Pete Cajka reports on ACHA Graduate Student Grant-financed research

Searching for Conscience: A Report from the Field

Pete Cajka studies religion in American history. He is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in the Boston College History Department and a Graduate Fellow at the Clough Center for Constitutional Democracy, Boston College. 

Looking at published primary sources from the “Catholic 1960s,” – articles in Commonweal and America, bishops’ pastoral letters, key Vatican II documents, and lay people’s letters to magazine editors – I was struck by how enthusiastically and how routinely Catholics invoked “conscience.” What did they mean? Why were they talking about conscience? I began to think about what a history of this “turn to conscience” might teach us about religion in America during and after the 1960s. After this initial speculation, I confronted the practical question all historians deal with at one point or another as they translate that early spark of curiosity into a researchable reality: what archives should I visit? What collections will help me to understand my topic? Fortunately I had a few tips as to where I could start. More fortunately, I ran into several helpful archivists along the way who opened up additional vistas. With a Summer Travel Research Grant from the American Catholic Historical Association, I ventured to Georgetown University and the Catholic University of America to learn what sources drawn from these archives can teach us about the uniquely powerful role Catholics gave conscience during and after the 1960s.

For a detailed introduction to my larger project, see my recent blog entry for Religion in American History. This field report focuses on my work in the archives at Georgetown and CUA.

I first worked at Georgetown University Special Collections in the papers of Ed Rice, the editor of Jubilee magazine for over thirty years. In Rice’s vast correspondence can be found a cluster of letters lay readers wrote to Jubilee in response to a call the magazine put out in 1963 and 1964 for readers’ opinions on family planning. In looking at the Jubilee letters, I followed the trail blazed by Leslie Woodcock Tentler in her field-shaping book, Catholics and Contraception. Tentler used the letters to understand the budding crisis around birth control – but my reasons for using the letters are slightly different. For my purposes, the letters are uniquely telling of the place lay people were giving conscience in the mid-1960s: of the 65 letters, just over half include a reference to conscience. The letters will assist me in answering several questions: How did lay people dialogue with their consciences?  When they emphasized conscience, what Church teachings were lay people drawing upon? How did they define conscience? What social factors compelled lay people to emphasize conscience? What do the letters tell us about the relationship between gender and the turn to conscience? Did lay people bring Vatican II teachings on conscience (the framers of Gaudium et Spes and Dignitatis Humanae gave conscience a pride-of-place) into their moral, devotional, and political life? The letters, in sum, will be useful in getting at the social history of the conscience.

I spent the vast majority of my research trip working at the American Catholic History Research Center (ACHRC) at the Catholic University of America. I was also awarded a Dorothy Mohler Research Grant to undertake this research. During my stay, I accessed two specific collections and some scattered folders from other holdings which dealt with Catholics and conscientious objection. I first worked in the papers of Shane MacCarthy, a priest who joined the “Washington 19,” – the cadre of priests who took a stand against Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle’s rather strict defense of Humanae Vitae. The archivists at CUA have MacCarthy’s biographical data posted on their website: born in 1938, MacCarthy was ordained in 1965, and he was working at Assumption Parish in southeast Washington D.C. when Paul VI promulgated the encyclical. MacCarthy signed the “Statement of Conscience” to express his disagreement with the Humanae Vitae which provoked his suspension by O’Boyle from preaching, teaching, and hearing confessions. MacCarthy’s papers are useful for my dissertation because in them are found theological position papers on conscience written by “experts,” memos addressing the place of conscience in canon law, a homily MacCarthy gave in 1968 on conscience and its relation to the natural law, letters of support from lay people, and a lengthy paper by O’Boyle arguing that MacCarthy and his ilk misunderstood the “true meaning” of conscience. This collection will be very helpful in reconstructing the ways MacCarthy (and O’Boyle as well as Catholic lay people) defined conscience. MacCarthy, who left the priesthood in 1975 to work in human rights organizations, donated his papers to the ACHRC in 2005, and they were processed in 2010. I am one of the first researchers to make use of them.

I then worked in the papers of the Ad Hoc Committee on Pro-Life Activities set up by the National Council of Catholic Bishops to address the legal and moral consequences of Roe v. Wade (1973). The papers are freshly processed and offer a window onto the mid-to-late 1970s, a chronological territory historians of American Catholicism are just now beginning to explore. Archivist Dr. Maria Mezzanga suggested I work in these papers and they did not disappoint. The sources in these boxes are useful for my project because they show how members of the NCCB and their staffers (legal counsel, lay employees) used definitions of conscience to challenge Roe. These sources shine some light on the history behind contemporary debates about the freedom of conscience in American healthcare and show that Catholics incorporated theologies of conscience into the “ethic of life.”

Finally, I examined a number of folders on conscientious objection drawn from several different collections at CUA. A conversation with archivist Dr. Tim Meagher helped me to see their value for my project and W. John Shepard was generous enough to track these files down for me. Various agencies and individuals at what later became the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops dealt with the issue of conscientious objection during World War II, the early extensions of the Cold War military state, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. I looked at sources on conscientious objectors from the Office of the General Secretary, the Social Action Department, the Legal Department, and the personal papers of George W. Higgins. These papers are useful for a number of reasons, but chief among them is the insight they provide on how lay people (and the parish priests who counseled lay people) asked for clarification of the Church’s teaching on conscience as it related to the Just War Theory. Importantly, they will allow me to compare Catholic teachings on conscience in World War II with the teachings on conscience during Vietnam – helping me to gauge change over time. Finally, these sources also offer a unique window onto the debate the American bishops held in 1970 and 1971 about selective conscientious objection (that is, a Catholic’s ability to judge a particular war unjust, rather than war in toto).

It is my hope that by reconstructing the ways Americans lived and defined conscience, along with explaining why Americans made conscience a faculty uniquely powerful in political and moral affairs (and in critically assessing the consequences), historians will have a clearer understanding of American history from the mid-1960s to the end of the Cold War. I am grateful for the generosity of the committee of ACHA members who awarded me the Summer Research Travel Grant and that of the archivists and staff at the Catholic University of America who awarded me the Dorothy Mohler Research Grant. I am very thankful to have had the support to undertake this research under their guidance. I encourage other historians in our field, both professors and graduate students, to use these resources.