Whenever I begin a course or workshop in moral theology I tell my students that the Roman Catholic moral tradition can be summed up in this sentence: "Always follow your formed and informed conscience; everything else is commentary." The students discover of course that the "commentary" is considerable, and while the general principle is certainly true, just what its proper application is in this or that concrete situation is open to considerable ambiguity, as is illustrated by the current debate over Catholic politicians and their support of legislation which may or may not seek to recriminalize abortion. While no particular essay in this book explicitly addresses this or other specific moral issues, the collection could help to inform the discussion considerably in ancillary ways.
Curran arranged the fourteen essays and the collection of magisterial excepts in three major parts: "General Theories of Conscience"; "Church Documents, Commentaries, and Response to Hierarchical Teaching"; and a final section entitled "Conscience And ...". A real strength of this collection, like the other offerings in this series, is that voices that might sing out of tune, with Curran's own approach are included. Thus, we find essays not only by Curran, O'Connell, Gula, and McCormick, but also German Grisez, Russell Shaw, and William E. May. Similarly, in the section of Hierarchical Teaching we find not only the familiar passages which emphasize the autonomy of conscience from Gaudium et spes and Dignitatis humanae but also the more cautious approaches found in Veritatis splendor and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. One could only hope that this sense of fair play in academic discussions of controverted topics would expand across the theological spectrum. Curran also has included substantive offerings from women (Linda Hogan, Jayne Hoose, Sidney Callahan, and Anne Patrick), as well as bringing in perspectives that flesh out our understanding of conscience from areas such as psychology and gender (Callahan and Patrick), moral development (Conn and Spohn), pneumatology (Hanigan), and history (Hogan and Johnstone). Despite the considerable strengths of this volume, there are some weaknesses and missing elements. An introductory essay or brief commentary indicating why the particular essays have been chosen would be helpful. While it is obviously impossible to include even a brief entry for every aspect of something has complex as conscience, the heavily Euro-American Caucasian English-language centered emphasis could have been complemented by an essay or two from other parts of the world, such as Latin America (one thinks of Moser and Leers' Moral Theology: Dead Ends and Ways Forward) and an offering from Asia or Africa (e.g., Osamu Takeuchi or Bénézet Bujo).
Nevertheless this volume is a welcome addition to the excellent series on Readings in Moral Theology and I have used it to good effect in both a recent graduate course in moral theology and have included it as a required text in my upcoming undergraduate honors course in the Catholic Tradition.