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: The Conscience


The Conscience (Inner Land, Volume 2), Eberhard Arnold. Walden: NY: Plough Publishing, 2019 (first published in German in 1936).

Summary: A short treatise on the conscience, what it is, what it’s witness is, how it functions apart from God, and how it may be restored.

Conscience. It strikes me that growing up, and in my early Christian journey, I heard much of conscience. These days, not so much. So I was intrigued to receive this little book, only 76 pages, part of a longer series called “Inner Land,” by German philosopher, writer, and founder of the Bruderhof movement.

It is a profound study in part because of where it was written, Nazi Germany, and when it was published, in 1936, shortly after Arnold’s death in 1935. While the work is not openly critical of Hitler, Arnold notes the corrosive effects upon conscience of a society without God, where conscience is formed in a spiritual vacuum.

The book consists of two parts. The first focuses on the conscience and its witness, the focus of which is to serve as a watchman, warning us of all the things detrimental to the inner life of the spirit. It exposes our selfishness and calls us into community. Under God, it brings us great joy. Under sin, it torments and calls us to repentance. It calls us to integrity and justice. Apart from God the conscience is unreliable, finding its bearings only in our rebirth. Christ is the one who restores and purifies through his sacrifice and his Spirit. This opens the way for our consciences to reflect the image of God as we continue to gaze intently on Christ.

The second part considers the restored conscience and the outworking of this in one’s life. At the beginning of this section he sketches the contours of the restored conscience:

   The conscience craves for the very essence of truth. It demands an ultimate, indisputable goal. Strength of conscience, a growing certainty and clarity, is to be found only where peace rules as unity, only where justice rules as brotherliness, only where joy rules as pure and all-inclusive love.

He speaks trenchantly here about the redemption of our sexuality as one expression of good conscience–neither suppression nor unbridled lust but Christian marriages marked by union, self-giving, and the blessing of children. All areas of life come under the purified conscience–our possessions, our business dealings, our approach to conflict, our politics. Christians are people of the conscience set free.

He comes closest here to addressing the issue of Germany under Hitler, not by attacking Hitler but by discussing the choices of conscience one faces in such times. He writes:

Jesus Christ is the only leader [Führer] who leads to freedom. He does not bring a disguised bondage. He does nothing against the free will of the human spirit. He rouses the free will to do that (and only that) which every truth-loving conscience must urge it to do. “The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Freedom is the free power for free action. 

Anyone who wants to hand over the responsibility for his own actions to a leader [Führer]–anyone who wants to be a human leader–has betrayed freedom. He has become the slave of a human being. His enslaved conscience will be brought to utter ruin if this mis-leader calls to a freedom that is no freedom. All leaders whose authority is merely human ruin people’s consciences.

The book raises the critical issue for me that something will form the conscience of each of us–either in purity, justice, and freedom, or in slavery, impurity, and unreliability. Arnold suggests that it is either Christ or culture that will form us, the former leading us into freedom, the latter ultimately mis-leading us. Arnold recognized how even religious people might be misled, when they seek in human leaders what may only be found in Christ. It raises the question of whether we might be doing the same in looking to a succession of political saviors of the left or right, that ultimately will mis-lead us. Might it not be that the formation of the consciences of a citizenry might prove to be far more important than electing the “right” person to the integrity of both the church, and the country?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Conscience


Conscience: The Origins of Moral IntuitionPatricia S. Churchland. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. (Forthcoming June 4) 2019.

Summary: Exploring the neuroscience of our sense of right and wrong, integrating our knowledge of neurophysical causation, social factors, and philosophy, arguing that moral norms are based in our brain functions, interacting with our social world.

Conscience. Unless one is significantly cognitively impaired, there is this inner sense we have about what is morally right or wrong, or sometimes this place where we determine right or wrong. Where does this come from? Theists will claim a transcendent basis for this, something written on the heart. Yet, what is written on one heart often varies from another’s. Often we experience uncertainty about these things in our own hearts. Furthermore, those “cognitive impairments” and advancing neuroscience are demonstrating that many aspects of human moral behavior from social bonding and care for others to where one may fall on the political spectrum with regard to moral issues is rooted in the neurophysiology of the brain. Are we conscious actors, or is our moral sense and moral behavior in some way determined by our brain chemistry?

Patricia S. Churchland is one of the pioneers in the field of neurophilosophy–exploring this intersection of neuroscience research and philosophical discussion of questions like ethics and free will. This work is an engaging introduction to her work that moves between discussions of neurotransmitters and a philosophical survey of theories of moral behavior and the question of free will.

She looks at the role of oxytocin in human attachment (“The Snuggle to Survive”), how we are wired for sociality, and how behavior is shaped by the reward system in our brains, and the physiology of empathy. We learn what the brain response to a person eating worms may indicate about political attitudes. Churchland explores the bewildering field of psychopathology–those whose anti-social behavior reflects a lack of moral compass, guilt or remorse–and thus far, our futile efforts to arrive at remedies.

The last two chapters of the book focus on the philosophical questions, and here is where it got really interesting for me. Churchland considers “rule based” moral behavior from the ten commandments to Kant’s categorical imperative to utilitarian-based systems. The flaw, she argues, is that human behavior endlessly deviates from these rules, and there is even significant disagreement on the rules. She argues for a socio-biological basis for moral behavior in which the evolution of our neurophysiology is such that we are well-equipped to engage in social life and behavior that sustains the bonds between us. This leads her to a definition of morality as “the set of shared attitudes and practices that regulate individual behavior to facilitate cohesion and well-being among individuals in the group.”  She seems sympathetic to forms of virtue ethics in which habits of behaving may be modified by particular case constraints.

The final chapter explores free will, and here, Churchland seems to be trying to navigate between those who would fully advocate for free will, and even argue moral certainties, and those who would argue that what we have learned about causation in neuroscience undermines free will, and exonerates criminals from guilt. She argues for the distinction between causes beyond our control and causes under our control, using the example of Bernie Madoff, who was under no compulsion, but knew exactly what he was doing.

Churchland’s discussion in these two chapters also indicated to me some of the concerns that underlie this book. She is deeply concerned about those who tout moral certitudes and also authoritarian approaches that may lead to morally justified abuses of others. She believes that an understanding of how we are “wired” for morally decent behavior shaped by social norms to be superior to such approaches.

As a Christian theist with a deep respect for scientists, and one who shares a sense of being humbled before the realities of our existence, I wonder whether there is a third way between a pure naturalism of “morally decent humans” and a rule-based authoritarianism, whether rooted in ideology or theology. Might we not allow for the possibility that we are indeed “wired” for moral behavior in social contexts that reflect transcendent concerns expressed in the great commands, which are really broad moral statements of principle, to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself? It seems we often get caught in binary discussions of either science or the transcendent. Might there be an approach of both-and that both celebrates the wonderful mechanisms that bond parents and children, or larger social groups, the mechanisms by which we learn what it is to be moral, in all its societal variants; and recognizes the possibility that at least some communal norms might be grounded in transcendent realities that are not occasions for arrogance or authoritarianism, but humility and grace and empathy, and are consonant with the ways we are wired?

I could be wrong, but it was not evident that Churchland has engaged with neurotheologians like Andrew Newberg, (see my review of his book Neurotheology) who covers similar ground. There are many others interested in a conversation rather than a war between science and religious belief, and see the possibility of a kind of consilience that mutes the voice of neither. When I consider Churchland’s account, I find myself marveling anew at the marvels hidden within my own body and am grateful for her exposition of these. I hope going forward, there might be a growing appreciation on the part of neurophilosophers like Churchland, not merely of problematic aspects of rule-based ethics in philosophy or religious teaching (which I will admit exist, just as there are problematic questions in neuroscience), but also the ways religious frameworks of moral teachings have profoundly shaped many communities for good (for example Andre’ Trocme’ and his community of Le Chambon, which hid Jewish refugees during the Holocaust), and helped individuals lead morally worthy lives as people of conscience.


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