Kathryn Lilla COX. Water Shaping Stone: Faith, Relationships, and Conscience Formation. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015. pp. 160. $19.95 pb. ISBN: 978-0-8146-8302-6. Reviewed by Craig A. FORD, Jr., Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467.


In our American Catholic context struck through with extreme polarization across topics like same-sex marriage, abortion, contraception, voting—and now, lately—religious liberty, conversations about the conscience and its formation frequently lead to fighting. And sometimes ‘fighting’ is an understatement. One’s prayer is that writing might lead to clarity, and in Kathryn Lilla Cox’s first book Water Shaping Stone, we are given a gracious portrait of the conscience and of its formation that is responsive to such a need. We gain a notion of the conscience that not only, in her words, “pulls together our cognitive, affective, bodily, and spiritual dimensions” (x), but one that also points towards our relationships, leading us not only out of ourselves towards our families and neighbors, but also down the road to Emmaus, where we walk as disciples with the Risen Christ.

There is fruit for the reader to harvest from all of these chapters. From her chapter engaging post-Vatican II magisterial texts (chapter 1), Cox utilizes tools like word-frequency analysis and comparative text analysis in order to show us—persuasively—how documents produced either by John Paul II himself or during his pontificate (Veritatis Splendor and the Catechism, respectively) brought about a shift in emphasis with respect to the conscience: in the place of a conscience described in relational, communal terms, where its dignity—even in erring—is upheld, what we have by the close of the twentieth century is a conscience painted largely in legalistic hues, owing obedience to  God’s voice as spoken through the magisterium. From the chapter on the tradition more broadly (chapter 2), we gain through Cox’s evaluation of Newman an appreciation for the limitations of papal authority with respect to conscience. We also gain—via Bernard Häring and Anne Patrick—a view of the conscience that highlights its discerning of practical truth within the context of an individual’s relationship with God. This leads us to a view of a conscience that views it less as a “faculty” and more as a shorthand for the moral agent herself as an emotional, volitional, intellectual being. Cox’s chapter on dissent (chapter 4) is both helpful and tactful. It is helpful because she highlights how dissent can allow for the development of doctrine, on the hand, and, on the other, for encouraging us to make room for multiple permissible realizations of a norm, rather than thinking of diverse realizations automatically as expressing dissent; it is tactful, because she allows the American Catholic bishops to do the majority of the heavy lifting, featuring Avery Dulles and the one of the earliest documents from what would become the USCCB, Human Life in Our Day (1968). The final chapter on scandal (chapter 5) illustrates the need for vigilance and courage with respect to giving scandal: we, as the People of God, are responsible for avoiding scandal that desecrates the Gospel message—as we saw, for example, in the sex abuse crisis—but we must be more willing to engage in the type of scandal that interrupts the daily happenings of a world that oppresses and subjugates others, as we witness today in a world marred by the presence of structural racism and the complicity and complacency of too many Christians.

The heart of the book, chapter three, is on conscience formation. What Cox brings out, following Richard Gula, are various spheres of influence on the conscience, highlighting that, in order to form our consciences rightly, we need to pay attention not only to what the Church and the wider culture tells us, but we also need to pay attention to our emotions and bodies more generally as sources of knowledge. Most important is the encouragement to form our conscience through prayer, in a relationship with the Holy Spirit as Christ’s disciples.

One can wonder, still, if Cox’s portrait of the conscience does not engage with contrary perspectives on the conscience enough. For example, Cox chides the magisterium for a shift towards a more legalistic notion of the conscience, for sure, but, just as surely, there are theologians who would provide a defense of the position that would tie the notion of a formed conscience more closely with the relevant opinion of the magisterium, even granting much of what she says about conscience formation. The theologians who might offer sophisticated defenses of this sort of position, however, are not treated here. Nevertheless, in regarding this portrait, Cox brings us to an understanding of the conscience as an embodied moral reality, in need as much of epistemic humility as it is of grace; in need as much of a vital relationship with God as it is of meaningful, accountable relationships to one another.