The arrested development of the American conscience

“Calming the conscience, numbing the conscience, this is a great evil.” – Pope Francis, Oct. 9, 2015

Over the past two years I have been writing about the differences between the European and American use of conscience. These differences have led me to believe that we in the United States need to develop a much more rigorous notion of conscience.

This article is in two parts. First, I share findings that I have published elsewhere, most notably in the journal Theological Studies. Second, I suggest several elements that we need to retrieve so as to develop a richer understanding of conscience that is more sensitive to the demands of moral truth. In particular, I emphasize that the virtue of humility can help us appreciate why these elements are so necessary. Here I propose that a humble conscience provides us with a deeply relational and accountable source of moral agency.

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.

Later, they further developed a theology of conscience that was at once deeply embedded in the person yet highly relational and always mindful of the responsibility to hear the call of Christ. Their writings were taught throughout European seminaries and universities, where priests and bishops accepted and embraced these insights, which they in turn as council fathers validated in the celebrated paragraph on conscience in the Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (No. 16).

We need to appreciate that their ethics was built in a spirit of humility on a deep conviction of their own wartime guilt. One might make the generalization that the European conscience awoke in a new way when it acknowledged the truth and confronted the consequences of its own actions and inactions in the barbaric rubble of the Holocaust.

After World War II, through a variety of ways, Europeans began a process of understanding their capacity for evil by examining the history of their own actions. That understanding continues to be visible today when one visits Germany, for instance, and sees public, social reminders of the nation’s own atrocities. From the Concentration Camp Memorial in Dachau to the Berlin Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, we can literally enter and see the pangs of the European conscience evident in its enduring testimonials.

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. In the “Notes on Moral Theology” published regularly in Theological Studies, for instance, American Jesuit moralists routinely dismissed the claims of the European moralists and their appeals to conscience.

Appeals to conscience emerged later in the United States both during the Vietnam War and in response to “Humanae Vitae” in the personal appeals by young men drafted into an undeclared war and in the claims of married couples hoping for a change in church teaching on contraception. These moments of conscience were not begun, as they were in Europe, with the collective social acknowledgement of profound human violations of the moral law. When the Americans turned to conscience, they were pleading individually against the very law-and-order mentality that American Catholic culture had so strongly supported even as the Europeans turned in a different direction.

Unfortunately the American use of conscience never really settled into, nor emerged from the place it did in Europe, that is, as the source of responsible personal and social moral agency. When we consider the U.S. bishops’ recent protest using a conscience clause against the Affordable Care Act, they appear to be doing what Americans normally do when they turn to conscience: They seem to invoke it to opt out of an existing law or command, whether that be the military draft, “Humanae Vitae” or, as in this case, the Affordable Care Act.

I do not think that the arrested development of the American conscience is simply the result of the rejection by U.S. moralists of the European initiative; it is also rooted in the longstanding American incapacity to recognize its own wrongdoing. Indeed, historians comment on the practice of American exceptionalism, in which we excuse many of our actions by presuming that our nation has a manifest destiny that exempts us from the standards that others must follow.

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 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.

Awakening the American Conscience

An examination of conscience belongs not only to persons but also to societies, an insight that all Catholics can appreciate as they begin the liturgy of the penitential rite at Mass, confessing in common their sinfulness. In fact, at the United Nations, Pope Francis, echoing a language that reminds us of phrases like the “conscience of the nation,” summoned the assembly to an examination of conscience. Referring to military and political interventions that are not based on international agreement, he argued, “These realities should serve as a grave summons to an examination of conscience on the part of those charged with the conduct of international affairs.”

With this in mind, I offer five different theological claims that might help us appreciate the conscience as the personal and social seat of moral responsibility and accountability.

First, the judgment of conscience should prompt us to confront our sinfulness. Commonly, conscience is divided into two significant functions. It looks backward at one’s own deeds, judging its own conduct and behavior, as one does when one examines one’s conscience. The second function of conscience is to discern or to direct agents to moral action. Thus the judicial conscience looks back, while discerning looks forward. These are fairly sequential; our capacity to discern well depends on whether we have judged well. The fundamental ethical mandate to know oneself is evident in this connection, but so too is the liberating work of judicial conscience. By knowing our sinful history we can in grace respond to it, ask for forgiveness, overcome it and try not to repeat it.

Certainly, a judicial conscience can discover not only moral failure but also moral satisfaction; but if it does not discover sin anywhere, then it does not discover the truth of itself. The discovery of one’s own sinfulness is an essential step in self-understanding and moral maturity.

While reaching its full flowering in the Catholic understanding of the sacrament of penance, the birth of conscience through remorse is a common theme throughout history. Any reading of Roman philosophy, for instance, teaches us that conscience was first recognized by its pangs, convictions and stains. Cicero, Julius Caesar and Quintilian refer us to the ways conscience awakens us to recognize our own misdeeds. In that awakening, many of us encounter conscience for the first time. In his book Conscience: A Very Short Introduction, Paul Strom remarks that this idea of conscience was so evident that in the very popular rhetorical work from the first century B.C.E., Rhetorica ad Herennium, prosecutors were advised to say that his adversary’s client shows “signs of conscience”: “blushed, grown pale, stammered, spoken inconsistently, displayed uncertainty, compromised himself.” To have a conscience is to recognize one’s own guilt.

Why? Because conscience helps us understand the objective moral truth. A guilty conscience is precisely one that recognizes a lack of connection between what we thought was a good to pursue and the realization that, as a matter of fact, it was not a good to pursue. Truth in conscience lets us see that we were wrong. When we first recognize that truth, we begin to realize that not everything we pursue is good; therein is the awakening of conscience: the humble willingness to submit our choices to the truth.

Second, when we discover our sinfulness, we discover our freedom. Some theologians have noted that the confession of sin is itself effective and illuminative. It is effective inasmuch as we do not know the scope of our sinfulness until we begin to acknowledge that we are sinners. Only when we utter “mea culpa” do we begin to see our history of sinful harm, which has not only hurt others unjustly, but has also impeded our own flourishing. Until we make this admission, we remain behind artificial blinders that keep us from recognizing the trajectory of effects that have occurred because of our sinfulness.

In that effective acknowledgement of our culpability, we are gifted with an illumination by which we understand first, what we did, but second, what we could have done. That is, the confession of our sinfulness lets us recognize that we could have acted otherwise. Until we have that illumination, we are trapped by an understanding of ourselves as weak and constrained, a convenient stance that literally keeps us from believing that we need to confess.

Thus, when we confess, we often realize that we sinned not out of weakness of will but out of a misapplied strength. Much of the manualist theology of sin, lacking a theology of conscience, made sin look inevitable and our own selves look weak, living in a world without virtue and grace. In that context we confessed sins that we could not have avoided, pleading that other conditions made us do what we did. We need to learn to confess our sins in the light of Christ, realizing in grace that the chance to act otherwise was there and that the excuses we proffer are merely, well, excuses. The honest and full confession of sin makes us realize that the disordered and prideful trajectory of our personal and social history can be changed.

Moreover, in the illumination of our sinfulness, we see just how sinful we are. We might do well to remember the insight of Dorothy Day, who realized as she matured that her own sinfulness was greater than she had realized. That insight brings with it a redemptive humility, a humility burdened not with self-deprecation but rather with an unabashed self-understanding of what it really means for one to act in conscience—that is, to do good and avoid evil in accordance with God’s will.

Conscience grows out of the humble self-understanding we have when the pangs of conscience move us to the confession of our sins. In that confession, we see who we have been called to become as authentic human beings; we recognize not primarily our failings but pre-eminently our calling to repent and move beyond them in God’s forgiveness.

Conscience Is the Key

Third, though deeply interior, the conscience is the key to our relationships with others, our world, ourselves and our God. As the Bible teaches us, through our consciences we examine our past histories and set the course of our future, always with others in mind. The word conscience, suneidēsis in Greek, appears in the New Testament 31 times, mostly in Paul, and almost always in terms of our relationship with others, for it is about our awareness of them. A key example of this is the question about meat dedicated to idols (1 Cor 8:1-13; Rom 14), where Paul asks us whether our decisions in freedom are mindful of the needs of our fellow Christians growing in faith (see also 2 Cor 1:12; 5:11).

Suneidēsis does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, but the word most routinely associated with conscience is kardia, “heart.” In fact, kardia is used over 800 times in the Bible, though not ever as a specific bodily organ; rather it always points to the source of all of our affective desires. Curiously, we Catholics might not realize this because the Catholic version of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible insists on keeping kardia as heart,though most Protestant translations refer to it as conscience. In 1 Sm 24:5, for instance, we see “Afterward David was stricken to the heart because he had cut off a corner of Saul’s cloak.” In 2 Mc 2:3 we read, “And with other similar words he exhorted them that the law should not depart from their hearts.” In Sir 42:18 we read, “He searches out the abyss and the human heart; he understands their innermost secrets.”

In the New Testament, kardia appears four times in 1 Jn 3:19-21: “And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him, whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God.”

I believe that it is precisely a humble conscience/heart that helps us to appreciate our relationship to others. If we define humility as knowing our place in God’s world, then we should see the Magnificat as a quintessential expression of humility, where the church sings the song of Mary who proclaims the greatness of God’s ordering of the world and her place in it. We, too, in humility, can see in the Scriptures, whether in Samuel, the Wisdom literature, John or Paul, that conscience brings with it a new freedom that allows us to see our place among the people of God.

When we discover our place in God’s world and our relationships therein, we begin to see how much we can learn for the formation of our conscience with “the word of God” as “the light for our path,” “assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1785). Learning to take advantage of the insights of our family and the community of believers, including its magisterium, we form our consciences by entering into a journey that only strengthens our capacity to hear the word of God and keep it.

Fourth, humility keeps us grounded. Inasmuch as the word humility derives from humus, meaning soil or dirt, humility keeps us close to the moral terrain in which we find ourselves. A humble conscience keeps us alert to our environment, our neighbor in need, our own responsibilities and the need to take account of the future and its challenges. Here we realize that the humble conscience engages—and sometimes interrupts—our agenda for our lives, which can so easily proceed automatically.

When we study the American civil rights movement, we can see conscience at work. While from one perspective one could see the entire civil rights movement as no more than a rejection of the racist laws in the United States, from another, we could see that the civil rights movement was at once an argument for the articulation of an objectively true law of justice, fairness and equality to replace the old false one. The movement’s leaders worked not only against unjust laws but, more important, in solidarity for the right realization of a dream. In conscience the leaders understood the harmful practices of redlining schools and neighborhoods, of demarcating space in restaurants and buses and of imprisoning and hanging innocent friends and family members. Their feet and eyes were on the American terrain, and they knew their place in God’s world, a knowledge that prompted them to sing the spirituals and the blues, their own Magnificat. In conscience, they made the laws right. From them we learn that the humble conscience is mindful of what one is called to do. From their witness we learn to form our consciences.

Finally, conscience brings with it a humility that affects not only how we understand our place in God’s world but also how we think, learn and understand. This insight into a humble way of thinking that rejects the imperial ego becomes a relational way of thinking and is complemented by what other theologians call the grace of self-doubt. In humility we discover that there can be a real grace in doubting ourselves and our opinions. This grace animates and informs our humility and helps us to see that the work of realizing ourselves as disciples of Christ is a formidable lifelong task fraught with misperceptions and yet possible precisely because of that humility.

Make no mistake about it: Conscience is not infallible. Quite the contrary. As Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”reminds us, we frequently err. But we can get to the truth only through conscience. Humility, then, is constitutive of the Christian quest for moral truth, because in truth we are always learning and opening ourselves to correction. For Catholic Christians, this process is assisted by prayerful participation in the life of the church, particularly by attention to the preaching of God’s word and the reception of the sacraments.

This final insight takes us to the beginning of this section of the article. In conscience we understand that we are bound by the truth as it really is. Truth stands in judgment of our own misdeeds, a judgment that we recognize in the pangs of conscience. When we confess, we effectively acknowledge objective truth and therein allow the judgment of conscience to rule that we have sinned. In that confession, we recognize truth not as something that we made up, but rather something that compels us. This phenomenon of “obeying our consciences,” “heeding the dictates of conscience” and “recognizing the demands of our conscience” captures the sense that conscience allows us to hear the truth as it is. In conscience we experience the claims of truth. This is why, for many, it is precisely a guilty conscience that allows us to have the experience that what we ought to pursue is only the right. We cannot in conscience make what is wrong right. A well-formed conscience, where we learn truth, teaches us in humility to allow truth to have its say. As St. John Paul II’s encyclical “The Splendor of Truth” (1993) reminds us,“freedom of conscience is never freedom ‘from’ the truth but always and only freedom ‘in’ the truth” (No. 64).

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.

James MacGregor
7 months ago
Thank you for the most thoughtful article. I am saving it for future reference. In my layman's way of learning, I have learned that conscience is not completely reliable as a reference point for people’s behavior. First, we have to test our conscience by comparing it with Scripture, because we are by nature fallen and imperfect. Second, we can make our consciences unreliable by suppressing them willingly and forming a habit or doing so. Third, Scriptures do not tell us to follow our conscience alone for the two reasons just given. In my layman's way of learning, I have learned that conscience can be: good (1 Timothy 1:19), clean (2 Timothy 1:3), blameless (Acts 24:16), weak (1 Corinthians 8:7-12), defiled (Titus 1:15), evil (Hebrews 10:22), and seared (1 Timothy 4:1-2) Thank you again.
Bruce Snowden
6 months 3 weeks ago
In 2010 Fr. John Kavanaugh, S.J. in “Uninformed Conscience” quoting Aquinas said that “conscience may be certain but not correct.” Responding to his article, I ventured an opinion online, or printed issue of AMERICA , saying, “It strikes me conscience can also be correct but not certain.” I think what I said then, is somewhat sinewed to “Called To Conscience” by theologian Fr. James Keenan, S.J., so respectfully I presume to repost my entire submission as it appeared in AMERICA in 2010. I said,that conscience can be “correct but not certain,” a dilemma “caused by the convergence of moral objectivity and the necessity of practical moral subjectivity, leading to what may be in effect a correct but uncertain conscience. As a result, a person of good will may simply have to trust God saying, ‘Lord, this beats me! You figure it out!’ Continuing, “Father Kavanaugh also points out that conscience can be ‘uninformed’ How about ‘under-informed?’ Is there subtle connective tissue between the two, or are they entirely contrary? Sometimes if conscience is ‘under-informed’ but not ‘uninformed’ uncertainty can arise despite correct moral anchors. When Joan of Arc was questioned by her interrogators as to whether she considered herself to be in the state of grace, she replied, ‘If not may God put me there; and if I am may He keep me there!” I guess that pretty much sums up how one should relate to the question of a malformed versus s well-formed conscience, doing the best one can and leaving the rest to the merciful Jesus who told St. Faustina, “Tell aching humanity to snuggle close to my merciful heart!” That’s what I originally said and continue to believe. As an add-on perhaps I should mention that we are obliged to follow the conscience we have, even if erroneous, but equally obliged to reconstruct once the error is recognized.
Charles Erlinger
6 months 3 weeks ago
Reference your sentence: "I do not think that the arrested development of the American conscience is simply the result of the rejection by U.S. moralists of the European initiative; it is also rooted in the longstanding American incapacity to recognize its own wrongdoing." I suspect that there is a fundamental difference between Americans and Europeans in the context of your speculation, which is that there are numerous and widespread genealogical discontinuities among Americans which have not occurred among Europeans. Literally tens of millions of U. S. citizens have forebears whose homes were thousands of miles removed from the slave trading, slave owning, culture that prevailed in the Americas in the first decades of this nation. While the immigrant ancestors of these Americans were not (indeed, are not to this day) immune from absorbing prejudices that persist and that have some of their origins in the slaving days of U. S. history, I suspect that in terms of conscience response to the facts of institutional slavery, the guilt and regret that may be experienced are of a less personal nature than Europeans might experience regarding national atrocities perpetrated by ancestors having a clearer ancestral connection. The emotional content of conscience response is no doubt necessary to motivate sorrow and to recognize the need for reform, but in the end conscience is rational, and the experience of highly personal guilt for historical events for which one has no possible real world connection probably seems quite irrational to many Americans. What I think Americans are getting more used to, is recognizing societal immorality and attempting seriously to form consciences that consider the morality of present and future acts that are perpetrated in the name of communities of which we are currently a part. We are beginning to wonder whether and how to respond to threatened future domestic acts, some of which have been promised in the recent political campaign, and in which we might have to choose refusal or non-participation. It will force us to consider patriotism in a different light from the one we might be used to. Some have current experience with war resistance, but what about resistance to participation in politically pledged domestic acts that potentially could be judged to be crimes against humanity perpetrated by our very communities within our very communities?
Patrick Murtha
6 months 3 weeks ago
The use of "Kardia" for heart is, I believe, actually more accurate in the Catholic Bibles as heart, than in the protestant as "conscience." In these quotes that you use, the "heart" is understood as a place where the appetitive power dwells. Here the ponderings of man arrive as a certain understanding, and from that they leave as a determined course of action. In fact, heart was often, until more recent years, understood to be the organ that represented most directly the will, the power of determining based on a full or thought-to-be-full understanding or knowledge. It is for this reason that that David was stricken to the heart, because he understood fully the gravity of his action and leads to his great sorrow; it is for this reason that the laws should not depart for their hearts, because it is desired that the law should be comprehended and so desired and done; it is for this reason that God searches the hearts, because He knows what men understand and why they will what they will. It is also why we find in Ecclesiasticaus, "Do not apply thy heart to all words that are spoken" and a couple words away, "thy conscience knoweth that thou also hast spoken evil of others." Now it can be said that part of this understanding that dwells in the heart allows the act of conscience, that is, the judgment and the sense of guilt or the peace of guiltlessness. Nevertheless, the "heart" here signifies a power of the soul and not so much the act of the soul. And the conscience is an act, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, "The conscience is not a power, but an act." The conscience is the movement of the soul based on the soul's knowledge of what is good or evil. The confusion may come, as St. Thomas reminds us, that causes and affects are often called by each other's names.
Henry George
6 months 3 weeks ago
Fr. Keenan, S.J., Were you alive at the time of World War II. Were you on the front lines ? If not, I would suggest you be more careful about labeling actions as "Moral Abominations" - Dresden/Hiroshima/Nagazaki - were undertaken in the hope of ending a War that never should have been started by the Germans or the Japanese. Did Dresden help end the war in Europe any earlier ? If so, then it spared the lives of those in German Concentration Camps who would have died had the war gone longer. Was Dresden morally justifiable - to those who carried out the bombings it appeared to be. Were the Atomic Bombs justifiable - suppose the Japanese did not surrender and we invaded Japan and 250,000 Americans died and 5,000,000 Japanese... Harry Truman seemed like a decent man and the Americans/British that I met who were in the Pacific Theatre and scheduled to land in Japan were brave and decent humans. They celebrated the ending of the war even though it involved Atomic Bombs. No one has a clean and clear conscience but put the blame on Hitler and the Military Rulers of Japan primarily and the British and Americans secondarily.
Patrick Murtha
6 months 3 weeks ago
Mr. George, Merry Christmas! I would contend that we must first "look at the beam" in our own eye "before the splinter in another's." Our concern ought to be we, as America, have done and are doing, and not what the Japanese or the Germans have done. The virtuous man must first contend with himself, and clear his own soul: "Doctor, heal thyself." His salvation does not depend on whether he was more virtuous than his neighbor, but rather that is striving to "perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." But to answer your question about Fr. Keenan being on the front lines, let me ask you: does Fr. Keenan need to be present at a particular point in history to know what is good or evil? Does Fr. Keenan need to be one of the mothers of Bethleham to know that Herod's massacre of the innocents was unjust and vile beyond measure? Does Fr. Keenan need to be in the prison camps to realize the attrocities acted against Jews and Catholics and other dissenters of the Nazi and the Stalinist regimes? Does Fr. Keenan need to be with the Negroes, picking cotton or sitting chained in a ship, to realize the evils of slavery? Does Fr. Keenan need to walk with the Indians on their death marches to realize the injustices done by the U.S. government against these people? Does Fr. Keenan really need to be on the front lines to know that war brings with it terrible and bloody violence, and often pointless and purposeful slaughter of innocent lives? Does Fr. Keenan need to be in Nagazaki or Hiroshima to realize that the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians was a a moral aberration, a "moral abomination"? Should not Fr. Keenan, as you can and other reasonable humans can, tell right from wrong without being circumstantially present in space and time? The bombing of Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagazaki, and any other bombing that slaughter non-combatant civilians, even for the sake of peace, even for the sake of saving thousands of American soldiers, cannot be justified. (As a side note, the Japanese were willing to capitulate before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagazaki. We had Japan cornered on their Island. They had very limited resources, military or otherwise. It was only a matter of time before they would agree to what the U.S. government demanded--an unconditional surrender.) The end does not justify the means. Even evils that seem so small to us, such as lying, are so repugnant to God that St. Augustine tells a fellow priest that he cannot lie even to save a single soul. Furthermore, if we were to enter into this game of "suppose this or that", as a way to justify an evil, we open the world to all sorts of grave and awful evils: suppose a child in the womb might grow up to be another Hitler or Stalin, should the mother kill the child? Suppose, by wiping all of Russia and America off the globe, the world would be spared World War III, ought we do it? If the end justifies the means, one might begin to argue that one might baptize a child and then kill it. For being baptized the child is clearly in the state of grace and will enter directly into heaven, but by allowing the child to live, he may indeed damn his soul to hell. These are indeed extreme examples, but they follow from the same principle that led people to believe that it is acceptable to massacre innocents to end a bloody war. And the responsibility for the terrible war crime that was committed at Nagazaki and Hiroshima is one that the U.S. must shoulder, just as Japan and Germany shouldered theirs. While I disagree with various examples and applications included in Fr. Keenan's contemplation of the collective conscience, I disagree as well with the implications of your response. For it is based on a simple moral fallacy: the ends justifies the means. It is good and virtuous to reflect on ourselves and our own faults and failings, as well as the faults and failings of our nation. I would contend, however, that racism is not one of our great faults, but is merely amplified by the media for political purposes. I would contend that slavery is not "our quintessential sin," but that atheistic materialism, an error warned about by Our Lady of Fatima, is. I apologize for my lengthy response. I tend to be long winded.
Henry George
6 months 2 weeks ago
Mr. Murtha, It is not absolutely clear that the Japanese would have surrendered without the Atomic Bombs being dropped. Had I been Truman I would have been willing to starve the Japanese through a blockade, but I was not Truman and neither you or I had been waging war with Japan for almost four years. Suppose the Japanese had decided not to surrender. Suppose the US invaded and 250,000 Americans died and 5,000,000 Japanese died, including 1,000,000 children who were being trained to charge the Americans with wooden spears/swords. Would it have been better for all those children to have died ? The Japanese had decided on a defensive plan which made each battle as bloody as possible, hoping the Allies would eventually sign a truce rather than seek to completely defeat the Japanese. If a person attacks me, or a child and I try to stop him but it surely seems he is determined to kill me and/or the child and so I strike out and inflict a mortal blow on the attacker - what am I guilty of ? We have reached a point in Modern Warfare where it becomes very difficult to say that Civilians who are producing weapons are indeed innocent. I can only go by the discussions I had with very decent men who celebrated the end of World War II and the number of Japanese and Allied lives saved by the end of the War. Neither Truman nor most of those who approved dropping the bomb really understood how much radiation would be released and what the long term damage would be. The sole intent was to end a war that could and should have been ended by the Japanese after the the Battle of Midway when the Japanese Military knew that they would loose the war, even more surely than the Germans knew at Stalingrad, and if not then, then after the Battle of the Mariannas where the Japanese Navy was so utterly defeated that they never recovered. Instead the Japanese refused to surrender and fought the Battle of Manilla where more innocents may have died than in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. When you say the Ends can never justify the Means, you speak of tidy moral situations. What answer do you have when no other means will bring about an end to a war ? Wars are not tidy moral situations, they are one step short of Hell on Earth. Yes or no, would you have bombed the train yards leading to Auschwitz and the factories that made Zyklon B ? The Germans and the Japanese began the war. They showed no mercy toward those they conquered. They sowed the wind and they inherited the Whirlwind. We all ended up with blood on our hands, an enormous amount of blood, but who began the bloodletting should never be forgotten.
Henry George
6 months 3 weeks ago
Can one ask, how many Americans need to apologise or search the Consciences due to slavery ? The vast majority of Americans can trace the families arriving in America after the Civil War. The vast majority of Americans never voted for Jim Crow Laws. The most segregated School System in America and the most racist/class conscious part of America is Manhattan - as such should America Magazine move out of Manhattan ? [ I for one would say "yes" if only to be based in some other part of the United States that is far more representative of the US of A.] I don't think you can say that the Manuals of Theology that were used to discuss/teach on the Conscience and its duties can be said to have allowed German Catholics to dutifully run the Extermination Camps with no moral qualms what-so-ever. Any human, at any time, is capable of just about any evil action - if the opportunity arises and the pain of not doing it - is seemingly too present and too great. We are, after all, as Saint Augustine, reminds us, in need of taming our wills far more than our intellects.
ed gleason
6 months 3 weeks ago
Fr Keenan SJ rightly says ' 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 obedient passivity in the laity that left them unprepared for the dictatorial rule of the Nazis and their Fascist allies." The northern European Protestant countries did much better than the passive Catholics in the south who allowed the mostly Catholic raised, Nazis reek their havoc across Europe. Go look up the Nazi hierarchy. The only Protestant, Goering, was married in a Catholic ceremony.
Henry George
6 months 2 weeks ago
Ed, Do you really think you need a Manual of Theology to tell you not to wantonly kill the innocent, not to force children into a Gas Chamber, to not throw living Children onto burning piles of dead bodies ?
Michael Barberi
6 months 3 weeks ago
One of the best books on conscience that I liked a lot is: "Conscience and Catholicism" by Robert J. Smith. It describes the nature and function of conscience according to Aquinas, Germain Grisez: a non-revisionist understanding of the nature and function of conscience, and Bernard Haring: a revisionist understanding of the nature and function of conscience. Given these very different theories of conscience (one of conforming, the other of informing), the author offers in his concluding chapter a compromise entitled "Toward a Theology of Conscience". In short, I offer some thoughts for reflection: > conscience is not infallible, it can err. > one must form and inform one's conscience properly. > one must have humility and recognize that if one's conscience is in tension with a teaching of the magisterium, it must be a temporary judgment, which might last a long time or a lifetime. In this regard, one must education oneself about Church teachings and their rationale. However, it does not mean that one should not comprehensively understand alternative scholarly viewpoints for reflection. Nevertheless, one must also be open to further education of the subject which might be in tension with a Church teaching, seek frequently priestly and theological advice, pray often for enlightenment and God's grace, receive sacrament frequently. > I do agree with Fr. Keenan that a practice of examining one's thoughts and actions before and after confession is essential to a humble and contrite heart. This means thinking about all the many ways one has offended God and neighbor. In conclusion, we all sin and make bad decisions that some of us thought were right (e.g., slavery, WW II carpet bombing and the killing of the our innocent Jewish brothers and sisters). Nevertheless, we should not lose sight of the fact that while we need to look back at the past and learn from it, we also must look forward to a brighter future in terms of a rightful informed conscience with the help of the Holy Spirit. This will not eliminate respectful disagreement or a bad decision, but it will not plunge us into excessive guilt and doubt.
Barry Fitzpatrick
6 months 1 week ago
In his emphasis on humility, Fr. Keenan centers his discussion on relationships, the one we have with God, the ones we have with each other, and the one we develop in our conscience formation with the truth. This humility, which Fr. Keenan sees expressed so well in the Magnificat, grounds us, opens our attention to the insights of others, and steers us toward an integrity in arriving at the truth as we pursue our relationships. Fr. Keenan selects two issues, race and the environment, only as examples of areas that need our attention and our action as we pursue the truth. He does not suggest these are the only areas of need. He also does not canonize conscience by claiming it may never lead us astray. No, rather he beautifully weaves in the sacramental nature of our faith, especially confession, as part and parcel of the development of our faith lives as we grow in conscience formation. Neither is he so petty as to suggest that we dictate in our directives or "rules" for participation in the sacraments exactly who may and who may not take part in this essential element of the life of the Church. For example, conscience formation has disappeared from directives for the reception of the Eucharist in some areas, and it has been replaced by acceptance of the "truth," without regard to how that truth is arrived at. Fr.Keenan wisely points to our being "judged by the truth," as he concludes, because in doing so our sinfulness is pitted up against our redemption, leaving gratitude as our understandable response to this amazing gift of an operative conscience that is always pointed towards the source of that truth, our relationship with God. Well said, Father.

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