As Americans across the country prepare to step into the voting booth tomorrow, what are the most important principles for Catholics seeking to form their consciences according to Church teaching?

The answer can't be reduced to a single issue, but is a matter of weighing candidates' positions on the different topics at stake, examining the moral hierarchy of issues and rejecting intrinsically evil acts.

The U.S. bishops' conference attempts to offer guidance through its document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.

"It is our hope that by reading the document, they will inform their own consciences as to Church teachings, which require us to make sound moral judgements based on the truths and tenets of our faith," said Norma Montenegro Flynn, assistant director of media relations at the U.S. bishops' conference Office of Public Affairs.

She said that while the document is "not a 'voter's guide'," it does seek to form Catholics' consciences and explain the responsibilities Catholics have in our democracy.

"As Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship reminds us, while the Church is involved in the political process and shaping policy, it is not partisan and therefore, cannot support or recommend any candidate or party," Montenegro Flynn told CNA in a statement. "Nor can we compromise basic principles or moral teachings."

"Our cause is the defense of human life and dignity as well as the protection of the weak and the vulnerable. Therefore, we continue our call to Catholics across the U.S. to faithful reflection and discernment as we approach the elections."

Forming Consciences lays out principles of Catholic thought, reminding Americans that in "the Catholic Tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation."  

But the Church's vision of political engagement differs from the partisanship and maneuvering of power that tends to define secular politics, the bishops' document says, emphasizing the importance of well-formed consciences shaped by fundamental moral truths more than party affiliation.

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Forming Consciences discusses the idea of "intrinsically evil" actions, those that are "so deeply flawed that they are always opposed to the authentic good of persons."

"There are some things we must never do, as individuals or as a society, because they are always incompatible with love of God and neighbor," it says. "They must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned."

A prime example of an intrinsically evil action is the intentional taking of innocent human life, such as through abortion or euthanasia, the document says.

Other acts listed in Forming Consciences as always unjustifiable include human cloning, destructive research on human embryos, genocide, torture, the targeting of noncombatants in acts of war, acts of racism, treating workers as a mere means to an end, intentionally subjecting workers to subhuman living conditions, treating the poor as disposable, and redefining marriage to deny its essential meaning.

It is important to note that not all issues are morally equivalent, the document emphasizes. "The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many."

At the same time, the "necessary moral distinctions" between issues must not be used to dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity.

"As Catholics we are not single-issue voters," the bishops' document states. "A candidate's position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter's support. Yet if a candidate's position on a single issue promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as legal abortion, redefining marriage in a way that denies its essential meaning, or racist behavior, a voter may legitimately disqualify a candidate from receiving support."

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It is always wrong for Catholics to vote for candidates who support policies promoting intrinsic evils "if the voter's intent is to support that position," Forming Consciences explains.

However, it adds, "(t)here may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate's unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably 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."

The document also notes the possibility of a situation in which all candidates hold positions that promote an intrinsically evil act. In such a case, the bishops say, voters "may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods."

Reflecting on the document's underlying themes, Joseph E. Capizzi, associate professor of Moral Theology at The Catholic University of America, said that the guidance the bishops offer in how to form the conscience is the most important – and most challenging – point the bishops make.

"Too often we think of our consciences as immune to – and free from – external sources of guidance," told CNA. "Our particularly American understanding of 'self-reliance,' and even 'self-creation' balks at the idea that a 'well-formed conscience' is a conscience tutored by the world; by experiences shared by others, by reason and the natural law, and by the teachings of the Church that express that law."

But these principles are important, he maintained, because without them, "we have no way of distinguishing conscience as the voice of God guiding us toward freedom and fulfillment from conscience as the voice of self, unintentionally and unknowingly leading us in circles."

This is not to say, however, that Catholics will be able to find perfect candidates, Capizzi said. "I think it's unavoidable that Catholics choose among candidates holding problematic views," he explained, but he added that the document's guidance on forming one's conscience can help Catholics work "to limit the harms in such situations."

And the principles outlined in the bishops' document apply not only to national races but to all kinds of political actions that call Catholics to consider and discern issues at hand. The point of the Forming Consciences document, Capizzi said, "is to help in conscience formation. A well-formed conscience, one that seeks to advance the common good and contribute to the 'human ecology' necessary for human flourishing."

Capizzi suggested that Catholics read the document and to "pray deeply after thinking about the principles explained in the document and the issues it mentions."   

"The faithful should focus in particular on their own biases and weaknesses, exploring those areas where they find themselves most challenged by the guidance the bishops provide," he offered. He also said that Catholics should not limit their political involvement to voting, but to continue in their commitment and involvement with others.   

"We are always growing and learning in our engagement with others," he encouraged. "So, vote next Tuesday and regardless of the outcome, keep up the good work of Christ!"