Formation of conscience for faithful citizenship

By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
As the elections loom before us, both national, statewide and local, the Catholic Church affirms the value of one vote as well as the value of contributing to the wellbeing of society and neighborhoods wherever and whenever this is possible. It’s too easy to get caught up in the malaise of a feeling of powerlessness in the face of society’s thorny problems, but the most important thing to focus on is what we can do in a democracy. With regard to elections, loving our neighbor and caring for the least among us means supporting leaders and policies that promote the common good and protect society’s most vulnerable members. Day-in and day-out there are endless possibilities for serving others, empowering, and advocating. Helping Catholics to recognize and act on this social dimension of our faith is an essential task for Church leaders. Therefore, there are fundamental questions that need to be posed in the election season.
Some people question whether religion and politics should ever interact. What do the bishops say in response to this criticism? What is the role of the Church in political life?
What is the connection between our faith and the desire to change the world for the better?
What types of leaders does our society need? For what should they stand and how should they lead?
Why do the bishops and all concerned Church leaders encourage all Catholics, whether able to vote or not, to be involved in political life? What are other ways, in addition to voting, that you can be involved in advocacy for important issues?
What do the bishops mean when they say, “Both opposing evil and doing good are essential obligations?” Why are both, not just one or the other, important for Catholics? What are examples of intrinsically evil acts and why must they always be opposed? What are examples of the basic needs of our neighbors which we must ensure are fulfilled? What might your own actions to avoid evil and to do good look like?
How might public policies and laws be different if the moral principles from Faithful Citizenship were used as a basis for political decisions?
Life and Dignity of the Human Person
Call to Family, Community, and Participation
Rights and Responsibilities
Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
Care for God’s Creation
Centuries ago Socrates made the bold statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” There is no doubt that an active life directed toward the common good and solidarity are essential for the just ordering of society and for building up the Kingdom of God. However, the assumption underlying these principles is the capacity for a person to step aside, reflect, pray, study, be still, embrace silence, and engage in meaningful dialogue in order to take a long loving look in search of what is real. This balance adds considerable value to our lives. The formation of one’s conscience flows from both dynamics, the active and the reflective, Martha and Mary so to speak. It is a powerful feedback loop that can bear much fruit, action and contemplation in a lifelong dance.
What is conscience? What is prudence? How does one develop a well-formed conscience and the virtue of prudence?
From the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1784 The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart. #1785 In the formation of conscience the Word of God is a light for our path. We must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the church
Reflection questions:
When has my conscience guided me to “do good and avoid evil”?
What are some key resources I can use to form my conscience?
Forming conscience is a “lifelong task.” What do I do to regularly form my conscience? What more should I do?
What advice might you give to a friend who is trying to decide between two candidates, neither of which fully share the Church’s commitment to the dignity of the human person? This might require the wisdom of Solomon.
The bishops describe two “temptations in public life” that voters can fall into: first, “moral equivalence” which “makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity,” and second, the misuse of moral distinctions “as a way of dismissing or ignoring serious threats to human life and dignity.” Describe a situation in which you witnessed one or both of these lines of thought. Why are they both distortions of the Church’s teaching?
What role should they play in our decisions about who we vote for and how we advocate for change?
In the words of Pope Francis, “progress in building a people in peace, justice and fraternity depends on four principles related to constant tensions present in every social reality.” These derive from the pillars of the Church’s social doctrine, which serve as ‘primary and fundamental parameters of reference interpreting social and political reality. The four principles include the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity. Taken together, these principles provide a moral framework for Catholic engagement in advancing what we have called a “consistent ethic of life”
Apart from principled living, and the authentic formation of conscience, fear and greed motivate our decisions, or a blind allegiance to a particular political party no matter whom they serve up. Guided by the Holy Spirit, may we choose rightly as we faithfully labor on behalf of the City of God in our world, a dwelling place of greater justice, peace, and hope for all, from the first moment of our existence until our final breath.
(Editor’s note: Read part one of this two-part column on