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Posted February 14, 2012

The Conscience Question

Taken From National Catholic Reporter
By Joshua J. McElwee

As the conversation surrounding the controversial birth control mandate continues, prominent theologians are saying President Barack Obama's decision on that subject just underlines the need for a much broader discussion among Catholics regarding the complex moral issues of our day.

On the birth control issue, Catholic bishops have made their position clear. In more than 160 letters to dioceses across the country, they have variably called the administration's decision an "affront to religious liberty" that would cause Catholics to "violate our consciences" regarding the morality of contraception.

Yet, in conversations with NCR and in their own postings online, several theologians are wondering if a more nuanced and lengthier discussion is in order. Each expressed regret that the bishops' recent outcry seems to narrow down the fullness of Catholic moral teaching to issues of sexuality.

"Conscience is such a hugely important topic," said Lisa Fullam, an associate professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif. "The fact that it tends to only be discussed in the light of sexuality is unfortunate."

At the heart of a broader discussion of moral issues, theologians say, would be how Catholics understand the notions of evil and conscience, and how this particular question raises many others about Catholic participation in a much wider range of morally questionable activities -- from war to sweatshops, and even including the production of food.

As Julie Hanlon Rubio, an associate professor of Christian ethics at St. Louis University, put it, this decision may reflect that Catholics "need to think about the ways in which our partnerships with government, corporations and even culture may lead us to compromise our most deeply held values."

The focus of Catholic moral teaching in the past has been on "individual issues," not involvement in governmental structures or societal institutions, Rubio said. In fact, the practice of moral theology first came about to help confessors know how to identify individual sins in the confessional.

"More recently, we've come to think more in ways that individuals cooperate with social evils, or participate in social sin, or hold up sinful social structures," she said.