As we approach national elections every four years, the U.S. bishops provide guidance for Catholic voters by updating their document “Faithful Citizenship.” While that reference is familiar, it is actually shorthand for the fuller title, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” Political campaigns teem with voices about matters of public policy and the common good, but what makes “Faithful Citizenship” unique is its focus on forming a correct conscience to discern what policy proposals and priorities are truly in accord with human dignity and a well-ordered social life.
We consider various questions in our decisions, depending on the context: Is the choice I am considering beneficial? Enjoyable? Popular? Obedient? Legal? Will it lead to profit, or fame, or honor or influence? Conscience considers all of these, but also asks the key moral question: Is it right?
The witness of the martyrs, the sacrifices of our parents, the example of the saints — these show us that the right choice is not always the easy or pleasant choice. Conscience brings us into the realm of morality, considering not only what could be done, but what ought to be done in specific situations. Conscience is each person’s practical judgment on what is good and to be sought, and what is evil and to be avoided.
Because it is so specific and immediate in deciding on concrete actions, conscience naturally has a strong subjective, individual element. That said, the most pervasive current misunderstanding of conscience focuses exclusively this subjective aspect: that my action is right simply because I sincerely choose it, because it is the choice of a person with a conscience.
Properly understood, however, conscience discovers moral truth, it does not create it. It applies universal truths rather than manufactures them. It measures my choices, it does not automatically justify my choices. While we must sincerely follow our conscience, sincerity alone does not guarantee a right judgment. One can be completely sincere yet profoundly mistaken. In other words, conscience alone is not infallible. It might make you sure, but it won’t necessarily make you right.
As one consequence of the obvious reality of original sin — obvious because there is daily overwhelming evidence that we do not always act in our own best interests or with true concern for the well-being of others — Catholic teaching has always recognized this possibility of error in conscience. Thus, Catholic thought always appeals not simply to conscience, but to a well-formed conscience.
This need for the lifelong formation of conscience recognizes that each person has the natural capacity to discern right and wrong. But this potential must be formed and at times corrected so that it is an accurate and reliable reflection of objective truth. The influence of secular culture, education, upbringing, personal experiences, fear, habit — these and other factors can impact the proper formation of conscience.
While cultures, politics, education, economics, geography and other factors differ, classical philosophy and Christian faith have always found this objective grounding for moral truth in human nature. Because God is our Creator, we can trust that a loving wisdom guides our freedom towards its true fulfillment as whole human persons. This requires an appropriate balance among the goods of the body, the mind, the will and the spirit for each person, and at the same time the appropriate ordering of common life so that each person in the community can flourish and fully develop their God-given potential.
Because humans have free will, we are not bound to one predetermined path for human fulfillment. In other words, while our ultimate goal is the same for all — eternal life with God — there are countless and varied decisions we make that affect our achievement of that goal. Some are more central and decisive, others are relatively minor. As a consequence, people of equally good conscience may agree on some morally appropriate goal — for instance, access to good education or quality health care or national security — but disagree strongly on the strategies that will best achieve that goal. In general, as St. Thomas Aquinas noted, the more we descend to the particular, the more possibility there is for variation and for errors in judgment.
With something as complex as contemporary social life — with many and often conflicting priorities for economic prosperity, security and defense, education, housing, education, health care, infrastructure, jobs and so on — it is inevitable that we have sharply divided opinions on how to balance and supply all these aspects of society. Arguably, it was this complexity that motivated the architects of this nation to construct a three-branched government with a balance of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Whatever its imperfections, our system does require persons of virtue and creates space for conscience to play a critical role in our common future, especially through informed voting.
In an increasingly secularized postmodern culture, Catholics may feel “politically homeless” — that no party or candidate fully represents our convictions and priorities. Forming our political conscience in this setting requires diligent and prudent study of issues, policy proposals and positions — not only for presidential candidates, but also for those in Congress and legislatures as well as judges at all levels. The tensions and gridlock we have experienced make each of these branches increasingly important in determining the future; intelligent voting for all of those positions in government is necessary.
In addition, a proper hierarchy or ordering of issues is needed — the fundamental right to life itself is the foundation and basis of enjoying any other good. A Catholic conscience cannot support setting economic advantage, educational or defense spending, roads or bridges, or any other priority ahead of the protection of innocent human life. Rather than “one-issue voting,” keeping this clear order of goods in mind is rooted in an accurate understanding of the human person and the purpose of social order.
Forming an authentically Catholic political conscience takes courage, honesty, prudence and the sacrifice of individual gain for the sake of the common good and the truth revealed in the person and message of Jesus. Yet it is a challenge we cannot set aside. As Catholic voters, we cannot be silent, by the command of the Gospel; nor do we have to be silent, by the rights granted us by the Constitution as citizens; nor ought we be silent, because we have important things to say that would otherwise be lost for ourselves and all who rely on us to speak for them.
Getting started — reflection questions:
1) Do I make a sincere effort to form my conscience with Scripture, prayer and Catholic teaching, or am I overly influenced by media, celebrities and popular opinion?
2) Trust is central in forming one’s conscience. Whom do I trust to speak the truth and lead me to what is right and good?
3) When I consider voting for political parties and candidates, do I measure their positions and proposals on issues in line with the priorities of Catholic social doctrine — protecting the life and dignity of persons; the importance of family and community; balancing rights and responsibilities; the dignity of work and workers; the option for the poor and vulnerable; solidarity with my sisters and brothers in God’s family; and stewardship for God’s creation?
Father Tom Knoblach is consultant for health care ethics for the Diocese of St. Cloud. He is also pastor of the parishes of Holy Spirit, St. Anthony and St. John Cantius in St. Cloud.