"Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths."
- Catechism of the Catholic Church [Sec. 1776]
Forming Conscience for Faithful Citizenship contains a wealth of information and guidance for Catholics intent on making the best moral and ethical decisions in the voting booth. In the most recent edition, the Bishops of the United States offer guidance on conscience formation – key to making good choices.
The following is a summary of the conscience section, but Forming Conscience for Faithful Citizenship is short and understandable – easily read prior to sitting down with your sample ballot. (Download the entire document here.)
A Well-Formed Conscience
Conscience is not something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere "feeling" about what we should or should not do. Rather, conscience is the voice of God resounding in the human heart, revealing the truth to us and calling us to do what is good while shunning what is evil. [FCFC 17]
Most people understand and appreciate the obligation to follow their own consciences. Many of us, however, pay little attention to where our conscience “came from.” Was it born from TV, movies and popular culture? Are we totally reliant on our personal experience and beliefs? Have we studied the teachings of the Church carefully?
Our Church is clear that we have a life-long obligation to develop a well-formed conscience – one that includes being open to the truth, the study of Scripture as well as Church teachings and prayerful consideration to discern God’s will.
People excel at making excuses for themselves, so a well-formed conscience requires consultation with others if only to make sure we are not “fooling” ourselves. To help us, the Church offers the examples of the saints, the sacraments, writings of Popes and Bishops, a long tradition, study of Scripture to uncover what God is asking of us and more.
The Church also provides insights on current events through the work of policy specialists in Bishops’ conferences, parish study sessions, advocacy groups such as the Catholic Legislative Network, diocesan programs and other tools designed to help us shape and inform our consciences.
Catholic teaching and tradition are, in essence, a treasure trove of information to help guide us in forming our consciences. We could rely on ourselves to come up with the answers, we could use the “philosophy” of reality TV, or we could look to people like St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila and other Doctors of the Church.
The Virtue of Prudence
Prudence enables us "to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1806). Prudence shapes and informs our ability to deliberate over available alternatives, to determine what is most fitting to a specific context, and to act decisively. [FCFC 19]
At some point, however, study must give way to decision. Our well-formed consciences can guide us in every moral and ethical act in our life including our political decisions.
As youngsters, we begin to make choices and watch others do the same. We witness the good and bad; what works and what doesn’t; what produces peace and what sows discord. Consciously or not, we “examine” our actions to improve later outcomes.
Examining our conscience is no different. In the realm of moral decision making, what impact did each decision have on our relationship with God and others?
Voting decisions, like any other moral or ethical choice, are a matter of prudential judgments based on a well-formed conscience. No important decisions should be made without gathering all the facts, weighing the alternatives, seeking the counsel of others and using other measured steps aimed at making the best decisions possible.
Doing Good and Avoiding Evil
There are some things we must never do, as individuals or as a society, because they are always incompatible with love of God and neighbor. Such actions are so deeply flawed that they are always opposed to the authentic good of persons. [FCFC 22]
People of goodwill can disagree on many aspects of public policy. Each of us – through our lived experience – can set different priorities on taxes, water policy, term limits and other matters of government. But while there are many political decisions people of goodwill can disagree on, certain actions are always wrong. These “intrinsically evil” acts include abortion, euthanasia, cloning, torture, genocide and others.
Common to these acts is the intentional destruction of innocent human life and they can never be the intended consequences of a person’s – or a society’s – actions. As Catholics we are always called to oppose such activities – both in our personal life and in our public life.
By their nature, intrinsically evil acts are direct attacks on innocent human life and they “violate the most fundamental human good” - life.
But we also have a complementary obligation, explains Blessed John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor, to do good. This includes responding to the needs of our neighbors by working to insure they have the means necessary to live a dignified life – food, shelter, health care, education and meaningful work.
Unlike the intrinsically evil acts people can disagree on the how but not whether these needs are addressed.
Making Moral Choices
In making these decisions [voting], it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions… [FCFC 37]
When it comes to the ballot box, Catholics are politically homeless. Very few, if any, politicians will fully embrace all of Catholic teaching. Neither political party does so either. Politics, as the saying goes, is the art of compromise.
Our Church teaches that a person cannot vote with the intention of supporting or advancing an intrinsically evil act. In short, one cannot vote for a candidate or a policy in order to promote abortion or genocide. A voter, however, must take into account the totality of Catholic teaching, a candidate’s integrity and his or her ability to influence a given issue. [FCFC 37]
That’s an immense undertaking and one of the reasons the Bishops offer so many resources. It is easy to use simple labels – liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, pro-life or pro-choice – but Catholics are called to go beyond labels in an effort to promote the life and dignity of all people.
…In the end, [voting] is a decision to be made by each Catholic guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching.
The value of a well-formed conscience and the need to continually evaluate and learn cannot be overestimated. Complete and healthy understandings of Church teaching as well as a candidate’s positions or a policy’s implications are essential.
It is important to be clear that the political choices faced by citizens not only have an impact on general peace and prosperity but also may affect the individual's salvation. [FCFC 38]
With such consequences, the Bishops not only have a moral obligation to provide guidance for Catholics but they also offer analysis in the light of Church teaching on the complex, constantly evolving issues facing society. And they warn Catholics to avoid the two “temptations” common in public life today:
First, abortion and acts that deliberately attack human life (e.g. terrorist acts) are always wrong and they are not equivalent to other issues. They must always be opposed.
Second, that does not give Catholics leeway to ignore the other issues that are threats to human dignity – racism, a painful economy, threats to religious freedom, a broken immigration system, attempts to change the definition of marriage and family, continued use of the death penalty, the growth of human trafficking, and too many other issues to list.
Improving our society, advancing life and dignity and bringing justice to the world will take the commitment and perseverance of all people of goodwill.
As Pope Benedict XVI says in Deus Caritas Est:
The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society, on the other hand, is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State, they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity. So they cannot relinquish their participation “in the many different economic, social, legislative, administrative and cultural areas, which are intended to promote organically and institutionally the common good.” [DCE 29]
Voting: A Matter of Conscience - Serious people feel overwhelmed going into the 2012 election. Seeing many choices or none, some seek a rationale to stay home on Election Day, but to give in to such discouragement is political despair.