Righting America

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Follow Your Conscience: An Interview with Peter Cajka | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Peter Cajka is Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He earned his Ph.D. from Boston College, and before that he was an undergraduate student here at the University of Dayton, where I had the great fortune of having Pete in four of my classes (Ken Ham would say this was Pete’s great misfortune). He is the author of a marvelous new book from the University of Chicago Press: Follow Your Conscience: The Catholic Church and the Spirit of the Sixties This work is very much worth reading, and we here at rightingamerica are delighted that Pete was willing to be interviewed about his book.

Cover image of Peter Cajka’s Follow Your Conscience: The Catholic Church and the Spirit of the Sixties (2021, U of Chicago Press)
  1. Could you say a little about what led you into this fascinating topic?

In secondary reading for graduate classes and exams I noticed that Catholics mentioned conscience frequently. I often encountered phrases like “I must follow my conscience” or “I have sacred rights of conscience” or “conscience can never be handed to any authority figure” or “I must form and follow my conscience.” I began to wonder if this language could also be found in archival documents and other primary sources. I thought that perhaps other writings could shine light on why Catholics used this language so frequently. This project began when I started asking why Catholic conscience claims spiked in the 1960s and 1970s. I became totally hooked on the fascinating mechanics of the theology: notions like “the erroneous conscience,” for example, really captured my imagination.  It seemed to me that if I could analyze the idea itself and explain why it became prominent in the late twentieth century I might be able to say something interesting about modern US history. 

  1. One of the great virtues of this book is that it successfully challenges – overturns, actually – how the story of Catholics in America has been told. As you note in your introduction, “far from breeding the automatons that haunted the imaginations of Protestants from the colonial period to first wave of Irish immigration up to the rise of fascist and communist powers, the institutional Catholic Church taught each of its journeyman pupils about the inviolability of their moral sense” (11)? Could you elaborate on this point, in the process noting the strikingly significant role played by Thomas Aquinas and his “radical take on self-rule” (190)?

I think that the deep commitment Catholics have to conscience rights and conscience formation challenges some of the key categories and narratives of American history. Normally we associate individualism and rights with Protestant dissidents like Anne Hutchinson and modern secular freethinkers like Allen Ginsburg. American freedom as we often understand it depends upon projecting an image of Catholics as hierarchical, communal, and obedient. But at the center of Catholic thought – from moral theology to political ideas – can be found an intense focus on the conscience and the relationship between the subjective self and the objectivity of the law. This idea motivated Catholics to demand freedom in matters of sexuality and citizenship during the twentieth century. I contend that we must acknowledge the ways Catholics drew upon this set of church teachings on conscience to expand American freedom during the 1960s and 1970s.  We might be tempted to say that Catholics are “acting Protestant” or even “embracing modernity” when we study their conscience language. But what I found is that the original architect of these ideas was thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas. His notions and frameworks – studied by Catholics in modern seminaries – shaped the terms of the twentieth century conscience rights movement. I hope my book shows that we can think of modern autonomy as having Catholic and medieval sources. 

  1. You highlight the ways in which the conscience rights movement emerged in the 1960s, particularly regarding matters of war and sex. In your fascinating chapter, “The State’s Paperwork and the Catholic Peace Fellowship,” you discuss the forms filed by Catholic young men seeking to claim Conscientious Objector (CO) status. What was particularly striking about what you found in perusing these forms, and how successful were these applicants in securing CO status?

Finding these conscientious objector applications in the papers of the Catholic Peace Fellowship was a great archival moment for me! Each of these bureaucratic sheets (called Form 150) contained lengthy essays on why the applicant should not have to fight in the Vietnam War. Conscience featured prominently throughout. But more than this, the essays show that laypeople were fluent in the theology of conscience. Catholics explained to the state that no Catholic could place conscience into the hands of any authority figure, especially military commanders fighting an unjust war. That would entail a Catholic allowing an external authority to command an internal sacred space, which was an unacceptable development according to Catholic thought. Moreover, this might result in immoral actions for which the individual would be held culpable. Catholic laymen also explained how conscience had a “primacy.” Primacy means that all moral decisions must go through conscience and never around it. To follow a law, conscience must be satisfied. The application packets contain several rich layers of the theology and I hope readers enjoy unpeeling the concept. As regards the legal fates of these objectors, it was very difficult to trace what happened to them. But I am pessimistic that any, or more than a few, received free and clear conscientious objector status. Many of them likely performed community service, or the state put permanent marks on their records. The case that did make it to the Supreme Court in 1971 lost by a vote of 8 to 1. But while conscience failed in the formal legal system, this chapter and a later one on what I call the “conscience lobby” show that conscience language circulated widely at the grassroots of American Catholicism. 

  1. Now on to sex. As someone who teaches twentieth-century U.S. history and U.S. religious history, I am embarrassed to say that I knew nothing of the 1968 rebellion of the Association of Washington [DC] Priests v. the Church hierarchy, particularly, the Archbishop of Washington. It is such a great story – could you briefly describe what happened, and how this was resolved (or not)?

The Archbishop of Washington DC, Patrick O’Boyle, suspended approximately three dozen priests from ministry for publicly defending a Catholic’s rights to follow conscience on the matter of artificial birth control. The priests then organized a Civil Rights-style campaign – replete with marches, demonstrations, speeches, and public rallies – to assert the right to follow conscience in the arena of reproduction. O’Boyle claimed that the clear teaching of Humanae vitae bound Catholics to obey in conscience the law. But the priests argued that while that teaching was part of the tradition, the other aspect of the teaching, that conscience must be formed and followed by the individual, also held in the debate about sex and its ends. The nation’s capital played host to a big debate about the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity in Catholic teaching. O’Boyle refused to back down and the priests kept up the pressure on him by continually making the case for conscience in the media and at public appearances. The case could not be easily settled, and eventually went to Rome where a mediating body affirmed the teaching on conscience (calling conscience “inviolable”) while also upholding O’Boyle’s prerogatives to punish the priests as he saw fit.  The chapter shows, I hope, that conscience and law set the categories for the debate on sex. 

I did not have enough room in the book to tell the entire story! So this summer  I published an article on this event in The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture. This article shows how the priests pushed their case from local ecclesiastical courts to regional church courts and finally to the Vatican. It was only settled in 1971, nearly three years after the original suspensions.

I don’t think you should feel bad for not knowing about this story! The archival papers have just become available at the Catholic University of America Special Collections, and I take pride in being the first historian to see them! I used the personal papers of Father Shane MacCarthy – a passionate priest just three years out of seminary when the dispute with O’Boyle began – to tell the story from the priests’ perspective. MacCarthy wrote sermons on conscience, and his papers include letters he wrote to O’Boyle about the idea. I hope that these priests can take their place in the narrative of global 1968 alongside Parisian rebels, the feminists who stormed the Miss America Pageant, the dissidents outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the students at Columbia who occupied various buildings. The priests imagined themselves as men of tradition, but they applied the idea of medieval conscience rights to the matter of sex. They are genuine 1968 rebels!

  1. The fundamental terms of this 1968 dispute revolved around the question – so central to your book – as to whether or not a Catholic can make an argument in behalf of conscience in disputes with the Church, or is it simply limited to disputes with the State. Could you talk about this debate, and why you think that – in the end – it is not resolvable?

Conscience rights, as your astute question notes, are applied to both moral and political questions. That is to say, they can be claimed in disputes in the church on the matter of sex and in issues with the state pertaining to citizenship. Catholics believed the right to follow conscience held in both arenas. The doctrine itself does not place limits on the question of where and when a Catholic can follow conscience. But this is where it gets tricky. The tension of the doctrine itself is key to understanding the history of the 1960s and 1970s. The idea has a split personality that has to be taken into account to understand why it became so important. Catholics claimed rights of conscience against the state on the matter of conscription and this spilled over into pressing claims of conscience on the issue of sex against the hierarchy. Conservatives like O’Boyle wanted conscience to be instructed by law in the church, but they also claimed conscience against the state. Catholics began to debate these questions at length in the 1960s and 1970s. How far could one follow a conscience? Does this hold in all areas of one’s life? Aquinas was clear that no superior in the church or the state could dictate a conscience. Yet he also contended that conscience must be willing to be formed by law.  I do not foresee a resolution to this debate because the theology itself is ambiguous and full of tensions. In fact, it the act of putting law above conscience and then in the next breath conscience above law that gives the teaching its energy. I call conscience a double-agent. It can liberate you from obedience to a wicked authority and it can be called upon to fasten a catholic to recognize a just authority. Conscience language will continue to crop up in debates over gay rights, abortion, religious freedom, authority, divorce, contraception, and other issues precisely because the tradition left these things open-ended. 

  1. As I was finishing Follow Your Conscience I could not help but think a lot about the threat of the American bishops to deny President Biden from receiving Communion at Mass in response to his support for the legalization of abortion. Will the question of conscience come to bear in all of this? And could you say a little bit about why you find this threatened move by the American bishops to be so problematic?

Biden would be well within Catholic tradition and his rights to assert his prerogative to follow conscience. He could make a strong case that he has formed his conscience to the best of his ability, especially given that his position on abortion is quite nuanced. He has arrived at his political position – affirming the church teaching but respecting the right to choose – after a great deal of moral formation. Conscience formation requires taking into account a wide range of secular and spiritual factors. The President can say he is trying to be a good Catholic in a complicated world. 

But I would take this a step down the line. The bishops have flagrantly disregarded the Church’s own moral teachings on the formation of conscience. They are trying to align the President’s conscience with what they see as Church teaching by using coercive measures. The bishops want to pull him into obeying the law and, thus, they are violating the Catholic right to form and follow conscience, as held to be sacred for all individuals by Church teachings. Not only that, the Bishops are going against the grain of moral theology in trying to absorb the subjective side of a complex self into what they see as a clear teaching. This breaks with Catholic tradition, certainly. But it also will not work because of its brazen disregard for the self and the self’s sacred core. If you want a Catholic to agree with your argument about politics or doctrine, shepherd them towards that conclusion with debate, teaching, homilies, sacraments, and love. Catholic teaching is clear that conscience cannot be simply wrenched into agreement with an authority figure’s rules. Catholics spent a good deal of the twentieth century telling the state exactly that! What is particularly troubling (shocking or revolting or disgusting) is the use of the Eucharist to achieve these ends.  The move is politically cynical and it plays into the Culture Wars. But it is also deeply tragic in the ways it actually seeks to eliminate Biden’s moral sense of self.  

  1. Ok, Pete, I know that Follow Your Conscience has just come out, and you are rightly luxuriating in this achievement. But looking ahead, what do you envision as your next scholarly project?

I am increasingly convinced that we historians need to explain the Catholic contribution to the Culture Wars that have erupted in the wake of the transformations of the 1960s. I am teaching a new class this fall called “America’s Culture Wars” and I am going to be thinking about a potential book project that looks at how and why Catholics are such eager participants in struggles over questions of culture since 1970. We’ll see what happens!

 I am also working on a scholarly article about the Clergy Abuse Crisis. I am currently the director of “Gender Sex and Power: Towards a History of Clergy Sex Abuse in the US Catholic Church.” We are a group of 12 or so commissioned researchers who are working with the records of BishopsAccountability.org to write localized and thematized studies of the crisis. I am writing a microhistory of the clergy abuse crisis by narrating the life of Reverend Louis Miller, a priest from the Archdiocese of Louisville who engaged in acts of abuse from 1960 to 1990. I plan to send this scholarly article to a journal.