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The Catholic Controversy over Conscience in the 20th Century

Matthew Levering’s book offers an intellectual history of a complex question in Catholic moral theology, one that recovers a biblical and Thomistic view of conscience as a limited concept within Christian moral life as a whole.

“Conscience” is a word that is often used but rarely precisely defined. In Catholic moral theology, conscience can be understood in two ways, either as a general capacity for the judgment of good and evil, or as a specific capacity to identify particular acts as right or wrong.

These are important but modest meanings. Important, because they both suggest a kind of baseline capacity and responsibility for moral judgment. Modest, because they illuminate almost nothing about the content of such judgments. The importance has led the Catholic tradition to emphasize the binding character of conscience, but the modesty has motivated the recognition that conscience must be rightly formed and is quite capable of erring. Thus, the fundamental question in moral theology is not “What does my conscience tell me?” but rather “What exactly is right and wrong, and why?”

Yet despite this modest place, debates over interpretations of conscience have dominated moral theology. Early in his book The Abuse of Conscience, Matthew Levering recounts that a prominent American bishop told him that “the most exciting movement in Catholic moral theology today is grounded in a renewed vision of conscience.” Levering, a Catholic theologian at Mundelein Seminary, said he hadn’t heard of the post–Vatican II renaissance of “conscience-centered moral theology.” But the bishop’s remark prompted his research, resulting in this book.

Levering’s book seeks to unravel a mystery: How—merely twenty-five years after Vatican II called for a moral theology “nourished more on the teaching of the Bible” and oriented to “bearing fruit in charity”—did Catholic moral theology instead turn “from confessing sins to liberating consciences,” as James Keenan, S.J., a leading theologian at Boston College, put it? In other words, how did the post–Vatican II Catholic Church shift from a conciliar direction toward the Bible and the virtue of charity to an emphasis on the centrality of conscience?

The Evolution of Conscience

The disconnect was explained initially by the Belgian moral theologian Servais Pinckaers. Pinckaers showed the shortcomings of the preconciliar (pre–Vatican II) “moral manuals,” which were primarily designed to help guide confessors to determine the sins of penitents, with very fine-grained detail. These manuals suffered from narrow legalism and sin-centered negativity and were in fact a falling away from the richer moral vision found in Scripture, the Church Fathers, and above all, St. Thomas Aquinas.

An emphasis on the centrality of conscience, Pinckaers argued, originally arose out of this emphasis on accounting for sins in the confessional. The accounting method of the manuals required that the objectivity of “the law” had to somehow “meet” the subjectivity of the person. Conscience was that meeting place. Moral theology devolved into the slicing and dicing of “probable” opinions—that is, manualists explaining what counted as sin in different ways, with a resulting further debate about how to determine whether conscience needed to follow the view that was most “probable.” Needless to say, this approach pushed to the side any emphasis on happiness, the virtues, and grace.

 

Levering’s book goes far beyond Pinckaers, uncovering much more detail on the historical evolution of the concept of conscience. The book moves through four chapters, treating the term conscience (syneidesis) as it appears in the New Testament, in some twentieth-century “moral manuals,” in the revival of Aquinas’s moral theology, and in a postconciliar “conscience-centered” moral theology. Rather than do a historical survey, Levering intensely examines twenty-eight authors in sequence. This makes his book a boon for scholars since he recovers many overlooked figures, but it will be difficult for the non-specialist.

Yet Levering concludes these chapters with sound, accessible judgments. He rightly concludes that conscience plays a “limited” role in the Bible’s vision of Christian moral life, “not the center.” Similarly, the Dominicans who were retrieving Thomas in the twentieth century offered a “rich understanding of conscience within prudence and within the Christian moral life as a whole,” in which conscience’s “true role consists in passing judgment on past and future acts rather than creatively steering the entire moral organism” (emphasis added).

For all its complexity, Levering’s book centers on the distinction between these two views of conscience. He outlines the travails of “conscience-centered moral theology,” in which conscience “steers the entire moral organism,” versus the clear biblical and Thomist view of conscience as a limited concept within a more expansive account of “prudence, faith, hope, charity, and the entire Christian moral organism.” Most thinkers treated in the book move Catholic moral theology one way or the other.

The Conscience-Centered Turn

Levering’s contentions about conscience can be evaluated by breaking them into two pieces. One piece is about the basic inadequacy of conscience-centered moral theology as a “replacement moral psychology”—the claim above that conscience becomes the pilot of the “entire moral organism,” rather than finding its place within an account of moral psychology centered on the ongoing development of virtue and openness to God’s grace.

This piece of his argument is completely compelling. The manuals reduced the richness of what Aquinas called the “practical intellect” (that is, how humans reason correctly about what to do) to casuistry. This emphasis reduced morality to a search for the “legal minimum.” The implicit question behind this approach is, How much can I get away with without actually sinning?

However, some preconciliar thinkers did start to recover “the entire moral organism.” In his introduction, Levering discusses preconciliar efforts to overcome the limitation of the sin-centered manuals and to revive a moral theology based on love, virtue, and the following of Christ. Levering writes: “If books like these [on holistic moral theology] were being published before the Council, how is it that the dominant strand of postconciliar Catholic moral theology remained so firmly conscience-centered?”

 

Levering explains that these more holistic accounts of Catholic moral life were derailed by the ascendency of German existentialism. Heideggerianism became pervasive and was translated to moral theology through Karl Rahner’s philosophy, which emphasized human beings’ deep interior subjective core. This subjective emphasis greatly influenced twentieth-century Catholic theology’s thinking on conscience. In Levering’s telling, postconciliar theology was contaminated by this alien source even before it was able to get out of the starting gate.

In an interview, Levering calls the conscience-centered turn a disaster. He says that his chapter on the Germans is the most important part of his project, and suggests that it is “a previously largely untold tale.”

Liberating Consciences

This story is important as far as it goes. Here we come to the second piece to be evaluated: Levering’s explanations of why conscience-centered moral theology has remained so popular. On this point, his contentions are less convincing.

It’s easy to forget that, while plenty of Catholics have always disobeyed Church teaching in various ways, the general sense prior to the Council was that this made you a “bad Catholic.” If Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical condemning contraception, was not the entire cause of the postconciliar crisis in moral theology, it clearly was the catalyst. Many priests shared their experience of struggling with Catholic women in the confessional over issues related to large families and anxieties over pregnancy.

It’s also easy to forget that the widespread dissent on Humanae Vitae was also a special kind of dissent: many felt not that the Church was being overly rigorist or was lacking mercy, but rather that the Church was flat-out wrong. Contraception for married women seemed not sinful, but a positive good. How was one to reconcile this sense of contraception as a positive good with the Church’s official teaching against all use of it as intrinsically evil? The (seemingly traditional) teaching on the primacy of conscience proved a very ready tool to do so.

Levering’s intellectualized history of conscience neglects this key postconciliar application. The late twentieth-century idea of conscience wasn’t merely moral psychology rooted in existentialism. Rather, it became a term used to empower the individual’s judgment to trump “oppressive” authority. This is why the idea of liberating consciences became so important. This is not the language of German existentialist moral psychology. Rather, the idea was to liberate consciences from oppressive authorities, whether political or ecclesial.

 

One German Catholic theologian, Bernard Häring, epitomized this idea of liberating consciences in his approach to pastoral care. Pained by Catholics’ scrupulosity over minutiae in the confessional, as well as their weak responses against the horrors of Nazism and fascism, he sought to “push” their consciences to get beyond petty violations of (typically sexual) rules, and then “pull” them into a far more important task of confronting oppressive authorities in their societies. The animating conviction was pretty clear: the Church should worry less (a lot less) about sex, especially matters related to contraception, and more (a lot more) about the powers that actually create lots of human suffering.

Levering alludes to some of this particular pastoral motivation in his intellectual history. However, it is largely overshadowed by the “infection” story, whereby a foreign substance (German existentialism) invaded the moral theology organism. Yet, when one surveys the current work of Keenan and many of his students, one finds much work on the virtues and on charity, and very little acquaintance with German philosophy! The infection appears to be gone. But still, for them, the primacy of conscience remains central—not as a “replacement moral psychology” but as a claim that allows for resistance to exercises of unjust authority.

All this should help us recognize that “getting conscience right” turns out to be a bit of a distraction on both sides. At the end of the day, claims about conscience matter insofar as conscience is correct in its judgments. Catholics should stop arguing about conscience and instead argue about why particular teachings are right or wrong.

As a Catholic moral theologian who has been trained on both sides of this divide and who continues to work closely and in friendship with figures on both sides, I very much want these issues to be addressed in ways that help both sides understand more deeply why they are fighting.

On one level, Levering’s book is a contribution to that reconciliation. He offers a rich, complex reading of the history of a difficult term in Catholic moral theology. It recovers much work that has disappeared and provides a robust intellectual case for the Thomistic view of conscience as important but modest. This account needs to be better understood by those who so frequently appeal to conscience.

On another level, though, Levering’s book takes a complex intellectual and ecclesial story and boils it down to a too-simple choice between his Thomism and an approach that is “a disaster.” Levering’s thorough scholarship is marred by the underlying disaster tale. Is this really what all the postconciliar revisionist work amounts to? The simple answer is no.

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