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Conscience demands doing good, avoiding evil

As we've been going through "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," the document from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on understanding our responsibilities in political life, we've touched on conscience and its command to do good and avoid evil.

Last month I wrote about the evils we are to avoid. The bishops are very clear about those evils, called "intrinsic evils," - abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, destructive research on embryos, genocide, torture, racism and the targeting of noncombatants in terrorism or war.

The bishops also warn us, however, about two temptations in the political life we should avoid.

The first temptation is to think that all issues are of equal importance. The fact is that the "direct and intentional" killing of innocent human beings "is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed." By this, the bishops do not mean that we should just oppose it personally or internally.

They mean it should always be opposed by the law since, as they say, "a legal system that violates the basic right to life on the grounds of choice is fundamentally flawed." So we have a moral obligation to oppose the laws that allow for the killing of innocent human beings, and this is not just one issue among others.

At the same time, say the bishops, the second temptation is to allow our focus on one issue to justify our ignoring "other serious threats to human life and dignity." Racism, torture, the use of the death penalty, unjust war, hunger, lack of basic health care, unjust immigration policy are all serious threats to human life and dignity. We have a moral obligation to act in those areas as well.

This means that our dedication to one issue does not exhaust our obligations as a Catholic. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, "A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the church's social doctrine does not exhaust one's responsibility towards the common good." We can prioritize the issues we take into consideration when choosing a candidate, but we cannot pretend that the most important issue is the only one.

If we are honest with ourselves, this will make a good deal of sense. Clearly abortion could be said to be the most important issue on the political spectrum because it is an intrinsic evil, because it involves the "direct and intentional" killing of innocents, and because of the massive scale of deaths it involves.

But voting for someone just because of their position on abortion while ignoring the candidate's views on every single other issue is not prudent. What if a candidate is a racist, supports torture, want to engage in an unjust war, or supports embryonic destructive research?

These issues of prudence are why pastoral principles are necessary. Next month I'll write about the single-issue voter and how the bishops help us discern when we have difficult choices.

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

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