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How Not to Form Consciences for Faithful Citizenship

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 29, 2007

I’ve finally plowed through what we might call the U.S. Bishops’ quadrennial voting manifesto, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”, released at their November 2007 meeting. Never has a document been so technically correct yet so utterly confusing. As a piece of practical voting advice, it is a disaster.

The bishops do get the essentials right, after a fashion. They distinguish between intrinsic evils (like abortion and euthanasia) and prudential decisions (like the best way to deal with immigration). They state in several places that the right to life is the most important issue, and that efforts to secure other rights and values are ultimately meaningless if the right to life is not secured. Apart from the minor gaffe of connecting the question of capital punishment somewhat too closely with the intrinsic evils which violate the right to life, the document is technically accurate on this critical point.

The bishops correctly state that one may not vote for a candidate who advocates an intrinsic evil (such as abortion) if one is motivated by a desire to advance that evil. They also correctly allow that it is conceivable that one could, under unfortunate circumstances and for a very grave moral reason, vote for a candidate who advocates an intrinsic evil, because the voter has some other weighty end in view. But because they offer no practical guidance on the extreme unlikelihood of such a circumstance in contemporary America, this is where the discussion bogs down.

Never mind that the bishops discuss and defend their role in American political discourse, that they say valuable things about the importance of a well-formed conscience to effective citizenship, or that they admit their pronouncements on prudential matters do not carry the same weight as their statements on moral absolutes. The problem is that, despite this last admission, the bishops are so intent on giving us their priorities in all the other areas of public life that we are left wondering which one of these should not be considered a sufficiently grave moral reason to vote however we want.

For this reason, as an action document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” is essentially useless. By establishing so many priorities, the bishops have failed to establish effective priorities at all. The technical probity of the discussion is lost in a sea of options, caveats and nuances which sound, frankly, like the result of committee work. If the bishops ever hope to make a moral impact, they will have to take seriously the stated foundational necessity of the right to life. They will have to find the courage—in a practical voting guide—to highlight intrinsic evils apart from anything else and insist that Catholics make every effort to settle them first, addressing other concerns only within the limits of that settlement.

After it is crystal clear that we may morally consider other issues only in a context which makes a prior necessity of the elimination of intrinsically evil attacks on the right to life, the bishops can make their contributions to many other prudential questions with a clear conscience. Before that, even if the bishops truly believe what they say, such a discussion can only confuse, enervate, and fail.

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