Our faith demands that we make moral judgments guided by a well-formed and well-informed conscience. This is especially true when it comes to exercising our right and responsibility to vote.
The publication of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (FCFC), provides a helpful summary of what is involved in the formation of a good conscience:
"The formation of conscience includes several elements. First, there is a desire to embrace goodness and truth. For Catholics this begins with a willingness and openness to seek the truth and what is right by studying Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Church as contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is also important to examine facts and background information about various choices. Finally, prayerful reflection is essential to discern the will of God. Catholics must also understand that if they fail to form their consciences they can make erroneous judgments" (#18).
The desire to embrace goodness and truth is foundational for the formation of conscience. Goodness and truth are objective realities. Conscience, then, is not a matter of "what I think" or "what I feel" or "what I want." A well-formed conscience reminds me that there is a real and inescapable difference between good and evil and that I must embrace the good and reject the evil, even and especially when this means choosing against my purely natural instincts.
The Second Vatican Council teaches us about the operation of conscience: "Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells him inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His dignity lies in observing this law, and by it he will be judged" (Gaudium et Spes, 16)
The fundamental source of knowledge of good and evil comes from the natural law. Natural law is the eternal law written in the heart of every human being. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that the natural law is the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.
Our knowledge of good and evil that derives from the natural law is limited, however. It must be supplemented by our acceptance of Divine Revelation as found in the Sacred Scriptures and the teachings of the Catholic Church. A well-formed conscience will never contradict Catholic moral teaching. No Catholic can claim to be acting in good conscience while knowingly contravening the authoritative teaching of the Church. For this reason every Catholic must be well-informed as to the moral teachings of the Church and obey those teachings.
As we examine the many issues espoused by the candidates seeking election, some are in and of themselves (i.e., intrinsically) evil, e.g., abortion, embryonic stem cell research and same-sex "marriage". These issues should be decisive for the conscientious voter, trumping all others. As we read in FCFC: "As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support. Yet a candidate’s position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support" (# 42).
A conscientious voter might find it impossible to vote for any presidential candidate on the ballot. But even if you abstain from a presidential vote, please take note of Proposition 106, which, if passed, will legalize physician assisted suicide. Please vote NO on this immoral initiative. No Catholic of good conscience may claim that name and still vote in favor of legal suicide. (For more information, visit www.votenoprop106.com.)
A final, indispensible means of forming a good conscience is prayer. Our highly secularized culture will disregard prayer as having anything to do with our preparation to go to the polls, but it cannot be that way for people of faith. Sincere prayer, which opens our minds and hearts to know the truth of God, will enable us — by the grace of God — to make good moral judgments.
Prayer also brings us face to face with our sins and weaknesses, the very things that can lead to an erroneous conscience. Moral rightness is best accomplished by serious examination of conscience and the practice of frequent sacramental confession.
Embrace of objective truth and goodness, obedience to Divine Revelation, and serious prayer will enable every Catholic to vote with a well-formed conscience. How we find our way through the many important issues that call for a conscientious vote, evaluate and prioritize them will be the subject of my next column.