Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
With the upcoming elections, I wish to offer the faithful of the Diocese of Wichita some reflections concerning our responsibilities as faithful citizens of the United States. I offer these words as your bishop with humility, praying that they will be an encouragement to all of us as we undertake the important exercise of our civic duties. I thank you in advance for your kind attention.
We face today a country deeply divided by many issues that will wreak havoc and cause great destruction in our culture today if left for future generations to resolve. Some of those most pressing issues include the following: the denial of the right to life of the unborn, the increasing distance between the rich and the poor, the proliferation of addiction, the denial of religious liberties, a broken immigration system, the wounds of racism, the redefinition of marriage and the family, the imposition of capital punishment, and the concerns about climate change.
Because of this, all of us, eligible to vote, must do our part in participating in public life, to help us become a more just society, a community of persons where everyone has the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” We do this by exercising our right and our responsibility to vote. Many more of us, especially faithful Catholics among the laity, must step forward to offer leadership on all levels. It behooves us as citizens and especially as Catholics to build up the earthly city, even though as St. Paul reminded us, our true citizenship is in heaven. Jesus said in the Gospel, “Render unto Caesar…” Voting and participation in public life is an obligation that we must accept and undertake seriously and with prayerful reflection. Please vote! Please get involved!
How do we determine to cast our votes on these pressing issues which we face? This is an important question. Put simply, although there is really nothing simple about it, we must vote with a well-formed conscience. To that end, I want to encourage every serious and thoughtful Catholic to read and reflect on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ recently updated document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which you can easily access online.
This document and its new introductory note, which I will quote throughout this reflection, is worth reading. It spells out in great detail the importance of forming one’s conscience, which “is not something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere ’feeling’ about what we should or should not do. Rather, conscience is the voice of God resounding in the human heart, revealing the truth to us and calling us to do what is good while shunning what is evil. Conscience always requires serious attempts to make sound moral judgments, based on the truths of faith.” (#17)
The bishops’ document further delineates the many issues that we face in the nation, about which the Gospel and the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church have much to say. But among these issues, preeminently is the issue of LIFE and in particular the vulnerable life of the unborn, who have a special claim on our consciences because their life is innocent and defenseless and like ours is precious to God. As we bishops say in the document,” the threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family and because of the number of lives destroyed.” (#7)
The Gospel of Life and the unequivocal teaching of the Church that abortion in every instance is intrinsically evil, should be uppermost in our minds and in our hearts when we cast a vote for any particular candidate on the national, state or local level. We need no further justification to disqualify any candidate from receiving our vote, who has taken a position to advance efforts to increase abortions on demand or who chooses to do nothing to reduce the number of abortions. Why? Because “a Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position.” (#34)
The vote we should cast because of the issue of abortion, however, does not preclude us from considering other important issues, issues that I mentioned at the beginning of my reflections, such as poverty, racism, immigration, climate change and respect for creation, religious liberty, the economy, etc. Why? The reason is that we as Catholics must be committed to the “common good,” committed to solidarity with our sisters and brothers, especially the poor, the marginalized, the downcast, the stranger and others, so that a more just society will be created and available for all, not just for some. Although that commitment must begin with the unborn, the teaching of the dignity of the human person at all stages and in all circumstances demands that our responsibility not end there but continue on through the whole of human existence and experience.
The task of voting is therefore a great challenge. Many openly wonder for whom we as faithful Catholics can vote, given the positions of certain candidates and their parties that are in direct opposition to the teachings of the Church. It is important to remember that no candidate asking for our vote today, even those who profess to be Catholic, perfectly aligns with the teachings of the Church as an integral unity. This makes our participation in public life and the exercise of our civic duty even more challenging. Even as challenging and unpleasant as it might be, we must nevertheless make our decisions in this regard in favor of the candidates who, because of our personal and prayerful discernment, we believe will do the best for the greatest amount of people in our society, with the life of the unborn uppermost in our intentions.
So, we must exercise prudential judgment on a deeply personal and individual level, knowing full well that all candidates and their parties fall short, some miserably so, from the perspective of the Roman Catholic Faith. But we must nevertheless act in prudence. “Prudence shapes and informs our ability to deliberate other available alternatives, to determine what is most fitting to a specific context and to act decisively. Exercising this virtue often requires the courage to act in defense of moral principles when making decisions about how to build a society of justice and peace.” (#19) To this end, I encourage us to pray for the light of the Holy Spirit, which will guide us in right decisions. If we truly act under this guidance and with a well-formed conscience, we can be confident that our votes will be cast with moral certitude and right judgment.
Even though many might want or expect more specific direction from me, it is not my intention as your bishop to tell you who to vote for or who to oppose. Private individuals may very well enter into partisan politics, but the Church and her teachers, bishops and priests must rise above partisanship and the endorsement of or opposition to individual candidates, even those who present themselves as more or less worthy of our Catholic vote. Instead, it is my role, and that of our pastors and priests, to present to you, the people we serve, the unambiguous teachings which will help you form your consciences. You and I must act in freedom and with moral certitude, out of our well-formed conscience but only after much prayer and reflection and cast the vote we know to be right and true before God.
Why is this so important for each individual? Because in the end, on judgment day, a day in our future that we must keep ever before our eyes, for “we know not the day nor the hour,” each of us will be held personally accountable for all our moral decisions and actions, including our vote. Once again from the bishops’ document, “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.” (#7)
And so, my dear sisters and brothers in Christ, let us embrace this moment with courage and determination. Much is at stake and many depend on us to discern, to judge and to act rightly and morally. Therefore, let us act always with a proper and well-formed conscience and with Christian and human integrity so that God will use our vote and our efforts to transform our society into a community of true justice and peace. As Jesus often said, and as St. John Paul II reminded us when he assumed responsibility as the successor of St. Peter, “Do not be afraid.” You will be in my thoughts and prayers in the next weeks as we exercise our freedom and responsibility to vote. I would be ever so grateful for your prayers in return. God bless and keep you all.
+The Most Reverend Carl A. Kemme
Bishop of Wichita