'What is the truth?' (Jn 18:38). Pontius Pilate's question to Jesus expresses the scepticism not only of a Roman but of so many men of the twentieth century. 'What is the truth?', by the very tone of voice with which he put the question, Pilate probably tried to make it clear that he didn't really expect an answer. In his heart of hearts, perhaps he didn't really want an answer. The fact is that he didn't wait for one: 'He went out' (Jn ibid.), and so deprived mankind of what would have been one of its rarest treasures: a definition of truth from the lips of Truth itself.

            Reading the Gospel account of this Judgment scene, we sense that Pilate had begun to feel the attraction of Jesus' personality. If he suddenly breaks off the conversation and takes refuge in scepticism, it is because Jesus--at the very moment when his life depended on gaining the Roman Governor's favour--had bluntly brought up this matter of the truth, in the most unpalatable and uncompromising terms: 'This is why I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. And everyone who is on the side of the truth listens to my voice' (Jn 18:37).

            Our Lord's words, before the man who is about to judge him, are very clear. When he speaks of the truth, he means (and we feel that Pilate understands him to mean) something objective, not something subjective; not mere opinion which men can debate, but truth that is valid for all. He makes the truth (the revealing of the truth) the purpose of his mission to men; just as he makes the truth (the acceptance of the truth) the test of allegiance to him.

            His words are very clear--so much so that all those who understand Christianity as the following of Jesus Christ must realize clearly that to follow Jesus means to accept and to follow an objective standard of truth.

            Our Lord's words are very clear. So also is the contrast between his position and Pilate's. He was really inviting Pilate--as he invites all men--to accept his standard of the truth. But the invitation was too much for Pilate. In his scepticism, he had no time for such dogmatism; or perhaps, in his prejudices, he had no time to try to understand it. He was perfectly clear about one thing--as are so many people today--that there is no such thing as the truth. at least in matters of religious belief or moral conduct; no such thing as the truth about man's nature or origin or destiny or the worth of his actions. No objective truth exists on these questions. All that exists is subjective opinion, individual choice, personal preference. And no one has the right to say that anyone else's beliefs or actions are better or worse, truer or falser, than his own.

Conscientious rights and objective truth

            Christ and Pilate were speaking on different wavelengths. There was an immense gap between their two minds. If modern man is as sceptical as Pilate about the existence of objective religious or moral truth, does this not mean that there is an equally immense gap between the mind of Christ and that of modern man?

            Perhaps. But it is also possible that modern man, or at least modern Western man, has one important advantage over Pilate, an advantage that is worth considering. We know nothing of Pilate's views on conscience, specifically on the rights of individual conscience. As a Roman governor, a practically absolute ruler in his province, he probably didn't believe in them. In the case before him, our Lord's own case, he certainly didn't respect them. Modern man, however, even though he may claim not to believe in any objective truth, does believe strongly in the rights of conscience.

            Now if one reflects on this, one discovers an inconsistency, a very hopeful inconsistency which suggests precisely that modern man is not in practice so absolutely sceptical about the possibility of objective truth as he thinks himself to be, or as we may think him to be.

            In effect, all those who invoke the rights of conscience --e.g. as against the authority of the State--are appealing to some standard of justice that, for them, stands higher and is truer than any man-made disposition or law.

            Those who campaign against class prejudice, racial discrimination, mass genocide, colonialism, imperialism, or atomic warfare, do so in the firm belief that these things are wrong--even if a particular group or government or law approves them; that they are wrong always and everywhere; that they are wrong and cannot be willed, or legislated, to be right; that they are wrong in themselves and that no collective will, and no individual will, can make them right.

            But it is not possible to maintain this position unless one believes in a higher truth - an objective truth - that stands above laws and Parliaments and demands their respect; a higher truth that stands equally above the will of any individual and demands his respect also.

            This last point perhaps needs to be emphasised. The civil rights movement cannot be interpreted as a campaign to free each individual from loyalty or subjection to the State, and to make the individual will supreme. If it were, then no one would have the right to protest, for example, against the actions of Pilate or Hitler, who after all were certainly following their own individual will, and were presumably following their own subjective 'truth' and, according to such an interpretation, would have been right to do so.

            Genuine civil rights protests are made in the name of humanity, i.e. in the name of a higher truth valid for the human race and demanding respect from all men. The essential philosophy of the civil rights movement demands a higher court of appeal--a court of more ultimate truth--where the morality (the truth or falsehood, the rightness or wrongness) of laws and actions can be finally judged.

The Catholic and Protestant conscience

            This idea, that there exists a truth which is higher than man-made laws or individual choices--and which should be respected by them--was universal in Christendom until the sixteenth century. The Reformation did not, at first, seem to affect this Christian belief in the existence of an objective and ultimate truth, standing outside man's mind, standing higher than man's mind, and existing even if some or many men fail to see it or fail to respect it. As a movement so largely in revolt against authority, the Reformation was bound eventually to create a crisis about the objective nature of truth (for truth and authority are intimately connected. Yet, we repeat, it did not at first seem to affect the basic Christian confidence in the objective truth. It simply sought to modify the means by which, in religious and moral matters, the individual was to attain that truth. There was now the Catholic and the Protestant approach to this question; there was, in morality, the Catholic and the Protestant conscience.

            The Catholic conscience supplemented its intimate efforts to distinguish between right and wrong by looking to externally-given norms which, as coming from God himself (speaking, with authority, not only in his Incarnation but also in his continued life in his Church), it welcomed as certainly true.

            The Protestant conscience, in its sensitivity to moral truth, was offered the aid and apparent guarantee of an external objective norm, that of our Lord's teaching in Scripture. But, in practice, this was to have less and less value, for the 'objective' norm of the Gospel was subordinated to the ultimate 'guaranteeing' principle of Protestantism, that of private judgment.

            Despite this principle, however it is true to say that. at the time of the Reformation and for long after, the Reformed ethic did not wish to deny the existence of the objective truth of the norms of morality, but simply said that the knowledge of these norms may be attained by a personal or private (and therefore, in the end, by a subjective) interpretation of the teaching of Christ.

            In other words, the Catholic believed that the ultimate guide to personal conscience, as it endeavours to find religious and moral truth by applying our Lord's teaching to human life, lay in an external authority and tradition guaranteed by God, while the Protestant believed that the ultimate guide to personal conscience in interpreting or applying the Gospel must be conscience itself.

            Two contrasting concepts of conscience, then, and of the relation of conscience to the truth. Two contrasting concepts of conscience: each wishing to be sensitive to , the truth, but one with a tendency and a disposition to check whatever presented itself from within as the voice of truth against an external and objective authority, and the other with an ultimate tendency to subordinate whatever spoke authoritatively from outside (Scripture, Tradition) to an interior and personal interpretation; the Catholic conscience with a tendency to look outwards (and upwards) to external norms which represent a final occur of judgment sustained by a divine guarantee, and the Protestant conscience with an ultimate tendency to look inwards where, in the last analysis, the voice of God speaks in the depths of each individual soul.

            The difference between these two concepts is enormous. Nevertheless, they still had a very important meeting-ground in common, insofar as both not only accepted the existence of objective truth, but regarded conscience as a faculty capable of arriving at this truth. Both, in other words, regarded conscience as a truth-seeking faculty (and, naturally, a truth-finding faculty). [1]

            This is a very important meeting ground. One perhaps only realizes its importance by considering the situation when it disappears, when the Private Judgment position reaches a point - to which its development tends inevitably to take it- where faith in the existence of objective truth is gone.

Can conscience create the truth?

            It is vital to grasp this difference between the original Protestant position and what one might call the modern post-Protestant attitude which prevails in Western liberal (or post-liberal) societies and influences the thinking of all of us. The original Protestant position simply held that man's mind or conscience is capable of finding truth -religious and moral truth- 'on its own', without having to follow any external guide. The important thing here is that this position still allows, at least in theory, the existence of a truth that conscience can relate to. It accepts, so to speak, the pre-existence of truth in relation to conscience.

            It is a very different thing indeed to hold, however obscurely, that conscience determines or creates truth. This is in fact the real position of many people today. Freedom of conscience--freedom to seek the truth--is nowadays being made synonymous with 'autonomy' of conscience--freedom to 'create' the truth...

            There is of course an intrinsic absurdity in the concept of a 'truth-creating' faculty. Insofar as it can be used. however,it shows the infinite rift between the modern positivistic-sceptic mind and the Catholic mind. Once truth is thought of as something that can be create one is clearly talking about something totally different from what a Catholic means by truth.

            One doesn't create truth. Truth is uncreated. It is not an invention of man. It may be discovered by him, but not invented. It is not subordinated to man or to his conscience. The truth is higher than conscience and independent of it. The man who denies this, who makes truth in some way subordinated to his own mind, who is prepared to treat it as the subjective creation of his own mind, is not talking about the truth at all. He should use a different term: value judgment, personal standard, or perhaps personal interest or preference or convenience...

Conscience must look up to truth

            Truth is independent of conscience. But conscience is not independent of truth. In your conscientious choices, you don't really choose the truth as if it were one truth presenting itself out of several possible truths. One truth, one only, presents itself to the mind as true, and you either accept it or you reject it. But even if you reject it, it remains present to you as true. You cannot get rid of it. However much you try to subject it to your mind, you fail. For the truth is stronger than your mind.

            ln the face of its strength a man may turn away, avert his mind from it, declare it our of bounds, closed to further mental consideration... But in effect, by this he maims his mind. You cannot manipulate the truth, you cannot create your own truths. You can only do that with falsehood.

            Of course, many men make their own falsehoods and call them true. Falsehood can indeed be manipulated. It is quite malleable. It is easily subordinated to the human mind. For it is the product of the human mind. But the truth stands above man. It is God's product.

            Truth, therefore, real truth, is always greater than the human mind. It must be respected and sought with humility. It must be looked up to. A man is really acting according to his conscience only when he is looking up in his actions, when he is following a standard of truth that is above him, that he respects and tries to measure up to. [2]

            If conscience is to preserve its proper nature as a truth-seeking faculty, it must preserve this attitude of humility. Pride is always trying to assert itself. If it is permitted to do so, it will tend to adopt an attitude of domination towards the truth. And it is then that conscience emerges with the pretensions of a truthcreating faculty.

The original temptation

            The biggest human dilemma in fact lies in how to approach the truth: whether to treat it humbly or dominatingly. The most basic temptation is found here As is the most basic sin--the original sin, that is at the origin of all Sill and consists in yielding to the temptation to manipulate, to dominate, the truth.

            It is peculiar that some Christians today seem to find such difficulty in the biblical account of Original Sin.

            The account, the whole doctrine, of course makes no sense if one reads it as the colossal punishment of a trivial act of disobedience towards a quite arbitrary command. The whole thing then appears as a sort of deliberate snare set by God in the ridiculous matter of a protected apple-tree.

            But that is not at all the way it appears in Genesis. The Bible uses symbolic terms, there can be no doubt about that. But symbolic terms about issues that could scarcely be clearer or more radical.

            Let us recall the situation. God has commanded Adam and Eve not to eat of the fruit of one tree: not an

            I apple tree,but the tree 'of the knowledge of good and evil'. This tree - of a species unknown to our orchards - is clearly a symbol; and the taking of its fruit is clearly a symbol. Symbols of what'?

            Consider the temptation. God had warned Adam and Eve not to eat or touch the forbidden fruit - 'lest you die'. The devil tells them, 'You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.' These last words contain the real temptation, and suggest the greatness of the sin to which they were being tempted.

            What exactly are these words getting at'? Adam and Eve already knew good. They knew that God was good, and that everything willed by God must be good, and anything against his will must be evil. They knew then that to disobey him would be evil. But they were being tempted not just to disobey one isolated and rather petty expression of God's will. They were being tempted, in their minds, to the greatest possible sin of pride against divine and uncreated Truth. They were being tempted to reject--or rather to think they could reject-the limitations of creaturehood, the necessary subordination of the creature's mind to objective truth. They were being tempted to manipulate and abuse the truth, to think that the truth can be divided and cut off from its one source and given a new and autonomous existence, that there can be several truths, one standing against another, that the creature's 'truth' should have equal and democratic rights with the Creator's Truth.

            It was the temptation to adopt their own standard of right and wrong, to let their own mind (or perhaps, more accurately, their preference) be the standard of good and evil. It was the temptation to be 'like God', determining, legislating, creating good and evil.

            It was the temptation of the autonomous conscience. It was a peculiarly modern temptation.

            Let us be clear on this. Adam and Eve were not simply being tempted with the suggestion that they could know - i.e. discover - the truth 'on their own'. They were not being tempted to be 'discoverers' of the truth (truth discovered leads to the true God), but to be 'creators', 'inventors', of the truth ('truth' invented - i.e. falsehood - is a false god or serves a false god).

Making abortion 'right'

            How clearly one can see this false idea of the truth today as if it were an arbitrary product of man's will (or even an arbitrary product of God's will! What a false idea in fact Adam and Eve had of the relationship between God and truth!).

            How easily modern man would solve moral and social problems: 'Let this be the truth. Let this be right. No; now this other thing...' This positivistic attitude is deeply rooted in current thinking.

            Abortion was 'wrong' in Britain only a few years ago. In 1967 the British Parliament (by a vote, in fact, of less than fifty per cent of the elected representatives of the people) legalized it. Therefore abortion has now become right. A new truth has emerged, has been created, and pushed out the old. The old truth has been abolished.

            If Humanae Vitae was such a stumbling-block to the minds of many people - many Catholics included - it was not necessarily because they were absolutely convinced by the arguments in favour of artificial birth-control, but that they were scandalized at the thought of one man with the power (so it seemed to them) to legislate 'the truth', to change what had been wrong into what could now be right, by a mere 'fiat', by a simple act of his will - and refusing to do it!

Conscience versus community?

            The idea that individual conscience lies above the truth, and that therefore each man can construct his own world of good and evil, his own system of right and wrong, within his autonomous conscience, leads to individualism, isolationism, lack of solidarity, rejection of community; and is, inevitably and in the end, destructive of the very idea of humanity.

            If each man's mind is supreme, then all men have potentially different standards, they find no links in a shared humanity, there is no common ground between them. Dialogue and trust become impossible. Mankind fragments.

            If men cannot look up together to God - or at least to a higher truth - then they will not for long be able to think or work or act or live together.

            If modern man, in ever greater numbers, seems to be despairing of that 'togetherness' which was so generally sought only a very few years ago, if he no longer trusts the larger communities of State or Church, if so much of life appears to him as a 'rat-race', if he looks with 'suspicion on his fellow-men, if he seems increasingly sceptical even about life within the more intimate community of the family, if he finds himself being pushed-or drifting more and more out on his own, one wonders if this may not be the final stage of disintegration of a humanity where minds, having first lost regard for, have finally lost sight of, their one common meeting ground--the truth.

[1] Strictly speaking, as we have said earlier, conscience is that faculty for making judgments in relation to the rightness or wrongness of one's conduct, i.e. in relation to practical moral truth. Conscience therefore cannot operate except on the basis of a grasp of truth (or what it takes to be truth), and this means that in practice it must maintain a certain attitude towards the question of truth. This is why I introduce and would wish to underline the enormously important distinction between the 'truth-seeking' attitude and the 'truth-creating' attitude; the attitude of respect or the attitude of domination in relation to the truth. Some philosophically-minded readers may feel that at this stage one is speaking of a function of the intelligence rather than of conscience. I would not argue the point, since I feel that the distinction is not important to the non-philosophical reader.

[2] He is not acting according to conscience if he is acting simply according to convenience, shaping his actions to suit his pride or interest or pleasure; or perhaps, rather, shaping his principles to suit his actions. The man of flexible principles is in constant danger of becoming a man of no principles at all.