By Tara Simons
As we creep closer to the finish line of this election season, exhausted and a bit the worse for wear, we are reminded by our Holy Father, Pope Francis, of the Catholic Church’s instructions for how to exercise our voting rights as Christian citizens: “Study the proposals well, pray, and choose in conscience” (Catholic News Service, Oct. 2, 2016)
But what exactly does it mean to “choose in conscience?” Essentially, it can be broken down into 4 steps.
First, we must approach the task through prayer. Pray, pray, pray, and when in doubt — pray some more. The most effective way to reach out to our Heavenly Father is the way that Jesus taught us: consistently and persistently, trusting in His will (see Luke: 11 & 18).
The second step is to understand what the Church teaches — in its fullness. With 2,000 years of Church documents to draw from, this can be intimidating. Luckily, there are guides that can help. The best I’ve seen is the booklet: Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Hard copies of the text are available, but it can also be accessed for free on their website at: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/faithful-citizenship/index.cfm.
Be wary of guides from sources other than the Magisterium — the official teaching authority of the pope and bishops. Though these guides may be well-intentioned, they often present Church teaching as an oversimplified set of prescriptions or prohibitions, and often lose sight of the whole. Think of it this way: if you are planning a trip and don’t know the way, how helpful would it be to receive only half the directions? What if, instead of telling you where to go, the directions only told you where not to go? “At the corner, do not make a left.” “At the next light, do not go straight.” How helpful would that be? Chances are, somewhere along the way, you would most likely get lost. Quoting Pope St. John Paul II, the USCCB cautions us not to fall into this trap:
“The fact that only the negative commandments oblige always and under all circumstances does not mean that in the moral life prohibitions are more important than the obligation to do good indicated by the positive commandment” (Veritatis Splendor, no. 52). Both opposing evil and doing good are essential obligations. (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, №24, p.12)
Once you’ve studied the Church’s teaching, the next step is to understand the world. Take time to look at people and grasp their struggles. Start by being honest with yourself, then look increasingly outward — at family, friends, neighbors, and then at people you don’t encounter on a daily basis. Give their situations thoughtful consideration. Follow the news through the most unbiased sources you can find. Use sites like FactCheck.org to challenge claims and expose empty rhetoric. Compare multiple sets of statistics and polls. It is essential that we be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves (Mt 10:16).
The final step is where we put it all together by exercising prudential judgment — the application of Church teaching to real-life moral situations. This is rarely easy when approached in love. It is the ultimate use of our “superpower” as Children of God: free will.
Free will is precious. We must use it carefully, never surrendering it to a political party or ideology, not even to a family member or friend. Our choices are our own and we alone are responsible for them. By informing our consciences through prayer and Church teaching, and applying them to the hard choices facing our world, we are using our free will in the way God intended and doing the important work of being Catholic.
Tara Simons is a Catholic wife and mother, who holds an M.A. in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and did her doctoral work in Theology and Art at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.