The announcement of a new conscience protection rule May 2 protecting health care workers who…
How to form your conscience before voting
It may seem odd to say amid the heat and passion of an election campaign, but deciding how to vote — or reviewing a decision already made, which often is a good idea — is best understood as an exercise in conscience formation. As such, it calls for voters to practice the indispensable virtue called prudence — the good habit that helps us determine what means to take to achieve worthy ends.
After conscience formation comes the voting, and voting itself is a self-determining moral act. That is so even — or maybe especially — for a person tempted to vote impulsively or frivolously, based on trivial or irrational motives. I once encountered someone who claimed to have voted for a certain candidate because he had a pet cat, and this voter was partial to felines. Cat fanciers are entitled to their preferences — but in choosing a pet, not when selecting a candidate for high office.
The U.S. bishops in their quadrennial guide for Catholic voters, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” correctly emphasize that conscience formation as being at the heart of responsible voting. Their aim, they say, is not “to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote” but “to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God’s truth.”
How formation of conscience works
So, practically speaking, how does the formation of conscience work, whether it be in a political context or any other?
Note first that there are a lot of confused ideas these days about what “conscience” means. Often it’s taken to refer to some sort of moral intuition that tells us blindly, “That’s OK” — or “not OK,” as the case may be. But conscience is best understood as a reason-based judgment that here and now it would be right to do X and wrong to do Y.
Read the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship at usccb.org/issues-and-action/faithful-citizenship.
This judgment can obviously be clouded by ignorance and error. Thus conscience formation necessarily involves three distinct aspects: the moral norms that distinguish right from wrong — for example, it is right to respect innocent human life, it is wrong to steal what belongs to someone else, it is right to tell the truth, it is wrong to lie; the practical possibilities, the options, in this particular situation — vote for this person, vote for that one, don’t vote at all; and making the connection here and now between the relevant norm or norms and the real-world options.
As that suggests, conscience formation is a complex process. Without fingering particular candidates or parties, the bishops’ document offers a measure of help by identifying issues that conscientious voters should consider. Among these, they say, “the threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority.” But their issues list also includes promoting peace, marriage and family, religious freedom, the preferential option for the poor and economic justice, health care, migration, Catholic education, promoting justice and countering violence, opposing unjust discrimination, protecting the environment, communications and culture and global solidarity.
In forming conscience, it is also required that we deal with our emotions — first of all by being aware of them. Face it, people tend to get hot under the collar when arguing politics during a political campaign. But being angry and upset isn’t conducive to making rational decisions — about voting or anything else. So take a deep breath, calm down and do your best to evaluate the situation — and the candidates — objectively in light of the moral norms that you recognize as relevant.
In this connection, here’s a piece of practical advice: avoid political advertising as much as you can, and take it with a grain of salt where you can’t avoid it. Political ads, like advertising in general, are designed by bright people to create particular emotions (desires, fears, feelings of admiration, feelings of hostility) and manipulate them in ways favorable to their candidates and causes. Don’t let yourself be taken in. On the whole, political advertising is probably more hindrance than a help to voting responsibly.
Virtue of prudence
As this suggests — and as has already been indicated — prudence is the key virtue in conscience formation for responsible voting. The bishops put it this way: “Prudence shapes and informs our ability to deliberate over available alternatives, to determine what is most fitting to a specific context and to act decisively.”
At the same time, though, they point out that not all options can be prudently chosen: “Catholics may choose different ways to respond to compelling social problems, but we cannot differ on our moral obligation to help build a more just and peaceful world through morally acceptable means, so that the weak and vulnerable are protected and human rights and dignity are defended.”
Conscience formation rules out narrow self-interest — whether on one’s behalf or on behalf of one’s class or group — and requires choosing on behalf of the common good. In his social encyclical Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year”), Pope St. John Paul II makes the disturbing observation that, even in democracies, decisions are often based on “the electoral or financial power of the groups promoting them.” Who can seriously say that doesn’t happen in America?
Evil policies and practices
What about supporting candidates who back evil policies and practices? Here the bishops begin by stating an important principle: “Those who knowingly, willingly and directly support public policies or legislation that undermine fundamental moral principles cooperate with evil.” From there, however, things get more complicated.
On the one hand, the bishops said, a Catholic “cannot vote for a candidate” who favors intrinsically evil acts — abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberate exploitation of workers and the poor, “redefining marriage” as something other than a man-woman relationship, racist behavior — if the Catholic intends by his or her vote to lend support to the immorality in question.
But on the other hand, the bishops also say this: “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position … may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.”
So what is a “morally grave reason” in this context? The bishops don’t say, apparently leaving it to voters with well-formed consciences to decide for themselves. And if all the candidates are similarly at fault? “The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting,” the bishops remark.
Not a canonization
Finally, how much weight should the perceived character of the candidates play in voters’ efforts to form their consciences responsibly?
That has no easy answer. Character is important, but an election isn’t a canonization — we aren’t voting on proclaiming someone a saint. Nor, despite campaign promises, will any election bring about paradise on earth. Where character is concerned, what’s most important is a cluster of traits generally grouped under the heading “leadership” — a clear set of morally good goals and sound judgment on how to reach them, the ability to organize a decision-making process and make a decision, steadiness under pressure, willingness to settle for less than perfect outcomes.
With a few modifications, that might also pass for a description of what it takes to be a responsible voter.
Russell Shaw is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.