A well-formed conscience can be a formidable force. Franz Jaegerstetter, a simple Austrian farmer, opposed Hitler’s policies and the occupation of Austria. A deeply religious man, there was nothing about the Nazis that fit with his understanding of Catholicism.
His pastor, his bishop, numerous other priests, family and friends all strongly advised Franz that for the sake of his family he should conform with the government’s orders. Franz, however, refused to be conscripted into Hitler’s army, was imprisoned then beheaded at age 36, leaving behind his wife and young children. On Oct. 26, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI declared Franz Jaegerstetter a saint.
No one ever said a conscience is an easy thing to live with.
Every four years, coinciding with the presidential elections, the U.S. Catholic bishops issue a reflection on responsible citizenship. The most recent version targets the need for Catholics to develop well-formed consciences and the challenge of using that conscience to discern political choices. “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States” provides no easy answers for Catholics looking for shortcuts to discerning how to use their vote. “In this statement, we bishops do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote. Our purpose is to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God’s truth. We recognize that the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience, and that participation goes well beyond casting a vote in a particular election” (No. 7). Later they are even more specific, “The Church’s leaders are to avoid endorsing or opposing candidates or telling people how to vote” (No. 15).
Recognizing both the need to remain nonpartisan and the wisdom that our nation is enriched by the convictions of people of faith, the bishops highlight three important ways that the church impacts political involvement: first, by helping Catholics develop well-formed consciences; second, by encouraging the development of the virtue of prudence; and finally, by giving guidance in distinguishing good and evil.
Materialism, nationalism and other secular forces often distract us from Gospel values. Effective conscience formation should include:
* A desire to embrace goodness and truth that incorporates an understanding of sacred Scripture and Catholic social teaching
* Examining the facts and background information of each choice
* Prayerful reflection
We exercise prudence when we use our knowledge and our life experience to judge best how to live the Gospel and advance the common good. In Franz Jaegerstetter’s case, the clergy seemed to be taking the prudent approach in advising him not to resist the Nazis, but Franz realized that they were not clearly seeing the incompatibility of the policies of the German Reich and the call to love as Jesus did. “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” (No. 20).
In perhaps the most challenging section of the document, the bishops clearly state that there are some actions that are always “opposed to the authentic good of humans.” Among these are abortion, human cloning, genocide, torture, racism and the targeting of noncombatants in war. Again, Catholics may differ on solutions, but are always called to work for their elimination. The bishops draw a careful distinction between 1) voting for someone specifically because of that candidate’s support for something that the church teaches is “intrinsically evil”; and 2) voting for that person despite his or her position when a careful examination of conscience and the exercise of prudence indicates that the common good will be best served by this candidate.
In the end, the bishops remind us that “building a world of respect for human life and dignity, where justice and peace prevail, requires more than just political commitment” (No. 57). The daily choices that each of us makes — how we spend our time and our money, where we invest our savings, the effort we put into protecting human life and dignity, what we teach our children, how tenderly we care for God’s creation, how often we communicate with our legislators, how faithfully we carve out time to discern God’s desires for us — are all ways that Catholics shape our world and live as faithful citizens.
The entire text of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States”, is available at www.faithfulcitizenship.org or from your regional Catholic Charities justice-and-peace staff member.
Putnam Marchetti is justice-and-peace coordinator for Catholic Charities in Livingston, Wayne and the Finger Lakes counties and is a member of the diocesan Public Policy Committee.