The primacy of conscience has always been a core element of Catholic moral theology. In his book “Conscience and Catholicism: The nature and function of conscience in contemporary Roman Catholicism” Robert Smith describes the contemporary Catholic debate regarding this element. The debate is about how are we to interpret the primacy of conscience in light of the individual’s moral agency and sacred right to obey one’s conscience versus the magisterium’s role as teacher and guardian of the faith.
Within the context of Latino/a theology Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz has engaged the Latino/a community within this debate in her book “En La Lucha: Elaborating a Mujerista Theology.” In the fifth chapter she places the moral subject of Latino/a theology (the daily lived experience of Hispanic women ) within this debate and describes how the primacy of conscience is brought to bear within this context. Even though she does not cite Smith’s work she describes the contemporary controversy of conscience in a similar way.
Briefly put Isasi-Diaz recognizes the centralization of moral authority that has been placed on the Magisterium as a product of the counter-reformation and a move by the Tridentine Church to centralize its moral and teaching authority. She recognizes that Vatican II has moved us towards a “more holistic and expansive” role but nevertheless the most recent reaction to moral theology from the Church keeps the tension between the moral agency of the individual and the moral authority of the Magisterium alive and well. Add to this the reality that Protestant and Pentecostal theology has traditionally also led to an “authoritarian conscience” via ministers who maintain an authoritarian interpretation of the Bible and here again you have a Christian morality that limits the consciencious freedom of the individual.
But within the context of popular theology or the pragmatic theology that is based on the lived experience of the people (in this case specifically Hispanic women) Isasi-Diaz interprets the primacy of conscience in a more holistic approach. Conscience develops the moral agency of the person and moves that person further into a process of conscientization. Conscience is not simply a mere faculty or an isolated component of reason (a product of Cartesian and enlightenment moral philosophy) that makes decisions based on a perception of universal moral absolutes. Isasi-Diaz is instead suggesting that Conscience is a holistic moral development “an awareness of oneself as agent, awareness of oneself in one’s own experiencing, understanding, judging, and deciding.”
She examines this with her moral subjects and determines two significant points. As with all of Latino/a theology praxis again is an important part of this process. The moral development, or conscientization, is occurring as the person morally reflects on real experiences that demand real actions. Decisions are not based on theoretical moral problems but on concrete moral issues. The second point she makes is with generative themes or issues that are important to the person. In the example she gives generative themes are like moral orientation that morally influences particular groups. For the Hispanic women that Isasi-Diaz has surveyed the survival-liberation theme becomes a dominant moral lens for their ongoing development.
Throughout her exposition on conscience Isasi-Diaz identified popular phrases that Hispanic women used in describing their perspective on conscience. I would like to elaborate on one phrase that jumped out at me and which I used in the title of this essay. Her subject, Olivia, refers to moral agency of her conscience as a God given force that moves her into moral guidance and action, “algo me lo decia dentro de mi.” Moral consciousness develops as one has a transformative experience of God in the events and issues that one faces. It pushes us to engage with a communitarian and divine solidarity that calls us to be open to our own experience as well as the experience of others. The generative theme of liberation becomes a lens through which we identify with the liberative pursuit that others have as well as the Divine plan for the ultimate liberation of creation itself. This quote is remarkable to me because it recalls another central and traditional component of conscience which Isasi-Diaz did not discuss but which is alluded to as she concludes this chapter, the Medieval concept of synderesis. Through synderesis the scholastics believed that within our own moral makeup we had a divine instrument that can guide our moral development towards the will of the divine. How fascinating it is that in the moral development of the sensus fidelium the people continue to express a theological awareness of this divine moral GPS in light of institutional moral authoritarianism.