October 24, 2012 // Uncategorized

Duty to vote according to a well-formed conscience

We are fast approaching election day. The news is filled with debate and commentary on the various candidates running for public office on the national, state, and local levels. We, as voters, are faced with important decisions that we will make when we enter the voting booth on November 6th.

How do we make our decisions on election day? The Church exhorts all Catholics to evaluate candidates and their positions in light of the Gospel and the moral and social teaching of the Church. The Church does not endorse particular parties or candidates. The Church insists, however, on the serious obligation of Catholics to vote according to their consciences, consciences that are well-formed in accord with human reason and the teaching of the Church.

Conscience is not a mere “feeling.” Some will say that they are acting according to their conscience, but they have not attempted to make sound moral judgments based on the truths of our faith. The formation of a good conscience is vitally important in our moral lives and decision-making, including our exercise of the right to vote.

The Bishops of the United States describe several elements in the formation of conscience:

1. “First, there is a desire to embrace goodness and truth. For Catholics this begins with a willingness and openness to seek the truth and what is right by studying Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Church as contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

2. It is also important to examine the facts and background information about various choices.

3. Finally, prayerful reflection is essential to discern the will of God.” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship #18)

Applied to voting, it is imperative that we discern carefully, according to a well-formed conscience that is in accord with Catholic teaching, our political choices. The virtue of prudence is important in this regard. “Prudence enables us ‘to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it’ (CCC 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. Exercising this virtue often requires the courage to act in defense of moral principles when making decisions about how to build a society of justice and peace” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship #19).

As we prepare to vote then, we are called to make our choices aided by the virtue of prudence in the exercise of a well-formed conscience. We should examine the candidates and their positions according to our moral principles. There are many issues to consider. Where do the candidates stand on the critical moral and social issues of our day?

It is important to recognize that not all issues are morally equivalent. The USCCB document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship recognizes the importance of many issues that are being debated today, yet insists that they are not all morally equivalent. It states that “the direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed” (#28). This teaching does not mean that we simply dismiss other issues related to human life and dignity. Church teaching on other issues should not be dismissed or ignored. Issues like health care, jobs, the economy, and immigration are important — Catholic teaching on these issues must be seriously considered. At the same time, the words of Blessed John Paul II still ring true today:

Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights — for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture — is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination (Christifideles Laici, #38).

As Chairman of the USCCB Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, I was one of the ten bishops who wrote and signed the new Introductory Note to the teaching document on the political responsibility of Catholics, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. In that Note, we again call upon Catholics to form their consciences in the light of their Catholic faith and to bring our moral principles to the debate and decisions about candidates and issues. We list some pressing national issues that our Episcopal Conference is focused on at this time, some involving opposition to intrinsic evils like abortion and others that raise serious moral questions:

1. “Continuing destruction of unborn children through abortion and other threats to the lives and dignity of others who are vulnerable, sick, or unwanted;

2. Renewed efforts to force Catholic ministries — in health care, education, and social services — to violate their consciences or stop serving those in need;

3. Intensifying efforts to redefine marriage and enact measures which undermine marriage as the permanent, faithful, and fruitful union of one man and one woman and a fundamental moral and social institution essential to the common good;

4. An economic crisis which has devastated lives and livelihoods, increasing national and global unemployment, poverty, and hunger; increasing deficits and debt and the duty to respond in ways which protect those who are poor and vulnerable as well as future generations;

5. The failure to repair a broken immigration system with comprehensive measures that promote true respect for law, protect the human rights and dignity of immigrants and refugees, recognize their contributions to our nation, keep families together, and advance the common good;

6. Wars, terror, and violence which raise serious moral questions on the use of force and its human and moral costs in a dangerous world, particularly the absence of justice, security, and peace in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East.” (Introductory Note)

As Catholics, we have a serious duty to promote and protect human life and dignity, marriage and family, religious freedom, justice and peace in service to the common good. It is important that we think and pray very carefully before we cast our votes, remembering, as Saint Thomas More once said, that “man cannot be separated from God, nor politics from morality.” We must reject the falsehood of relativism and the notion that that there is no moral law rooted in the nature of the human person. Our judgments, including our voting choices, should be made according to prudence and a well-formed conscience. We must live and act in conformity with our faith, which is more important than party loyalties and self-interest. There should be a coherence between our faith and our life, as the Second Vatican Council taught. This includes a coherence between our faith and our political choices.

May the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, guide you in your choices on Election Day!

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