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Reflections on Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship

Cardinal's Column
By Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl
Archbishop of Washington, DC

September 17, 2008

In November 2007, the bishops of the United States issued a call to political responsibility entitled, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship." As we look at this statement and the brief summary of it, "The Challenge of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," which is being distributed in our parishes, we need to address several points.

The statement serves first to call our attention to the constant teaching of the Church that Christians should play their full role as citizens. "In the Catholic Tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation" (13). The document goes on to say, "The Catholic call to faithful citizenship affirms the importance of political participation and insists that public service is a worthy vocation" (14).

In a democracy where each of us has a voice and vote, we assume responsibility for the direction our country takes in matters that have clear moral content. We are not free to stand back and allow morally objectionable activities to transpire under the protection of the law as if legality somehow conferred morality on our activities as a people - a society - a nation.

In his encyclical Deus caritas est, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, taught us "the direct duty to work for a just ordering of society ... is proper to the lay faithful" (29). This duty is more critical than ever in today's political environment where Catholics may feel politically disenfranchised, especially because there may not be a political party or even a specific candidate that fully reflects the range of Catholic social and moral teaching, particularly on the issues that claim a priority place in our decision-making process. The USCCB document points out "this is not a time for retreat or discouragement; rather, it is a time for renewed engagement" (16).

In our democratic society every citizen can and should participate in political life. This can take the form of voting, actively supporting a political party or specific candidate, or running for and holding public office in all branches of our government. The bishops underscore that it is a good and responsible act to participate in the political life of society, particularly in the capacity of a public office holder.

"Forming Consciences" reminds us that we bring important assets to the political dialogue about our nation's future: "We bring a consistent moral framework - drawn from basic human reason that is illuminated by Scripture and the teaching of the Church - for assessing issues, political platforms, and campaigns" (12).

We as Catholics bring a God-given gift - the Gospel message - the vision that Jesus imparts. Our faith in God's word and our recognition of a natural moral law should impel us to a significant level of political participation. Our vote is one way in which our voice is heard and our impact felt.

The Christian also brings the recognition of fundamental right and wrong to the political process. Life does not unfold in a moral vacuum. Built into God's creation and, therefore, into human nature is a moral law. With our ability to reason we can make proper moral decisions based on the natural moral order that is rooted in our heart and articulated in our conscience.

The faithful fulfill their civic duties guided by a Christian conscience and thus have an obligation to properly form conscience. The statement "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" (5).

The bishops also remind us that "clergy and lay people have complementary roles in public life. We bishops have the primary responsibility to hand on the Church's moral and social teaching...we are to teach fundamental moral principles that help Catholics form their consciences correctly, to provide guidance on the moral dimensions of public decisions, and to encourage the faithful to carry out their responsibilities in political life" (15).

The translation of moral imperative into political action and public policy is the work of the laity. Faithful lay women and lay men have the proper task of infusing the temporal order with Christian values. As the Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity reminded us, one of the primary tasks of the laity is the "renewal of the temporal order." This takes place as the laity "led by the light of the gospel and the mind of the Church ... act directly and definitively in the temporal sphere" (7).

Catholics, particularly those involved in public life, should see their task, then, as contributing to the establishment of a good and just society. We are called, "Forming Consciences" tells us, "to bring together our principles and our political choices, our values and our votes, to help build a better world" (14).

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