Archive for the ‘Conscience’ Category

Vote According to a Good Catholic Conscience

Monday, September 13th, 2010

Tomorrow is Primary Day here in New York.

There is no doubt that the political system in our state is deeply dysfunctional.  For virtually everyone living in the City of New York, and in many gerrymandered districts outside of the City, there is no functioning two-party system.  Instead, the results of the primary is tantamount to election to office, and nobody but a registered member of that party may participate.  Just to give you an idea of how that works in practice, it is unusual for more than 20,000 people to vote in primary elections for offices like State Senate or Assembly.  An alarming number of state legislators and Congressional representatives run for re-election without any opposition.  As a result, unsurprisingly, the re-election rate for members of the New York Legislature is well over 90% — most of our state legislators leave office only by dying or being convicted of a crime.

Nevertheless, it is vitally important that people of principle get involved in electoral politics, at the very least by voting, but also by running for office.  Otherwise, we will only continue to get the same results that we have been seeing in the past few years.

In that regard, it is essential that we form our consciences to vote as Catholics — we must bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the teachings of His Church, into the voting booth.

Our bishops have provided us with guidance in this regard.  The Bishops of the United States have published several useful documents on voting,  and our New York State Bishops have also issued a valuable statement on elections.   Here are a few pertinent excerpts:

“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.” (United States Bishops, Forming Conscience for Faithful Citizenship 28)

“Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care… But being ‘right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community.“  (United States Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life 23)

“The inalienable right to life of every innocent human person outweighs other concerns where Catholics may use prudential judgment, such as how best to meet the needs of the poor or to increase access to health care for all.” (New York State Bishops, Our Cherished Right, Our Solemn Duty)

“There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.” (Faithful Citizenship 35)

“When all candidates hold a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.” (Faithful Citizenship 36)

“The right to life is the right through which all others flow. To the extent candidates reject this fundamental right by supporting an objective evil, such as legal abortion, euthanasia or embryonic stem cell research, Catholics should consider them less acceptable for public office.” (Our Cherished Right, Our Solemn Duty)

These statements, and other resources for voting, are available on the Family Life/Respect Life Office website.

We must also remember that our voting decision has serious consequences, not all of which are political.  As the Bishops note, in Faithful Citizenship:

It is important to be clear that the political choices faced by citizens not only have an impact on general peace and prosperity but also may affect the individual’s salvation.  Similarly, the kinds of laws and policies supported by public officials affect their spiritual well-being…

Our obligation as disciples of Christ is clear — we must be His followers in our everyday lives, and we must be his followers when we are in the voting booth.

The Manhattan Declaration and You

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

On November 20, a broad coalition of religious leaders jointly issued an important statement, called the Manhattan Declaration.   This declaration represents a watershed moment in American religious and political history — a coalition of faith communities, committed to having a significant impact on our culture and our law.

Here’s how the sponsors state the purpose of the Declaration:

Christians, when they have lived up to the highest ideals of their faith, have defended the weak and vulnerable and worked tirelessly to protect and strengthen vital institutions of civil society, beginning with the family.

We are Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Christians who have united at this hour to reaffirm fundamental truths about justice and the common good, and to call upon our fellow citizens, believers and non-believers alike, to join us in defending them. These truths are:

1. the sanctity of human life
2. the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife
3. the rights of conscience and religious liberty.

Inasmuch as these truths are foundational to human dignity and the well-being of society, they are inviolable and non-negotiable. Because they are increasingly under assault from powerful forces in our culture, we are compelled today to speak out forcefully in their defense, and to commit ourselves to honoring them fully no matter what pressures are brought upon us and our institutions to abandon or compromise them. We make this commitment not as partisans of any political group but as followers of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

The Declaration has been signed by almost 200 religious leaders, including our own Archbishop Dolan, and over forty other Catholic bishops.  When they opened the Declaration up to the public,  over 370,000 people have signed on so far.

Why is this so important?  This Declaration represents the basis of a new, broad-based ecumenical effort to bring our Christian values to the public square.  For too long, our efforts have been hampered by the sad divisions that separate Christians from one another.  But now, we have a unifying document, one that we can all rally behind, regardless of our theological differences.

I encourage everyone to read the Manhattan Declaration, which can be found on their website.  Then, join the rest of us in this new movement of Christian conscience, and sign it.

The Speaker’s Fatal “Freedom”

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

The Speaker of the House of Representatives was interviewed the other day. Amidst the discussion of a variety of political issues, she was asked about her recent “brushes” with the Bishops on important issues. Sadly, her comments are not encouraging:

I have some concerns about the church’s position respecting a woman’s right to choose. I have some concerns about the church’s position on gay rights. I am a practicing Catholic, although they’re probably not too happy about that. But it is my faith. I practically mourn this difference of opinion because I feel what I was raised to believe is consistent with what I profess, and that is that we are all endowed with a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. And that women should have that opportunity to exercise their free will.

We can easily brush past the Speaker’s “concerns” about Church teaching on the evil of abortion and homosexuality. That’s just a Washington circumlocution, which should be read to mean, “I reject Church teaching on the dignity of human life and the nature of human sexuality as properly ordered solely for marriage between a man and woman”. Nothing new there — we’ve heard it all before.

Nor is it new that the Speaker, and so many others, view the teachings of the Church as mere “opinion”, to be given the same weight as the opinions of others — or my own. That’s just a convenient excuse we all use when the Church tells us that we can’t do what we want.

What’s of particular interest to me is the idea that that “free will” justifies disobedience of the Church’s authoritative teachings and even authorizes the sin of abortion.

That is a fatal error.

The Speaker’s understanding of “free will” stems from a false notion of conscience that is all too common. There is no doubt that I must be governed by my conscience, and make moral decisions in accord with it. But under the modern view exemplified by the Speaker’s comments, the primacy of conscience means “I can do whatever I want, without regard to objective truth”.

This is a hallmark of the “dictatorship of relativism” that has been consistently denounced by Pope Benedict. The Speaker, and many others, have fallen for the same error as Adam and Eve — the tempting idea that I can decide for myself what is good and evil, and thus that the teachings of the Church are merely opinions, of equal weight to the thoughts of anyone else or of my own.

True conscience is not my own voice, telling me that I’m always right. Instead, it is the voice of God, speaking the truth to our hearts, and calling us to conform our will to His. As the Second Vatican Council put it:

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. Only in freedom can man direct himself toward goodness. Our contemporaries make much of this freedom and pursue it eagerly; and rightly to be sure. Often however they foster it perversely as a license for doing whatever pleases them, even if it is evil. (Gaudium et Spes 16-17)

The Speaker’s error has significant real-world consequences. It inevitably leads to the abortion clinic, the assisted suicide center, the torture chamber, the killing fields of murderous ideologies, and other horrors. It leads us to our current legal regime, to the horrendous injustice where the weakest among us can be killed with impunity, and their killers are rewarded with public funds.

But it also has a fatal consequence for our souls. The Speaker’s idea of untrammeled freedom that answers to no authority is ultimately a mirage, and actually enslaves us to our whims or to the prevailing fashions of the age. St. Peter saw this clearly, when he wrote about false prophets: “They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for whatever corrupts a man, to that he is enslaved”. (2 Pet 2:19). In contrast, humbly submitting our will to God’s, is actually liberating, and allows me to be the man I was meant to be, and that God wants me to be. And the best way to do that is by listening to the teachings of His Church — even if it means I have to change my behavior.

In one respect, the Speaker is absolutely right. We all must accept responsibility for the use of our freedom, and we will be judged by Christ Himself for it. Knowing how I have abused my own freedom, I am uneasy about that judgment. We should pray for the conversion of the Speaker’s heart, that she will return to the truth of God’s will, just as we should ceaselessly pray for our own conversion.

Ethics, Religious Instruction, and The Times

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

Anyone who consults the New York Times for ethical advice should have their head examined. This, a newspaper that never met an abortion that it didn’t like, and that gives a public forum to Peter Singer, the proponent of murdering infants and euthanizing the elderly.

But, some people obviously lack prudence, and consult the Newspaper of Record to help them deal with ethical problems. Thus it was that on Sunday, the following exchange occurred in a column entitled “The Ethicist”:

I volunteer as a Sunday-school teacher at my Catholic church. While I consider myself Catholic and understand Catholic beliefs, I do not agree with all that the church teaches. When a student asks me about a topic on which the church and I differ, may I reply with my own beliefs in addition to the official doctrine? B.J.,WASHINGTON

The Ethicist: Your church asked you to teach a class in Catholic doctrine, not one in B. J.’s views of Catholic doctrine, a reasonable, if personally inhibiting, request. But to give students a real understanding of both this doctrine and the state of the modern church, you may — you should — provide some context. It is a matter of fact, and not a trivial one, that many Catholics differ with their church on all sorts of things. (For example, Catholic Americans practice contraception at about the same rate as non-Catholics, official church policy notwithstanding.) To note that opinions differ within your religious community would be to convey something objectively true, pertinent to the discussion and informative for the students. You would not be offering your personal views, which are beside the point in this setting. Indeed, a Jew or a Muslim, a Hindu or an atheist, could honorably teach this class using these guidelines, giving the students a rich understanding of the subject without broaching the teacher’s personal beliefs.

UPDATE: B.J. presents church doctrine “their way” then tells his students that some Catholics feel different and discusses how. He urges his students to think about these things and discuss them with their parents.

Let’s consider how many ways this is wrong.

First of all, when a Catholic has an ethical dilemma, the right thing to do is to form a correct and Catholic conscience. To do that, we turn to Sacred Scripture and the authentic teachings of the Church, and we find a good advisor, somebody who is well-formed in their Catholic faith, who has sufficient knowledge and prudence that we can trust them to lead us to understand the will of God. We don’t consult with the New York Times, of all people. Talk about “blind guides”!

Now let’s look at the situation B.J. finds himself in. Remember now, this is not a college class in religious studies. It is a class with young children who need to be formed in their faith. Presumably, when a catechist is entrusted with this task, they understand that they have an obligation to present the authentic teachings of the Church. Presumably they also affirm that they will do so, at least implicitly. Parents certainly expect that they will do so, and so do the pastors who delegate this task to them.

Instead, here is the “Ethicist”, advising this man to forswear himself by breaking a solemn duty to the pastor and the parents and the children to teach authentic Catholic doctrine. And also participating in an active deception, by purporting to teach the truth but actually presenting false teaching as if it were a matter for “discussion”. So we’ve got a serious Eighth Commandment problem here.

We also have a person who will be exposing children to false doctrines, and leading them to believe that Church teachings are merely optional and are subject to private judgment. I doubt that B.J. is a crypto-Monophysite, or a semi-Pelagian, or that he seriously disagrees with the Filioque clause. Instead, I expect that the teachings B.J. objects to are all the usual dreary subjects of modern dissent — sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, divorce, contraception, etc. The stakes are high here — a false belief here could lead others into the serious risk of committing grave sins. B.J. is treading on very delicate, and dangerous ground here.

I think the Lord had something to say about that. Oh, yes, he was pretty clear:

whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Mt. 18:6)

The theological term for this is scandal, teaching others false beliefs and thus inducing them to sin. It is a violation of the Fifth Commandment, because it leads others to spiritual death.

The Ethicist should have said this to B.J.:

If you are a man of integrity, you have two choices, and two required actions. Choice One: Say nothing to the students about your disagreements with Church teaching, and instead do your job and present authentic Church doctrine, as you promised. Choice Two: If you cannot refrain from presenting your personal opinion as an alternative to the teaching of the Church, resign. Required Action One: Learn more about the true teachings of the Church. Required Action Two: Never consult the Times about ethics, but instead consult with good solid Catholics who are trustworthy guides to the will of God and form a correct and Catholic conscience in accord with Church teaching.

Church teaching is the Truth, not mere opinion that can be taken or left. We do nobody any favors by presenting falsehood as if it is on an equal plane with the Truth. In fact, we do them a grave disservice, and even endanger their souls and our own.

How Not to Form Conscience

Monday, March 9th, 2009

Those who have been paying attention to the Catholic media have known for years that the periodical that calls itself “The National Catholic Reporter” has long been a self-parody of sorts — a collection of all the usual suspects saying all the usual things about what Cardinal George called the “exhausted project” of “liberal Catholicism”.

But now this periodical has hit a new low, publishing an article entitled “I’m a Pro-Choice Catholic”. (You’ll have to take my word for it, because I won’t link to the actual article — I don’t want to lead anyone into the near occiasion of sin). The piece was written to justify the legalized destruction of innocent human life in the womb, and to claim that this structure of evil is compatible with Catholic social and moral teaching.

Today’s Gospel warned me that “the measure by which you measure will in return be measured out to you” (Lk 6:36), so I’m not going to say anything about the lady who wrote the article. What’s interesting to me is the approach she took to forming her conscience on this deeply important subject. It was all about her feelings, her personal judgments, and justifying her own life choices. This is not a Catholic way to form conscience.

As a Catholic and a disciple of Christ, the starting point is not what I “feel”, or especially what I “feel like doing”. Anybody with a modicum of self-awareness knows that our feelings are corrupted by original sin and encrusted by the residue of our own personal sins. Our moral decisions can’t be based on our private judgment about what is right and wrong (Adam and Eve, are you listening?).

We must be guided by human reason and the teaching of the Church, which was commissioned by Christ himself to guide us to salvation. Conscience is not something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere “feeling” about what we should or should not do. “Rather, conscience is the voice of God resounding in the human heart, revealing the truth to us and calling us to do what is good while shunning what is evil.” (USCCB, Faithful Citizenship). It would help if I stilled my own voice, and listened carefully to God’s voice while forming my conscience.

The key statement in forming my conscience is the one we pray every day, in the words Our Lord himself taught us — “Thy will be done”. Note that he did not say, “my will be done”. I have to conform my will to the will of God.

Fortunately, the Lord did not leave me alone to make decisions about forming my conscience. We have the Church, and in particular we have our bishops: “… the Sacred Council teaches that bishops by divine institution have succeeded to the place of the apostles, as shepherds of the Church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them, rejects Christ and Him who sent Christ” (Lumen Gentium 20). The bishops are not just any old source of information or guidance, for me to just consider along with the other experts. “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.” (Lumen Gentium 25). This is part of what it means to be Catholic — not to be ruled solely by my own private judgment, but to submit my will to the Church, and thus to God, and to obey their commandments.

“Adherence” or “obedience” are not always easy tasks, and frequently call for sacrifice and suffering. But so did Jesus’ own road to the Cross. On my own road to Calvary and the Empty Tomb, I should strive to be like the early disciples, who “held steadfastly to the teaching of the Apostles and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

I have to begin with St. Paul’s injunction in Rom 12:9 to “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good”. Abortion is evil, both by human reason and God’s will. There is no way that a well-formed human conscience — let alone a Catholic conscience — could justify it in any way.

Be Careful Who You Vote For – You could be supporting evil legislation

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Lurking in the background of this election are two crucial pieces of legislation — the “Freedom of Choice Act” (“FOCA”) in Congress, and the “Reproductive Health and Privacy Promotion Act” (RHAPP) in the New York State Legislature.

These two bills are substantially the same, and would have devastating effects on our society.

I’m not mincing words here — these bills are evil.

The supporters of FOCA and RHAPP claim falsely that they would only enact the provisions of Roe v. Wade into statutory law. Even though that would be awful enough, the bills are actually much, much worse. They would erase every reasonable regulation of abortion that has been enacted in the United States for the last 35 years, and could gravely endanger our religious liberties.

FOCA and RHAPP would declare abortion to be a “fundamental right”, and would ban any “discrimination” against that right. This means that it would be virtually impossible to regulate or restrict abortion in any way, at any time in pregnancy. Here are the kinds of laws that would be impossible to pass, if FOCA or RHAPP becomes law:

  • The partial birth abortion ban
  • Restrictions on public funding for abortions (under current federal law, the Medicaid program only pays for abortions if it was the result of rape or incest, or if the mother’s life is at risk; these bills would require Medicaid paying for all abortions, regardless of the reason)
  • Parental notification laws that require some parental involvement if a minor is seeking an abortion
  • Informed consent laws that require the doctor to reveal all the side effects of abortion (including psychological effects) and the facts of fetal development
  • Bans or restrictions on late-term abortions
  • Bans on abortions performed for sex selection or to kill handicapped children
  • Requirements that a doctor be available to treat the child if it survives an abortion
    Requirements that the mother be shown a sonogram before the abortion
    Bans on non-doctors performing abortions
    The “Mexico City Policy”, which bans aid to international organizations that promote abortion
  • In addition, FOCA or RHAPP would undermine or eliminate the conscience protections in law that protect religious liberties. Church-owned hospitals, social service agencies, and schools could be required to promote, perform, or refer for abortions. Just think about that — our schools could be required to help pregnant girls to get an abortion, or risk being sued for “discrimination”. And the licenses of doctors, nurses, and other professionals could be at risk if they don’t promote, perform or refer for abortions.

    For more information about FOCA, please visit the US Bishops’ Conference website.

    For more information about RHAPP, please visit the NYS Catholic Conference website here and here.

    These bills are extreme, and extremely evil. No Christian can call himself a true disciple of Christ if he supports laws like FOCA or RHAPP. This is the clear teaching of our Church.

    As Christians, we should do all within our power to resist this kind of evil. As St. Paul says, “”Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). This includes how we vote on Election Day.

    Here are the people on the ballot in New York who are on record as co-sponsors of these bills:


  • Candidate for President: Barack Obama
  • Candidates for Congress: Jerrold Nadler (primary sponsor), Gary Ackerman, Yvette Clark, Joseph Crowley, Eliot Engel, Nita Lowey, Carolyn Maloney, Carolyn McCarthy, Charles Rangel, Edolphus Towns, Nydia Velazquez
  • (Note: Both Senators from New York, Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, co-sponsor FOCA, but neither is running for re-election this year)

  • Candidates for State Senate: Andrea Stewart-Cousins (primary sponsor), Eric Adams, Neil Breslin, Thomas Duane, Ruth Hassell-Thompson, Shirley Huntley, Craig Johnson, Liz Krueger, Valmanette Montgomery, Kevin Parker, Bill Perkins, Diane Savino, Eric Schneiderman, Jose Serrano, Malcolm Smith, Toby Ann Stavisky, Antoine Thompson
  • (Note: the bill has not yet been introduced in the Assembly, so there are no official co-sponsors of the bill in that house)
  • Let me tell you where my conscience stands on this. But before I do that, here’s the official disclaimer: as the sidebar to this blog already says, but I will repeat it here, this is my personal opinion, and is not the official position of the Archdiocese. Here’s the personal disclaimer: I’m going to tell you the judgment of my conscience, but I can’t judge anything about the state of anybody else’s; that’s up to God.

    Having said all that, here goes:

    Given the state of my conscience, if I were to vote for any supporter of “abortion rights”, especially the people who are co-sponsors of FOCA or RHAPP, I believe that I would be committing a mortal sin. It would mean that I was turning a blind eye to the evil of abortion, and I would be utterly failing the acid test of Christian discipleship — love thy neighbor.

    I cannot imagine a grave enough moral reason that could justify me supporting someone who can sponsor a bill like FOCA or RHAPP. I can’t see any other issue that could possibly outweigh something like this.

    How could I face Jesus with that on my soul?

    Do you want to be a disciple of Jesus? Then listen to the Apostles – and their successors, our bishops.

    Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

    Yesterday was the feast day of Sts. Simon and Jude, Apostles. It’s nice to see the priest in red vestments, and to say the Gloria at daily Mass. But what difference should it make to us in this day and age?

    The Gospel of the feast day (Lk 6:12-16) is very important for us, and we need to listen carefully to what it says. Jesus called his disciples together, and then selected from their midst twelve apostles. These apostles were chosen not for their academic qualifications, their personal charisma, or their influence with the powerful of this world.

    They were selected by Our Lord to be the core group of his Church, the men who would be principally responsible for leading the other disciples and for carrying on Jesus’ mission to save the world.

    I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it is very common for people in our age to speak of our bishops as if their opinion or position is just one other factor that they may consider — and usually reject — in forming their conscience. They speak of the bishops as if they’re on the same level as some talking head on television, some political pundit they read in the paper, or some voice calling into a late-night radio show. Just listen to some of the Catholic “intellectuals” or politicians who are trying to explain how one can vote for an ardently “pro-choice” candidate with a clear conscience and still be “pro-life”, if you want examples of this way of thinking.

    For a reality check, listen instead to what the Second Vatican Council said about the bishops:

    “… the Sacred Council teaches that bishops by divine institution have succeeded to the place of the apostles, as shepherds of the Church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them, rejects Christ and Him who sent Christ” (20)

    “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.” (25)

    “The laity should, as all Christians, promptly accept in Christian obedience decisions of their spiritual shepherds, since they are representatives of Christ as well as teachers and rulers in the Church. Let them follow the example of Christ, who by His obedience even unto death, opened to all men the blessed way of the liberty of the children of God.” (37)

    Please take note — that’s the actual Second Vatican Council speaking, not the amorphous “spirit of Vatican II” that some people like to talk about.

    It really can’t be clearer. We’re Catholics. We’re trying to be disciples of Jesus. We need to listen to our Church — the Church Jesus Himself founded, and left for us as the means of salvation. The only way to do that is to listen to the men He sent to us — the successors of the Apostles, our bishops — and to accept their teachings as we form our consciences. Not to tie ourselves in knots trying to reason out ways that the teachings of our Church and our bishops somehow don’t apply to us, or don’t mean what they clearly state. That’s not “religious assent”, and it’s not discipleship.

    We need to take Jesus at His word, when he spoke to his Apostles: “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Lk. 10:16).

    Here’s the bottom line as we try to be disciples of Christ. It’s better to listen to Jesus and His Father than to reject them. We can start by listening to our bishops and accepting their teaching.

    “Thy Will Be Done” or “My Will Be Done” – Lessons I’ve Re-Learned about Conscience from my Talks on Catholic Voting

    Monday, October 20th, 2008

    I’ve been making the rounds of the Archdiocese, giving talks about how to form one’s conscience in anticipation of the election. This has been very tough going, because so many people just don’t have a clear idea about how to form their conscience as Catholics. I hear over and over again people say that whatever the bishops might teach, they’re going to follow their conscience anyway.

    This is a dangerous path. Conscience is not just a voice in my heart telling me that everything I do is perfectly okay, simply because I’ve chosen to do it. I don’t know about you, but that’s usually my selfishness and sinfulness talking. Nobody trusts a “yes man”, nor should we trust our conscience when it always justifies whatever I do. My conscience should always make me uncomfortable; otherwise, I might as well run for office, because I’d have the classic convenient conscience of the professional politician. A comfortable conscience is one that’s sound asleep.

    Instead, a good conscience is the way to allow the will of God, guided by the teachings of the Church, to govern our conduct. The Catechism defines conscience as “a practical judgment that we make about the quality of a moral act, based on our knowledge and reason, aided by grace” (CCC 1777-78). The Second Vatican Council put it beautifully: “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.” (Gaudium et Spes 16)

    I like to think of conscience is a morality-detector, like a radar system for my moral judgments. If my conscience is properly tuned, it will always keep me on course to the truth and to God; if it’s not properly tuned, I’ll go off on the path to destruction.

    I have to make sure my conscience is correct about God’s will. The old saying was right — I have to form a correct and Catholic conscience.

    This means that I have to use my own human reason, but I must always be guided by the teaching of the Church. If my conscience says that something is right, but the Church teaches that it’s wrong, I’m the one with the problem. I can’t just dismiss the Church as just another source of information to take into account, or not. God gave us the Church as the authoritative teacher of His will. That belief is one of the things that makes us Catholics. If I’m not doing everything I can to conform my conscience to the teachings of the Church, then I’m not holding up my end of the bargain.

    So I have to take a close look in the mirror and see why I’m out of step with the Church. I have to be honest with myself, because my track record is not good — whenever I’ve thought that the Church was wrong about a moral issue, it was always the voice of my own selfishness talking, not the voice of God.

    In those cases, I have to seriously dedicate myself to prayer and discernment, asking God to conform my will to His. After all, in the prayer Jesus himself taught us, we ask that “Thy will be done” — not “My will be done”.

    So, when I’m thinking about voting, I have to listen to what my Church is telling me — how to evaluate the moral issues involved, according to the will of God. After all, in the end we won’t be judged based on whether we were good Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives. We’ll be judged based on how closely we followed Jesus.

    If this isn’t clear enough, then I need to re-read Matthew 25:31-46. If that passage doesn’t make my conscience uncomfortable, then I’ve got big problems.

    Here are two quotes to get us started on our discussion of the important issue of conscience and voting, and I’ll be blogging more as the election nears:

    “Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care… But being ‘right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life.” United States Bishops — Living the Gospel of Life

    “The inalienable right to life of every innocent human person outweighs other concerns where Catholics may use prudential judgment, such as how best to meet the needs of the poor or to increase access to health care for all.” New York State Bishops — Our Cherished Right, Our Solemn Duty

    Prayerful discernment of what our Church is telling us about the will of God — that’s where formation of conscience begins.