December 16, 2011


‘Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship’ outlines Catholics’ political responsibility

In 2007, the bishops of the United States adopted a statement titled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which serves as a summary of “the continuing teaching of [the] bishops’ conference,” and a source of “guidance for Catholics in the exercise of their rights and duties as participants in our democracy.” The statement does not tell people how to vote, but it underlies the importance of voting with a well-formed conscience.

In a new introduction to the bishops’ 2007 statement, New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, current president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), says the statement “does not offer a voters’ guide, scorecard of issues or direction on how to vote. It applies Catholic moral principles to a range of important issues, and warns against misguided appeals to ‘conscience’ to ignore fundamental moral claims, to reduce Catholic moral concerns to one or two matters or to justify choices simply to advance partisan, ideological or personal interests.”

Archbishop Dolan continues by pointing out that “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” “does not offer a quantitative listing of issues for equal consideration, but outlines and makes important distinctions among moral issues, acknowledging that some involve the clear obligation to oppose intrinsic evils, which can never be justified, and that others require action to pursue justice and promote the common good.”

In short, the bishops’ statement reminds Catholics—and all people of good will—that in today’s complex and murky political-economic-cultural climate, a well-formed conscience is more important than ever.

How does one form his or her conscience? We must first understand the issues. Not just the surface “spin,” but in depth. We must know what candidates stand for, what policies and laws they are proposing, and how the various proposed initiatives will benefit—or detract from—the common good.

Secondly, we must understand the teaching of the Catholic Church on matters of faith and morals. Here again, we must go beneath the surface. We must form our consciences in the light of authentic Catholic teaching, and we must bring fundamental moral principles to the debate so that we can make informed decisions about candidates and issues.

Finally, we must participate in the political process—first and foremost by exercising our right to vote, but also by being active participants, not passive spectators, in the political process.

As faithful citizens, we have a right and a responsibility to make our voices heard—to let candidates and elected officials know that we will hold them accountable for what they say, and most importantly, for what they do or fail to do as public servants. In whatever ways are appropriate to each of us, we must be engaged in the process of electing and holding accountable those who govern—or hope to govern—in our name.

Archbishop Dolan’s new introduction to “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” identifies a series of issues that he says represent “current and fundamental problems, some involving opposition to intrinsic evils and others raising serious moral questions.” These are issues that require our special attention as we seek to form our consciences, engage in the political process, and make our voices heard.

First, the bishops call attention to the continuing destruction of unborn children through abortion and other threats to human life and dignity.

Second, we are asked to reflect on renewed efforts to force Catholics engaged in ministries—health care, education and social services—to violate their consciences or stop serving those in need.

Third, the bishops note the growing threats against marriage.

Fourth, they ask us to consider the devastating effects of the current economic crises—here at home and throughout the world.

Fifth, the American bishops once again call attention to our nation’s broken immigration system and to the urgent need for reforms that promote true respect for law, protect the human rights and dignity of immigrants and their families.

Finally, we are reminded of the horrors of war, terrorism and violence wherever they occur, but particularly in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East.

As faithful citizens, Catholics are called to become informed, engaged and outspoken citizens who know their faith, who can bring fundamental moral principles to the debate, and who are not afraid to exercise their political power for the sake of the common good.

As Archbishop Dolan writes, “This kind of political responsibility is a requirement of our faith and our duty as citizens.”

—Daniel Conway

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