The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” —Mt 6:22-23
Most Americans learn from an early age that voting is a civic duty. However, many Americans do not realize that voting is fundamentally a moral act. Like other moral actions in our lives, it is a choosing for which we will each be accountable before God. This can be lost or overlooked, especially in an age with loud voices seeking to relegate people of faith and moral conviction to the sidelines of public discourse.
For Catholics, it is not enough to vote for a candidate simply out of allegiance to some political party, self-interest, or emotional attachment to a certain candidate. This is why the document of the US Catholic Bishops, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” [FC], focuses the preparation to vote on preparing one’s conscience. As the document states: “[We] bishops do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote. Our purpose is to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God’s truth. We recognize that the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience …” (FC, 7).
With this in mind, it might be good to review what conscience is: “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,” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1778).
Our consciences will not serve us well if they are not formed and informed by the truth. In this regard, it is essential that we each form our consciences in the light of right reason, the Word of God, and the teaching of the Catholic Church. These are the reliable sources of truth on which we can rely to shape our consciences. Once the conscience is formed it is necessary to also examine the facts and information related to the choices one is facing. Finally, every Catholic should prepare by praying and seeking God’s help in discerning his will.
Prudence and principles
Our Catholic Church has a rich and sound teaching on all the issues related to the dignity of the human person, the social order, and justice. Because there are many issues at stake in an election, it can be still be confusing when casting a ballot. This is because there are so many important issues, and there may not be the “perfect” candidate who stands squarely with the truth on all of them. While all these issues are important and demand our commitment, some outweigh others. Prudence is the necessary virtue that helps us weigh the goods involved and to make practical judgments about which issues and goods take precedence over others.
Along with the virtue of prudence, principles for moral decision-making are needed. In several key sections of “Faithful Citizenship” the bishops describe some of these key principles. Firstly, the bishops point out that intrinsically evil acts (those acts which are always gravely wrong in every circumstance) are deeply flawed. Additionally, intrinsically evil acts are opposed to love of God and neighbor, and the good of persons. They must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned. As an example, the bishops state in paragraph 22: “A prime example is the intentional taking of innocent human life, as in abortion and euthanasia.”
All the life issues are connected, including those that relate to basic human needs such as food, shelter, health care, education, and work. Catholics must place a great priority on these issues and meeting these needs in our neighbors, especially the poor and vulnerable. However, these issues depend on the protection of the most fundamental right, the right to life. Pope John Paul II explained this important aspect of church teaching when he said: “Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.” (“Christifidelis Laici” [“On the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in Church and in the World”], 38).
The bishops also point out two temptations that can distort the church’s defense of human life and dignity. “The first is a moral equivalence that makes no ethical distinctions between the different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity. 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,” (FC, 28; emphasis added). This means that one cannot make other social issues such as education or health care morally equivalent to the deliberate destruction of innocent human life.
Issues such as how to provide affordable health care or better education or how to conduct and conclude a war are issues that are open to principled debate as to how they should be addressed; as they say, “there is more than one way to skin a cat.” Life issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem-cell research are not in that category. These are simply always wrong in every conceivable circumstance. Not only that, they strike at the very foundational right upon which all other rights depend, the right to life.
The second temptation the bishops cite relates to a “misuse of necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity,” (FC, 29). Catholics cannot treat other issues related to human dignity and justice as optional. The bishops list several examples of such issues that demand our concern: racism and other unjust discrimination, the use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war, the use of torture, war crimes, and the failure to respond to those who are suffering from hunger or a lack of health care, or an unjust immigration policy. These are “serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act. They are not optional concerns which can be dismissed,” (FC, 29).
With the above in mind, it becomes clear that Catholics may not promote or even remain indifferent to those issues or choices that are intrinsically evil (abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, the destruction of embryonic human beings in stem-cell research, human cloning, and same-sex “marriage”).
Writing as Card. Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI tells us that “A well-formed conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals,” (“Doctrinal Note on the Participation of Catholics in Political Life,” no. 4; FC, 36). Therefore, it is a correct judgment of conscience that one would commit moral evil by voting for a candidate who takes a permissive stand on these intrinsically evil actions when there is a morally acceptable alternative.
Given what is at stake in every election, one can see how the hard work of preparing one’s conscience is so necessary. Elections affect us not only in the immediate sense, they have repercussions for generations. They are the moments when a nation defines itself: what it believes about the human person, the gift of life, marriage and the family, and civilization itself.