The virtue of conscience has woven it's way through Christian history, sometimes conspicuously, often unheralded, too frequently honored only in the breech or paradoxically. Thomas Beckett belongs in the last category, I think, giving his life for the cause of protecting church criminals from secular justice, but the theological sniffers who lament the hopeless simplicities of such entries as this would, I imagine, dispute that somehow on grounds that church justice was the superior court.
Martin Luther's "Here I stand; I can do no other" jolted conscience into renewed attention at the outset of the Reformation. While Protestants didn't thereafter hold the franchise on the subject, the traditions did become associated with the ability of each believer to read the Bible and make up his or her mind about ultimate claims.
Those distinctions have largely faded, especially in the latter half of the 20th century. Both Protestants and Catholics have produced great figures of conscience and each has suppressed the exercise of it by demanding institutional conformity.
From the Protestant side, I am pleased when a prominent figure displays that virtue, as Billy Graham did recently in an interview with the periodical Christianity Today on the eve of his 92nd birthday.
In effect, Graham said he'd been wrong to allow himself to become involved in partisan politics -- from Eisenhower on. Graham, whose theology isn't mine, has shown a remarkable ability to say he's sorry -- too late in the minds of many who saw him as a shill for destructive politics in the 60s and 70s -- but none the less willing to be penitent about things he'd done or stands he'd taken (the slights to Jews on recently released Nixon tapes being still somewhat unresolved). He now says he was too caught up in the trappings of power and prestige to grasp his faults, and was trying to make amends. At least he didn't dig in his heels and rehearse the rationalizations once again.
Graham may not epitomize Protestantism or Christianity but he does follow his own admonition to the crowds that repentance is the gateway to renewal.
While there are Catholics who have much to teach us about this virtue, they are not likely to come from the hierarchy. Often I've thought how much might be accomplished if a pope could simply summon the courage or whatever it takes to say the he or one of his predecessors had make serious errors that needed correction. In that sense, the most valuable lessons could come from those lay Catholics who stand distant from institutional sanctions and speak in an informed manner of how the teachings of the New Testament and the best convictions of the tradition could steer the church on a much better course.