In my two previous columns I wrote about the im-portance of a properly formed conscience in the practice of faithful citizenship. Without a properly formed conscience rooted in universal moral principles and enlightened by our Catholic faith, we run the risk of following a blind guide. Our conscience would likely make erroneous judgments about the policies and candidates that promote or oppose the fundamental rights and authentic goods necessary for a just society to flourish. Voting according to a properly formed conscience is greatly assisted both by the virtue of prudence and by prayer. But we also have to do our homework. We have to know the candidates and their positions, especially on the most important issues. If we intend to fulfill our civic and moral duty as Catholic citizens responsibly, we have to examine these matters not primarily from the perspective of partisan politics or enlightened self-interest, but in the light of faith.
In our personal and public life we have an obligation both to pursue the good and to oppose evil. While Catholics in good conscience may legitimately differ in their opinions on the best course of action regarding various proposals and strategies that would advance the common good, such as in debates about health care reform or the economy, there are some matters about which we cannot disagree without abandoning core teachings of the Gospel and the Catholic Church.
As Catholics we ought never choose something which is intrinsically evil, even as a means to a good end. Chief among these intrinsic evils is the deliberate destruction of innocent human life. (See last week’s article for others.) “This exercise of conscience begins always with opposing policies that violate human life or weaken its protection. Those who knowingly, willingly and directly support public policies or legislation that undermine fundamental moral principles cooperate with evil.” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, USCCB).
We live in an imperfect world. Not all existing laws are just. Some exist in grave violation of the natural law and universal moral principles. Think of the most obvious: the legal protection which allows the destruction of innocent human life through abortion or government mandates which force citizens to violate their consciences in order to gain access to health care. When morally flawed laws already exist, those who formulate laws and all who participate in public life have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting those morally defective laws. If we citizens and those in positions of legitimate authority ne-glect to attempt to limit the harm and overturn these laws, we too cooperate in that evil. We have an obligation to do what we can and to seek even incremental improvements in view of the eventual elimination of the unjust law or policy.
Similarly, a Catholic cannot rightly vote for a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or euthanasia, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. This would be a formal cooperation in grave evil and would be gravely sinful. A candidate may appear attractive because his or her positions on a number of issues are consistent with our Catholic values and principles. But what if he or she takes positions in support of certain intrinsic evils as well? We have to recognize that not all goods carry equal moral weight. We cannot ignore the more fundamental issues. Even before promoting certain goods, there is a prior claim on our conscience to oppose acts which are always evil. In order to justify voting for a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil, such as the attempt to redefine marriage, this would re-quire a proportionately grave moral reason for ignoring such a profound flaw. This may be easier to conceive in theory than to discover in actual practice! This is particularly obvious when we consider the destruction of tens of millions of human lives through abortion. What could be a proportionately grave moral reason that would allow a Catholic voter to ignore this evil?
Finally, if all of the candidates hold positions in favor of some intrinsic evil, conscientious Catholic voters face a dilemma. Because we have a serious moral obligation to vote, deciding not to vote is not ordinarily an acceptable solution. After careful deliberation, we may decide to vote for the candidate less likely to advance the morally flawed position and do the least harm, while promoting other authentic goods.
Voting is not merely a civic or political act. Voting is a moral act involving duties and responsibilities. It demands a properly formed conscience. It requires a careful and honest assessment of the candidates, issues and principles which are at stake for our society. As always in the upcoming election, there are very serious matters in the balance. Our choice of candidates demands a careful and prayerful consideration of the moral consequences of our political choices.
As bishops we do not tell Catholic citizens which candidates they should vote for. Our duty is to teach. Our duty is to assist Catholics in the proper formation of our consciences so that we can make our political choices about issues and candidates in light of the truths of our Catholic faith and universal moral principles.
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