David E. DECOSSE and Kristin E. HEYER, eds. Conscience and Catholicism: Rights, Responsibilities, and Institutional Responses. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2015. pp. 216. $38.00 pb ISBN: 978-1-62698-144-7. Reviewed by Dolores L. CHRISTIE, University Heights, OH 44118.
A prize-winner, this book lives up to the press releases. It addresses, in fourteen meaty essays, the connections among personal decision-making, church teaching, and historical context. It promisesâ€”and deliversâ€”“a nuanced theology of conscience.” The authors represent a diversity of historical and cultural perspectives. They locate their arguments in concrete examples, one even exhuming Joan of Arc as a model of dissent. The contributors include a retired archbishop, a young scholar fresh from Ph.D. school and well-known and respected scholars from the United States, Europe, Asia, Africa, and South American. The editors are to be applauded for seeking aworld view rather than rehashing the conclusions of a Euro-American Catholic culture. Such diversity is essential to any fruitful contemporary theological dialogue.
The Catholic tradition of the past century demonstrated a moral tension between following a precipitated “truth” in official teaching and the persistent insistence on the inviolability of conscience. Often in concrete situations these appear to conflict. The personalist tenets of Gaudium et spes provide a solution for this conflict. They stress the importance of the historical and cultural context in which the individual exists, the essential relational nature of humanity as well as its intrinsic dignity, the embodiment that affects individual choices, and the importance of the common good. The essential primacy of conscience is preserved. As one author puts it, we decide what is right and wrong “for ourselves but not by ourselves.”
The book deals with decision-making in situâ€”not, as one contributor notes, in a “disincarnate” exercise of conscience. Moral choice must confront the dominant narratives of the time and place. It must understand the cultural and political “rules” which feed into the formation of conscience. As liberation theologians teach us, it must ask, “Does the status quo serve the dignity and flourishing of human persons?” The essays run the gamut from basic moral theology and history to application to cogent issues like abortion, birth regulation, marriage equality, and the complicated and often incongruent demands of justice in the macro society and in institutions.
It is difficult for me to find fault with a volume that hints of my heroes from the past (Thomas Aquinas and Louis Janssens) as well as representing those I admire in the present (many of the authors). I respect their work, but also their integrity and their concern for the church. They are both knowledgeable and respectful of church tradition, while moving beyond the static categories that often forget that God’s revelation is ongoing. Clearly they have read each other’s work, as the essays often intersect.Nevertheless, a reviewer always can find some small thing to critique, particularly in a good book. Two minor omissions might be mentioned. First, the maturing of conscience has something to do with the stages of moral development. Immaturity generally means following rules. Moral maturity, which allows a person to look beyond knee-jerk answers, usually brings a greater internalization of values and freedom. No author addressed this. Second, in the essays that deal with marriage equality, there is no note of the modern understanding of homosexuality as intrinsicrather than chosen. Certainly that is as important an insight as is a cultural shift, when thinking about marriage equality.
This book is one of the best I’ve read recently. It is consistent in its excellence as well as in its positions. Its hope is that in our moral decisions we, as one author put it, “should exercise ‘a preferential option for the strange.” That is to say that novelty is not always immoral.