The approaching midterm elections offer another opportunity for Catholics in the United States to take up and read the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" (FCFC).
The document is the bishops’ effort to provide some formational material by which Catholics can choose their candidates and approach political issues in a manner in line with our faith. The current version dates back to 2007 and was left unchanged for the 2012 election, except for an added introductory note.
In that introductory note, the bishops "warn against misguided appeals to ‘conscience’ to ignore fundamental moral claims, to reduce Catholic moral concerns to one or two matters or to justify choices simply to advance partisan, ideological or personal interests."
Readers might be wondering to what the bishops refer. The quotes around the word conscience are particularly interesting.
Over the years, as I have tried to teach on and from FCFC, I have had many Catholics say to me that they know they have well-formed consciences. Twelve years of Catholic education guarantees it, they explain. They invariably go on to say that the bishops can write what they wish, but, ultimately, they’ll follow their own well-formed consciences when it comes to voting or thinking about social issues.
This attitude is all too common and is often merely a milder form of the error exemplified by the group Catholics for Choice. This is a group of self-identified Catholics who argue that legalized abortion is a good thing and that protecting "reproductive rights" is a fundamental form of social justice. How can this be considered a Catholic position?
They point out, correctly, that the Church teaches that we have to follow our consciences. They then argue that if theirs tell them abortion is okay, the binding nature of conscience allows them to be faithful Catholics. The two millennia of unbroken teaching condemning abortion do not matter. The title of their organization’s journal is Conscience.
This approach to conscience is, I believe, what the bishops are referring to when they write "misguided appeals to ‘conscience.’" This misunderstanding of conscience, one that affects Catholics on both sides of the political aisle, demonstrates a dire need for catechesis on the nature of conscience.
We do read in the Catechism (1778) that one must follow his or her conscience, but we also read that one must form one’s conscience well. The Catechism is very clear that the prudent judgment of a conscience must be rooted in "the truth of the moral good." The beginning of the problem is that there are many Catholics who do not believe in objective truth or intrinsic evils.
Years ago, I found myself rather at a loss when a room full of fellow Catholics voiced their consternation with me for stating that some things are always and everywhere wrong, regardless of the intention or circumstances, i.e. intrinsic evils. One fellow responded that his favorite professor had taught him what an old idea that was. "Intrinsic evil," said another man in the room, "is a tired idea." Another lady just shook her head at the idea that some things were "always" wrong.
Certainly, Catholics will disagree on the prudential application of a principle, but a Catholic who would reject even the existence of objective good and evil cannot then turn around and claim to have a well-formed conscience.
Furthermore, "the education of conscience is a lifelong task," says the Catechism (1784). One may not know one is wrong. Everyone thinks he has a well-formed conscience until a friend, a book, an article or a random brush with the Divine provides a new perspective. Confidence in our own formation ought to be sparing. So we must always be seekers of the truth.
Formation will occur regardless of our intentions, for we are always taking in information. We are constantly being formed by our conversations, our media intake and our activities. We are "human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings," says the Catechism (1783). Therefore, the formation of our consciences has to be intentional, and it has to be lifelong.
Every Catholic must form his or her mind with "the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator." That true good is not always found where we prefer, but the bishops tell us that it is found in the Scriptures and the teaching of the magisterium.
Another point seldom mentioned today is that, though one may have a formed conscience, his conscience can still be spectacularly wrong. Our consciences depend on the information which they are fed. If we are given bad information or are lied to, then our consciences, though functioning very well, may in fact give us the wrong choice about good and evil.
We may not be culpable of any sin in these cases, especially if we have been deceived. But it is important to remember that, while the conscience may be the "aboriginal Vicar of Christ," to quote Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, it is never infallible.
Finally, there is the question of "interiority." How many times have we realized only too late that the choices we made were wrong and that our consciences have been bellowing at us to choose otherwise? We just wouldn’t or couldn’t hear our consciences. We ought to know ourselves well enough to be sure that the voice that tells us to do good and avoid evil is indeed our conscience and not our stomach. The "interiority" about which the Catechism speaks is crucial to discerning between God’s voice and the accuser.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states that, "through the celebration of the sacraments, especially Eucharist and reconciliation, the priest helps the faithful to live their social commitment as a fruit of the mystery of salvation" (539). The sacrament of penance and reconciliation is a supernatural help for "interiority." We ought to take full advantage of these helps from the Church.
"Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" has been criticized by people of every political stripe. However, an important rule for appreciating its teaching involves two steps. The first is recognizing that it is not a voter’s guide. The second can be found in the Catechism, where, in the section on the social teaching of the Church, we read, "This teaching can be more easily accepted by men of goodwill the more the faithful let themselves be guided by it" (2422).
Sometimes, understanding and accepting the Church’s teaching is not a matter of arguments about economic or political realities. Sometimes it is a matter of living what the Church teaches even if we don’t understand or agree. This is a familiar reality for anyone in any kind of relationship. Sometimes, we just need to trust.
If we are willing to do that, while adopting a life of prayer and sacrament, we can allow ourselves to be guided, and so discover the beauty of the Church’s social teaching from the inside. This, ultimately, is what changes our hearts and best forms our consciences for faithful citizenship; for the best sign of a well-formed Catholic conscience is a life lived for Christ Jesus and his Church.
Omar Gutierrez is the manager of the Office of Mission and Justice for the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska, and the author of The Urging of Christ’s Love: The Saints and the Social Teaching of the Church.