Teaching Our Faith – March 15

– Faithful Citizenship: Conscience formation –

Roman Catholics make up approximately a quarter of the electorate in the United States, and for nine out of the last 10 presidential elections, the Catholic vote has gone with the candidate who ultimately won. At the same time, many Catholics feel “politically disenfranchised” since none of the major party platforms are fully in concert with the church’s social justice and consistent ethic of life teachings.

So, what should the thoughtful Catholic voter and citizen do, since we seem to have no “political home?”

Opting out is an abdication of responsibility as faithful citizens. The only responsible alternative is to form our consciences carefully and then participate thoughtfully in the political process, realizing that decisions in the political area can be very complex and hardly ever fully conform to our values.

The Second Vatican Council stated that we are bound to follow our conscience, and no one should be forced to act contrary to that conscience(Declaration on Religious Liberty #3). The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that a person must always obey the certain judgment of his or her conscience. Yet, “conscience can remain in ignorance or make erroneous judgments” (#1800, 1801). And so, conscience formation becomes the critical element in responsible citizenship.

Conscience formation as a faithful citizen is based on a serious effort to make sound moral judgments on issues of concern for the common good.Necessary elements are a reliance on Sacred Scripture, careful and respectful attention to church teaching, background facts and information, a sound anthropology of what constitutes truly human behavior, human experience and prayerful reflection.The document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship pays special attention to the virtue of prudence, which “…shapes and informs our ability to deliberate over available alternatives, to determine what is most fitting to a specific context, and to act decisively” (#19).

“Acting decisively” on specific issues can include letters, phone calls or emails to elected officials that urge support or opposition to specific legislation.It could involve working to change the platform of one’s own political party; it could involve public demonstrations or, in some cases, even civil disobedience.

However, when a person takes pencil in hand to vote, the options for action are usually reduced to two: This candidate or that one; yes to this proposal or no to that one. When choosing a candidate, prudential judgment takes into consideration the total spectrum of a candidate’s position. One should not vote for a particular candidate who espouses a position that the well-formed conscience judges is a serious moral evil, if the voter’s express intent is to support that position. However, the U.S. Bishops’ document also states, “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons” (#35).

The bishops also point out that not all issues carry the same moral weight.Prudence includes making careful judgments about the relative gravity and importance of the various issues. Respect for the dignity and value of every human life is the foundation on which all other rights and values rest. All life issues are connected because “…erosion of respect for the life of any individual or group… necessarily diminishes respect for all life” (#25).

Two opposing tendencies to be avoided in judging the relative importance of issues are:A “moral equivalence” that makes no distinctions about the gravity of issues involving human life and dignity; secondly, misusing moral distinctions summarily to dismiss other perceived lesser threats to human dignity.

Politics is said to be the “art of the possible.” Individuals using the same moral principles may reach different conclusions about what should be done in particular situations. In order to maintain civility in political discourse, respect is needed for those who draw different conclusions about what is to be done. A further caution: Not every voter guide that speaks of Catholic values comes from an official Catholic source. Consider carefully the source of any voter guides.

As responsible citizens and faithful Catholics, we only want what is best for our nation and its people. Honest dialogue about what is best is always going to be complex and, at times, conflictual in our complicated 21st-century social milieu.A good practice for the remainder of this Lenten season might be to take concrete steps to inform and form our consciences more carefully and to take current political issues to prayer, seeking especially the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit.

Father William L. Fichteman

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