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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

"Leaders in the Catholic Church have been called to form consciences, not to replace them."

Pope Francis, 2016

Conscience and Catholicism

Two Column

Through the generosity of Mike and Phyllis Shea, David DeCosse, director, religious and Catholic ethics with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics has spearheaded a project on the theology of conscience and Catholicism. Most theological discussions of conscience are abstract and theoretical. By contrast, DeCosse's project has been focused throughout on what is called a contextual understanding of conscience in the Catholic tradition. In other words, theological reflection on conscience should be attentive to the contexts in which people exercise their conscience. These contexts range from cultural settings around the world to institutional settings in the United States. 

The project has resulted in three co-edited volumes each featuring groundbreaking essays by leading Catholic theologians and by top practitioners in institutional contexts. All of the books have been published by and are available for purchase through Orbis Books

Conscience and Catholicism: A Moral Tradition in Renewal Webinar

David DeCosse addresses the impact of Pope Francis' tenure and cases concerning LGBTQ+ rights within the Catholic church.

In his presentation, David DeCosse, director of religious and Catholic ethics, provides an overview of the theological background behind the statement by Pope Francis, and discussed cases of Catholic schools firing gay or lesbian employees in light of different approaches within the Catholic tradition to the theology of conscience. 

Watch "Conscience and Catholicism: A Moral Tradition in Renewal"

Conscience & Catholic Education

The most recent volume appeared in 2022 and is called Conscience and Catholic Education: Theology, Administration, and Teaching. The book was co-edited by DeCosse and Kevin Baxter, the director of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program at the University of Notre Dame. The book especially considers the theme of how Catholic schools and universities today should understand and practice the formation of conscience.

"First, every Catholic school administrator and diocesan education office needs a copy of this book. Then, across the country, we need to sit down and discuss each chapter together one-by-one over the course of many months, so that the wisdom and insight of each of the authors in this volume takes root in the daily discernment we are called to exercise as educational leaders."             

-- Ann M. Garrido, author, "Redeeming Administration" and "Redeeming Conflict"

Buy Conscience & Catholic Education: Theology, Administration, and Teaching at Orbis Books.

Conscience & Catholicism

The first volume, Conscience and Catholicism: Rights, Responsibilities, and Institutional Responses, appeared in 2015 and was co-edited by DeCosse and Professor Kristin Heyer of Boston College. This volume especially focused on different cultural appropriations of conscience in the work of theologians from Japan, Nigeria, Ireland, Argentina, and beyond. 

"DeCosse and Heyer offer a fresh and original take on conscience, spinning this standard moral category across the horizons of social ethics in today's global era. The international authors presented here challenge readers to appreciate the social formation of agency and ponder the meanings of personal responsibility in the strikingly different cultures of the U.S., Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The book as a whole represents an important advance in ethical theory, not limited to Catholicism." 

-- Lisa Sowle Cahill, Mohan Professor of Theology, Boston College

Buy Conscience & Catholicism at Orbis Books.

Conscience & Catholic Health Care

The second volume, Conscience and Catholic Health Care: From Clinical Contexts to Government Mandates, appeared in 2017 and was co-edited by DeCosse and Thomas Nairn, O.F.M, then the Senior Director for Ethics of the Catholic Health Association of the United States. This book explored the role of conscience in situations ranging from the encounter between a doctor and a patient in a clinic to the conscientious refusal of the Little Sisters of the Poor to participate in the national contraception policy of federal health care reform. 

"An essential and refreshing read, not just for health care professionals but also for secular policy advocates like myself. The authors open up the theme of conscience and move beyond the notion of conscience as a closed door or sledge hammer. For example, the communal dimension of conscience was unknown to me; I now see how imagination and the common good are also included in any moral decision. What a treat!"           

-- Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, Winner, United States Presidential Medal of Freedom

Buy Conscience & Catholic Health Care at Orbis Books.

About the Editor: David E. DeCosse

David E. DeCosse is the Director of Religious and Catholic Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California. He is the creator and co-editor of a series of books on conscience and Catholicism, author of Created Freedom Under the Sign of the Cross, and has written for publications ranging from Theological Studies to the National Catholic Reporter.

Read Bio

Articles by David DeCosse



"St. Thomas More for our Times: Not a Culture war Hero," National Catholic Reporter, June 24, 2021


"Bishops' Conscience Model Makes Light of Practical Reason," National Catholic Reporter, January 23, 2021


"Catholics, Voting, and Abortion: Time to Correct the Record," National Catholic Reporter, September 14, 2020 


"Pope Francis, Newman, and the Canonization of Conscience," National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 2019


"Recovery of Faith in a new Direction," National Catholic Reporter, March 11, 2017


"Conscience, Catholicism, and Politics," Theological Studies, March 2017 



Related Materials About Conscience


Controversies in Catholic Education Prompt Collection on Conscience

Conscience and Catholic Education: Theology, Administration, and Teaching, a new book edited by Kevin Baxter, and David DeCosse, director of religious and Catholic ethics, was reviewed by Michael Sean Winters in the National Catholic Reporter.

The Conscience Project

Moral choices in a changing worldA yearlong series of talks exploring our inner moral core as we confront contemporary challenges.

Conscience in Catholicism

Rights, Responsibilities, and Institutional Policies. Summary of a 2014 conference.

Conscience and the Complex World of Catholic Health Care

Conscience, Edward Snowden, and the Internet

Has civil disobedience gone too far?

Women Speak for Themselves

Conscience and the new Catholic feminism.

Biological Evolution and Moral Conscience

Catholicism and Conscience 

Historical background plus a focus on 4 areas: contraception, health care, politics, and war.

For More Information

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics staff and affiliated scholars can provide commentary and background information for media on a variety of issues pertaining to religious and Catholic ethics.

For commentary and background information about these or other topics in applied ethics contact Joel Dibble, Senior Director, News and Public Relations at