In my previous column I began to write about our moral duties as Catholic citizens. Among these duties we have a moral obligation to vote. Through this exercise of our civic and moral responsibility we Catholics help shape a more just society which safeguards the dignity of each person, advances the common good and gives special emphasis to the needs of the most vulnerable. This responsibility takes us beyond partisanship and self-interest. It requires that we cast our ballot according to the exercise of a properly formed conscience.
Conscience is something that is often misunderstood or even misrepresented. It is not just a "hunch" or feeling about what is right and wrong. Conscience is certainly not something we can invoke simply to be able to justify doing what we please as a kind of pure subjectivism or relativism.According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act." (CCC 1778) It is the very voice of God resounding in the human heart. Because we have a serious obligation to obey the judgment of our conscience about what is right and just, we have an equally serious moral responsibility to form our consciences properly and with great care. Without proper formation based on universal moral principles rooted in both human reason and the revealed truths of our faith, our conscience is likely to make erroneous judgments about the right course of action in particular instances. Without careful formation conscience can becomes a blind guide.The formation of our conscience involves several elements. First, it requires a genuine intention to seek the truth. We have to search the Sacred Scriptures and the teaching of the Church as presented, for example, by the Catechism of the Catholic Church. What does the Church teach about marriage or religious liberty, for example? Next, it involves a careful examination of the facts and background about various choices. Finally, it involves prayer and reflection to help us discern the will of God and the best course of action in a particular concrete situation.The exercise of a properly formed conscience is greatly assisted by the virtue of prudence. This cardinal virtue enables us to "discern the good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it." (CCC 1806) Sometimes there are various ways to achieve the good outcome we are seeking. Prudence assists us to choose the best means available. In terms of public policy even Catholics with well-formed consciences may differ legitimately in our prudential judgments when it comes to the best way to achieve certain goods and to address various social issues. For example, we may differ in our prudential judgments on the best public policies for addressing the challenges of poverty, achieving universal health care or comprehensive immigration reform. However, even though we may differ in our prudential judgments about the best means to achieve a good end, there are some things we must never do, either as an individual or as a society. There are certain acts which are always evil under every circumstance, regardless of good intentions. These "intrinsically evil" acts are always wrong because they are always incompatible with human dignity and with the love of God and neighbor. They are always opposed to the authentic good of persons. An intrinsically evil action can never be chosen even to achieve a good end, such as finding a cure for disease. Preeminent among these intrinsic moral evils is the direct and intentional taking of innocent human life. In our time "abortion and euthanasia have become the preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others." (USCCB, Living the Gospel of Life, 5) Other intrinsic evils include human cloning and embryo-destructive stem cell research, euthanasia, torture, acts of racism and directly targeting non-combatants in acts of war or terrorism. We could add to this list such things as the futile attempt to redefine marriage as anything other than a permanent union between one man and one woman.As voters we must always oppose these evils and those who promote them. In addition to always opposing intrinsically evil acts, we have a positive duty to promote the good. Both opposing evil and doing good are essential obligations. We have not exhausted our responsibility merely because we might be passionately committed to one particular aspect of the Church's moral or social teaching. Nevertheless, in the pursuit of a just and a well-ordered society not all issues have equal weight and importance. They must not all be treated as morally equivalent. Pope John Paul II cautioned that concern for 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).In the next article I will write about the complexities of applying these principles when voting according to a properly formed conscience.
Most Reverend Paul S. Coakley, S.T.L., D.D.
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