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Continuing Reflections on Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: THE TEACHING OF CHRIST

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

The United States bishops' statement, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," speaks about the faithful being guided by a Christian conscience: "Catholics have a serious and lifelong obligation to form their conscience in accord with human reason and the teaching of the Church" (17).

We are obliged to follow our conscience, yet it does not come automatically filled with ready answers to every moral question. We need to form it with the words of truth and life. The principles articulated in the Church's moral and social teaching are intended to guide the Catholic politician - as well as the Catholic voter - in having a rightly formed conscience.

It is the task of the Church to proclaim the good news of Jesus. Thus the teaching office - the Magisterium - continues in our day, in our circumstances, to make us aware of Jesus' teaching. The bishops, as successors to the apostles, carry on the work of teaching the Christian faithful.

Competing with the Church and the Gospel in today's world are many other voices seeking to form conscience and thus determine what actions will reflect our identity as a people. The voices that speak values often antithetical to Christian values are loud, persuasive and well supported. An individual's position on abortion is a clear case of Christian conscience being rightly formed by God's word in respect of life or badly formed by voices that cloak the evil of abortion in the rhetoric of personal choice.

There are some things we must never do, either individually or as a society. "Forming Consciences" tells us "such actions are so deeply flawed that they are always opposed to the authentic good of persons. These are called 'intrinsically evil' actions. They must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned" (22).

One crosses a clear line when fostering public policy that allows for the destruction of millions of unborn babies. Unlike other pieces of legislation that touch on the building of a good and just society and that may be open to prudential judgment about what is truly the best response, legislation fostering abortion - permitting the killing of the unborn child - ultimately helps to bring about the death of unborn children.

We as Catholics must have a clear understanding that taking an innocent human life is always wrong. So consistently has this teaching been presented that today in the public forum it is one of the defining hallmarks of the Catholic Church. Most people know that Catholic teaching prohibits abortion. But many may not be aware of the reasons for this teaching. One of our tasks as pastors of souls and as members of Christ's body is to articulate as persistently and persuasively as we can why the Church opposes abortion and why political support for abortion is also wrong.

"Forming Consciences" tells us that in the public political debate today there is no other issue that rises to this level of moral certitude. Abortion is always wrong. To support public policy and political platforms that protect so-called "abortion rights" is to participate in some way in the inexorable conclusion: many, many innocent unborn children will be killed. "A legal system that violates the basic right to life on the grounds of choice is fundamentally flawed" (22).

The right to choose brings with it the corresponding responsibility to choose the moral and ethical good. "Forming Consciences" simply reminds us of the ancient and once universally accepted moral principle that it is wrong to kill life in the womb.

Sometimes a single issue will be so important that it overrides a whole range of lesser issues. Human slavery is one such issue. It simply cannot be condoned no matter how much political support it might enjoy. The same could also be said for the discrimination and even elimination of people for ethnic reasons. This is simply wrong and cannot be justified.

We are called in "Forming Consciences" to show a consistency and cohesion in the application of our moral convictions to our public and political life. Our vote should follow our convictions.

What defines us as a people is, in no small way, how we respond to the urgent issues of our day. Life - the protection of human life - especially the most vulnerable at life's beginning and at its end - must always be at the top of the list.

Every election places each of us before serious moral choices. Our political activity engages the defining moral issues of our day. Our vote is the means we have to see that good is done and evil avoided. It comes with significant moral obligation.

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