THE BISHOP'S VOICE: The Role of Conscience in Voting
In every presidential election year since 1976 the bishops of the United States have published a statement reminding Catholics of their political responsibilities. The current statement of the bishops on this subject is entitled Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (FCFC). Beginning with this column I would like to present and comment on this important document as we prepare to vote in November.
Before we get into the bishops’ statement it would good to remind ourselves that participation in promoting the common good is, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), an “obligation…inherent in the dignity of the human person” (CCC, 1913). One of the most important means of promoting the common good is responsible voting and every Catholic of voting age should consider it not only a privilege but also a responsibility to participate in the political process.
Another thing. As I and many other bishops have asserted time and again, the Church is not in the business of endorsing or condemning particular candidates or political parties, and for the same reason that Pope John Paul II forbade Catholic priests to participate directly in partisan politics. It was not to preserve our tax-exempt status, but rather to ensure that the Church does not become aligned with any particular political system or politician. To do so jeopardizes the Church’s ability to speak the truth credibly. Refraining from endorsing or criticizing candidates and parties does not mean that I will shrink from alerting voters to those issues that every Catholic must take seriously.
Let’s begin our consideration of FCFC by turning our attention first to the question of conscience and the proper formation of conscience. “Conscience” is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented aspects of the human person. For many, many people conscience is synonymous with personal preference. Or it becomes an appeal to that which will simply confirm what I already believe or think. The Catechism defines conscience much differently: “Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to this conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking” (CCC, 1777).
Not only does conscience move a person to do good and avoid evil, conscience also judges particular choices as either good or evil. This judgment is done with reference to God and His commandments. Conscience does not establish or create good and evil. Rather conscience recognizes the moral quality of an act (cf. CCC, 1778). It is contradictory for one to claim to be acting in good conscience while at the same time contravening the natural law or the moral teaching of Christ and His Church. One’s conscience must be well-formed and informed if it is to choose the good and reject the evil as well and consistently as possible.
Conscience must be rooted in truth. Truth is eternal. Jesus Christ is Truth. For this reason conscience must appeal to the truth – objective truth. If conscience is not rooted in truth, erroneous judgments will be made. Of course, the problem of our time is what Pope Benedict XVI has termed “the dictatorship of relativism.” Relativism, by definition, claims that there is no absolute or objective truth. Instead relativism claims that it is up to each person to determine what is good for him, but not necessarily for anyone else.
When conscience is properly formed it moves us to embrace the true and the good and to act accordingly. If we are to address political and social questions in a responsible manner at the polls, each person must be sure that his conscience is well-formed. Let’s remember that “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 truth to us and calling us to do what is good while shunning what is evil” (FCFC, 17).
Some people who have taken issue with certain teachings of the Church will appeal to #1782 of the Catechism to assert their “right” to form and follow their own consciences. “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. ‘He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.’” But there is more. “Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator” (CCC, 1783).
And one final thing to keep in mind in considering the inviolable nature of conscience. Even though we have the right –and obligation – to form and follow our consciences, it is always possible that we might not do a very good job of that formation. In other words, we can have a misinformed conscience which leads us to act erroneously. “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed” (CCC, 1790). (Emphasis added)
If a person were simply to think about an issue and come to a conclusion based upon personal circumstances or desires, this does not ensure that one’s conscience is correct. The important thing is a well-formed conscience. We will take this question up in the next issue of The Herald.