“The Restoration of Man”: Cardinal Carlo Caffarra’s Final Testimony

The full text of a scheduled address by the late archbishop emeritus of Bologna, in which he provocatively states, “Everything that makes up what we call ‘Western civilization’ leads to atheism or to the expulsion of religion from the horizon of life.”

Italian Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna talks with a bishop outside the morning session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 16, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Editor’s note: The following text was an address to be read by Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, archbishop emeritus of Bologna, at the yearly meeting organized in Milan by “La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana” [The New Daily Compass], on September 10th. Cardinal Caffarra died suddenly on September 6th. The address was then published in La nuova Bussola Quotidiana and is reprinted here by kind permission of that journal’s editor, Riccardo Cascioli. The text has been translated to English by Alessandra Nucci and Andrew Guernsey.


I will divide my reflections up into two parts. In the first part I shall try to reflect on what constitutes the destruction of man and on a few of the main factors of this destruction. In the second part I will address the question: who restores man?


Let’s start by taking a dramatic page from the Gospel: Peter’s betrayal, which we read in the Gospel according to Mark (cfr. Mk.14:66-72).

What does Peter’s betrayal consist in? The servant’s question confronts him with a choice, a choice that regards himself and his identity in relation to Jesus. Peter’s freedom is confronted with two possibilities: either to affirm or to deny the truth about himself. Peter chooses to deny the truth: “I don’t know and I don’t understand what you’re talking about” (Mk 14:68) Peter prevaricates about the truth.

Just about the truth, or about himself as well? Does not perhaps he deny being who he is? By betraying Christ he betrays himself. He would safeguard himself only if he declared the truth: if he bore witness to it. He is full of fear, a fear so great that it brings him to perjury: “He began to curse and to swear”. By declaring the truth he would have saved himself, because for the truth he would have overcome himself, that self so full of fear.

This Gospel narrative is the paradigm of every self-destruction of man. The servant’s question is simply an opportunity for Peter to rediscover his identity, the truth about himself. This rediscovery is an act of Peter’s intelligence: at that moment he becomes aware of being a disciple of Jesus. And at the same time this awareness challenges and demands that his freedom bear witness to the truth.  It is a truth that creates an obligation for Peter, and him alone. Peter is not discussing the nature of discipleship, of following Jesus. He is as if caged within the known truth, the truth about himself.

We know that Peter betrayed, and he cries. He was the author, victim and witness to the prevarication against the truth. In an analogous situation, Judas thought he was no longer worthy to exist and hanged himself. “Hence man is what he is by means of the truth. His relationship with the truth determines his humanity and constitutes the dignity of his person” [K. Woytjla, Sign of Contradiction, Milan 1977, p. 133].

We can therefore say: the destruction of man consists in using our freedom to deny what our reason has recognized as being the true good of the person. Theologically this is what sin is. Ovid had already written: video meliora proboque et deteriora sequor. [I see better things, and approve, but I follow worse.]

The destruction of man therefore is characterized by the wounding of one’s own subjectivity. And it has the character of a lie: it constructs a false man – social and personal. Perhaps no one has described life and human society constructed in this way, as if a masquerade, than Pirandello.

Man does not live in a house with no doors and no windows; he lives within a culture, he breathes a “spirit of the times”, which, supported today by powerful means of producing consensus, more often than not contributes to advancing the factors which are destructive of man. I will limit my survey to just two of these factors: the counterfeiting of moral conscience; the separation of freedom from truth.

The first factor that destroys man is the counterfeiting that moral conscience has undergone within Western culture, reducing itself progressively, as Newman had already realized over a century ago, to the right to think, speak, write according to one’s own judgements or states of mind. The right to say “my conscience tells me that….” in today’s communications means simply to say “I think …. I wish ….. I like ….”

Then let’s ask ourselves two questions. What exactly does this counterfeiting consist in? Why is this counterfeiting a devastating factor for man?

It consists in mixing up, in confusing two statements: the claim that moral obligations arise within conscience and through conscience and the claim that moral obligations are born from conscience. It consists in confusing the demonstrative function [of the truth about the good] of conscience with the constituent function which is proper to reason, inasmuch as it is a participation in Divine Wisdom.

To realize what a human breakdown the counterfeiting of moral conscience is, it is first necessary to understand its true nature. There have been two great teachers on this subject: Socrates and St. Paul.

Let us begin by stating right away that by means of judgement – which is what conscience precisely consists in – man discovers not just any old moral truth, but a truth inherent in the action he is about to carry out (or has carried out). It is a truth that considers the person in his singularity, as a subject who is about to carry out an action: conscience makes him know precisely the moral truth of this action, i.e. its moral goodness or moral malice. At this point it is only logical for people to wonder: how is one to know this truth? How is this judgement constructed, the judgment which moral conscience precisely consists in?

The answer to this question ultimately depends on our entire conception of conscience. We have to start from our daily experience. It attests to the fact that the judgement of conscience possesses a completely singular force: that of compelling our decisions, our freedom, in an absolute and not just a hypothetical way. Indeed, this is so clear to each of us that to speak of “conscience” and of “feeling compelled to…” is practically the same. But what is most interesting is to notice and understand the nature, the totally singular form of this obligation. It is certain that in a certain sense every judgment that our reason formulates requires a certain behavior and therefore certain decisions of the will. If we know that a certain food will damage our health, we usually decide to abstain from eating it; if we know that it is freezing outdoors, and we decide to go out, we are logically determined to put some warm clothes on. And so on. However these – and other – judgments by our reason demand a consistent behavior, but only hypothetically: if you want to be healthy, by knowing that a food… if you don’t want to catch bronchitis, by knowing that the weather… But if we pay attention to the judgment of conscience, we will see that the obligation it has created is essentially of a different nature. It, the obligation, does not hinge on an “if”, it depends on nothing. It imposes itself, immediately by itself, on man’s freedom. Conscience says absolutely: you have to do this action; you mustn’t do that action. The voice of conscience confronts man’s freedom with an absolute: an absolute duty.

Hence we have a very singular interior situation. On the one hand, the human person feels obligated only by means of this judgment of conscience: only when confronted by this judgment, that of conscience, does freedom feel absolutely obliged. On the other hand, this judgment is an act of a single person, the subject: it is his alone. How can it be that the person may feel so deeply and stringently obliged as a result of his own action that he cannot, by his acting to the contrary, set himself free? It is by his own act– dictated by reason – that his liberty has been tied down. By the same act – an act of his reason – that he breaks loose: Sancho Panza acknowledges that he deserves to be punished, but he asks to be the one to do his own whipping! The great Cervantes had perfectly understood the counterfeiting of conscience.

The reality of our interior experience clearly attests to us that this does not happen. Man cannot dispense himself from an obligation which the judgement of conscience forces on him: the universal experience of remorse proves it. This impossibility compels us to a deeper reflection on moral conscience.

The fact that man feels he cannot dispense himself from an obligation dictated by his own conscience shows that its judgment makes the person know a truth that pre-exists conscience itself. A truth, that is, which is not true because our conscience knows it, but, vice-versa; our conscience knows it because that truth exists. In other words: it is not truth that depends on conscience, but conscience that depends on truth. What truth? That truth on the basis of which “this action is good and to be carried out” or “this action is illicit and to be avoided “. We have therefore already reached a very important conclusion: since man is solely obliged by means of the judgment of his own conscience (= auto-nomia); since his conscience’s judgment obliges him because it makes truth known, then man is autonomous when he is subjected to the truth. One’s autonomy consists in one’s subordination to the truth.

But now we must briefly reflect on the truth which is known by means of the judgment of one’s conscience. What truth is that? Since conscience is a judgment regarding our actions from a moral point of view, it is a practical truth (regarding human action), a truth about the good and about the evil of our actions. The judgment of our conscience discovers in the action that I am about to carry out (have carried out) – either because of its very structure or because of the circumstances in which it was done – a relationship with an order on the basis of which “iustum est ut omnia sint ordinatissima” [“it is right that all things should be most orderly”] (St Augustine, De libero arbitrio, 1, 6, 15): an order which is intrinsic to the very universe of being. If I discover that the relationship of the action which I am about to carry out is a relationship of contrarity: if, that is, my conscience sees that this act is contrary to this order; that this action disfigures this order and defaces it, then this action, precisely because of its deformity, must be avoided. Moral conscience knows this order of being because it is respected or denied by this act that I am about to carry out. And therefore, the judgment of conscience — and this is worthy of great attention – is the convergence, the meeting point, the synthesis of the knowledge of the order which intrinsic to being, with the knowledge of the action that I am about to carry out. This order which is intrinsic to being is none other than the order of the creative Wisdom of God, with which and in which everything which has been created has been created.

But how can man come to know this order, this “ontological rectitude”? This human capacity is precisely what we call human reason. It is therefore what makes man participate in the very Wisdom of God: the seal imprinted in man – and only in man – by the creating hand of God. By means of his reason man knows the order that constitutes beauty, the goodness of being. And it is in the light of this knowledge that conscience can discover whether an action, which the person is about to carry out, is inscribed in this order: in this beauty, in this goodness. To say that this order is created, constituted by human reason and not simply discovered by it, is the equivalent of simply denying a fact which our experience constantly witnesses. When we discover this beauty with our reason, this order and its unchangeable demands, “non examinator corrigit, sed tantum laetatur inventor” as St Augustine wrote with profound insight (op. cit., 2, 12, 34), “he does not judge them as an arbiter, but rejoices in having discovered them”

Moral conscience, as we see, is the place where God addresses his first, original, permanent word to man: the place where God is revealed as man’s guide. If you turn off this light, man will blunder around in the dark.

Now we can better understand what the counterfeiting of conscience consists in. It has been eradicated from Divine Wisdom, and the last and irrevocable judgement belongs to it. Thus, it is Sancho Panza who whips himself on his own.

The second factor is constituted by the divorce of freedom from the truth (about the good). What does the amazing marriage of freedom with truth consist in? What is the nature of this bond?

First of all, we must keep in mind that we are not speaking of truth in general. We are speaking of practical truth, as we have said before; i.e. of the truth about the good/evil of the human person in himself. When I say ”2+2=4” I am telling the truth, but not a practical truth. “Practical” means that it is a truth that ought to be accomplished, carried out in and by means of the action of the person. Truth insists to be acted on, to be carried out. It is within me; if I reject it, I am rejecting my very self.

It is not difficult then to see the relationship between truth and freedom: the truth is the project of construction of man; but no construction of man is possible if it is not accomplished through freedom. It would be, by definition, an inhuman construction. The person constructs himself, “frees himself not simply and not mainly because of the fact that in knowing the truth about himself, he recognizes it as truth only on the basis of this knowledge. He frees himself when …. he identifies with it completely, choosing it by an act of freedom… when ‘he makes truth’ ” [K. Woytjla]. Jesus said: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father”.

There is therefore an essential cohesion between the person, the person’s actions, and the truth: it is the result of moral knowledge. And there is an existential cohesion, carried out or negated by an act of freedom. In this sense, Kierkegaard was right when he wrote that truth is subjective.

Due to long and complex cultural processes, today the bond between truth and freedom has been broken either by affirming a truth about man without freedom or a freedom without truth. This double affirmation can occur in ecological ideologies, in the contemporary vision of sexuality, in economic doctrines, in the reduction of law to a mere normative technique. A man without truth is condemned to freedom and will be quite happy to hand it over to whoever happens to be in power [the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor]. A man without freedom becomes a footprint in the sand, designed and destroyed by an inexorable and impersonal destiny, “which rules to our common ruin”, as Leopardi would say.


I shall begin this second part of my reflection with a metaphor. Two people are walking along the banks of a brimming river. One of them knows how to swim, the other doesn’t. The latter slips and falls into the river, which is sweeping him away. His friend has three options at his disposal: teach him how to swim; throw him a rope telling him to hold on tight; dive into the water, take hold of the drowning one, and take him to shore.

Which of these ways did the Incarnate Word choose, on seeing man being dragged to self-destruction? The first one, answered the Pelagians, along with all those who reduce the Christian event to a moral exhortation. The second, answered the Semi-Pelagians, along with those who see grace and liberty as two forces which are inversely proportional. The third, teaches the Church. The Word, did not count equality with God something to be grasped, dove into the current of evil, to take hold of man and take him ashore. This is the Christian event.

Let us ask ourselves, at what depth should the restoration of man begin? At the point where truth and freedom cross paths. The evil of the human person as such is moral evil, because it strikes the personal subject. Either the restoration of man begins at this level or it will always be plastic surgery. The act of redemption by Christ, which occurred once and for all on the Cross and sacramentally is always present and operative in the Church, heals precisely that wound in the subject from which the devastation of man originates. And the Church exists for this: to make present here and now the redemptive act of Christ. “Remember that Jesus Christ …rose from the dead” [2 Tim. 2:8] writes Paul to his disciple Timothy. Woe to the Church if it remembers other things!

But what exactly does the restoration of man, by means of Christ’s redemptive act, consist in? Theology calls it the “justification of the sinner”. It is the work that God accomplishes, through the gift of the Spirit, in those who acknowledges that they are not justified before Him. Listen to Bl. Antonio Rosmini’s words. “God’s operation within man, this operation of grace, is a dogma of Christianity; it is precisely that fundamental dogma which Christianity itself is based on…. It is its very essence as a supernatural religion”. [Antropologia soprannaturale, Opere vol. 39, p. 68]. Who is it that restores man? The grace of Christ. We must start saying this once again, clearly; saying once again that this is what Christianity is.

The Risen Lord has a real relationship with the world, a relationship which demands that His disciples translate it into Christian praxis. This real relationship occurs every time we celebrate a sacrament of the faith. The sacraments are the religious occurrence of the corporeal presence of Christ in our world.

I would now like to briefly return to the concept I have just formulated: to transpose into praxis Christ’s relationship with the person and with the world. Just a few general reflections.

It is dramatically urgent for the Church to put an end to its silence on the subject of the supernatural. The more the Church progresses in worldliness, the more the truth of original sin and faith in the need for redemption, the two hinges which the entire Christian proposal is based upon, is obfuscated in the conscience of the Christian people.

It is necessary to grant reason its regal dignity. A faith which is exclaimed but not questioned, a faith which is spoken, but not thought out, is insufficient. What I have called the “transposition of the real relationship of Christ with the world into the praxis of the disciple” is largely a task carried out by right reason. In this matter too, the Fathers of the Church are exemplary.

Last but not least, there is an urgent need for a clear-cut proposal for a true Christian education of children and young people.


Lastly, allow me to make an observation. Everything that makes up what we call “Western civilization” leads to atheism or to the expulsion of religion from the horizon of life. In a word: it is an atheistic and immanentistic civilization. The most unmistakable pathological symptom in this diagnosis is the counterfeiting which the concept and experience of moral conscience has undergone.

On the basis of this observation, here is my first final reflection. The entire Church has a primary duty to denounce this destruction of man caused by the expulsion of God from the horizon of life. “The Church must denounce rebellion [the construction of the person without God.] as of all possible evils the greatest. She must have no terms with it; if she would be true to her Master, she must ban and anathematize it.” [J. H. Newman, Apologia pro vita sua, Chapter 5]. It would be a serious dereliction of her mission to often talk about something else and frequently advocate other things, in order to win the approval of the world.

The second concluding reflection. Blaise Pascal says that no one has ever spoken so ill of man as Christianity, and no one so well. And therefore, it is not enough to provide external measures, such as preaching and teaching, although these are necessary. What is needed is a regenerative force which comes from on high by means of the Church. The true restoration of man must start out anew from the very sources of thinking and of free action; that is from the very substance of one’s self. In short, we are living a time of battle, from which no one must desert, since each of us in all events has at least one of the three weapons: prayer, the word, the pen. And be at peace: “The meek shall inherit the earth”.

*Cardinal archbishop of Bologna (1938-2017)

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  1. Truth preexists conscience. Cardinal Caffarra identifies the need for man to “construct” himself by freely assenting to truth. By identifying truth as exterior to Man he identifies truth with God. Constructing himself by assent Man knows himself and completes himself, “He makes truth” (K. Wojtyla)[It’s Wojtyla not Woytja]. Anthropology then is an incomplete science. The science of Man is Christocentric anthropology. Reason Caffarra notes arrives at truth. Aquinas adds to this the “Ratio”, which is the interior act of the intellect in understanding what it apprehends outside itself. Which is why Aquinas says reason is the measure of truth not the rule. Caffarra associates this knowledge of order, of the good with beauty. It’s a profound insight known with our realization of the Supreme Good and infinite Beauty. Caffarra confirms grace is what saves man. Grace is the gift of God’s love. Man in freely assenting to grace has some understanding of the depth and beauty of that love. Love desires to please the Beloved, realizing with certitude it must abandon that which offends the Supreme Good. The desire, itself a gift is unity with the object of its passion.

  2. A further comment on Cardinal Caffarra’s significant essay on conscience is his reference to the inherent capacity of Man to identify truth independent of personal predilection, “It is not truth that depends on conscience, but conscience that depends on truth”. This is the universal knowledge of good and evil known by the act of intellect’s interior understanding called Ratio by Aquinas. It references Natural Law, the inherent common principles known to all. Conscience is shaped by the sovereign nature of truth when Man freely chooses it, called Liberum Arbitrium [Free Choice]. Consequently if Man is free to reject truth [Caffarra] and “masquerade” [Pirandello] it implies that this free choice necessitates his understanding of what he freely refused. And “separates freedom from truth”. Either choice denotes responsibility. Otherwise conscience would be subjective in the strict sense and devoid of “command” [Aquinas] “obligation” [Caffarra] and subsequently devoid of moral rectitude. Finally those who follow the just commands of conscience recognize the Shepherd’s voice.

  3. The previous comments refer to virtues naturally acquired consistent with Natural Law. Man has the inherent capacity to know these principles of behavior. However “The ultimate perfection to which a man can come, which is the happiness of the eternal life, should exceed the entire capacity of human nature”. Above and beyond the natural principles [Natural Law] are “principles of action” infused in man by God (Disputed Questions on the Virtues in General, 10). Conscience therefore reaches perfection via knowledge of these infused principles of action necessary for salvation. We find reference to them in the Gospels when Christ speaks of heroic virtue. Denial of personal need for love of God, for benefit of others. Laying down one’s life for God [the martyrs], for love of others [Fr Maximilian Kolbe] are virtuous acts that exceed Natural law. The Christian to reach his end must possess some sufficient degree of self sacrificial virtue.

  4. Magnificent essay. Would that there could have been an expanding on some of the points, particularly at the end regarding Western Civilization… May he rest in peace.
    I would offer, in response to the Cardinal’s call for “an urgent need for a clear-cut proposal for a true Christian education of children and young people” a reminder that John Paul II, in Familiaris Consortio, made clear that this “curriculum” is found primarily and above all *in the family*, the School of Virtue, the Domestic Church. My observation after raising 7 children is that the eradication of the Decalogue from the “ordinary magisterium” of family, school, church, and public square has been devastating for the cause of informed conscience. Scripture and the Liturgy are clear in emphasizing — teach God’s Commandments, in the light of the Beatitudes!
    I would also like to say thank you to Fr. Peter Morello for his excellent comments on the Ratio of St. Thomas — above all, our time has lost the “primacy of the Logos over the Ethos” (Guardini).

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  4. {bits & pieces} ~ Like Mother Like Daughter

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