In her mid-forties and living in an apartment in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, an African-American woman named Donna Haskins became viscerally aware of a divine realm, another world where she came into relationship with supernatural forces of light and dark, and beings good and evil. It marked a turning point in her life. Haskins had grown up in the violent streets of the poorest part of city where she had been subject to the things many of our country’s most vulnerable children experience, but especially young Black women: family abuse stemming from intergenerational trauma, an undiagnosed learning disability likely caused by lead poisoning, terrible schools, oversexualization, sexual assault, teenage pregnancy, the death of close family members to gun violence, a traumatic abortion, unemployment, and a series of predatory, toxic sexual relationships.
But in the midst of this trauma, there were glimmers of other possibilities. There was her mother who fiercely loved her, a teacher who cared for her and encouraged her not to be afraid to learn, the nuns from her mother’s parish who lived with a kind of regal, if asexual, dignity beneath their veils and habits, the feminist preaching in a local Black Baptist Church, and the visceral power of their choir. Indeed, despite the trauma all around her, Donna Haskins had been trained to be open to the spirit by mid-life, though she experienced it as a sudden shock. She improbably grew to become what Onaje Woodbine calls a “spiritual genius,” utterly gifted in the arts of the supernatural. “I believe the correct title for me is prophet,” Haskins says (193). Woodbine’s gripping narrative, Take Back What the Devil Stole, tells the story of her life and her extraordinary religious consciousness, and of the world that made her. In another author’s hands, the story could easily come off as a spectacle of black suffering and exoticized religion for consumption. But Woodbine’s beautiful narrative is extraordinarily self-aware, and deeply humane. Haskins’ own voice is strong, active, present throughout. I had not planned to read it one sitting but I literally could not put it down.
Only a couple miles northwest of Haskins’ Roxbury, in the mostly Irish Catholic neighborhood of Chestnut Hill near Boston College, there is a totally other religious and cultural world. This is the place of white priests, educated Catholics, lecture halls, and the circuits of urban Catholic power. Particularly in the 1960s and 70s, it might as well have been another planet from today’s Afro-Caribbean Roxbury. But there are interesting, if subtle, threads that weave together Woodbine’s story and the one that brilliantly comes to life in Pete Cajka’s Follow Your Conscience: The Catholic Church and the Spirit of the Sixties, much of which takes place in Boston and other urban centers of Catholicism. Both stories reveal remarkable, but distinctive ways experiences of and reflections on the inner life intersect with broader cultural forces. The inner life (the soul, the spirit, conscience), both reflects those forces and intervenes to shape, mold, and change culture and history too. But the extent to which the inner life makes an impact in history depends on old, ordinary flows of power, in the world-as-it-is. A comparison between Woodbine and Cajka’s compelling books brings this to light. Woodbine’s method is deeply self-reflective and empathetic lived religion, a microhistory of an extraordinary human experience as it is lived in a swirl of evil and violence, resistance and creativity. Cajka’s field is intellectual history—“unfenced” as he puts it so vividly, borrowing a fabulous image from Sarah Igo, describing “thinking that goes on out in the open fields” (8).
Cajka boldly focuses on an aspect of Roman Catholicism that is notoriously difficult to understand: the individual’s subjective conscience, a topic that until now has been primarily explored by moral theologians, ethicists, and philosophers. But Cajka refreshingly brings it all to life, and shows how U.S. Catholics of flesh and blood, mostly priests and educated activists in the sixties, began to re-articulate an old Thomistic idea of the primacy of conscience. Priests and lay intellectuals described a sacred inner sanctum that was not entirely separate from church authority but also, somehow, its own special domain. Cajka argues that Catholics turned to conscience when the moral authorities of the Church and state began to look increasingly hollow after Vietnam and Humanae Vitae. All the discussion of conscience helped cultivate what he calls a “profound antilegalism” that could speak back to those in power and refuse to see obedience as the principle moral duty of Catholics (85).
Cajka does a beautiful job keeping his eye on the fact that while conscience was the key to understanding how Catholics wrestled with state and church authority, this inner sanctum could not be entirely captured by politics. Cajka’s language is terrific: Conscience was understood as a “sacred personal vault” (27). Catholics imagined that God made objective laws that existed outside the person but the laws required “a space,” he put it, “within the person in which to nestle” (21). Cajka describes how priests borrowed this language from Thomism, but also outsiders, like the secular Jewish psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, whose ideas about moral development made a splash in the world of Catholic education. Acting in accordance with the fully formed conscience was, in the words of one Franciscan priest, “my whole soul acting as God intended it to act” (132).
Cajka’s narrative is illuminating, and I cannot imagine understanding middle- and late twentieth-century Catholicism without this book. It was as if the language of conscience enabled an “elsewhere,” some breathing room, a new tool to break out of the of the old “pray and obey” Catholicism. It inspired everything from antiwar activism on the left to later, more conservative conscience clauses around reproductive health. In the United States, Catholics, as Cajka persuasively argues, were “the most articulate and committed defenders of the person’s sacred internal chamber” (175).
The image of a sacred, internal chamber brings us back into the world of Donna Haskins. Her life in Roxbury was so far off from the sorts of ecclesial and juridical powers described in Follow Your Conscience. But her religiously imagined inner life also, similarly, became a sort of breathing space too. It also was a toolbox to break her way out of the world handed to her. Haskin’s life was one of incredible vulnerability under the forces of violence that surrounded her every day: urban policies that redlined neighborhoods like Roxbury, and most of all, the toxic cultures of misogyny and sexual assault that ensnared her at every turn as a young adult. Like the conscience Catholics, she too said no to the hollow, corrupt powers overhead. In both cases, there was a sense that the inner life could be a space that refused the givenness of the world around them. For Haskins, when the world around her declared her defiled, the jubilant choir of Boston’s Morning Star Baptist Church “enclosed Donna in a sensual space of resistance to the hardness of life in the streets of Roxbury” (110). Woodbine’s language is so compelling: “Although Donna had been mistreated and abused on the horizontal planes of this world for most of her life as a result of her status as a poor Black woman, in the spiritual world she now stood upright, vertical, and proud, her tongue filled with the fire of the Holy Ghost, her hands charged with a life force potent enough to repel any woman-hating visitor back from the abyss from which he came” (131). Back from the dirty, unsafe, frightening housing projects, Haskins “reclaimed the purity of her original essence.”
These two stories show us religious interiority as a site of creativity and and refusal, but the differences are stark. The Catholics in Cajka’s book were closely aligned with actual political power—elite priests and educators who sided with conscience had the ear of the bishops and state legislators. Eventually, Cajka persuasively makes the case that the U.S. priests who sided with conscience made “a central contribution to the development of a modern democratic culture” (193). Donna Haskins, on the other hand, had little to no direct influence on the political forces that swirl in and out of Roxbury. But is it powerlessness, comparatively? A local prophet, she has helped people in the neighborhood reframe their experience, heal psychic wounds, turn their lives around. Woodbine is incredibly open about how his ethnographic work with Haskins changed his own life. It guided him down a deeply personal and transformational journey of finally understanding the painful world of misogynistic violence that Black women experience in this country. And it helped him better understand the remarkable, imaginative resilience of women like Haskins, and those who go back as far as Phillis Weatley, whose incredible 1773 poem “On Imagination” opens Woodbine’s book.
When we see these two very different books side by side, we see two distinctive models of power, two distinctive arenas of culture where the religious imagination can work. The halls of power Cajka describes, where democratic culture in this country is apparently made, are, for the most part, closed to women like Donna Haskins. But hers is not a tale of powerlessness.
In thinking of Donna Haskins in relation to Cajka’s priests, if there would have been space for more in his already richly detailed book, I would have loved to hear more from Cajka on the abortion issue. Perhaps this is one of the many avenues future researchers will take up next, inspired by his work. Cajka writes compellingly that the issue of conscience “glided” into the issue of abortion—priests and nuns who advocated for the primacy of conscience on war and contraception easily used the same language to refuse to participate in medical procedures that supported abortion in any way. Yet I couldn’t help but think that the conscience debate didn’t culminate with the abortion issue, but that the contestations continued there, after the time frame Cajka considered, so outside the scope of his book.
Catholics for Choice was founded in 1972 and became the most well-known counterpoint to the powerful US Roman Catholic hierarchy on this issue. Conscience is key to their religious and moral imagination; their journal, indeed, is called Conscience. I thought a bit more about the difficulties of this topic after reading Take Back What the Devil Stole. Donna Haskins herself had an abortion that was in fact deeply traumatic, one she regretted. But at the time she had so little agency over anything in her life, it was chaotic and painful from every single perspective. I could see a productive avenue of research exploring the issue of conscience on abortion in this later period, after Cajka’s book ends, using Cajka’s expansive approach to intellectual history, but given the topic, a researcher also attentive to lived experiences of women like Donna Haskins. There are so many avenues of further research Cajka and Woodbine invite us to consider.
In the United States, one can coast through a liberal-arts education without having to deal with religion. One can see why scholars of urban history in places like Roxbury would be hesitant to deal with the emotional chaos and supernatural enigmas of someone like Donna Haskins. Or why students of war and sexuality would want to avoid theological topics like the Catholic primacy of conscience. But Woodbine’s and Cajka’s fabulous new books show us that without them, we miss the whole terrain of the inner life. To me that is always the place where the most fascinating, unexpected things happen, often just out of reach from the compromised world outside.