Faith guides our conscience and decisions as we participate in building social order
No one needs to be reminded that there is a national election coming soon. Each of us could be helped by being reminded of the opportunities and obligations that are ours before and at the time of an important election.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we Catholics have rights and responsibilities as participants in our democratic society. It is true that we are citizens of this country. We love our country for many good reasons. At the same time, we have been claimed by Christ for his kingdom. If we have faith in him as the Son of God, then our lives as citizens here should be shaped by our commitment to his gospel. Far from weakening our ability to participate in the democratic process, our faith in Jesus helps us contribute even more effectively in building up the social order.
Catholics in the United States can find important guidance in a document entitled, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship." This is a statement adopted several years ago by the bishops of our country and updated recently with teachings of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. I encourage you to read it in preparation for this fall’s election. You can find it prominently available on the U.S. bishops’ website – usccb.org.
The document also has been updated to take account of recent developments in our nation’s domestic and foreign policy. These include the ongoing destruction of more than 1 million innocent human lives each year by abortion; the spread of physician-assisted suicide; the redefinition of marriage by the courts, by legislation and increasingly by the culture itself; the excessive consumption of material goods and the destruction of natural resources, harming both the environment and the poor; the deadly attacks on fellow Christians and religious minorities around the world; the narrowing redefinition of religious freedom, which threatens individual conscience and the freedom of the church to serve; economic policies that fail the poor; a broken immigration system and a world-wide refugee crisis; and war and terror that threaten human life and dignity.
While these and other important issues have a political aspect, they are first and foremost moral issues. We cannot hope to ensure a just society if we shape it with immoral (unjust) laws and policies. Catholics have an obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society. In order to know we are influencing society and its politics for good and not evil, we must form our understanding and judgment about what is good according to divine law. So before we can be faithful citizens, we form our consciences.
A good conscience is formed in accord with human reason and the teaching of the Catholic Church. Conscience is not something that allows me to justify doing what I want. Rather, it is the voice of God resounding in my heart. A well-formed conscience enables me to judge what is right and holds me accountable for choosing what is best.
The formation of a good conscience must begin with a sincere desire to know the truth and to embrace it. For Catholics this means learning what is revealed in sacred Scripture and contained in the teaching of the "Catechism of the Catholic Church." It also is important to learn the background of important issues, beyond current political rhetoric. Always, it is essential to pray for the gift of prudence, to better understand God’s plan and how to achieve it in particular circumstances.
Over the centuries, the Catholic Church has articulated a coherent body of teaching on social issues, shaped by Scripture and an understanding of God’s design for human life and dignity. From this body of teaching we can draw several themes that help us understand our obligations as citizens. You should consult "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" for a fuller explanation of these themes. They are the right to life and the dignity of the human person; the call to family and the importance of subsidiarity in the human community; human rights and responsibilities; special attention to the needs of the poor and vulnerable; the dignity of work and workers; solidarity with the human family at home and abroad; and care for God’s creation.
Recent popes, including Pope Francis, have affirmed in our time what has always been the first principle of Catholic social teaching: the right to life and the dignity of each human person. We cannot allow ourselves to grow indifferent to the fact of a million innocent lives taken in the womb each year, including thousands in Nebraska. Human embryos are routinely destroyed in the name of research. The movement to legalize physician-assisted suicide is gaining momentum and cultural respectability. Those who serve in public office and candidates for office should be held accountable if they support and enforce laws that allow direct attacks on innocent human life.
Gospel of Life
This year in Nebraska, we have the rare opportunity to expand our understanding of the gospel of life. It is true that an execution by the state of one found guilty of a serious crime is not the moral equivalent of abortion (or other direct attacks on innocent life). At the same time recent popes and the bishops of this country have asked that we see a moral good in refraining from state-sponsored executions, since capital punishment is not necessary to protect society. There is much good information available from the bishops of Nebraska and others to help you form your conscience on this matter. My encouragement is to vote to retain the repeal of the death penalty.
I am praying for wisdom and prudence as I consider the candidates and the issues before us in the coming election. I encourage you to do the same. A prayerful reading of "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" is helpful, as we exercise our gospel responsibility to influence our society for the good. May God bless our state and nation with conscientious and faithful citizens.