The following is a letter to the editor from Bishop John M. Smith of Trenton, New Jersey responding to a news story in the Trenton Times newspaper.
The article in the 7/30 issue of the Trenton Times regarding the Diocese of Trenton’s presentation on the statement, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”, failed to provide your readers with an adequate understanding of this program and misrepresented the very spirit of the document.
“Vote your conscience,” as your headline says of the U.S. Bishops’ instruction, is a serious oversimplification that undermines the core message of their statement.
In truth, the Bishops state that Catholics are called to form their consciences in order to exercise faithful citizenship. The very title of the document points to the centrality of this message. Numerous sections of the document are devoted to the “lifelong obligation to form their consciences in accord with human reason and the teachings of the Church” (Section 17).
We are told that this requires serious engagement and commitment and that it does not begin or end at the polling booth. We are even told how to form our consciences, beginning with a “willingness and openness to seek the truth and what is right” through the study of sacred Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church and continuing with an examination of the background related to the choices before us. We are told that forming our conscience also requires “prayerful reflection to discern the will of God” (Section 18).
And yet, nowhere in the article is the need to form one’s conscience ever addressed. Instead, readers are led to believe that they should vote on the basis of what they “think” or “feel”. There is no reference to this active process Catholics are instructed to perform. The very essence of what it means to be a “faithful citizen” is omitted.
Faithful Citizenship is the compilation of general principles applied to the obligation that Catholics have to exercise political responsibility in the light of their faith, regardless of whether it is an election year, and irrespective of the candidates who are running and the issues on which they are basing their campaigns.
The unfortunate decision by The Times to insert the names of candidates where none had been given led readers to believe that the document and the presentation by diocesan representatives focused on candidates. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Times’ handling of the very delicate and complex challenge of voting also failed to represent the full scope of the Bishops’ instructions.
The statement goes into great detail to emphasize that not all issues carry the same moral weight, and that “opposing intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions” (Section 37).
The document further cautions against the “moral equivalence that makes no ethical distinctions between 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. It must always be opposed” (Section 28).
These instructions were not included in the article and the true meaning of the language used in the document was subverted in The Times’ trivializing of the issues and voting choices facing Catholics this year. This handling may have succeeded in getting readers’ attention, but it did little to advance a full and accurate understanding of such an important and complex story.
We encourage your readers to clarify the confusion generated through this article by reading for themselves the full statement, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, which is available on the web site, http://www.faithfulcitizenship.org/, or through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, http://www.usccb.org/.