With the exception of 1967, the Psychology Department at Fordham University had sponsored a conference every other year since 1955 as part of a running series called the “Pastoral Psychology Institute.” An edited volume of essays followed each conference: the 1961 meeting on “the teenager” became The Adolescent: His Search for Understanding; the 1965 conference on “Woman in the Church” appeared two years later as Woman in Modern Life. As the theme for the 1969 conference, the planning committee chose “Conscience: Its Freedoms and Limitations.” In his preface, the volume’s editor explained why, of all the topics that could have been discussed over the course of a week, the committee selected conscience:
… it seemed that this concept had moved recently into a central position both in the Church and in the world. With the Declaration of Religious Freedom of Vatican II, with the appeal to conscience in dissent from the teaching of Humanae Vitae on birth control, and with the raising of the entire question of the exercise of authority in the Church, it was quite evident that a consideration of conscience had become unquestionably central in the life of the Church. With the continuation of the war in Vietnam and with the rise of selective conscientious objection to the draft, together with the extensive increase in civil disobedience as a means of protest against the war and against “establishment” policies in general, it is hardly less evident that the conscience now occupies a central position in civic affairs as well.[i]
Looking at primary sources from the “Catholic 1960s,” I was likewise astonished at the enthusiasm Catholics suddenly held for conscience. In sources I analyzed for seminar papers – articles from Catholic magazines like Commonweal and America, bishops’ pastoral letters, key Vatican II documents, and lay people’s letters to magazine editors – I found an outpouring of interest in conscience, beginning around 1963 and exploding after 1968. But why, we might ask, did the conference planners and those, “in the Church and in the world,” turn to conscience? I began to wonder about what a history of the concept of conscience, and the broader turn to conscience, might teach us about American religion during and after the 1960s.