Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Peter Cajka's "Follow Your Conscience"

Peter Cajka is assistant teaching professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Follow Your Conscience: The Catholic Church and the Spirit of the Sixties, and reported the following:
The Page 99 Test as applied to Follow Your Conscience will take readers to the heart of the matter. The reader encounters an intense defense of conscience rights offered by Father Shane MacCarthy in 1968 amidst Catholic debates about the morality of artificial contraception. This page is an explication of one of the most exciting primary sources used in the book: a handwritten sermon on conscience rights by a young and passionate Roman Catholic priest. As such, a browser will be immediately immersed in Catholic conscience discourse in the twentieth century United States. Could the browser be provoked by this page to ask why Catholics are so committed to conscience? Could this glance cause the reader of Page 99 to ask how far this idea about conscience spread in the 1960s and 1970s? This particular source works well; it’s representative of hundreds of other Catholic writings on conscience. Father MacCarthy told his flock that he will sacrifice his very priesthood to defend “the integrity of intelligently formed conscience of the individual.” This page also quotes a letter MacCarthy sent to his superior in which he stated he “could not live out my life of service of others” if the Church asked him to disrespect conscience. Modern Catholic priests like MacCarthy were profoundly committed to the defense of the individual’s sacred conscience. The Page 99 interloper will get a taste of what comes before and what appears after.

While Page 99 provides a window onto the entire book, the reader will need to examine the book’s first chapter to understand the depth of MacCarthy’s words. Catholics became committed to conscience rights in the thirteenth century and they carried this respect for internality into the modern era. Readers of page 99 will be plunged into defenses of conscience on the matter of sexuality, but the surrounding chapters will help readers to see that following conscience sparked debates about citizenship on the matter of conscription as well. Conscience rights are about morality but they also pertain to political questions.

Page 99 does provide a close look at the central intellectual problem of my book. What does it mean for the study of modern America that priests defend individuality in the realms of sexuality and war? Shane MacCarthy was a young priest who had a socially active ministry. Yet, he was still a priest in a massive institution, the Catholic Church, that had roots spanning hundreds of years. In American history we often think of Protestants and secular liberals as the prime defenders of individual rights. But in the 1960s and 1970s hundreds of priests like Shane MacCarthy stepped up to protect the rights of conscience from the intrusive rules of authorities in church and state. Page 99 gives the reader a glance of how Catholics became central to the development of modern American individualism.
Learn more about Follow Your Conscience at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue