Why turn to conscience?

It is my pleasure to introduce Peter Cajka for today's exciting guest post.  Peter is a PhD candidate in the Boston College History Department. He studies religion in American history. He is a Graduate Fellow with the Clough Center for Constitutional Democracy.

Peter Cajka

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.

I will say more about the 1969 edition of the Pastoral Psychology Institute below, but, before doing that and a few other things, I want to introduce my dissertation topic in a bit more detail. After working and re-working my “pitch,” I like to explain it this way: My dissertation reconstructs the ways Americans defined and lived conscience over a fifty-two year period (1939-1991), and it attempts to explain why Americans made conscience a faculty uniquely powerful in political, moral and religious life during and after the 1960s. Let me break this down into its component parts. First, I hope to produce a case study of a crucial concept in American religious life by reconstructing how Americans defined and lived conscience. Then, I hope to show empirically – if the primary sources continue to suggest as much – that Americans (Catholics, Jews, Protestants and Human Rights advocates) made a “turn to conscience” in their writings, politics, and lived experiences beginning in the mid-1960s and continuing, in important ways, up to the end of the Cold War in 1991. Third, I want to make an attempt to explain why it was conscience to which they turned. And – pushing into the 1970s and 1980s – I aim to demonstrate the consequences of making conscience a uniquely powerful faculty in moral and political life. Most important in all of this, as I see it, is attempting to explain why Americans turned to conscience: why couch hostility towards authority with talk of conscience? What did it give them? What results did it produce?

To help answer these questions, I have looked at the papers of various theologians and religious organizations, along with military draft boards, secular draft counseling organizations, human rights agencies and a few other cases. I have been traveling to archives for the past year, tracking down a wide variety of primary source materials that show the ways Americans defined and lived conscience before, during, and after the 1960s.

I take two snapshots in this blog post, one of Catholics’ “examination of conscience” manuals from the early 1940s and a second of conscience in the Catholic antiwar (Vietnam) movement. Set side-by-side, they demonstrate how Catholics changed the definition of conscience in the 1960s. I have chosen to focus this post on American Catholic definitions and lived experiences of conscience, but, as I indicated above, my dissertation also investigates Protestant, Jewish, and secular uses of conscience. I include a photo of an Amnesty International “Prisoner of Conscience Week” poster, which publicized an ecumenical meeting at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral (Episcopal), to suggest that secular human rights advocates and religious peace activists may have been soul soldiers in the same struggle for conscience in the late 1970s and 1980s – a link I am currently exploring in my research on Amnesty International.

The Fordham University conference did not address the “examination of conscience,” but a historian seeking to reconstruct the devotional and cultural history of conscience cannot afford to ignore it. Catholics did understand conscience as a theological and political term, but not exclusively so: conscience also played an important supporting role in the devotional life of American Catholicism before and after the Second Vatican Council. The “examination of conscience” is a genre of document particularly useful for reconstructing the ways American Catholics lived conscience. It could take the form of a complete confession manual or appear more modestly as a few pages in prayer texts like ones designed specifically for daily or night prayer.  I have been collecting examination of conscience manuals from the archives and lifting them off library shelves for over a year. I have even purchased a few from Christian bookstores. Examination manuals could be designed for a wide audience (for all Catholics) or tailored by the author for a specific community. For example, women religious who worked as teachers in Catholic schools in the 1940s might consult Soul Clinic: An Examination of Conscience for Religious Teachers (1943); the Catholic teen or young adult could pick up Reverend Paul F. Flynn’s Examination of Conscience for Teen-Age and Up (1949), the Catholic adult and the new convert could pour over An Adult’s Confession Booklet: With Prayers, directions, and an examination of conscience suitable for adults, especially for converts (1950).

But how did an examination of conscience work, exactly? It’s attempting to answer questions like these that will help me to write the social and cultural history of conscience – a history of how people in the pews (on their way, clerics hoped, to the confessional) lived conscience. I’m still working my way through the many manuals and prayer texts I’ve collected but I’ll offer an analysis of one manual for this post, if you’ll permit me some historical imagination. In the early 1940s, a Catholic teacher or parent might have handed a Catholic boy or girl Fr. Aloysius Heeg’s A Little Child’s Confession Book: Prayers, Directions, and Examination of Conscience suitable for children in the lower grades (1941). The pupil might have been required to spend time with the book in the pews just before going into the confessional. Heeg explained to his readers why the conscience ought to be examined: “Here are some questions to help me think of my sins. When I find a sin I did, I see if I can tell it in just a few words and say about how many times I did it.”[ii] This served a practical purpose. The examination of conscience manual helped to diminish the lengthy queues outside of confessionals in the 1940s and 1950s by preparing the penitent for the exchange. Heeg furnished examiners with a specific set of questions based on the Ten Commandments. The Catholic boy or girl asked their consciences: “did I think of playing and other things when I prayed?” and “did I consciously eat meat when I am not supposed to?” There is much to unpack here (what if you unconsciously ate meat on a Friday?) but documents like the examination of conscience can help us to reconstruct how Catholics lived conscience. We might imagine the conscience pushing back: “yes, you consciously ate meat on two Fridays over the past three months.” This conscience (not unlike an airplane’s black box) recorded and stored sins and peccadillos, awaiting the penitent’s carefully guided interrogative act of retrieval.

The Fordham University conference planning committee’s sense that the Vietnam War played a crucial role in the enthusiasm for conscience can be seen in primary sources. But the antiwar definition of conscience was quite different from the definition of conscience found in the manuals. A letter written in 1965 by members of the Catholic Peace Fellowship to the French Secretariat for Religious Information shines a glimmer of light on how Catholics changed the definition of conscience in the 1960s. Martin J. Corbin, Fr. Phillip Berrigan, James Forest, and Thomas Cornell wrote the French Secretariat hoping he would tell the bishops at the Second Vatican Council to “restate the traditional Christian teaching that man may not surrender his conscience to the state.”[iii] In their letter, the CPF urged the bishops to remind states and individuals to respect the judgments of those who could not in good conscience join in their nation’s military campaigns – which the bishops did in 1965 with Gaudium et Spes.[iv] It is not clear if lay people and clerics in the antiwar movement had a hand in persuading the bishops to support conscientious objection, but we cannot discount the possibility. Testing this theory will require more time with the sources. It is clear and worth mentioning in passing, however, that members of the CPF were hardly alone in their turn to conscience: intellectuals and ministers who were active in the antiwar movement like Gordon Zahn and Robert Drinan (Catholic) and Robert McAfee Brown and William Sloane Coffin (Protestant) also made conscience a critical component of their wartime political theologies.

It is my hope that by reconstructing the ways Americans defined and lived conscience, along with explaining why Americans made conscience a faculty uniquely powerful in political and moral affairs, that we will have a clearer understanding of American religious history from the mid-1960s to the end of the Cold War. I welcome all questions and comments, whether here at the RiAH blog, or by email to Cajkap@bc.edu.

[i] Conscience: Its Freedom and Limitations ed. William Bier (Fordham University Press: New York, 1971), x-xi.
[ii] Aloysis J. Heeg, A Little Child’s Confession Book: Prayers, Directions, and Examination of Conscience suitable for children in the lower grades (St. Louis: Queen’s Work Press, 1941), 5.
[iii] Phillip Berrigan, Martin J. Corbin, Thomas Cornell, and James Forest to Rev. Pierre Haubtmann, January 26, 1965, New England Province of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) Archives, John Ford Papers, Box 46, Folder 10.
[iv] From Gaudium et Spes: “On the subject of war, quite a large number of nations have subscribed to international agreements aimed at making military activity and its consequences less inhuman. Their stipulations deal with such matters as the treatment of wounded soldiers and prisoners. Agreements of this sort must be honored. Indeed they should be improved upon so that the frightfulness of war can be better and more workably held in check. All men, especially government officials and experts in these matters, are bound to do everything they can to effect these improvements. Moreover, it seems right that laws make humane provisions for the case of those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided however, that they agree to serve the human community in some other way.”


rjc said…
This sounds like it will be an important contribution to understanding the American religious landscape. My own introduction to this history came from Phillip Hammond, and is covered in his book With Liberty for All: Freedom of Religion in the United States (though Phil's is a very different sort of study). Good luck with it!

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