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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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Introduction

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Conscience has long been a subject of fascination for me. In the course of my pastoral work I have encountered many people who have struggled with moral dilemmas or who felt weighed down by guilt owing to the gap between their practice and their knowledge of what they were called to do. I have also met individuals who seemed to be unaware that, despite the gravity of the action, what they were doing was in any way wrong. Whether mentioned or left implicit, the conscience of each of these indi- viduals played a vital role in the decision to choose one course of action over another, in judging a completed action to have been right or wrong, or even in exhibiting a state of perplexed uncertainty as to what should be done next. Thinking over these dif ferent problems led me to explore the question of erroneous conscience. Could an action that was considered to be wrong by others (particularly by the Magisterium of the Church) be good, virtuous or meritorious if the individual believed it to be so? Do we live in parallel moral universes, where the person ultimately defines what is moral solely by belief or conviction, or do we have access to a ground of universal truth, rooted in our created nature, as gifted by God? Should pastors leave individuals in blissful ignorance, or, while conscious of their own weakness and their need of God’s mercy, should they try to deepen moral understanding and help develop the...

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