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Follow Your Conscience

The Catholic Church and the Spirit of the Sixties

What is your conscience? Is it, as Peter Cajka asks in this provocative book, “A small, still voice? A cricket perched on your shoulder? An angel and devil who compete for your attention?” Going back at least to the thirteenth century, Catholics viewed their personal conscience as a powerful and meaningful guide to align their conduct with worldly laws. But, as Cajka shows in Follow Your Conscience, during the national cultural tumult of the 1960s, the divide between the demands of conscience and the demands of the law, society, and even the church itself grew increasingly perilous. As growing numbers of Catholics started to consider formerly stout institutions to be morally hollow—especially in light of the Vietnam War and the church’s refusal to sanction birth control—they increasingly turned to their own consciences as guides for action and belief. This abandonment of higher authority had radical effects on American society, influencing not only the broader world of Christianity, but also such disparate arenas as government, law, health care, and the very vocabulary of American culture. As this book astutely reveals, today’s debates over political power, religious freedom, gay rights, and more are all deeply infused by the language and concepts outlined by these pioneers of personal conscience.

232 pages | 11 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2021

History: American History, History of Ideas

Religion: American Religions, Religion and Society


“A fascinating book. . . [Cajka] makes a persuasive case that Catholics, with priests leading the way, did indeed 'change the terms of American freedom'—though not always for the best.”


“This splendid book sheds new light on recent US history by recounting the vast reach of Catholic debates over conscience. Cajka skillfully narrates the church’s legacy of conscience as a double agent for both obedience and liberation from state as well as religious authority. That legacy, he shows, has been present in larger American political conflicts over war, sex, and abortion, and is alive and well today. Follow Your Conscience is a fascinating read that clarifies the church’s inner wrestling with authority and the entrenched divides among American Catholics, illustrating the broader repercussions of conscience claims on the nation’s splintered politics.”

R. Marie Griffith, author of Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics

“This rich and textured book deftly links centuries of theological reflection on the sanctity of an individual’s subjective conscience to powerful currents of political and cultural transformation in the twentieth century. Cajka illuminates new angles on recent US history, demonstrating how Catholic moral teaching acquired currency in the secular realm and served as an important touchstone for social movements on the left and the right. Follow Your Conscience is intellectual history—and religious history—at its best.”

James McCartin, author of Prayers of the Faithful: The Shifting Spiritual Life of American Catholics

Table of Contents


One / The Conscience Problem and Catholic Doctrine

Two / Political Origins: Totalitarianism, World War, and Mass Conscription

Three / The State’s Paperwork and the Catholic Peace Fellowship

Four / Sex, Conscience, and the American Catholic 1968

Five / Psychology and the Self

Six / The Conscience Lobby

Seven / Beyond the Catholic Church


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