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J. Brian BransfieldOctober 13, 2008

The only difference between the voting booth and the conscience is that we usually have to wait in line to get into one of them. Apart from that, the same thing is supposed to happen in each place as that small cubicle reveals me to myself.

Morality bears upon conscience, which must judge between the right and wrong of various positions. Conscience weighs a range of subjects, many of them deeply moral: the plight of immigrants, affordable education, the scourge of war, homeland security, neighborhood violence, access to health care, the inviolable right to life for the child in the womb, care for the hungry and homeless, preservation of the environment, the inhumanity of torture, the exploitation of human life through human embryonic stem cell research, the dignity of marriage between one man and one woman, and economic inequality among nations.

In order for men and women to engage in the political debate, their consciences must be formed. Only then can they discern the common good. The U.S. bishops emphasize the role of conscience in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility, a guide for Catholics as they prepare for the 2008 elections.

Looking Within and Without

Judgments of conscience are not the result of a determinative moral gene. They are not preprogrammed, but spring from a place within that I do not create. This region is more than superego or social convention. A common misunderstanding is that conscience amounts to what I think on an issue. Conscience is not just what I think, but it is me in the act of thinking about what is just and true. Conscience is that part of me that is bigger than I am. It is at least three inseparable movements at once:

First, conscience is the turn inward where I find a norm that obliges me. Catholic tradition calls this synderesis. This awareness of the inner moral sense is the capacity of the person to hear the voice of God within: “Conscience is the voice of God re-sounding in the human heart, re-vealing the truth to us and calling us to do what is good while shunning what is evil” (Forming Consciences, No. 17). The “turn within” finds more than simply “my view” on a proposal. Consci-ence is founded upon truth. It therefore looks to God as the author of truth revealed through right reason and the teaching of Jesus as proclaimed through the church.

This is where the second dimension of conscience comes into play. Synderesis (the turn inward) exists in tandem with the turn outside the self, called intellectus. To make a decision in conscience is to consult the truth of the nature of things in themselves. Conscience begins “outside-in”: the objective reality summons accountability from me and forms the central coordinate of conscience. Conscience is based on a truth not of my own making (No. 17). To know the truths of basic embryology and basic logic, for example, leads me to know that the child in the womb is not a potential person, but a person with potential. Therefore, no one may ever participate in a procured abortion. Logic then instructs that the nature of privacy, upon which the supposed right to an abortion is legally based, cannot change the right to life.

Third, conscience is the last, best judgment as to the good action based on the turn inward and the turn outward (No. 17). Conscience is a virtuous fitting together, an enlightening and a resilience to act upon the truth of things within which exists the region of the norm, and beyond which humanity fails. Synderesis, intellectus and the judgment—these three cannot be separated.

The abbreviation of conscience to only one-third, or two-thirds of its entirety is an all too common danger. The inner moral sense is not a partial appraisal or even a sum total of what we think, but is a manifestation of truth itself rather than our own preferences. If we rely only on the synderesis and reduce the intellectus, we simply judge between what is happy or sad, but not between what is good or evil; our inner sense of right and wrong does not appeal beyond ourselves to the truth of things in themselves. If we rely simply on intellectus and condense the synderesis, we may become a rather dangerous robot: we are not concerned with our internalization of the truth of things in themselves.

Conscience emerges as a voice, greater than one’s own, from the center of two sources: right reason and the teaching of the church. Conscience communicates the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, based not on the truth of circumstances, my top values or best intentions, but first and foremost on the truth of things in themselves accessed by faith and reason. To ensure that each aspect of conscience thrives, we have an obligation to form our consciences: “a well-formed conscience…perceives the proper relationship among moral goods” (No. 34).

Forming One’s Conscience

The formation of conscience entails first the clearing away of sin and its effects: concupiscence, ignorance, weakness, ideologies, microscopic self-concerns, lingering justifications, anger and prejudicial impulses. In the process of being freed from sin, our minds more easily grasp, and our hearts more easily accept, that which is true. The Holy Spirit seeks to build up, throughout our lifetime, the virtue of prudence within us (No. 19). Prudence is not simply my subjective deliberation, but the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer to apply moral truth correctly. The truth of faith is God’s gift to clear away the debris we can accumulate and to follow God’s original word faithfully. If my judgment of conscience diverges from the truth of faith, the difference between the two is the knock on the door to enter more deeply into the formation of my conscience.

Thus, the formation of conscience thrives on our openness to hear the voice of God in Scripture, in the teaching of the church and the prayerful discernment of the true dimensions of the concrete choice before us. Even with our best efforts, our judgments of conscience may, at times, be only partially correct. God continues to seek inroads to our heart to clear the blockages that impede a mature moral vision.

The properly formed conscience does not allow a citizen to forget he or she is first a person. It tells me I am a person, and, as such, I must look at a quandary according to a certain order: How does this act here and now, in and of itself, fit with being human, and not simply lower gas prices? Conscience insists that human dilemmas are moral concerns long before they are political points of view. Conscience tells me that to be free I must admit the truth that some acts are inescapably evil and no manner of circumstances or intentions can make them somehow good. The formation of conscience invites me not just to change my point of view, but to grow through conversion and to witness my own transformation.

Conscience discerns the moral dilemmas in size order and sees the resemblance: Marriage, racial equality, the environment, adequate distribution of resources and the right to life are not competing events. They are cousins, if not siblings. Each participates in “the dignity of the human person” and “the sacredness of human life,” respect for the inviolability of which resides at the “center” and “core” (No. 10) of conscience. To fail to uphold the dignity of human life in every circumstance is an affront to conscience itself. Conscience refuses to let one of these become an isolated issue that I may simply pick and choose.

Careful Deliberation

The seeming opposition of two perceived goods is not a roadblock or a barricade for stubborn resistance. There are times when it seems difficult to apply a judgment of conscience. We may judge some policies of one candidate to be correct, but dislike other policies that seem to be morally erroneous. Rather than stubborn resistance, this calls me deeper. The basic principle the bishops put forth is, “Those who knowingly, willingly and directly support public policies or legislation that undermine fundamental moral principles cooperate with evil” (No. 31). At the same time, it may be possible to “restore justice only partially or gradually” in the face of existing unjust laws (No. 32). But if we find ourselves on the brink of having to support a platform that undermines moral principles, we must take a step back to a new longitude and latitude and renew our efforts to form our conscience in a context of faithful citizenship.

One of the basic difficulties is that our limits have been eroded. In the modern era, a numbing progression has led our consciences from being the organism by which the human person makes choices, to being the rubber stamp for a trend, to being the prisoner of a lifestyle. Formation in a robust personalism is needed in order that we may say yes to all that the human person is.

The mature conscience winces when it hears a candidate claim that he can fix health care but still argues that a child in the womb can be killed. Conscience knows that if a candidate chooses in favor of human embryonic stem cell research, which always includes the killing of a human person, then our neighborhoods can never be free of violence—because the candidate just voted for violence. The moral sense knows that if you treat the environment any way you like, sooner or later you will need treatment because of the environment. Conscience realizes that if you support torture, you have just paid the deposit on a war 20 years from now.

No magic contortion of moral truth can turn what is intrinsically evil from ugliness to beauty: “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil” (No. 34). At the same time, conscience cannot be blind to its own splendor and allow another person to decide in its place: “…a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity” (No. 34).

The application of conscience is often difficult: “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may 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” (No. 35). It should be exceedingly rare that a person discerns, after continued guidance, “grave moral reasons” to vote for a candidate who holds an unacceptable position. Evidence of “grave moral reasons” to vote for such a candidate must be overwhelming. To resort to such a measure means that the voting booth itself becomes an agony, reflective of society in no small way, and is left moist with the tears of one who could otherwise find no way through.

On a political coastline where the waters run shallow, it is not uncommon that in a particular contest each candidate on the ballot holds a position that favors an act of intrinsic evil. Against such shoals, “The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate, or after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods” (No. 36). The focus on “careful deliberation” cannot dwindle to a minimal criterion by which one can squeeze past the core issues, much less justify support for intrinsic evil; it is a summons beyond our vision to a new junction, where we are called to embrace a new vision.

Conscience sees broadly. It brushes back the curtain, pries down the lever, and by the leverage of honest truth is able not simply to change, but to transform the world.

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Joseph Mahon
15 years ago
Thank you for a complete and enlightening discussion of the role of conscience in making electoral decisions. A complete listing of the intrinsic evils listed in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship should have been included, e. g. genocide, deliberate targeting of noncombatants. We say that there are intrinsic evils other than abortion but we keep coming back to abortion as the primary example. By the way, neither candidate for president meets the abortion test. Obama is pro-choice; however, he strongly favors efforts to reduce the call for abortions. McCain favors abortion in the case of incest and rape and, like Obama, supports stem cell research. He is not very much in favor of efforts to reduce the call for abortions. Therefore, abortion is not the litmus test or the decisive issue. We are back then to an evaluation of which candidate will do the most, in an imperfect world, to help the "least among us." This is Jesus' litmus test and should be ours--what have we done to or for the least among us? Our focus is on life, not from conception to birth, but from conception to natural death.
James Lindsay
15 years ago
Politics, like life, contains shades of gray. In a free society, rhetoric and proof are more important than authority, which actually makes natural law arguments more relevant - provided that these arguments are really based on inquiry rather than any authoritative interpretation. Once authority and infallibility are invoked, the appeal to natural law has lost its meaning (the appeal is then to authority which may or may not exist, depending on whether the authority of Peter was linked to the location of the Church or its association with the seat of the Roman Empire). The Church needs to look beyond its theologians and its clergy when delving into political questions, especially when such questions also touch on human biology. The question of voting in the area of abortion is instructive. There are nuances which the USCCB does not appreciate, which is obvious from some of the statements of Bishops Lori and Rigali. Most importantly, there is a difference between advocating abortion and permitting. Politics is not about just what is in one's heart but the positions one advocates. Advocating abortion is against Canon Law, however I know of no Catholic politician, or any politician at all, who actively champions abortion as positive alternative to welfare - although the Republicans come close by supporting lifetime limits on the payment of Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). In the public sphere, permitting abortion is really opposing measures that would restrict abortion in a manner that would not be good for the public interest. For the present moment, even opposing such measures is not a cause for concern - BECAUSE THE PRO-LIFE SIDE IS NOT OFFERING ANY MEASURES TO OPPOSE! If anything, it is intrinicly evil to ask Catholic politicians and voters to abstain from Communion for opposing a legislative program that does not exist or that includes deliberate omissions. Frankly, it is cheap and sleazy to announce ones support for the rights of the unborn without stating how one would enforce such rights. The closes we get is an appeal for the appointment of Supreme Court Justices who might overturn Roe in order for the matter to be decided by the states. This is a deal with the devil, as doing so would also gut the authority of federal courts, and the federal government generally, to overturn the will of state legislative majorities when they violate the equal protection and due process rights of their citizens. These cases range from the rights of criminals to the rights of racial and sexual minorities. The Archdiocese of Washington was a pioneer in its support for civil rights, cosponsoring the original March on Washington in 1963. Overturning Roe in the way the pro-life movement specifies would overturn much of the work on civil rights as well. One need only spend some time in the rural south (or a Florida voting booth) to know that these protections are still necessary and indeed in much need of more aggressive enforcement. Sometimes the Church takes positions that are just plain wrong in order to be consistent with prior teaching - even when the policy advocated turns the original tradition on its ear. The Church originally took a position against sterilization and mandatory birth control in opposition to Eugenics programs aimed at racial minorities and the mentally disabled. It stood up for the rights of the retarded to autonomy over their own bodies. To extend this tradition to then deny the reproductive freedom of Catholic married couples in using birth control is to prevert the intent of the original policy. Opposing the termination of a viable pregnancy is one thing - as it affirms the view that the soul is immortal rather than developmental, and an integrated part of the organism from the beginning. Defining the beginning is another matter. (I will only mention in passing that the Church's assertions that sex without the possibility of conception is somehow sinful is an insult to those<
15 years ago
I note with interest that Bransfield is a protege of Justin Rigali. His interests in moral theology seem confined to sexuality and the body. I see no theology of poverty, peace or social justice. Amor vincit omnia? Are you now a mouthpiece for one of the most reactionary diocese in the United States?
15 years ago
This article ties in with the Benedictine Oblate weekend I just returned from, where the focus was on types of prayer, including Lectio Divina. In a prayer exercise, a biblical passage was read and we were to state the image that most grabbed us. Using this approach on "Conscientious Election," what comes to and sticks in my mind is "pregnant women." They are unique, very special, deserving of our understanding, support, care and love, as I said in an earlier blog post. What I said then seems even more true to me now. Let us focus on pregnant women, not on women per se or the unborn per se. Separating, in our thinking, pregnant women from the unborn within is mental abortion. This can lead to aborting the unborn or to aborting the woman, regarding her as less than fully human. Neither option is Christ-like. Let us do all we can to understand and love pregnant women (as we do Mary in the Rosary). Then -- if we must -- only then throw legal stones at them. We Catholics are all pro-life, whether we are called "pro-life" or pro-choice." We can all work together to help pregnant women and reduce abortions. The legal issue gets us off track, divides us, and leads us away from Christ's work.
15 years ago
We have a huge underclass of about 13 million people in bondage because of our violent immigration system. Many bishops seemed to have ignored this fact and are in fact telling people in their pastoral letters and diocesan news papers to vote for McCain. We all know that there is much less of a chance that our undocumented immigrants will be helped under a Republican administration. The bishops need to talk about poverty, health care, employment, etc. much more.
Dan Hannula
14 years 12 months ago
I am getting more than slightly annoyed at the not-to-subtle attempts of leaders in my church to intimidate me into voting Republican in this next election. From Bishops and priests who bully the faithful and use communion as a political weapon to articles in parish bulletins blatantly pointing to so-called "life issues" advanced by the right-wing candidates as the only basis for my vote. The latest is this article by Rev. J. Brian Bransfield. This is, at best, a simple-minded exercise in casuistry; "It should be exceedingly rare that a person discerns, after continued guidance, "grave moral reasons” to vote for a candidate who holds an unacceptable position. Evidence of "grave moral reasons” to vote for such a candidate must be overwhelming." In other words, under penalty of sin, you better not vote for Obama unless he has your mother tied up in the basement with a gun to her head. Come on, knock it off. We Catholics are not stupid. And, you, Bransfield, are not so incredibly wise in the complexities of macro-economics, the socio-political process and the trends of history that you can tell me how my conscience ought to discern in this particular election? The Jesuits who educated me in philosophy and law taught me better than that. The moral issues in any election involve, to be sure, life issues, as well as issues of war and peace, torture, the environment, health care, the poor, and many other questions of social justice. Political-moral issues also involve obligations to a political “process” and the rule of law. And, those moral obligations exist within the context of the American constitutional political system, not in some moral vacuum. When John F. Kennedy ran for president, it was argued that he would do the Pope’s bidding rather than what was in the national interest. Kennedy had to meet with a group of protestant ministers to set them straight, and we Catholics, perhaps overjoyed at the prospect of one of our own in the high office, wholeheartedly endorsed his remarks. In part he said: "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... For contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me. ... 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." (N.B.: "What my conscience tells me to be the national interest.") I am tired of being bullied. I have written to several Bishops to genuinely discuss these issues and have gotten nothing back but stony silence. I was a member of the Electoral College four years ago and I cast my vote for John Kerry. My conscience is clear. I was a part of my state’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention for Obama and my conscience is still quite clear. I intend to vote for Obama because I think he will be, on prudent balance, better for our country than the alternative. I don’t need ethical ultimatums to make this decision.
14 years 11 months ago
It would be so much more honest if Brian Bransfield had simply said "Vote Republcan" instead of dancing around the issue.
William Finnegan
14 years 11 months ago
Father Bransfield gets way ahead of himself when he opines that "overwhelming " grave moral reasons are necessary to vote for a pro-choice candidate. A Catholic gets that far in his or her choice-of-candidate deliberations only after accepting the teachings that abortion is never justified and that Roe versus Wade must be overturned--views that, according to responsible surveys, many, if not most, concientous Catholics reject. Sure Veritatis Splendor says, in effect, that one's conscience may not determine whether a particular moral prohibition, like the one prohibiting abortions, applies to all situations, but the encylical was not promulgated as infallible teaching, as is also true of Canon 752 (obsequim due to non-infallible teachings) whose standing is undercutby by other factors as well. Sadly Father Bransfield in his article and the American Catholic Bishops in their voting guide are trafficing in half-truths. Of course I don't expect to see this letter published in America. Sincerly, Bill (William F.) Finnegan
Rosemari Zagarri Prof
14 years 11 months ago
In contrast to the sledgehammer offered by many priests and bishops on the matter of voting, Fr. Bransfield's article is thoughtful and nuanced. However, his list of significant moral dilemmas is telling. He writes: "Marriage, racial equality, the environment, adequate distribution of resources and the right to life are not competing events. They are cousins, if not siblings. Each participates in "the dignity of the human person" and "the sacredness of human life," respect for the inviolability of which resides at the "center" and "core" (No. 10) of conscience." How is it, however, that he fails to mention the issue of the morality of war? Is it because he cannot defend the Bush administration's unjust and immoral war in Iraq, which is wholeheartedly supported by the Republican presidential candidate? The author's pretense of non-partisanship is even more cynical and insidious than the sledgehammer approach favored by other Catholic clerics.
14 years 11 months ago
Our Catholic leaders remain fixated on making abortion illegal--and the carnage continues. We elect Bush Sr.--1 million+ lives lost each year to abortion. We elect Clinton--1 million+ lives lost each year to abortion. We elect Bush Jr. the first time--1 million+ lives lost each year to abortion. We elect Bush Jr. the second time--1 million+ lives lost to abortion each year. It is said that an addiction is marked by repeatedly trying more and more of what doesn't work! How about we try a new strategy? The pro-abortion side says they want abortion to be "legal, safe and rare." Instead of continuing to expend so much time, talent and treasure on our still unsuccessful effort to make abortion illegal (and thereby compel the other side to expend like amounts to oppose us), let us join with the other side and pool all our joint resources to design, implement and fund programs and practices that might actually reduce the number of abortions. In other words, instead of continuing this thus far futile fight to make abortion illegal (at the cost of 1 million+ lives each year), let's actually save some lives! We should never abandon our conviction that abortion is a serious moral evil. But I suspect God would care little that abortion was legal if at the same time no abortions occurred! Conversely, God is unlikely to be indifferent to our persisting in a course of action, regardless of how well intentioned, that prevents us from taking concrete action which actually saves lives. Let's put the other side to the test. Let's all of us on BOTH sides of the issue take concrete and meaningful steps to save lives by reducing the number of abortions. The first of such steps should be to vote for the presidential candidate whose policies give the most promise of saving lives from abortion, not the candidate who simply mouths a desire to make the practice illegal.

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