July 15, 2008

Political Responsibility - Catholic Style

By Father Thomas Berg *

Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship is the most recent update of a document prepared and presented during the previous two election cycles by the Catholic bishops of the United States. The latest version - published last November, just a year before the upcoming presidential election - constitutes a fine synthesis of the principles which the Catholic Church offers to all comers, but particularly to Catholics, who take seriously their Christian vocation and seek to exercise their citizenship in the voting booth.

The document contains three parts.  Part II is a summary of policy positions of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on issues relating to human life, family life, social justice and global solidarity.  Part III, entitled, "Goals for Political Life: Challenges for Citizens, Candidates, and Public Officials," is a bulleted list of ten suggested policy goals which the bishops hope will enable "voters and candidates to act on ethical principles rather than particular interests and partisan allegiances." These include protecting the unborn, dissuading the nation from resorting to violence of any kind as a solution to problems, and defining marriage as the permanent and stable union between one man and one woman, among others. 

But it is for Part I that the bishops deserve hearty kudos.

This is the doctrinal part of the document that lays down the principles - part of the Church's patrimony of moral and social teaching - on which Parts II and III are based.  Central to Part I is the seminal notion of conscience - formation.  The bishops laudably point out in no uncertain terms that the first duty of a politically responsible Christian is, first and foremost, to inform his or her conscience with the principles contained in both the natural moral law and divinely revealed law. "The work for justice requires that the mind and the heart of Catholics be educated and formed to know and practice the whole faith," affirm the bishops. The document consequently "highlights the role of the Church in the formation of conscience, and the corresponding moral responsibility of each Catholic to hear, receive, and act upon the Church's teaching in the lifelong task of forming his or her own conscience" (nn. 4-5).

I will have more to say on the question of conscience formation just ahead, but allow me first to point out other merits of this doctrinal section. To begin with, it lays down the principles which explain and justify the Christian's active role in the political process. "The Church's obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society is a requirement of our faith," reads the document (n. 9).  The bishops explain that, as both baptized members of the Body of Christ and human beings endowed with reason, we are enabled to see with even greater clarity the fundamental truth of the dignity of every human person.  And because Christians are persons of both faith and reason:

It is appropriate and necessary for us to bring this essential truth about human life and dignity to the public square. We are called to practice Christ's commandment to "love one another" (Jn. 13:34). We are also called to promote the well-being of all, to share our blessings with those most in need, to defend marriage, and to protect the lives and dignity of all, especially the weak, the vulnerable, the voiceless. (n. 10).

Furthermore, the bishops clearly address (1) the propriety of their role to teach and inform the consciences of the voting faithful on aspects of their political and public lives, and (2) the propriety of the faithful bringing their religiously-based moral and civic convictions to the voting booth:

Some question whether it is appropriate for the Church to play a role in political life. However, the obligation to teach about moral values that should shape our lives, including our public lives, is central to the mission given to the Church by Jesus Christ. Moreover, the United States Constitution protects the right of individual believers and religious bodies to participate and speak out without government interference, favoritism, or discrimination. Civil law should fully recognize and protect the Church's right, obligation, and opportunities to participate in society without being forced to abandon or ignore her central moral convictions. Our nation's tradition of pluralism is enhanced, not threatened, when religious groups and people of faith bring their convictions and concerns into public life. Indeed, our Church's teaching is in accord with the foundational values that have shaped our nation's history: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (n. 11).

The bishops also gave clear guidance on the paramount question of whether and under what circumstances a Catholic might vote for a politician who openly endorses a social policy which entails a grave and intrinsic moral evil, such as racism, euthanasia, or procured abortion:    

A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter's intent is to support that position. In such cases a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil...There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate's unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil (nn. 34-35).

Archbishop Charles Chaput was recently very eloquent in illustrating-specifically with regard to the prospect of voting for a pro-abortion candidate-just what would constitute such "truly grave moral reasons" justifying such a vote. 

But [Catholics who support pro-choice candidates] also need a compelling proportionate reason to justify it. What is a "proportionate" reason when it comes to the abortion issue? It's the kind of reason we will be able to explain, with a clean heart, to the victims of abortion when we meet them face to face in the next life - which we most certainly will. If we're confident that these victims will accept our motives as something more than an alibi, then we can proceed.

I cannot imagine a clearer, more crystalline explanation.

It is, however, the document's insistence on the perennial Catholic notion of conscience formation which I find to be the most salient element of Faithful Citizenship. This comes in the context of a brief and helpful catechesis on what conscience is, and what it means to form one's conscience (nn. 17-18); how the proper use of conscience requires us to develop and employ the virtue of prudence (n. 19); and finally, how we use a well formed conscience and the virtue of prudence to make sound moral judgments in the political arena (nn. 20 and following). The bishops begin this section in these terms:

The Church equips her members to address political and social questions by helping them to develop a well-formed conscience. Catholics have a serious and lifelong obligation to form their consciences in accord with human reason and the teaching of the Church. Conscience is not something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere "feeling" about what we should or should not do. Rather...as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right" (n. 1778).
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 the 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 (nn. 17-18).

Now, at the same time I congratulate the bishops for having explored at some length the vital question of one's life-long moral obligation to form conscience properly, in accord with objective and true moral principles, I will also suggest that the document does not escape an overarching and glaring pastoral problem. And I say this in light of many years of experience as a teacher and confessor in helping people come to a clearer understanding of their own moral quandaries. The problem here is that the very notion of "forming one's conscience" is almost necessarily being lost on the vast majority of Catholics and non-Catholics alike who might read Faithful Citizenship. 

Consider that, in our day and age, the very notion of conscience itself has, by and large, been emptied of a clear and pristine meaning. And arguably, if there is a commonly shared - if vague - understanding of conscience, I can assure you from personal experience that it too often has little to do with the perennial Catholic understanding of conscience as nurtured and developed in the natural law moral tradition.  A fortiori will the notion of "formation of conscience" be broadly fraught with confusion. As to why I hold these convictions, I will have more to say next week when I hope to offer my own reflections on both the nature of conscience as understood from within the natural law tradition, and just what "conscience formation" is all about.  The bishops have done well to get these notions back into circulation in the public square. Let's hope we can keep them there.

Father Thomas Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). More of Fr. Berg’s publications are available at www.fatherberg.com.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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