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.
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.