Now that both major political parties have officially nominated their candidates for president and vice-president, we are entering the final phase of a long campaign season. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that as Catholic citizens we have an obligation to contribute alongside of civil authorities to the good of society. Exercising the right to vote is a moral obligation according to the Catechism (#2240). It is only one aspect of our civic life, but it is important that we do attend to it now in an election year. Because our participation in civic life, including voting, is a moral responsibility for Catholics, it is important that we recognize the obligation to act in a way that is consistent with Catholic life, that is, shaped by Catholic moral teaching.
As we mature, we understand that we have each been blessed by God with a conscience. This is the faculty that enables us to make judgments about the moral good or evil of the choices we make or consider making. In other words, conscience is that internal compass which makes it possible to tell right from wrong, or to tell which is best of a number of possibilities.
Some mistakenly view conscience simply as the ability to make up one's mind about something. That is not conscience, but rather a partial view of freedom. Because our human freedom has been corrupted by sin, conscience is an important tool to help us exercise our freedom properly, to choose good and avoid evil. If Catholics expect to use our consciences to make sound judgments - as all people are obliged to do - then we have to train or form our consciences.
The formation of conscience is something much different from the formation of an opinion. Because we will have to give an account to God for the choices we make, it is essential that we be able to make conscientious decisions based on the knowledge of what is true and good, according to the loving plan of God. We must take time to learn "natural law," that is the plan of God written on the human heart. This plan of God is reflected in the nature of persons and things and can be known by all, regardless of one's particular religious faith. In our Catholic faith, we also have the benefit of sacred Scripture and the teachings of the church, through which the Holy Spirit speaks to us.
None of us knows the complete depth of these teachings as well as we might, and so the formation of a good conscience demands lifelong study and prayerful reflection of revealed truths.
It is the particular responsibility of bishops to provide sound teaching to Catholics who must exercise the responsibilities of their baptismal call in daily living. I call your attention to a publication of the bishops of the United States Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. This document can be purchased from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and it can be found, along with many supplementary materials at www.faithfulcitizenship.org. Individuals and parishes should become familiar with this material, as we all prepare to exercise our responsibility to vote. This information, along with statements by local bishops, provides the Catholic teaching we need to form our consciences before voting.
Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship is grounded in age-old Catholic social teaching. This teaching has a number of important components. I expect to come back to the topic of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship in the coming weeks. For now, I want to emphasize the first of the key themes of Catholic social teaching: the Right to Life and the Dignity of the Human Person, and to quote paragraph #44, which must be at the basis of Catholic conscience formation: "Human life is sacred. The dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. Direct attacks on innocent persons are never morally acceptable, at any stage or in any condition. In our society, human life is especially under direct attack from abortion. Other direct threats to the sanctity of human life include euthanasia, human cloning, and the destruction of human embryos for research."
* Most Reverend George Lucas is the bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.