Conscience and Catholic Education

Edited by Kevin Baxter and David DeCosse

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.



Pope Francis’s contextual theology of conscience is the guiding star for this book, which aims to be both theologically substantive and practically useful for teachers, professors, and administrators. Contributors include college professors. K-12 teachers, and school administrators, on topics such as conscience and academic freedom, conscience formation and neuroscience transgender students in Catholic schools, and cultivation of an ecologically sensitive conscience.


This book, we wish to note the context of Catholic education, especially in the United States. The pandemic blazed an economic fire through many Catholic institutions, resulting in closures or serious financial struggles at the primary, secondary and university levels. Catholic schools were already facing a myriad of challenges that have been decades in the making. In1965 there were 5.5 million students in Catholic schools across the United States, and today that number is down to 1.6 million. Over the past two decades over one million students have left Catholic education. The priest abuse scandal has further damaged the reputation of Catholic schools.


The decline in Catholic schools enrollment is mirrored in the decline in participation in the Church overall. It is not that there is a Catholic school “problem” in a thriving church, but rather that Catholic schools decline is a microcosm of engagement with the broader faith. It is important to note background tensions between hierarchical directives and the judgments of the community that constitutes a Catholic school or university. Or, in other words, the collective conscience of a Catholic school community is often not considered when major decisions are made. The principle of subsidiarity dictates that those who are most immediate to a problem are best situated to solve it. This principle allows for both individual and collective conscience to be considered when decisions are made that potentially impact the community in a significant way. Pope Francis has recovered the ancient and more spacious theological tradition of conscience oriented to moral truth found both in and beyond the explicit moral teachings of Catholicism. Here misunderstandings abound. Critics of this ancient view of conscience dismiss it as the fruit of liberalism, or as warmed over subjectivism, or as the leading edge of ethical relativism. But to affirm the doctrine of the freedom of conscience within Catholicism is to affirm among other things, an inalienable moral responsibility belonging to each person who in any case is to be formed bu the teachings, stories, symbols and sacraments of the Catholic tradition.

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