Why formation of conscience is paramount in Catholic political responsibility

By Alexander Mingus

Associate Director, Indiana Catholic Conference

The following article is part two of a three-part series on the U.S. Conference of Catholic  Bishops’ document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. These articles originally appeared in Today’s Catholic, the publication of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

When participating in public life, what does Christ and his Church ask of me?

In the first article of this series, I asked readers to reflect on the question above as we explore the U.S. Bishops’ letter on political responsibility: “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” (FCFC).

This reflection is ultimately an invitation to grow in our relationship with Christ, for it is Christ who has dominion over all things; including our hearts, our consciences and the manner with which we judge our neighbors, friends and political rivals. 

But whether Christ, and therefore his Church, has the authority to speak on social and economic matters is a hotly debated question. Today, Catholics who express opinions informed by moral sentiment are quickly reminded of the “separation of church and state” and asked to keep religion out of politics. The Democratic presidential candidate of 1960, John F. Kennedy, gave a speech to Protestant ministers in September of that year. In his speech, he sought to assuage any concerns that his Roman Catholic faith would interfere with the duties of the presidency:

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute — where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote  . . . Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”

Kennedy’s speech solidified in the American mind that a Catholic politician can definitively relegate moral teaching to a private sphere and that this teaching would have little effect on informing the actions of an elected official. Undoubtedly, this was a smart political move for Kennedy, who went on to become the first Catholic president of the United States.

In FCFC, the bishops present an alternate view, one that marries the vocation of a politician to the proper formation of conscience according to the Church’s moral teaching:

“Catholic politicians and legislators must recognize their grave responsibility in society to support laws shaped by these fundamental human values and oppose laws and policies that violate life and dignity at any stage from conception to natural death. This is not to bring a ‘Catholic interest’ to the political sphere, it is to insist that the truth of the dignity of the human person, as discovered by reason and confirmed by revelation, be at the forefront of all political considerations” (No. 39).

The bishops also call on the laity to resist the moral privatization proposed by Kennedy:

“As citizens, we should be guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group. When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong; we should not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths or approve intrinsically evil acts” (No. 14).

These fundamental moral truths are articulated in the teaching of the Church since Leo XIII in 1891. In the first social teaching letter, “Rerum Novarum” (On the Condition of Labor), Leo begins laying out the moral principles found in the Gospels, taught by the Church fathers, and lived in the lives of saintly men and women. He then articulates them in response to the troubling social conditions of the time.

Many more teaching letters followed, and the totality of these letters would form the “corpus,” or body, of the Social Doctrine of the Church. In FCFC, the bishops are applying the principles in this corpus of teaching to American political life. The bishops remind us that “the Catholic approach to faithful citizenship rests on moral principles found in Sacred Scripture and Catholic moral and social teaching as well as in the hearts of all people of good will” (No. 43).

These principles are the dignity of the human person, solidarity, subsidiarity and the common good. The bishops again remind us that these principles do not neatly fit into the secular ideologies of “right” or “left,” “liberal” or “conservative.” If we cannot rely on the news media and our popular political parties to remind us of these principles in their fullness, we must recognize that our moral formation as Catholics depends upon our willingness to pray, open our hearts, study and discuss these principles and how we as laity might bring them into the world.

This is precisely why the bishops strongly emphasize the formation of conscience. They remind us that:

“Catholics have a serious and lifelong obligation to form their consciences in accord with human reason and the teaching of the Church. Conscience is not something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere “feeling” about what we should or should not do. Rather, conscience is the voice of God resounding in the human heart, revealing the truth to us and calling us to do what is good while shunning what is evil (No. 17).

This teaching is undoubtedly the opposite of the prevailing narrative in our culture that we are free to form our consciences as we choose, to make our own truth. This relativism is precisely what makes being a Catholic in public life difficult. We profess a truth that is not our own. We believe that the God of the universe created us to live in accord with his law of love and not our own.

An unwavering commitment to our faith in private and in public may be incredibly difficult, but it is amid the difficulties of the present age that we remember God gives us the virtue of hope should we but humbly ask for it. The bishops remind us that we should “take up the task of serving the common good with joy and hope, confident that God, who ‘so loved the world that he gave his only Son,’ walks with us and strengthens us on the way (John 3:16) (No. 1).”

As we continue to reflect on this document, I invite you to pray for that virtue of hope, that it will indeed strengthen us along the way. In the third and final article of this series, we will cover the specific policy positions of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as challenges for citizens, candidates and public officials outlined in parts II and III.