Election Day and Conscience

Tuesday is election day. Quoting Bishop Kettler,

“Our Catholic faith teaches us that responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation. Voting with the aim of protecting human life, promoting human dignity and advancing the common good of all God’s children helps to make the world a better place.” (Central Minnesota Catholic, Oct 2, 2020).

Because the issues are so complex and contentious, the USCCB published “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility” to assist Catholics as a guide in choosing who to vote for. Copies were included in bulletins, sent by email and available in the back of church. But just what is conscience?

Conscience is the faculty that warns us if we are about to do something wrong…but only if we have already formed our consciences properly, and that is the job of our intellect. Conscience is a natural facility of our reason that does three things:

  1. Reminds us always to do good and avoid evil.

  2. Makes a judgment about the good and evil of particular choices in a specific situation.

  3. Bears witness after the fact to the good or evil we have done (i.e. having a guilty conscience).

Many people mistakenly think that conscience is the faculty that tells us what is right and what is wrong, but it is not. Conscience is a distinctly human facility that is better thought of as an alarm. We learn what is right and wrong with our intellect, and then conscience "sounds off" when we are about to violate the standards our intellect has learned. If we have no standards, we’ll never hear the alarm.

Conscience uses the objective principles of the moral law that we have learned through our intellect, to judge the morality of acts in specific circumstances. For Catholics, this means following what Jesus teaches in Scripture and Tradition through the magisterium of the Church. Conscience is not itself the source of the moral law, as some moderns like to claim. Many who reject Church teaching will say, "I'm just following my conscience." What they usually mean is that they're looking to their conscience as the source of moral principles, which is a serious error.

Conscience does not always judge properly. Out of ignorance or bad reasoning, it can judge wrongly. Erroneous judgment is often our own fault, and can have many causes (from Catechism, 1791-2):

  • Lack of care in forming our conscience or our powers of reason

  • Misunderstanding conscience

  • Damage caused by repeated and habitual sin

  • Following the bad example of others

  • Rejection of Church teaching

  • Ignorance of Christ and the gospels

  • Neglecting the work of our conversion to Christ

  • Neglect of charity

If our conscience errs and we are responsible for the error, then we are morally guilty of the evil committed. If our conscience errs and we are not responsible for the error, then we are not morally guilty for the evil committed (though there may be legal repercussions). But even if the guilt is not imputable to us, it is still an evil act. This greatly hinders our ability to advance in the moral life and live in union with God.

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