareth." And yet he has the courage to publish them in their unfinished state.

This attitude gave Joseph Ratzinger that inner calm and detachment which the world is now experiencing in Benedict XVI. But it also is, perhaps, the secret of his ...

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