In November 2015 the US Bishops approved their latest edition of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. This important document is meant to help guide the faithful in the formation of their consciences, especially when it comes to the subject of voting for candidates who are seeking public office. This is no small matter especially given the reality, as Pope Emeritus stated that “The direct duty to work for a just society is proper to the lay faithful” (Deus Caritas Est, no. 29). One of the first steps to a just society is the election of officials by citizens who desire legislation to be passed and enacted that is directed towards a Culture of Life.
One of the most fundamental aspects of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship is the recognition that each layperson must exercise a form of regnative prudence when it comes to the subject of voting. Typically, regnative prudence is thought to be something legislators must use when trying to create and pass laws, but it is this type of prudence that the US Bishops acknowledge is needed by the electorate in order to elect the proper politicians to help restore justice. As the bishops state, “Prudence shapes and informs our ability to deliberate over available alternatives, to determine what is most fitting to a specific context, and to act decisively. Exercising this virtue often requires the courage to act in defense of moral principles when making decisions about how to build a society of justice and peace” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, no. 19). They go on to state, “Aided by the virtue of prudence in the exercise of well-formed consciences, Catholics are called to make practical judgments regarding good and evil choices in the political arena” (no. 21). Finally, the bishops make the conclusion, “Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. This is why it is so important to vote according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods” (no. 34). Here the US Bishops recognize the reality that even the common citizen has a role to play in government, that they have an important role in creating a just society that is directed toward a Culture of Life.
But what do the US Bishops mean by “the proper relationship among moral goods”? Are there issues that the Catholic voter ought to put as priorities over other issues? The simple answer is yes. Even the US Bishops acknowledge there are moral issues that are preeminent over others. As they state, “In making these decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose policies promoting intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions” (no. 37).
But what are these intrinsic evils that the bishops are referring to? To better answer that question the US Bishops refer back to their 1998 document, Living the Gospel of Life, where they declare, “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. A prime example is the intentional taking of innocent human life, as in abortion and euthanasia. In our nation, ‘abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others’” (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 5). It is interesting to note the life issues have a preeminent place among the many moral issues that the Bishops tackle within the document. As they affirm, “It unites us as a ‘people of life and for life’ (Evangelium Vitae, no. 6) pledged to build what St. John Paul II called a ‘culture of life’ (Evangelium Vitae, no. 77). This culture of life begins with the preeminent [emphasis mine] obligation to protect innocent life from direct attack and extends to defending life whenever it is threatened or diminished” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, no. 40). As a result, the issues of abortion and euthanasia take on a special sort of tone that other issues simply do not have within the bishops’ statement. Frequently, the term “preeminent” is used to describe the severity of the threat of abortion, but it is not used with any other issue. Quite a declaration considering the many moral issues that are within the political sphere; it is plainly obvious the US Bishops recognize the right to life as the foundational issue.
As a result of that recognition, the Bishops also recognize the threat of euthanasia and assisted suicide. In an increasingly utilitarian society there is a push to legalize these particular affronts to life as well. California is just one recent state to have legalized so called assisted suicide and there will be many more in the upcoming state legislative sessions. The Bishops certainly recognize just how sacred life is even at the end, “The end of life is a holy moment, a moment that marks a preparation for life with God, and it is to be treated with reverence and accompaniment. The end of life is as sacred as the beginning of life and requires treatment that honors the true dignity of the human person as created in the image of the living God” (no. 66).
The simple fact is the so-called right to die quickly becomes an idea of a “duty” to die. Recent studies have certainly suggested that this happens where localities have legalized assisted suicide. This reality is implicitly affirmed in the Bishops’ document, “We hope Catholics will ask candidates how they intend to help our nation pursue these important goals…Keep our nation from turning to violence to address fundamental problems—a million abortions each year to deal with unwanted pregnancies, euthanasia and assisted suicide to deal with the burdens of illness and disability…” (no. 92).
The fact is if any candidate that supports such intrinsic evils such as abortion, euthanasia, and/or assisted suicide as appropriate is problematic from a moral perspective. Again, the Bishops are very clear on this point, “As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support. Yet if a candidate’s position on a single issue promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as legal abortion, redefining marriage in a way that denies its essential meaning, or racist behavior, a voter may legitimately disqualify a candidate from receiving support” (no. 42).
As Samuel Adams once famously quipped, “Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt. He therefore is the truest friend to the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue, and who, so far as his power and influence extend, will not suffer a man to be chosen into any office of power and trust who is not a wise and virtuous man.” It is enormously important for the Catholic voter to form his/her conscience properly. Simply put, failure to do this can lead to the disastrous consequence of the culture of death. Again, the Bishops are very succinct in this belief, “As Catholics, we are led to raise questions for political life other than those that concentrate on individual, material well-being. Our focus is not on party affiliation, ideology, economics, or even competence and capacity to perform duties, as important as such issues are. Rather, we focus on what protects or threatens the dignity of every human life” (no. 91).