Panelists Debate Conscience Formation at C21 Event

by Katie Daniels


On October 11, the Church in the 21st Century Center sponsored a panel on “Women’s Voices: Forming Conscience, Raising Consciousness” in the Cadigan Alumni Center on Brighton Campus. The event, part of the C21 Center’s fall theme of “conscience at work”, featured four women who drew examples from their personal and professional lives to illustrate how conscience informs their daily life.


In an article for the fall edition of C21 Resources, guest editor and panelist Kristin E. Heyer writes that too often “contemporary appeals to conscience often function as ‘conversation stoppers.’” She believes that the Catholic intellectual and moral tradition “can help us recover a robust notion of conscience in terms of our ability to perceives and pursue the good.” Part of C21’s intent is to invite their audience to “deepen [their] understanding and practice of conscience, which is at once to deepen our encounter with God.”


Heyer, a theology professor at Boston College, used her presentation to explore what this idea means for women in a 21st century Catholic Church. She worries that having a “supervising voice [that’s] more authoritative than we are” constrains women’s freedom. One of her biggest concerns, she said, was the socialization of women to satisfy the demands of their super-egos, not their consciences.


For Régine Michelle Jean-Charles, one way to fight that impulse is to make consciousness-raising an integral part of her vocation. As an assistant professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and Romance Languages and Literatures at BC, she stands up against racial injustice and rape culture in the classroom. She also volunteers with the nonprofit A Long Walk Home, an organization that uses the arts to end violence against women in under-served communities.


Jean-Charles also brought up her role as a mother, wondering aloud how much she should expose her young children to injustice in the world. “I really struggle how to teach my children to develop a sense of moral agency… as much as I want to shape them, how do I allow the Holy Spirit to shape them?” she said.


Cathleen Kaveny, a professor in both BC’s Theology Department and Law School, described the “homely and humble aspects” of the law that deal with conscience, such as contract law. “There are resources in secular law for actually thinking about conscience,” she said, observing that contract law has an “underlying moral sense” called the tenet of unconscionability to govern business interactions.


Kerry Cronin sees that same “underlying moral sense” in her own area of research: college students. Cronin not only helps direct BC’s Lonergan Institute but also teaches in the Perspectives program here, where she studies the moral development of college students. Before she began to talk about her research, she asked whether it’s the university’s job to form its students’ consciences. “Moral development in young adults is one of the most dynamic changes during college years”, she said, particularly among first year students at four-year residential universities.


“Students, especially first year students, are constantly surprised that they came to Boston College with a moral framework already,” Cronin said. “Our job is to help them discover the moral framework and it’s sufficiency, that they came with.”


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