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Bishops' document provides information and formation

In "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" the U.S. bishops have provided us with a way to develop our voting habits in line with our Catholic principles. When I first started writing this column, I pointed out we all have a desire to live consistent lives. We all want the faith expressed by our lips to be the same faith expressed through our actions. The bishops' document helps us do this.

The first question to ask is perhaps about conscience. Why do I need my conscience formed? Is the church telling me how to vote despite my conscience? What is a conscience?

Well, a conscience is not much different than Pinocchio's Jiminy Cricket. It's a voice that tells us to do good and avoid evil. It's a sense inside our minds and hearts and souls that pricks us when we are tempted toward ill and pushes us when we shy from the good.

The church always has taught we have to follow our conscience, and the bishops support this position today. But the bishops also remind us consciences can be wrong. Even the well-meaning conscience can advise us into error if it does not have all the appropriate information and formation.

Therefore, in "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," the bishops want to tell us what the church teaches as well as the formation on how to apply it. This is not about instructing Catholics how to vote. It is providing the background we all need about how to weigh important issues and make moral decisions.

Some still argue that the church should not be involved with politics, that bishops have to muzzle themselves lest they mix religion and politics. But even if we admit to a separation between church and state, nowhere in the authentic tradition of the United States has the voter ever been required to separate their faith from their conscience.

We are Catholics. To be consistent about that, we should use the faith to inform what we consider evil and what we consider good. As the bishops say, "Christ, the teacher, shows us what is true and good, that is, what is in accord with our human nature as free, intelligent beings created in God's image and likeness and endowed by God with dignity and rights."

The upshot of all of this is that we are directed in our voting not by ideologies - liberal or conservative or libertarian - and not by parties - Republican or Democrat - and not by family - "It's how we've always voted" - but by the truth of the human person as that truth is revealed by Christ Jesus.

Forming our conscience is not an overnight activity. It involves, as St. Paul might say, "putting on Christ" and maybe walking around with him until seeing with his eyes becomes habit.

So let us start now directing our conscience toward the truth of the human person, toward our fundamental dignity, and to relationship with Jesus and his church.

Omar Gutierrez is the manager of the Archdiocesan Office of Missions and Justice. Contact him at

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