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."
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."
(Story continues below)
Subscribe to our daily newsletter
At Catholic News Agency, our team is committed to reporting the truth with courage, integrity, and fidelity to our faith. We provide news about the Church and the world, as seen through the teachings of the Catholic Church. When you subscribe to the CNA UPDATE, we'll send you a daily email with links to the news you need and, occasionally, breaking news.
As part of this free service you may receive occasional offers from us at EWTN News and EWTN. We won't rent or sell your information, and you can unsubscribe at any time.
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!"