Conscience & Catholicism

Rights, Responsibilities, & Institutional Responses

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David DeCosse, Kristin E. Heyer
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , September
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Just four years ago—although current political circumstances make it seem like decades—the US Catholic bishops found themselves in a battle with the Obama Administration over the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage mandate. A religious exemption had indeed been included, but it defined qualifying “religious employers” as those who primarily employ and serve those of the same faith—a definition that excludes Catholic hospitals. The bishops considered such requirements an affrontage to the conscience of religious organizations, which of course begged the attention of Catholic ethicists. What precisely did the bishops mean by “conscience?” Do religious organizations even have a singular conscience? What if the consciences of different people and organizations are in conflict?

In response, the National Catholic Reporter [NCR] ran a piece in January 2012 that criticized the bishops’ appeal to conscience, arguing that it actually departed from traditional Catholic associations of conscience with practical reason, and instead, promoted a sectarian outlook contrary to Catholic moral theology. The NCR author was David DeCosse of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, and his institution soon received funding to explore further issues related to Catholic understandings of conscience. To this end, a conference was held in September 2014, and Conscience & Catholicism features papers presented there.

As with similar collections of conference proceedings, there is a broad array of topics included here. Alongside programmatic pieces that propose ways of enhancing Catholic interpretations of conscience—such as engaging East Asian thought or the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt—there are also casuistic explorations of conscience-related public disputes in the Philippines, Ireland, Argentina, and India. Three essays look at various historical considerations of conscience: an examination of the development of Catholic thought on conscience over the past century, John Henry Newman’s use of conscience related to the controversy surrounding the pronouncement of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council, and Joan of Arc’s conscientious resistance as a model for combatting social sin. A helpful inclusion for the reader is DeCosse’s NCR essay, which is included as an appendix.

The rug that brings this room together is an insistence that conscience must be understood as social and contextual—most notably in its formation. Rather than hearing conscience as a purely subjective, interior voice, the authors contend that conscience is built through years of external, cultural influences. Thus, appeals to conscience do not provide conversation-stopping revelations of moral truth or divine ethical directives, but merely reflect the provisional nature of moral discernment and adjudication. Linda Hogan’s essay, which develops the position originally presented in her monograph Confronting the Truth: Conscience in the Catholic Tradition (Paulist Press, 2000), presents this argument most clearly and concisely. Bryan N. Massingale’s contribution is also of significant importance to the larger project, as he paints a detailed picture of what the contextual conscience looks like on the ground: unconscious racial biases and acculturated indifferences to the plight of others.

In addition to DeCosse’s appendix, Daniel K. Finn’s essay addresses most directly the US bishops’ appeal to the conscience of religious organizations by refuting the claim that an organization can even have a conscience. Such organizations certainly possess collective agency but, as he successfully demonstrates, to ascribe to them a singular psychological faculty is mistaken. Also of note is Carol Bayley’s narrative account of two conscience-related conflicts between Catholic bishops and healthcare organizations. That essay alone should be required reading for undergraduate courses in Catholic medical ethics, if only to show the lay of the land.

This volume is not just a series of challenges to the magisterium, however. Indeed, one of the contributors—the author of the essay on Newman—is the archbishop emeritus of San Francisco, John R. Quinn. In addition, the casuistic essay on Catholics in India takes a similar stance with that of the US bishops by appealing to the freedom of religious conscience against anti-conversion laws.

Given the amount of attention devoted to the fallibility of moral vision however, no reference is made to the work of Stanley Hauerwas, whose Vision and Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, 1974) effectively baptized Iris Murdoch’s reflections on the illusory nature of moral perception. But none of the authors included in this volume are of the cohort of Catholic moral theologians who trained under Hauerwas at Duke University. Rather these authors are, by and large, in alignment with the theological ethics program at the Jesuit-affiliated Boston College—the book is even dedicated to that program.

For a book exploring in so many ways the Catholic understanding of conscience, the sources of that understanding are not entirely clear. Occasional references are made to Thomas Aquinas or the documents of Vatican II, but the reader comes away unsure as to what exactly makes a perspective “Catholic.” Hogan devotes two paragraphs to St. Paul’s awareness of the “simultaneously interior and contextual” nature of the conscience (86–87), and William R. O’Neill, SJ, makes a cursory allusion to 1 Peter, but those are the only mentions of Christian scripture. Frequent reference is made to other essays within the same volume, presumably the post-hoc redactive work of the volume’s editors. This indeterminacy of Catholic sources is perhaps reflective of the “ethical pluralism” that Hogan’s essay takes pains to distinguish from “ethical relativism” (93)—that is, Hogan nowhere contends that moral truth is not real, but rather she insists that conscience’s best chance at discerning such truth relies upon listening to the broadest array of voices. The diversity of topics here notwithstanding, this volume ironically consists of many similar perspectives—all advocating the importance of paying attention to different perspectives.

This is not intended to downplay the value of these essays on their own; each one of them may be useful in teaching and research related to contemporary Catholic moral theology. While the political circumstances regarding health care coverage in the United States have shifted considerably, many Catholic bishops in the United States continue to invoke religious liberty and conscience rights in their reactions to current legislative efforts. The discussion of these issues in this volume, then, should remain relevant for quite some time.

About the Reviewer(s): 

J. Andrew Edwards is a managing editor at Liturgical Press in Collegeville, Minnesota

Date of Review: 
March 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David E. DeCosse is the director of campus ethics programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, where he is also adjunct associate professor of religious studies. 

 Kristin E. Heyer is Bernard J. Hanley Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University. Her books includeKinship across Borders (2012); Prophetic and Public: the Social Witness of U.S. Catholicism (2006), and the edited volume Catholics and Politics: Dynamic Tensions between Faith and Power (2008) all from Georgetown UP.



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