Review: The Abuse of Conscience

The Abuse of Conscience, Matthew Levering. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2021.

Summary: An analysis of the moral theology of twenty-six recent theologians tracing the rise of conscience-centered moral life, considered problematic by the author.

Matthew Levering, a theologian teaching at Mundelein Seminary near Chicago, believes Catholic moral theology has come to place far too great an emphasis on conscience in the moral life of the Christian. This work traces both the theological developments that led to this over-emphasis or “abuse” as well as the critiques of biblical and Thomistic theologians. He does this by analyzing the moral theology of twenty-six twentieth century theologians divided into four parts.

First, he considers eight theologians under the heading of conscience and the Bible: George Tyrrell, Hastings Rashdall, Rudolf Bultmann, C. A. Pierce, Yves Congar, OP, Johannes Stelzenberger, Philippe Delhaye, and Richard B. Hays. Tyrell and Rashdall see the church and Christ forming a collective conscience. Pierce, by contrast, limits the role of conscience on New Testament grounds. Bultmann argues that conscience constitutes the real self in obedience to God. Congar, Stelzenberger, and Delhaye represent a spectrum of responses from strong critique to strong support of conscience centered approaches. Hayes, by contrast, doesn’t mention conscience, but focuses on how the cross, community, and the new creation shape moral theology.

Then Levering looks at a group of theologians who are grouped under conscience and the moral manuals: Austin Fagothey, SJ, Thomas J. Higgins, SJ, Michael Cronin, Antony Koch, and Dominic M. Prümmer, OP. This approach seeks to address all the moral issues Catholics may confront in life, seeking to form the conscience to respond morally, and represents for Levering a step toward conscience-centered moral theology, away from the virtues, including prudence, communion with Christ, and the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Third, Thomist theologians on conscience are considered: Benoît-Henri Merkelbach, OP, Michel Labourdette, OP, Eric D’Arcy, Reginald G. Doherty, OP, and Servais Pinckaers, OP. Labourdette and Pinckaers both offer critiques from a Thomist perspective. D’Arcy offers a distinctive defense of religious freedom based on an exposition of Aquinas on conscience. Doherty offers an argument why prudence is actually more central than conscience.

Finally, Levering explores the development of existentialist, self-actualizing accounts of conscience in the pre- and post conciliar theology of the German theologians: Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, SJ, Josef Fuchs, SJ, Bernard Häring, CSsR, and Joseph Ratzinger. He particularly traces the post-conciliar development of the thought of Rahner, Haring, and Fuchs.

Levering, in charting the way forward introduces two more theologians: James F. Keenan, SJ who represents the conscience-centered approach and Reinhard Hütter represents a return to Thomistic theology. One thing that is apparent in this survey and the concluding chapter is that Levering believes moral theologians have erred in placing the weight of moral life on the conscience. He argues for the centering of moral life “with God and beatitude at the center, and thus with Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit at the center, healing and elevating the powers of human nature in accord with God’s law” (p. 207). Conscience is subject to these rather than the center, intended to serve prudent action.

I was struck that Levering traces how people can say, “I’m at peace with my conscience” in acting in ways contrary to the teaching of scripture and the Christian community. He puts his finger on how, because of this, moral reasoning became detached from any foundation of universal norms. He does a work of retrieval in recalling us to scripture, the commands of God, the virtues of the Christian life, and the living of a Christ-formed, Christ-centered life, and the aim to strive for a clear conscience, not in reference to self, but to these things.

This was meaty reading on a subject of vital concern to the training of the church’s pastors, which is the work in which Levering is engaged. Will the life of God’s people be shaped by following Christ, revealed in scripture, through the church’s teachers, and communed with in the Eucharist, or will they be shaped by a radically individualistic and autonomous conscience, through which all else is evaluated? According to Levering, we are far down the latter road, abusing what the conscience was made for. His work here is a call to repair, retrieve, and restore.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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