Abraham Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address that American government is “of the people, by the people, for the people.” But such a political system requires learned and virtuous citizens to make informed choices about the politicians they elect as representatives, as well as the public policy matters that should receive the most attention.
To assist Catholics in fulfilling this task in 2012, the nation’s Catholic bishops have continued their tradition of releasing a document every presidential election cycle entitled, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”
The document seeks to educate Catholics about the importance of forming their consciences around the basic principles and moral framework of Catholic social doctrine. It also prioritizes an array of issues that Catholics should consider when making choices about whom to vote for and how to participate as a “faithful citizen” in the public arena.
But what exactly is conscience and how is it formed?
Doing good, avoiding evil
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed” (No. 1778). It “enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil” (No. 1777).
The exercise of conscience first requires the acknowledgement by each person that there are such things as good and evil, true and false, and right and wrong.
Unfortunately, the recent study “Lost in Transition” by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith shows many young people today do not think within these categories and are practically incapable of moral reasoning.
The common-sense recognition of an objective moral order that binds human action is no longer common. “Conscience” has become the trump card people use when they wish to live by their subjective preferences instead of doing what they ought to do.
There is no longer “the truth,” but rather “my truth” and “your truth.” People scoff at the idea of papal infallibility, but seem to believe in the infallible judgment of each person’s conscience.
Surely, a person must act in accord with conscience even when it is mistaken, but there must be a source of judgment of conscience other than the subjective reflections of each individual person.
Without an objective moral truth that could guide human action and which can be appealed to, we would all be subject to the arbitrary whims of those in power. But moral truth exists. We can discover it through both faith and reason; it is the foundation of authentic liberty.
Helping us grow in freedom
Fortunately, the church, as mother and teacher, is always there to help us in the lifelong task of forming our consciences. Because we are so often unable to recognize or understand why a particular action is good or evil, the church instructs us in the virtues and provides us with the principles we need to live in a way that serves the pursuit of justice and human dignity.
According to the late Father Richard Neuhaus, “[F]aithful assent is not a matter of standing to attention, clicking one’s heels, and saluting at the appearance of every document from Rome. Rather, it is a matter of thinking for myself so that I can think with the church, the prior assumption being that the church possesses a teaching charism and authority that warrants my assent.”
Far from being an imposition on our freedom of action, the church’s loving guidance is an aid to our freedom. Authentic freedom is the capacity to do what one ought and to live in accord with God’s will, not the ability to do whatever one pleases.
Therefore, the two indispensable preconditions for the proper formation of conscience are recognizing the reality of an objective moral order, and making an act of faith in the church’s ability to guide us into truth.
Once achieved, the task then turns to actually forming one’s conscience through prayer and education about the ways in which our individual lives and the social order are properly ordered to promote justice, human flourishing, and the common good.
Studying and reflecting on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the bishops’ document “Faithful Citizenship” are two wonderful places to start this process.
When we properly form our consciences, we will begin to reconstruct the social order along Catholic principles, and restore all things in Christ.
Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.