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Primacy of conscience: A pastoral theological construction of agency for Catholic moral decision-making

Dissertation
Author: Donald Augustine Rickard
Abstract:
A significant pastoral problem for some Catholics flows from the dissonance they experience when attempting to integrate certain Church teachings with the leading of their conscience as they make moral decisions. All Catholics do not accept every established moral answer or position provided by the Church and integrating those differences between the Church teaching and one's conscience can be difficult--a difficulty affecting parishioner, priest, and Church. This problem is, in part, rooted in and reinforced by the fact that there are two theological strands in the Church's tradition regarding morality. One strand suggests that the moral response is to obey normative Church moral teachings, whereas the other strand suggests that the moral response is to follow your conscience which is informed by Church teaching. The pastoral problem of understanding and exercising conscience while striving to be informed by and responsible to normative Church teachings is at the heart of this research in order to ameliorate the polarization and division that is currently present in this arena. One of the unstated assumptions and/or insufficiently developed concepts within the primacy of conscience debate between obedience to tradition and following individual conscience is the status of agency as it relates to primacy. The principal thrust of this study of primacy of conscience is that agency is a critical element in understanding the meaning and function of primacy of conscience within the relationship between the social group (as reflected in the terms tradition and teaching) and the individual (as reflected in the term primacy of conscience)--an agency that is interdependent and at times in conflict. This pastoral theological study employs Larry Graham's psychosystemic approach to pastoral theology as it expands the conversation by identifying the pastoral problem of primacy of conscience and the role of agency from a pastoral theological methodology that examines relevant personal and pastoral experience, historical antecedents to the problem, and appropriate conceptual theological and secular resources. As this study reviews the long and varied history of conscience in the Catholic tradition as illustrated in several critical historical moments, it identifies the problematic character of the two strands within the tradition and reveals the importance of a more developed understanding of agency in light of the tradition's inherent ambiguity. By integrating Albert Bandura's systemic Social Cognitive Theory, this study offers an enhanced understanding of agency from a disciplined behavioral scientific perspective on the social-personal interfaces involved in decision-making in general (i.e., self-reflectiveness, perceived self-efficacy, and social persuasion) which apply to moral concerns and, consequently, amplifies an understanding of primacy of conscience that can inform priestly counsel to Catholics seeking moral guidance.

iv TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter One: Introduction to the Pastoral Problem..........................................................1 Expanding the Problem of Conscience ................................................................9 The Potential for Constructing New Theological Understandings ....................14 A Systemic Perspective of Agency in Clarifying Primacy of Conscience ........16 Location and Identity .........................................................................................23 Literature and Resources ....................................................................................24 Outline of Chapters ............................................................................................32

Chapter Two: Emerging Pastoral Theology...................................................................38 A Pastoral Theological Illustration of Primacy of Conscience...........................46 Exploring the “Lost”...........................................................................................55 Contemporary Advances in Pastoral Theology..................................................60 Vignette from a Systemic Perspective of Agency..............................................72 Theological Anthropology at the Crux of Pastoral Theology.............................76

Chapter Three: The Problematic Tradition of Conscience.............................................80 Primacy of Conscience Examined......................................................................86 Historical Review................................................................................................91 Traditionalist and Revisionist Schools..............................................................115 Legalistic and Personalist Perspectives............................................................123 Understanding Ambiguity within the Tradition................................................137 Summary...........................................................................................................146

Chapter Four: The Lens of Agency..............................................................................150 A Catholic Study of Conscience in the 1970’s.................................................160 Social Cognitive Theory Background and Overview.......................................178 Social Cognitive Theory and Self-reflectiveness..............................................186 Social Cognitive Theory and Perceived Self-efficacy......................................189 Social Cognitive Theory and Social Persuasion...............................................192 Summary...........................................................................................................195

Chapter Five: A Pastoral Theological Construction of Primacy of Conscience...........198 Synthesis and Primary Conclusions..................................................................200 Illustration of Primacy of Conscience...............................................................224 Reflection upon Pastoral Conversation.............................................................247 Future Research................................................................................................250 Conclusion........................................................................................................252

Bibliography.................................................................................................................254

Appendices....................................................................................................................282 Appendix A.......................................................................................................282 Appendix B.......................................................................................................285

1

CHAPTER ONE

INTRODUCTION TO THE PASTORAL PROBLEM

For pastoral theology contends that unaddressed theological issues often arise from the particularity of human experience, including the actual practice of ministry, and that further interpretation of what actually takes place in concrete experience has the potential for constructing new theological understandings or clarifying unresolved matters in the tradition. 1

Some Catholics experience dissonance when attempting to integrate certain Church teachings with the leading of their conscience as they make moral decisions. As a priest for the last twenty two years, I have experienced numerous Catholics, myself included, struggling at times between following their conscience and being obedient to the authority of the Church’s teaching. Frequently this dissonance is addressed confidentially within the context of pastoral care, counseling, or confession and the topics are quite diverse (e.g., contraception, pacifism, divorce, obligation to pay taxes, sexual orientation). Yet occasionally this experience of dissonance for Catholics gets writ large, as recent public controversies during the United States’ presidential elections of 2004 and 2008 clearly demonstrate. 2 In either instance, what becomes immediately apparent is that not all Catholics accept all established moral answers provided by

1 Larry Kent Graham, Discovering Images of God: Narratives of Care among Lesbians and Gays (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 2.

2 See Eric Gorski, “Catholic Politicians Scolded,” The Denver Post A1, April 15, 2004; and Laurie Goodstein, “U.S. Bishops Urged to Challenge Obama,” New York Times

A15, November 11, 2008.

2 the Church and that managing differences between the Church teaching and one’s conscience can be difficult—a difficulty affecting parishioner, priest, and Church. In ministering as a priest, I have observed manifestations of this difficulty ranging from the affective and cognitive to the behavioral and organizational. It is not uncommon for adults to feel as if they are being treated like children or to judge the Church as antiquated, irrelevant, or rigid. Disengagement and/or acquiescence reflect just a portion of the range of behaviors that accompany this struggle. On the organizational level, priests, as representatives of both the pastoral ministry and hierarchical governance of the Church, can feel caught “between a rock and a hard place” to the degree that it seems like they must side either with the parishioner or the Church teaching. This conflict observed in my pastoral work is clearly documented as a larger problem for U.S. Catholics in general and is reflected in several studies that identify the gap between Church teaching and the actual beliefs and practices of many Catholics. 3

In many instances a critical pastoral problem emerges, regardless of the particular moral issue being engaged, if the result of an individual’s moral decision-making differs from a specific normative Church teaching. Although potential complications are manifold in this

3 See Jennifer Ohlendorf and Richard J. Fehring, “The Influence of Religiosity on Contraceptive Use among Roman Catholic Women in the United States,” The Linacre Quarterly 2, (2007): 135-144; Andrew Greeley, The Catholic Revolution: New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatimican Council (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); L. W. Tentler, Catholics and Contraception: An American History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004); R. Fehring and A. M. Schlidt, “Trends in Contraceptive Use Among Catholics in the United States: 1988-1995,” The Linacre Quarterly 2, (2001): 170-185; Andrew Greeley, The Catholic Myth: The Behavior and Beliefs of American Catholics (New York: Scribner, 1990); George Gallup, Jr. and Jim Castelli, The American Catholic People: Their Beliefs, Practices, and Values (New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1987); and John Deedy, American Catholicism: And Now Where? (New York: Plenum Press, 1987).

3 situation, at base a serious pastoral problem comes into play. Some pastoral careseekers and providers are unclear as to whether or not Catholics can simultaneously be faithful to the tradition and authority of the Church while occasionally differing from it because of the guidance of their conscience as related to a specific moral topic. Does such a difference necessarily translate into a compromised or deficient status within the Church (e.g., being considered anything from unfaithful or sinful to even heretical or not truly Catholic)? Central to this pastoral problem is the fact that the normative teaching of the Church has two strands in the tradition regarding being a moral Catholic that can readily give rise to quite the moral conundrum. One strand suggests that the moral response is to obey the specific teaching regarding the topic at hand. Yet the other strand suggests that the moral response is to follow one’s conscience, even if it differs from a specific normative moral teaching of the Church. Very often the moral teachings of the Church and the dictates of a Catholic’s conscience coincide, yet that is not always the case. When it is not, how to understand and navigate that dissonance can be both complicated and troublesome. The pastoral problem of understanding and exercising conscience while striving to be informed by and responsible to normative Church teachings is the starting place of this research. Addressing the Pastoral Problem Pastoral theology not only recognizes, but also employs pastoral problems such as the one identified as resources that may lead toward greater understanding, if not amelioration and/or resolution of a given pastoral problem. This project is pastoral theological in method and purpose, as it addresses occasions when Catholics experience dissonance when attempting to integrate certain Church teachings with the leading of their conscience as they make moral

4 decisions. By pastoral theology, I mean “…the branch of theology which develops theoretical understandings of and practical guidelines for the ministry of care.” 4 The pastoral theological method that I am utilizing has several features. It begins with theological questions that arise in pastoral practice and serve as a ground and generative guide for the method. It moves to the tradition to see how the tradition has addressed those questions. If the tradition has not adequately addressed them, pastoral theology refines and refocuses the questions for contemporary exploration. To develop more adequate theological answers, pastoral theology draws upon contemporary resources, from both theology and secular sciences. 5

In order to anecdotally illuminate the theological questions of this dissertation as they arise in pastoral practice, I will first draw upon one example of my personal experience as a Catholic struggling with following specific Church teachings and the leading of conscience while making a moral decision. My personal experience is being engaged for principally two reasons. First, on an illustrative level, this example is appealed to in order to concretize and illuminate the type of questions and complications that can surface for a Catholic when encountering the two strands in the tradition regarding being a moral Catholic. Second, on a more profound methodological level, this personal experience reflects how “…pastoral theology contends that unaddressed theological issues

4 Larry Kent Graham, Care of Persons, Care of Worlds: A Psychosystems Approach to Pastoral Care and Counseling (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1992), 20.

5 Nancy Ramsay, “A Time of Ferment and Redefinition,” in Pastoral Care and Counseling: Redefining the Paradigms , ed. Nancy J. Ramsay (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2004), 5.

5 often arise from the particularity of human experience, including the actual practice of ministry…” 6 In this example, my particular experience is an expression of an encounter with an unaddressed theological issue arising for me on a very personal level. Yet also, as a priest in ministry for over twenty years, in the actual practice of ministry I have witnessed and journeyed with a variety of Catholics encountering and struggling with the very same unaddressed theological issue I had come to recognize, even though the specific content has differed substantially from person to person (e.g., birth control, sexual orientation, and divorce). Both my experience and my pastoral assessment of the similar experience of others have led me to identify the pastoral theological problem to be addressed by this dissertation. My Personal Pastoral Theological Double-bind After thirteen wonderful and formative years as a member of a religious order within the Roman Catholic Church (i.e., the Congregation of the Mission), I terminated my relationship with the religious order, left active ministry as a Roman Catholic priest, and later was married. 7 Without going into great detail or the whole process of that life- altering choice, I can readily state that the final decision to not fulfill what were explicitly understood as lifetime vows, both as a member of a religious order and as a priest, was profoundly difficult on a variety of levels. The normative teaching of the Church regarding the permanency of ordination to the priesthood was then and still remains very

6 Graham, Discovering Images of God 2.

7 The Church is broader than Roman Catholicism and includes all other Christian denominations. Yet in order to avoid repeated use of the lengthier phrase “Roman Catholic Church,” from this point forward in this study the term “Church” will only refer to the Roman Catholic Church unless otherwise noted.

6 clear. 8 Comparable to the Catholic understanding of the sacrament of matrimony, the sacrament of holy orders is understood as being for the lifetime of the person receiving the sacrament. 9 Similarly, permanent vows in a religious order are clearly considered just that—permanent! How was and am I to understand this decision morally, both as it relates to myself as well as the Church? Can the act of breaking permanent lifelong vows, whether they be those of being a member of a religious order or a priest, ever be morally justified, given it is counter to the normative teaching and tradition of the Church? Given this normative teaching, is such a choice and act necessarily darkened by the shadow of being judged as wrong, unfaithful, sinful, or the like? Or can such a choice ever be considered a responsible and moral act, even though differing from normative Catholic teaching? When considering the possibility of terminating my permanent vows with the Congregation of the Mission and leaving active ministry as a Roman Catholic priest, in addition to being aware of the normative teaching of the Church regarding the permanency of vows in a religious order and priestly ordination, I was also aware that the Church teaches its members, whether lay or cleric, that they are obliged to follow their consciences in all matters. In fact, I even knew that the Church has a doctrine called primacy of conscience, although I was not particularly well versed in it at the time.

8 The functional terms “normative teaching of the Church” and/or “tradition” will be used when referring to the teaching role of the Church. The more technical Roman Catholic term Magisterium, which also refers to the teaching role of the Church, will be kept to a minimum simply because the other terms are more readily accessible in their meaning.

9 In like fashion, for purposes of ease, when the terms “Catholic” or “Catholicism” are used they will only refer to Roman Catholics and Roman Catholicism (e.g., not Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Catholic Church, and Polish National Catholic Church) unless otherwise indicated.

7 Primacy of conscience is basically the doctrinal name for what has been described thus far as the obligation to follow one’s conscience, even if it differs from normative Church teaching. 10 How was I to understand the responsibility and obligation to follow my conscience if it seemed to be moving in a direction that was inconsistent with the Church’s normative teaching regarding the permanency of religious vows and ordination? I did know that the Church’s understanding of primacy of conscience presumed that Catholics act from an informed conscience, that is, a conscience that is engaged with and formed by the Church tradition as well as other relevant secular resources related to the matter in question. The Second Vatican Council stated that secular scientific insights have a significant role in the formation of a Catholic’s understanding of faith and, consequently, conscience. 11

Given that I have multiple theological degrees, am gifted with being relatively intelligent, and am an ordained priest, I am inclined to say that I was, by and large, as informed as the next person, and probably more than most. In short, I would say that my

10 Significant terms introduced in this first chapter (e.g., primacy of conscience, pastoral theology, and the legalistic and personalist schools) will receive only the barest definition in this chapter as is necessary for the flow. Focused elaboration and development of the terms will be forthcoming in the subsequent chapters.

11 For example, “In pastoral care sufficient use should be made, not only of theological principles, but also of the findings of secular sciences, especially psychology and sociology: in this way the faithful will be brought to a purer and more mature living of the faith.” This quote is taken from “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes),” in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents , ed. Austin Flannery, O. P. (Collegeville, IN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), 966-967. This text will serve as the reference for all Second Vatican II documents used in this dissertation. Further, an English translation of Latin titles for Church documents will be used in this dissertation for ease of reading. The original Latin title will be given in the first reference to any particular text and will be retained if used in quotes by any other author.

8 choice fulfilled the expectation of being made from an informed conscience, yet therein lies the rub and a principal question of this dissertation. Just as I was aware of the Church’s position regarding the permanency of religious vows and ordination (i.e., a topical normative Church teaching), I knew that primacy of conscience also stood among the array of normative Church teachings within the tradition. A Catholic making a moral decision from an informed conscience can be, as I was, confronted by ambiguity in the tradition of the Church. How does the Church’s normative teaching regarding primacy of conscience stand in relationship to other normative Church teachings (e.g., the permanency of religious vows and ordination) when one does not seem to reinforce the other? Is there a pecking order or trump card among them? At first blush it can seem as if the principal question is whether or not a Catholic can deviate from normative Church teaching and not be considered wrong and/or sinful. As important as that question may be, it is far from the only relevant question in play. Upon deeper examination it becomes clear that the situation is much more complicated. As stated earlier, the Church has two strands in the tradition regarding being a moral Catholic— one strand stating that a Catholic follow Church teachings regarding any particular moral topic and the other strand stating that a Catholic must always follow one’s conscience, even if it differs from Church teaching. When those exceptions occur where the leading of conscience differs from the normative teaching of the Church, in a sense, a situation is created that is analogous to what is called, in psychological terms, a double-bind. That is, either choice or direction is, at least in part, a losing proposition (i.e., conformity to a given normative teaching may go against the mandate to follow one’s conscience which may be suggesting an alternative course or, conversely, conformity to following one’s conscience

9 may go against the mandate to conform to a specific normative Church teaching). In short, fulfilling both mandates can seem mutually exclusive, resulting in a “damned if you do or damned if you don’t” situation, so to speak. Expanding the Problem of Conscience

This particular experience of some Catholics and the unaddressed theological issues that give rise to it is not an esoteric theological conundrum irrelevant to the Catholic population at large in the United States. Although my personal and pastoral experience suggested that this pastoral problem of the primacy of conscience in relation to obedience to established Church teaching was broad in scope it has become increasingly concrete and clear that this question can and frankly does affect many members of the Church and is far from resolved. The presidential campaigns of 2004 and 2008 are two major public events that blatantly manifest the breadth of its potential embrace for Catholics in the United States. The understanding and exercise of primacy of conscience became an explicit topic of discussion for many Catholics during both these elections, from Catholics in the pews to the National Catholic Conference of Bishops, and the tension and lack of clarity is indisputable. So as another example of how “unaddressed theological issues often arise from the particularity of human experience” as well as an expression of the two strands within the tradition regarding being a moral Catholic, I will draw upon the most recent 2008 U. S. presidential election as a concrete and large scale expression of the theological and moral conundrum Catholics may face regarding understanding and applying primacy of conscience as related to normative Church teachings. Although both U. S. presidential elections drew national attention and press coverage regarding the topic of primacy of

10 conscience, I will limit my focus to the latter election of 2008 for three principal reasons. First, one example will be sufficient to make the necessary point. 12 Second, the 2008 election resulted in a large number of Catholics being the subject of judgment as related to the normative Church teaching on abortion and conscience. 13 Third, and most importantly, the very problem identified regarding two strands within the tradition regarding being a moral Catholic was clearly manifest within and by the representative teaching authorities of the Church itself. It is important to not confuse this public example with my own experience or actual practice of ministry, although presumablely this event did translate into the actual practice of ministry for those who were directly

12 Given that I will not review the 2004 U. S. presidential election, a brief summary is in order. During the election, presidential candidate Senator John Kerry, a Roman Catholic, was the principal target of judgment and potential penalty by the Church hierarchy due to his pro-choice political platform. Senator Kerry argued that a Catholic, be they a candidate or a voter, could support a pro-choice position due to the Church’s teaching about the obligation to follow one’s conscience, that is, the doctrine of primacy of conscience. Archbishop Chaput of the Archdiocese of Denver and some like-minded bishops argued and lobbied that Senator Kerry should be penalized by denying him communion due to his pro-choice status and its inherent relationship to the topic of abortion. They prioritized the Church’s normative teaching on abortion, suggested that a pro-choice platform such as Kerry’s primarily supported abortion rather than moral decision-making, and basically skirted the issue of primacy of conscience. Senator Kerry did not reside in the location under these bishops’ jurisdictions and was never denied communion by the bishop where he resided.

13 It is paramount to underline that the specific moral issue (i.e., abortion) being addressed in this public example of the muddled understanding of primacy of conscience in the 2008 election is not the focus of the dissertation. As important as the topic of the value of life is, whether addressed when discussing abortion, capital punishment, weapons of mass destruction, or an array of other relevant domains, this example is included in order to concretize and illuminate the scope of the confusion and potential complication contemporary U. S. Catholics may encounter related to integrating any specific normative Church teaching and the obligation to follow one’s conscience.

11 involved with the situation and it commensurate pastoral care. 14 In sum, this public example draws upon a large-scale concrete experience to demonstrate the contemporary confusion and complication operative regarding the Church’s teachings related to primacy of conscience and, consequently, the context potentially affecting U.S. Catholics’ understanding and exercise of primacy of conscience. Immediately upon the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States, Father Jay Scott Newman, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville, S.C. stated the following in his homily on November 9, 2008. In response to this [election], I am obliged by my duty as your shepherd to make two observations:

1. Voting for a pro-abortion politician when a plausible pro-life alternative exists constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil, and those Catholics who do so place themselves outside of the full communion of Christ’s Church and under the judgment of divine law. Persons in this condition should not receive Holy Communion until and unless they are reconciled to God in the Sacrament of Penance, lest they eat and drink their own condemnation.

2. Barack Obama, although we must always and everywhere disagree with him over abortion, has been duly elected the next President of the United States, and after he takes the Oath of Office next January 20th, he will hold legitimate authority in this nation. For this reason, we are obliged by Scriptural precept to pray for him and to cooperate with him whenever conscience does not bind us otherwise. Let us hope and pray that the responsibilities of the presidency and the grace of God will awaken in the conscience of this extraordinarily gifted man an awareness that the unholy slaughter of children in this nation is the

14 Drawing upon the 2008 U. S. presidential election is not an attempt to do public theology, as that has distinct characteristics that will not inform the methodology of this dissertation. For further reference on public theology, see Larry Kent Graham, “From Relational Humanness to Relational Justice: Reconceiving Pastoral Care and Counseling.” in Pastoral Care and Social Conflict , eds. Pamela Couture and Rodney Hunter (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 220-234.

12 greatest threat to the peace and security of the United States and constitutes a clear and present danger to the common good. 15

As Father Newman interpreted his obligation to fulfill his duty as a priest and pastor, it is fairly clear in his first observation that his judgment is that those who voted for President Obama (i.e., according to Newman, a “pro-abortion” politician) have committed a sin that needs attention. Curiously, although he refers to the binding character of conscience in his second observation as it may condition cooperation with the newly elected president, the statement does not seem to recognize the possibility that such a dynamic may have been operative for those who voted for Obama and were conscious of the fact that his political platform is pro-choice. In short, Father Newman’s statement predominantly reflects the strand of the tradition that suggests that the moral response for Catholics is to obey the specific teaching regarding the topic at hand, in this instance, abortion. The exercise of conscience, as presented by Father Newman, seemingly applies to only social and civic responsibilities and teachings, but not to those of the Church. For those sitting in the pews who voted during the 2008 election, these words were anything but indifferent. One can just imagine how this message might have been received by the members of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville or in the Diocese at large. But actually we need not speculate nor wonder as to how Father Newman’s message was received by the official representatives of the Diocese itself.

15 Father Jay Scott Newman, “Homily on November 9, 2008 [emphasis added],” retrieved 11/22/2008 from http://www.catholic.org/politics/story.php?id= 30564 ; the full text of the homily is available at this URL.

13 In slightly more time than Christians claim it took Jesus to rise from the tomb, on November 14th, Monsignor Laughlin from the Office of Administration for the Diocese of Charleston issued the following response to Father Newman’s homily. As Administrator of the Diocese of Charleston, let me state with clarity that Father Newman’s statements do not adequately reflect the Catholic Church’s teachings. Any comments or statements to the contrary are repudiated. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions.” ….Christ gives us freedom to explore our own conscience and to make our own decisions while adhering to the law of God and the teachings of the faith. Therefore, if a person has formed his or her conscience well, he or she should not be denied Communion, nor be told to go to confession before receiving Communion. 16

Monsignor Laughlin’s response, in contrast to Fr. Newman’s homily, predominantly reflects the strand of the tradition that states that Catholics must follow the leading of conscience, even if it differs from normative Church teaching. Although the Monsignor claimed and intended that his response on behalf of the Diocese would be a statement of clarity, it is not far-fetched to think that even after this sincere effort, perhaps the Catholics of South Carolina, as well as other U.S. Catholics, were still a bit confused. 17

The fact of the matter is that Fr. Newman and Monsignor Laughlin do not reflect some bizarre difference of opinion between themselves regarding how to be a moral Catholic. Their expressions are actually manifestations of two well established positions regarding conscience within Catholic moral theology—the legalistic perspective and the personalist perspective. In very broad strokes, the legalistic perspective emphasizes Church

Full document contains 296 pages
Abstract: A significant pastoral problem for some Catholics flows from the dissonance they experience when attempting to integrate certain Church teachings with the leading of their conscience as they make moral decisions. All Catholics do not accept every established moral answer or position provided by the Church and integrating those differences between the Church teaching and one's conscience can be difficult--a difficulty affecting parishioner, priest, and Church. This problem is, in part, rooted in and reinforced by the fact that there are two theological strands in the Church's tradition regarding morality. One strand suggests that the moral response is to obey normative Church moral teachings, whereas the other strand suggests that the moral response is to follow your conscience which is informed by Church teaching. The pastoral problem of understanding and exercising conscience while striving to be informed by and responsible to normative Church teachings is at the heart of this research in order to ameliorate the polarization and division that is currently present in this arena. One of the unstated assumptions and/or insufficiently developed concepts within the primacy of conscience debate between obedience to tradition and following individual conscience is the status of agency as it relates to primacy. The principal thrust of this study of primacy of conscience is that agency is a critical element in understanding the meaning and function of primacy of conscience within the relationship between the social group (as reflected in the terms tradition and teaching) and the individual (as reflected in the term primacy of conscience)--an agency that is interdependent and at times in conflict. This pastoral theological study employs Larry Graham's psychosystemic approach to pastoral theology as it expands the conversation by identifying the pastoral problem of primacy of conscience and the role of agency from a pastoral theological methodology that examines relevant personal and pastoral experience, historical antecedents to the problem, and appropriate conceptual theological and secular resources. As this study reviews the long and varied history of conscience in the Catholic tradition as illustrated in several critical historical moments, it identifies the problematic character of the two strands within the tradition and reveals the importance of a more developed understanding of agency in light of the tradition's inherent ambiguity. By integrating Albert Bandura's systemic Social Cognitive Theory, this study offers an enhanced understanding of agency from a disciplined behavioral scientific perspective on the social-personal interfaces involved in decision-making in general (i.e., self-reflectiveness, perceived self-efficacy, and social persuasion) which apply to moral concerns and, consequently, amplifies an understanding of primacy of conscience that can inform priestly counsel to Catholics seeking moral guidance.