Conscience and Voting
If we were to ask the average person, “What is a conscience?”, many would quickly call to mind Pinocchio’s sidekick Jiminy Cricket who was famous for the line, “Let your conscience be your guide”. Years ago, most people would automatically understand that to mean “Do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do”. Sadly, in today’s world, those words must be clarified. We need to understand what it means to follow a well-formed conscience. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains what exactly a well-formed conscience is: “A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator” (n. 1783). We are also reminded that as human beings subject to negative influences and temptations to sin, we must strive to be virtuous, and to make a concerted effort to educate and develop our conscience.
The Catechism continues, “The education of conscience is a life-long task” (n. 1784). How then, does one go about forming an upright conscience? The Catechism provides the key: “In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path; we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others, and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church” (n. 1785, emphasis added).
The current election season provides a much-needed wake-up call to our society on the importance of the education of our conscience. Not only for the issues at hand, but also for the long-term, for the common good of society, and for the sake of generations to come. Yes, there is much at stake in this election. And while the majority of Americans are probably suffering from some degree of election fatigue, let us not lose heart. We can, and must, pray. We can, and must, inform our conscience. So, let us consider three fundamental pillars that, if we get them right, can steer our nation back on course.
In 2002, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued The Participation of Catholics in Political Life, offering some helpful guidance for educating our conscience on what is most important. The document notes, “Democracy must be based on the true and solid foundation of non-negotiable ethical principles, which are the underpinning of life in society.” The CDF highlights the priorities of the right to life from conception to natural death, the safeguarding of the family based on the monogamous marriage between one man and one woman, and the right to religious freedom (n. 4).
One of the best articulations of the right to life comes from the Declaration on Procured Abortion. Issued in 1974, shortly after Roe v. Wade, it remains strikingly apt today: “The first right of the human person is his life…This good is fundamental – the condition of all the others. Hence it must be protected above all others. It does not belong to society, nor does it belong to public authority in any form to recognize this right for some and not for others…It is not recognition by another that constitutes this right. This right is antecedent to its recognition; it demands recognition and it is strictly unjust to refuse it” (n. 11).
When it comes to educating our conscience in making election decisions, there is no question that the sacred good of life itself must be protected before all else. After all, if we don’t have life, how can we exercise any other rights? It does not take a rocket scientist to figure this out. And yet, if we do get this right, we will get the other issues right as well. Abortion is the biggest scourge on our nation. The killing of 1.3 million innocent children each year is unconscionable and the way we vote has very grave consequences.
The U.S. Bishops’ document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship emphasizes the importance of marriage for the good of society: “The family – based on marriage between a man and a woman – is the first and fundamental unit of society and is a sanctuary for the creation and nurturing of children. It should be defended and strengthened, not redefined or undermined by permitting same-sex unions or other distortions of marriage.” The 2015 Supreme Court ruling, Obergefell vs. Hodges, has been referred to as “the Roe v. Wade of marriage”. The USCCB’s statement did not mince words when they said, “Regardless of what a narrow majority of the Supreme Court may declare at this moment in history, the nature of the human person and marriage remains unchanged and unchangeable. Just as Roe v. Wade did not settle the question of abortion over forty years ago, Obergefell v. Hodges does not settle the question of marriage today. Neither decision is rooted in the truth, and as a result, both will eventually fail….The unique meaning of marriage as the union of one man and one woman is inscribed in our bodies as male and female. Mandating marriage redefinition across the country is a tragic error that harms the common good and most vulnerable among us, especially children.
In Evangelium Vitae, Saint John Paul II speaks often of the profound “crisis of culture” and the obscuring of the moral conscience as people are becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil. Pope John Paul cites Isaiah 5:20, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness”. The way this is taking hold in modern society becomes more and more evident, especially when we consider issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and marriage. Hopefully, good decisions by voters this November will produce progress in reversing some of the evils we are facing.
Attacks on religious freedom are increasingly threatening individual and institutional conscience and the freedom of the Church to serve those in need. We need only to look at the situation of the Little Sisters of the Poor who have gone all the way to the Supreme Court to defend their right to care for the elderly and not to be forced to comply with the healthcare law that violates their conscience. These and similar violations have affected a great many Americans and have resulted in vast litigation, much of which are still awaiting outcomes.
Threats to religious freedom are seen particularly clearly when it comes to conscience rights. In addition to the many cases pending against the HHS mandate, there are also bakers, florists, and photographers who are being forced out of business for refusing to participate in same-sex weddings. We also have the example of Cathy DeCarlo, a nurse who was traumatized when she was forced to participate in a 22-week abortion and threatened with the loss of her job and nursing license. The legalization of physician-assisted suicide being pushed in numerous states undermines the medical profession and puts good doctors in precarious situations. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and business owners need more than ever for the Hyde Amendment to be made permanent law and for the Conscience Rights Act to take effect so that they can have legal recourse when their conscience rights are threatened. Our voting choices this November will have a major effect on what happens next.
The way we vote will also have a significant impact on the make-up of the Supreme Court for generations to come. Do we want activist justices, or justices who will uphold the Constitution and protect our fundamental rights and the freedoms that our founding fathers held so dearly?
While we may not be able to fully educate every citizen’s conscience in the coming days, we can pray fervently, and, to the best of our ability do our part to help others properly form their conscience by reminding them of these fundamentals and why they are critically important to consider when casting our votes.
Without life, nothing else really matters. Without the family, built on the Divine institution of marriage between one man and one woman, the most basic building block for human flourishing, society crumbles. And, without religious freedom, which includes at its heart the freedom to love God and to put our beliefs into practice by loving our neighbor, the nation’s very soul is at stake. George Washington said, “Religion and morality are the essential pillars of civil society.” Let us make every effort, with the help of God, to restore this reality.