Thursday, December 20, 2007

Conscience and Your Vote

That's the title of the booklet that was in every bulletin in every (as far as I know) Catholic church this weekend in the Diocese of Manchester. I've been meaning to write about it all week but, well, my Advent hasn't been as restful as it should be. With AmP picking it up though, I decided it was high time to give my "on the ground" assessment. You can read the document here and Bishop McCormack's introductory letter is here.

The first thing everyone noticed was that their bulletin was much heavier and stiffer than usual. This was particularly so for those who prefer to read the bulletin before Mass rather than pray or read the Scripture readings for the day and thus before the announcements. The document isn't your usual "make five hundred copies of this" bulletin insert, it's a tri-fold full-color document printed on what I'll call card stock. Just the weight of it, let alone the fact that it's in full color, lends to the intent of the document. This was not a low-cost production by any means, which hopefully translates into people actually reading and praying about the contents of the document.

It does not break any new theological or Catholic social teaching ground, but what it does do is put in clear terms the proper hierarchy of values. It is also quite explicit that it is not a "voter guide" and I think it does a very good job of not pointing fingers at any campaign which is, as a non-profit organization, a requirement.

What it does do, however, is lay out in simple but direct terms a correct explanation of conscience and how a conscience is properly formed. I'd like to wish that this section was more explicit in how serious the issue of "primacy of conscience" is and how spiritually dangerous it is to turn away from the Church's teachings. That said, I'm not sure they could have done a sufficient job of that in the limited space and attention span they had to work with and if they tried to go deeper and failed it would have been a spectacular failure. I am left to hope that this statement catches peoples' attention and moves them to think:

A Catholic should never perform or support an intrinsically evil act and rely on conscience to justify it. In such instances, either one's conscience is not fully informed in light of the Gospel and Church teaching (and one is obliged to have an informed conscience) or one acts against what one's conscience knows to be true.
Before you ask, yes a list of some of the intrinsically evil acts is provided so people can not excuse themselves for not knowing that abortion is an intrinsically evil act.

I hope most (I would pray all) readers got to the section regarding basic guidelines where a good yet simple ordered list is given (the fact that it is ordered is critical here). Note in particular the second and third items:
First, recall the sacredness of all human life and the dignity of the human person. All moral decision-making must be informed and guided by these fundamental values.

Second, acknowledge that not all issues are of equal importance or urgency. A commitment to basic human values - rather that self-interest or past political loyalties - should always guide one's vote.

Third, remember that we believe in absolute moral norms that can never be violated for any reason. The most relevant of these absolute norms is the prohibition against the deliberate destructino of innocent human life.

Fourth, all people are called to live holy and upright lives. Our conscientious political decisions contribute to - or impede - our movement toward genuine holiness of life and the good of our society.

Again, yes, this could be sharper but the goal here is to get the person's attention, not to scare them away. Properly actualized morality is not undirected blind obedience but a participatory action even when the only motivating factor is trust and faith in another without full personal understanding.

I should also mention, since it caught my attention, that the document quotes not only Forming Consciences but also Pope Benedict's Deus caritas est and Pope John Paul II's Evangelium vitae. That they are quoting both of the last two Popes warms the cockles of my heart - that they are two of my favorite Papal documents of recent times is but an adder.

With New Hampshire being at the head of the primary season and so many candidates doing such a fine job of skirting around their positions on issues critical to Catholics I am very heartened to see the Diocese put together a strong reminder for us all that we do not leave our Catholicism outside the voting booth, that it rather must be at the very core of our being, shaping our every action. It is at times like this that we need to hear the voice of our Shepherd, and that it be clear and strong.

I find it only proper that with the Catholic Kennedy from Massachusetts first broaching the issue of Catholic faith by distancing himself from it that another New England institution might finally respond in such a way by calling us all to "draw near to God" (James 4:8). Or, perhaps in a slightly more full context: "Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you." (James 4:8-9a)