In a recent America magazine article, the Boston College ethicist Fr. James Keenan, SJ, writes about the need for Catholics in the United States to take seriously what the Second Vatican Council teaches in Gaudium et Spes (no. 16) about the primacy and importance of the well-formed conscience in moral discernment. His recent work suggests that the way conscience has been understood in the last century by Catholics in Europe and Catholics in the United States has differed significantly, which helps explain in part the resistance of some in the United States to Pope Francis’s reiteration of the Church’s teaching on conscience in Amoris Laetitia. The Europeans, argues Keenan, did not have the luxury of burying their heads in the ethical sand, particularly in the wake of two World Wars.
Keenan explains that, “After World War II, European theologians, having witnessed Catholic participation in unimaginably heinous conduct during the war, developed a robust promotion of the call of conscience for all Catholics. These theologians were developing a moral argument that would replace the moral manuals of the 18th through the 20th centuries that they believed had helped lead the way to an obediential passivity in the laity that left them unprepared for the dictatorial rule of the Nazis and their Fascist allies.”
In confronting their complicity in the Holocaust, many European theologians also had to embrace the virtue of humility in the renewal of conscience. “We need to appreciate that their ethics was built in a spirit of humility on a deep conviction of their own wartime guilt.”
So what was happening in the United States while the European theological community was doing the difficult work of humble ethical assessment and research?
Keenan explains: “In contrast, the contemporary American rejection of the manualist tradition and turn to conscience was not at all through any experience of remorse, either individually or collectively. The war, in fact, prompted no crisis of conscience, because Americans, including their theologians, believed they were on the right side. From the end of the war to Vatican II, most American moral theologians ignored the Europeans’ promotion of Catholic conscience.”
This is an interesting historical review, but it doesn’t touch the fullness of Keenan’s thesis. While it is true that the collective self-righteousness of the Americans in the wake of World War II certainly contributed to the ignoring (at best) or rejecting (at worst) the work of theologians elsewhere in the world developing a more robust theology of conscience, Keenan believes that another, more insidious reason has contributed to our lagging in understanding and embrace of the conscience. Namely, we have never in an honest way come to terms with our own complicity in social sin and evil. We have long embraced—perhaps only tacitly for many—a sense of “American Exceptionalism” that has granted justification for what might rightly be identified as atrocities.
Consider slavery, for example, the quintessential American sin. Despite the nation’s own history of enslaving millions of people and of enjoying the benefit of slavery even without owning slaves, America has never collectively faced itself in conscience. As M. Shawn Copeland [professor of systematic theology at Boston College] reminds us, the American conscience is haunted, profoundly damaged by the complex history of slavery in the United States and by its national willfulness to accommodate to and profit from racism.
Still, slavery did not arrive here innocently. The blindness evident in the collective consciousness of many Americans was rooted in the nation’s claim of manifest destiny, a claim that concomitantly animated the extinction of Native American populations as well as the enslavement of Africans.
The silence in the United States about slavery has further promoted an American understanding of itself as “innocent” that has played out time and again as the country sees itself as blameless and virtuous in the world. Americans, including American Catholics, never engaged in collective repentance for our own moral abominations in World War II, including intentionally killing innocent civilians in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden. The silent, presumptive innocence claimed by the United States is palpable when we listen to the American perspective on its relationships with Latin America, its understanding of the global ecological crisis or its de facto policy of unparalleled mass incarceration, yet another symbol of the racial entitlement tied to our manifest destiny. Until we can recognize the evidence of our own capacity for evil in the personal and national history of our own actions, we cannot claim to have a conscience, let alone to be exercising one.
The role of conscience isn’t just to permit individuals with an opportunity to “opt out” of something as the term is usually deployed in the American context. Instead, it is a way of examining one’s behaviors, attitudes, and lifestyle in the past while also informing and guiding our future actions and dispositions.
This involves our own need to grapple with the complexities of our real complicity with social sin and evil. In conclusion of his article, Keenan highlights at least two examples of social sin for which we are all culpable—racism and environmental degradation.
In the United States we need in humility to engage the conscience, to allow ourselves to be judged by the truth. In that experience of humbly submitting our personal and collective history to the truth we will discover both our sinfulness and our redemption together, because it is only as redeemed that we can know the true scope of our sinfulness. I suggest that looking in humble conscience at our histories on race and on the environment, we might begin to find the sources of our error and therein the possibility of acknowledging the truth, not only of our past, but of the course for our future. And then we might discover that our consciences should always be operative—and not only when we want to opt out.
And still, there are so many other areas of our lives and our society that we need to examine more closely.
I am grateful for Professor Keenan’s call for a broader engagement with this central element of Catholic teaching and moral theology. In his call for Catholic in the United States to return to the theology of conscience, he is echoing the exhortations and teaching of St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis, among so many others.
The recent Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), which is intended in part to help renew our attention to the centrality of conscience in Catholic ethics, is a very timely document. Stay tuned for more installments of the free video series on “The Joy of Love” in which we will explore the contents and meaning of this important document.