“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” (http://bit.ly/2cgjg7j) is the title of the document approved by the bishops of the United States in anticipation of this year’s November elections. For many years now, the bishops of our country have followed this practice in order to help Catholics to be thoughtful about the moral dimensions of their faith as these apply to participation in political life.
Over the years, we have witnessed a great upheaval in the life of our society. Consensus about fundamental moral issues has broken down, for example, with regard to the protection of unborn life and the very definition of marriage and family. In the Catholic Church, this tidal wave of cultural and social change has given rise to a situation in which some people claim to be Roman Catholic and yet dissent from fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church, sometimes in a public manner that is scandalous, sometimes out of ignorance of what their own church believes and teaches, other times not.
The bishops’ desire to fulfill their responsibilities as teachers of faith and morals by offering guidance to the Catholic voting public is often the focus of attention and criticism. Some accuse the bishops of trying to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote, thus embroiling the church in partisan politics. Others think that the bishops are timid, and that they should be more pointed in telling Catholics exactly how to vote in light of the gravity of the moral issues.
In “Faithful Citizenship,” the bishops state flatly: “The Church is involved in the political process but is not partisan. The Church cannot champion any candidate or party.” What the church is calling for is “a different kind of political engagement: one shaped by the moral convictions of well-formed consciences and focused on the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of the common good and the protection of the weak and the vulnerable. As Pope Francis reminds us, ‘Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good’” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 205).
The bishops highlight concerns that reflect Catholic moral and social teaching. Without going into the detail that you can read for yourself in “Faithful Citizenship,” these include the following: not surprisingly, first and fundamental to everything else is the right to life and the dignity of the human person; the protection of the God-given meaning of marriage and the moral, social and economic well-being of family life; comprehensive immigration reform; a just and decent standard of living and educational opportunities for all people; conscience protections and religious freedom; adequate health care; an end to every form of unjust discrimination; responsible and limited use of military force; and care for creation.
The question arises on the part of a believing and practicing Catholic: How can I, by my participation in political life, best uphold fundamental moral truths of right and wrong, justice and injustice? In human history, rarely if ever does one candidate or party embody all that is morally good or all that is morally evil with respect to a given situation. Furthermore, to quote our document: “Not all issues are equal [but rather] address matters of different moral weight and urgency. Some involve intrinsically evil acts, which can never be approved. Others involve affirmative obligations to seek the common good.” For these reasons, the bishops seek to provide principled guidance for conscience formation as Catholics make political choices for the common good of their country and participate in the political process.
The bishops refer to a basic principle of moral life when they speak of a well-formed conscience. Today, people sometimes mistakenly equate a well-formed conscience with a supposedly individualistic right to determine good and evil for themselves. This is not what Catholic teaching means by a well-formed conscience. Living as we do in a sinful and fallen world, an individual may sincerely follow a process of conscience formation marred by ignorance or error. And such ignorance and error are not always free of guilt. There are abortionists or racists who may believe that what they do is right according to their conscience, but that does not make either one right. To be well-formed or correctly formed, the judgment of conscience must, in the words of the Catechism, be “upright and truthful … in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator.”
In addition to a well-formed conscience, the bishops speak of the virtue of prudence. According to the Catechism, “the virtue of prudence enables us to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (No. 1806). We might say that conscience reveals what is right in a concrete situation, and prudence helps us discern how to achieve it. Never has the need for prudence been greater than in the present political climate of our nation.
I would like to conclude with these words of our bishops’ document: “In the Catholic Tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue and participation in political life is a moral obligation.” It can equally be said that this is an American tradition. The church exercises her constitutional right to bear witness to her religious and moral convictions and concerns in public life. I know that you join me in praying earnestly for divine assistance and the gift of prudence for every voter in November.