Faithful Citizenship: Our Responsibility
By The Most Reverend Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
In November of 2007, the Catholic Bishops of the United States issued a document entitled, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship." The purpose of this instruction for Catholics was "to address political and social questions by helping them to develop a well-formed conscience" (#17).
In light of this document and the decisions that we as Catholics must make as responsible citizens, I add my own instruction. I will do so by addressing some questions that Catholics often ask.
1. What is conscience? According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "Conscience is a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act" (#1796). "Following your conscience" does not mean "doing as you wish." Conscience is not an arbitrary "feeling" or an "opinion." The Catechism continues, "Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator" (#1783). Each and every one of us has an obligation to inform his or her conscience correctly, according to the truth.
2. What is the purpose of any political process? Any legitimate political process seeks the common good. When Cain, after having killed his brother Abel, as recorded in the Book of Genesis, asks, "Am I my brother¹s keeper?" (Genesis 4:9), the answer is a resounding "Yes." Jesus reaffirmed that answer. He did so most notably in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The Good Samaritan overlooks the differences of culture and tradition, looks beyond the distinctions of foreigner and citizen, and assists someone who has fallen victim to robbers and been left to die.
One¹s opinion or arbitrary "feelings", much less any narrow self-interest, is not reason enough to vote for a particular measure or candidate. The benefit of the common good must be first and foremost. The common good, as Genesis and the Parable of the Good Samaritan also remind us, involves not only our social well-being but also our true and highest good. With this in mind, the pursuit of the common good cannot be an excuse to abrogate a person¹s fundamental rights. Finally, let us make this observation about the political process. We must remember that in a democracy, the government reflects the society, for better or worse. As Thomas Jefferson observed, a true democracy presupposes virtuous citizens.
3. Does the Church tell me how to vote? No, it does not. Neither I nor anyone else in the Church is telling anyone how to vote. The Church would be negligent, however, if it did not teach particularly in moral matters.
As the Catechism says in quoting the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the mission of the Church is "Œto pass moral judgments even in matters related to politics, whenever the fundamental rights of man or the salvation of souls requires it¹" (#2246). The Church is obliged by the teachings of Our Lord to communicate without compromise the truth in the area of morals, especially as they impact the common good of the society.
The Church is involved in this instruction also because it is a free member of the society. The Church also has rights.
4. What are some important moral judgments? The first and foremost is the right to life. A civilized society insures the basic freedom to live for each and every citizen. The obligation for the common good obligates all of us to assist the defenseless, whether they be children in the womb, persons weakened by age and illness or victims of human engineering. Life is fundamental. Therefore, acts that promote the destruction of innocent life, like abortion, are intrinsically evil. The taking of innocent life is never justifiable, and a law that permits this is flawed because it violates the common good.
5. Are capital punishment and war also pro-life issues? They certainly are. The difference is that capital punishment and war are not intrinsic evils. While capital punishment and war must remain rarely justified, self-defense and defense of the nation, which are both a right and responsibility, can motivate them. Abortion is never justified. In the matter of voting, one cannot justify a vote for a candidate who promotes an intrinsic evil, while appealing to that same candidate¹s opposition to war or capital punishment. To vote for a candidate with the purpose of promoting an immoral practice violates a good conscience. In doing so one directly wills and participates in choosing and bringing about evil. Voting for a "pro-abortion" candidate helps make possible the destruction of innocent life.
6. If all candidates favor abortion, but in different circumstances, then what choice is there? There is no justification for voting for a candidate who endorses the killing of the innocent without restriction or reservation. Faced with a totally "pro-choice" or "pro-abortion" roster, one could only vote for the candidate who proposes to do the "lesser evil."
7. Are social justice issues also pro-life issues? Issues such as poverty, housing, and education are part of pro-life concerns. One must always remember that social conditions presuppose the protection of human life. The protection of human life is fundamental. Without the protection of human life, society and its concerns about the common welfare of its citizens are in jeopardy. The right to life for every innocent person is inalienable and a fundamental principle for civil society and its laws. In the words of Pope John Paul II, as quoted in the bishops¹ document, "Šthe common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights‹for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture‹is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination (Christifideles Laici, no. 38)" (Faithful Citizenship #26).
All issues, as they involve the common good, are related. However, not all issues are equal. Some are fundamental, like life. Others require greater definition, like poverty. Still others are terribly complex, like war. All of them are important but not equivalent. Because they are important, they require careful consideration. Voting for a law out of self-interest or a candidate because of an arbitrary "feeling" or the candidate¹s appearance is out of the question for a conscientious voter.
The society cannot afford such superficiality. The Catholic voter must first find out exactly what positions a candidate is taking. Then, the voter should seek to inform his or her conscience, according to the truth and solid moral principles. The voter next must bring the decision to prayer. Finally, the voter must act responsibly.
Devotedly yours in our Risen Lord,
+Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles