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Conscience in Context

Historical and Existential Perspectives

Stuart P. Chalmers

In this book, the author presents a detailed study of the notion of conscience from the perspective of its historical development and existential environment. The purpose of the study is to highlight conscience’s dignity and fallibility, as well as its dependence upon the context of virtue and grace, in order to develop as our capacity to perceive the truth in moral action. Starting from the premise that current moral theory is suffering from fragmentation, the author proposes that this fragmented outlook has affected the common understanding of conscience and is therefore in need of renewal, chiefly in terms of the reintegration of conscience with its proper setting. In order to explore this theory, he investigates how conscience has been understood over the centuries, particularly in the New Testament and during the Scholastic period, and analyses a number of important issues concerning its nature and function.


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“I will now in discharge of my conscience speak my mind plainly and freely.” So said St Thomas More, a modern champion of conscience before the time, at the trial that indicted him for “falsely, traitorously and maliciously” denying the right of King Henry VIII to be proclaimed Supreme Head of the Church in England. He spoke at a time of fragmentation. And he spoke – not all recent interpreters have grasped this – from an understanding of conscience that was the opposite of fragmented. “I am not bound, my Lord,” he replied to his judge, “to conform my conscience to the council of one Realm against the general council of Christendom.” More went to the block, and to sanctity, enlightened by a “conscience in context”. In this thorough and sensitive work, equally at ease in the historical and the theoretical, Fr Stuart Chalmers sets out to rescue conscience from the various fragmentations that have befallen it. He harks back to Greco-Roman antiquity, to Scripture and the early Fathers. He retrieves the scholastic dis- tinction between synderesis and conscientia. He questions both the legalism of the pre-conciliar textbooks and the subjectivism of certain post-conciliar schools of moral theology. The best context for the health and well-being of the human conscience, he proposes, is a dynamic one: a life rooted in inner connection to objective truth, a life of virtue and grace, a life in prayerful pursuit of holiness within the communion of the Church. There is nothing facile here. There is no...

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