(NOTE: I am not a theologian, moral or otherwise. I am an attorney and historian by training. If my more theologically erudite readers detect an error in my formulation, I would appreciate constructive criticism. But please don’t dogpile me. Thanks.)

The actor and musician Will Smith recently said something that could be construed by the very stupid as praise of deceased German dictator and noted Fascist Adolph Hitler:

The Daily Record, a Scottish newspaper, recently quoted Smith as saying: “Even Hitler didn’t wake up going, `let me do the most evil thing I can do today.’ I think he woke up in the morning and using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was `good.'”

Mr. Smith, though not a Catholic nor a scholar of moral theology, here stated a bedrock principle of Catholic moral theology, which St. Thomas Aquinas called “synderesis Simply put, synderesis is the function of judgment whereby we have the natural inclination to do good as directed by conscience. Moral theology professors often use the Hitler example to explain synderesis. Hitler orchestrated a systematic extermination of European Jewry not out of homicidal mania (which is a negation of judgment) but because he really thought, for whatever reason, that such an extermination was in the cause of good, be it the consolidation of his power through the creation of an enemy (the so-called “Orwellian thesis”,) the elimination of a perceived threat to German domination (his stated reason,) or whatever good he, in conscience, thought justified or compelled the elimination of the Jews.

Hitler’s conscience, like everyone else’s, was not formed in a vacuum. Hitler was the student of a long and ignoble Teutonic tradition of antisemitism which was both religious and secular in its nature. Plenty of people-scholars, politicians, polemicists, and churchmen of every denomination-had decried the “Jewish Problem” in the Germanic states since the Middle Ages, and had advocated restrictions on and expulsions of the Jews as solutions. Hitler wasn’t crazy; he simply followed up on this tradition and created a movement (Nazism) which had the power and momentum to carry it to its logical, obvious, and frightening conclusion, what he called “The Final Solution,” in answer to his natural tendency to do what he thought was “good.”

Now, what is important to understand is that Hitler, like many modern people, suffered from an improperly informed conscience. Hitler was the product of a school and tradition of bad, even evil, ideas regarding race, sociology, eugenics, materialism, law, and, worst of all, positivism. His own writings and speeches, not to mention his actions, attest to this. So, his conscience was deeply malformed, and it is only natural that he followed an evil course as a result.
Hitler is not thereby relived, however, of moral culpability for his evil acts, even if they are the inevitable result of his evil conscience directing his judgment to seek out an evil “good.” Thomas would say that Hitler, like all men, was morally obliged to follow a correctly formed conscience. It’s not like the issue of antisemitism was morally ambiguous or uncontested in 20th century Europe. Hitler had heard the arguments for liberality and freedom of the Jewish people, and rejected them. He did so, not as one whose judgment is short-circuited by madness or blind bigotry but as an active advocate for the end of Jewry in Germany by any means necessary.

One must have a properly informed conscious in order to commit objectively moral acts in accord therewith, and the conscience can only be properly informed, says St. Thomas, by the Truth which is God as revealed by God to man and guarded and direct by the Church founded by Christ. Hitler had no regard for the truth and, therefore, misdirected his judgment toward evil “goods”. Those with no regard for the Truth (which is, again, not an abstraction but a Person) will inevitably destroy themselves by calling evil good and following synderesis down the primrose path which leads to Perdition.