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.


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.

Review: Remembering the Reformation: Martin Luther and Catholic Theology

Remembering the Reformation

Review: Remembering the Reformation: Martin Luther and Catholic TheologyDeclan Marmion, Salvador Ryan, Gesa E. Thiessen (eds.). Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.

Summary: A collection of papers exploring Martin Luther in historical context and his roots in the medieval tradition and what might be learned by Catholics and Lutherans from him and how that may contribute to rapprochement.

This year marks the 500th year since Martin Luther posted his Ninety Five Theses. It is an anniversary that may be celebrated with mixed feelings–the birth of the Reformation on one hand, and yet a sharp schism in the Church that has lasted to this day–a schism Lutherans and Catholics may especially feel poignant on this anniversary. In the last fifty years there has been an ecumenical movement, now quieter perhaps than in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Yet 1999 marked a key development as Catholic and Lutheran theologians signed the  Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, articulating a common understanding of justification and that sixteenth century condemnations of each other no longer apply (with qualifications, and not without controversy on both sides). In 2015, Lutherans and Catholics took a further step in the release of “Declaration on the Way,” consisting of 32 statements of agreement on the church, ministry, and the Eucharist.

This collection of papers presented by Catholic and Protestant scholars is in a similar vein, exploring what may be learned from Luther, particularly for Catholic theology, but truly what Catholic and Lutheran may learn from each other. It might be noted that the engagement is with Luther rather than his successors, who, who like those of Calvin, often took his thought further than he would.

The papers are group into four sections. The first deals with historical foundations. Heinz Schilling sets Luther’s reformation in the broader context of church reform movements. Peter Marshall then looks at the treatment of Luther at the hands of Catholics over the last five centuries, noting that the invective often reflected particular national or local contexts that need to be understood.

The second section focuses on how Luther interacted with the medieval tradition. Philip Cary contributes what I thought a particularly fine essay exploring the influence of Augustine upon Luther in the question of law and gospel. Cary actually finds Luther more sacramental that Augustine, describing the difference between the two as a prayer for grace by Augustine, and the promise of grace realized in “the external word that gives what it signifies.” Theodore Dieter explores the relation of Luther’s thought to scholasticism. Then Charlotte Methuen concludes the section with how Scholasticism shaped Luther’s view of women and how his own married state and household experience modified those views.

The third section shifts to the interaction between Luther and Catholic theology. Peter de Mey considers some of the key documents of Vatican II, and the change in wording in the Decree on Ecumenism from the idea that Protestants “find God in the Scriptures” to “they seek God in the scriptures” — a more subjective notion that reinforces some divides. James Corkery, S.J. explores the role of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, often thought to slow ecumenical efforts, particularly in behind the scenes work that facilitated the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The section concludes with a paper on Luther’s simul iustus et peccator, and how both Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar interacted with the phrase. The essay, by Pieter de Witte, explores the differing grammars of faith of Lutherans and Catholics and the mutual learning that has taken place between parties.

This sets up the final section exploring more of what Catholics may learn from Luther. Gesa E. Thiessen explores Luther’s treatment of images in the church. He was hardly an iconoclast with his allowance for the freedom of the Christian in these matters. Risto Saarinen argues for the distinctive nature of Luther’s reading of scripture allowing for the subjective involvement of the believer, not unlike the Spiritual Exercises of Loyola. He describes him neither as a fundamentalist nor a humanist. Finally Christine Helmer explores the idea of the common priesthood, and how post-Luther, it morphed into the “priesthood of all believers” idea, due more to Spener than Luther, in her contention. She contends that the “common priesthood” of Luther was not set up as an alternative to the authority of the Catholic priesthood.

What this collection of papers does is help us understand both some of the contributing factors to schism and the landscape that needs to be negotiated in healing the rifts. Justification is huge, and here working through the different “grammars of faith” is critical. Likewise, the view of scripture is important, and thankfully Lutherans and Catholics are closer to each other on these matters. The papers point out that there are substantive theological concerns that must be addressed before shared communion, as well as an often tendentious history. Real unity is not at the expense of truth or the muting of differences and has always taken sustained effort. Let’s hope and pray that this continues!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.