“Conscience is the voice of God resounding in the human heart.” I quoted this from “Forming Citizens for Faithful Citizenship (2007),” when I drove to the University of Notre Dame in early September to be part of a five-member panel that discussed the theme, “Being a Person of Faith in a Liberal Democracy.”
This forum has become an annual event for the past five years, and I was honored to be there with the other panelists, which included Mormon Elder Dallin Oaks, Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church, Rabbi David Saperstein and Rev. Richard Cizik from the Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. The 90-minute forum is on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=mS7UaFGtrdo.
Overall, it was an enriching experience.
The first question from the moderator was about voting: “We all know there is a document called “Faithful Citizenship,” but what do you really say to Catholics who are conflicted as they prepare to vote?”
I said, “My advice is simple. Join me in studying ‘Faithful Citizenship!’ ”
“Faithful Citizenship” is intentionally issued about a year before a major election to encourage the deeper study and formation necessary for the development of a well-formed conscience, which is a lifelong task! I also stressed that the Church does not endorse candidates or coerce voters, which elicited some interesting follow-up questions from other panelists.
When you consider the nature of a good conscience, you will see why we need time. The full quote from which I took the beautiful definition of conscience says: “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.”
If this is true, and I believe it is, then it takes a lifetime for us to discern this voice of God. It requires that we reject a shallow understanding of conscience as “following my feelings” or simply following a party platform or, shallowest of all, voting for who will benefit me personally.
The document provides clear direction. For example, it speaks of a hierarchy of issues. Not all moral questions are of the same importance. The taking of innocent life, for example, is presented as always wrong (intrinsically evil) and never to be supported.
I also stressed that religious belief is significantly important in the life of our culture and in shaping the common good within our society. Sadly, some have misconstrued the concept of Church and state separation in a way that differs from its original intention, which was to protect the free exercise of religious expression while avoiding the establishment of a national religion. Some incorrectly conclude that religious conviction must be kept private. My point is that, though deeply personal, our religious beliefs are not private, but public, because our religious values touch every aspect of our lives. We never seek to impose our religious values on others in the public square, but clearly our religion shapes the best of civic virtues.
One panel moderator, Notre Dame Professor David Campbell from the political science department, recently teamed with sociologist Robert Putnam on a new book with startling conclusions. You may recall that Mr. Putnam wrote Bowling Alone, which identified the increasing privatization of our culture. The new book, Amazing Grace, studies the relationship between involvement in public life and religious practice. It identified a stark and positive relationship: those who are more religious in practice make greater contributions to the civic and political life of our nation.
A summary states it this way: “Religious Americans are better neighbors than secular Americans — more generous with their time and treasure, even for secular causes — but the explanation has less to do with faith than with communities of faith.” In other words, what predicts greater involvement in public life is not simply belief, but the practice of one’s belief.
One of the proposed questions that we did not have time to explore was about the increase of those, especially among the young, who list their religious preference as “none.” My reflections would have included the following:
First, we need to be careful about labels. Even those who call themselves Catholic, unless they are engaged in their faith and participating in Sunday Holy Eucharist, tend not to reflect Catholic values, but the secular values of the day. Second, we cannot assume that all of those who reject religious labels are not open. In our readership study of The Record, we were surprised with the number of non-registered Catholics who still regularly read The Record, usually because they find it at their parents’ homes.
My third point is the opportunity provided by the new evangelization, since those who come to practice their faith with deep regularity are the ones who come to know the truth of our faith and who allow the good news of Jesus Christ to form and shape their hearts.
Please take the time to study “Faithful Citizenship.” It can be found at www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/faithful-citizenship/forming-consciences-for-faithful-citizenship-document.cfm. The entire document, including photos, is 34 pages. In addition, Jason Hall of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky (CCK) wrote an excellent summary of Faithful Citizenship in the most recent edition of Witness, the newsletter of CCK, which can be found at https://ccky.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/volume12number2Summer1.pdf.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz