On Conscience
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
October 2010

The path to the voting booth consists of five steps: knowing the faith, forming your conscience, learning the issues, examining the candidates, and making choices. Many Catholics find “forming your conscience” the most difficult step to understand, perhaps because we were taught a false understanding of what “conscience” means.

Conscience is not a “feeling” about what we should do or what our “gut” tells us. Rather, “conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed.” (Catechism no. 1778)

We are not born with a right conscience. We have to form it in accord with human reason, enlightened by the teaching of Christ as it comes to us through the Church. To have a well-formed conscience we must have a willingness and openness to seek the truth. Forming a conscience is aided by studying Sacred Scripture and the Catechism, examining facts, and engaging in prayerful reflection.

The Pope’s recent visit to the United Kingdom gave reason to reflect on importance of forming conscience. The Pope spoke to politicians at Westminster Hall on the very spot where Saint Thomas More was condemned to death for following his conscience. The highlight of the visit was the beatification of John Henry Newman. Newman was a shining light in the Church of England, but his conscience led him to Roman Catholic faith. Both More and Newman did not take their decisions lightly. Both studied the Scriptures and the Church’s teachings, and prayed for guidance. Neither, however, wanted “in their gut” their eventual paths. Rather, they were dedicated to God’s truth and their consciences were formed accordingly.

A well-formed conscience also means wisely exercising the virtue of prudence. Prudence enables us to discern the true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it. The ability to choose, however, does not mean that we can use an immoral means, even to achieve a good result. Certain acts are “intrinsically evil,” in that they are always wrong, not matter what the intended result. These acts must always be rejected, opposed, and never supported or condoned. Such acts include abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, destroying human embryos. genocide, torture, racism, and the targeting of noncombatants in war.

Just as we have an obligation never to do evil, we also have an obligation to do good. The right to life implies and is linked to other human rights—to the basic goods that every human person needs to live and thrive. The moral imperative to respond to the needs of our neighbors is universally binding on our consciences. Doing good may be legitimately fulfilled by a variety of means. Catholics must seek the best ways.

Putting this all together, there arise three temptations. The first is to equate different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity. Just because all threats to human life and dignity are moral issues does not mean that they are equal. The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many.

The second temptation is to use the distinctions to dismiss or ignore other threats to human life and dignity. Just because some issues are more important does not justify ignoring the others. Caring for the poor, creating a just immigration system, ensuring educational choice, fostering a just economy, respecting the rights of workers, and abolishing the death penalty, for example, are not just optional concerns merely because they do not involve the direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life.

The third temptation is treating prudential judgment as a “blank check.” Just because Catholics can legitimately disagree as to how to address an issue does not mean that a person can ignore the issue or Church teaching on the issue, or not treat it as a moral issue.

For more on voting, check out www.yourfaithyourvote.org.

St. Thomas More and Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us.