The corrupt cannot outrun their conscience

There is a voice within us that we can never silence. It is the voice of our conscience. She is above the established order and prevailing laws. There are criminal acts, such as violating the innocent, denying hungry humans the bread that could save their lives, stealing funds destined for health and education, practicing such corruption as the pillage of millions of reales destined for the infrastructure; and other horrendous crimes. Delinquents become accustomed to such practices to the point that they become second nature and a way of thinking: «since it belongs to all, and to no one in particular, I can make it mine». The delinquent in public office says: «one who gets rich in this position is smart, the one who does not is stupid». Corruption, endemic in Brazil, obeys that sophism.

But no-one can escape the inner voice, the first nature, that accuses him and demands punishment. He can run away, like Cain, but the voice continues, like a kettledrum, pounding within. The corrupt one runs away even though justice does not look for him. Who can see within the heart of one for whom neither secrets nor secret chambers exist? Once again, it is the conscience: she judges, admonishes, corrodes within, applauds and condemns.

Spiritual persons of all ages offer this testimony: the conscience is God within us. The name we give to God according to the different cultures matters little. It is about something much higher than us, whose voice cannot be smothered by human uproar, no matter how strong the uproar is. With certitude Seneca wrote: «The conscience is God within you, near you and with you».

Historical examples abound. I will mention an old one and a modern one. In 310, A.D., Roman emperor Maximilian ordered the decimation of a battalion of Christian soldiers because they refused to kill innocent people. Before they were decapitated they wrote to the emperor: «Emperor, we are your soldiers, but before that we are servants of God. We made the imperial oath to you, but to God we promised not to practice evil. We prefer to die than to kill. We prefer to be killed as innocents than to live with our conscience always accusing us» (Passio Agaunensium, n.9).

Fifteen hundred years later, on February 3, 1944, a Christian German soldier wrote to his parents: «Beloved, I have been condemned to die because I refused to shoot defenseless Russian prisoners. I prefer to die than to carry the blood of innocents on my conscience the rest of my life. It was you, beloved Mother, who taught me to always follow my conscience before the orders of men. The time has come now for me to live that truth» (P.Malevezzi & G.Pirelli (org), Letzte Briefe zum Tode Verurteilter, 1955, p.489). And he was executed.

What is this force that in these two short tales gave the Roman and German soldiers the courage to be able to act like that? What voice told them to die rather than to kill? What power does that inner voice possess, to the point of overcoming the natural fear of dying? It is the imperious voice of conscience. We did not create her, and therefore, we cannot destroy it. We can disobey her. Deny her. Repress the remorse. But silence her? That we cannot do.

The conscience is untouchable and supreme. The respect we owe her is so profound that even the invincibly erroneous conscience must be listened to, and followed. Because of that, the Bishops gathered in the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) wrote: «The conscience, even when it invincibly errs, does not lose its dignity» (De dignitate Humana, n. 2).

He has an invincibly erroneous conscience who dedicates all his efforts to sincerely seeking truth, asking, studying, following the advise of others and questioning himself, and even so, errs. Someone who does all this, and errs, has the right to be respected and listened to because he has obeyed his conscience.

Everyone can tragically err, with the best intentions. Therefore, we always must ask whether he is listening to the interior voice or not. Blaise Pascal wisely pondered: «We never do evil so perfectly as when we do it with a clear conscience». Only that conscience is not good. Albert Camus dealing with the morality of blind obedience wrote: «Good will can cause as much evil as bad will, when it is not sufficiently well informed», this is, when the voice of conscience calling for the good action is not listened to.

We write all this thinking of the shameful corruption that has contaminated our society, practically at all levels, especially the owners of the great enterprises and the politicians of the highest ranks, up to the filthy President of the Republic. They are deft before their own consciences that incriminate them. But the time will come when they will have to respond to Someone Higher.

Leonardo Boff  Theologian-Philosopher,Earthcharter Commission

Free translation from the Spanish sent by
Melina Alfaro,

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