Mother Teresa and conscience formation

| Mary Jane O'Brien | September 21, 2016 | 2 Comments

During election season, we hear a great deal about “following our consciences” and the need for conscience formation. The U.S. bishops offer their guide to faithful citizenship so that the principles of Catholic social teaching might inform our Election Day decisions, and a number of organizations similarly produce a range of voting guides.

But with the cacophony of voices that arise each election cycle, each telling us how we should view candidates and issues, and which way to vote, it can become overwhelming to form our consciences.

The witness of the saints

Since conscience is the ability to make a correct moral judgment about the rightness or wrongness of a particular action, it makes sense that so much emphasis is placed on its formation. As Catholics, we know we are not able to make correct judgments without being formed — our intellects have been darkened by sin, and even our ability to discern the natural law written on our hearts has been fundamentally compromised. We need help in learning how to distinguish between good and evil actions so that we may “follow faithfully what [we] know to be just and right” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1778).

Fortunately, the Catholic faith has not left us helpless in this matter. As our loving mother, the Church has a rich teaching tradition by which we form our conscience. This formation includes following the light of “reason,” “the word of God,” “the gifts of the Holy Spirit” and “the authoritative teaching of the Church” (CCC 1785).

We can also be “aided by the witness or advice of others” (CCC 1785), and we have no more beautiful a witness to turn to than the saints. The witness of the saints is especially helpful when it comes to exemplifying the interconnectedness of all Catholic social teaching, from the fundamental right to life to the preferential option for the poor.

Mother Teresa, model

The recent canonization of Mother Teresa of Kolkata brings to mind her powerful witness in living out the Gospel most fully. She embodied the corporal works of mercy by loving and serving the poorest of the poor and caring for lepers in the slums of Kolkata. Her entire life was a model of the “preferential option for the poor” that we are called to uphold.

At the same time, St. Teresa gave witness to the fundamental right to life that every person possesses by virtue of their God-given dignity. In numerous speeches, including the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast, St. Teresa made headlines by calling abortion “a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself.” She asked how we could be surprised by murders, wars and hatred: “If a mother can kill her own child, what is left but for us to kill each other?”

As she rightly noted, “any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want,” and for these reasons, the “spiritual poverty” of abortion is “the worst poverty and the most difficult to overcome,” far worse than the material poverty to which Mother Teresa daily attended.

Far from seeing a divide between helping the poor and upholding the right to life of every person, St. Teresa saw truly that the failure to defend the very right to exist of the most vulnerable among us is simultaneously an abject failure to serve the poor in any lasting way. Our moral obligation to care for the poor begins with protecting their right to live.

By forming our consciences in the light of the Church and the witnesses of her saints, we form our ability to judge concrete situations rightly and to live out our faith, in the voting booth and beyond.

O’Brien is the business manager for the Minnesota Catholic Conference. She holds a master’s degree in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

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Election resources

The Minnesota Catholic Conference has a variety of election year resources, including a statement from Minnesota’s bishops and an Election Day novena.

Visit mncatholic.org/election or call 651-227-8777.

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Category: Faith in the Public Arena

  • I encourage all my fellow Catholics (and those of other traditions) to consider the American Solidarity Party (solidarity-party.org) and our candidates Mike Maturen/Juan Munoz. We’re a party formed in the traditions of Catholic Social Teaching and Christian Democracy (not Democrats! That’s a common mistake). We stand firmly in opposition to abortion, assisted suicide, and the death penalty. We defend the right of conscience for all and deplore the reduction of “freedom of religion” to “freedom of worship.” However, we also support programs for the poor and homeless. We call for a much more generous immigration and asylum program. We reject the privatizaion of the prison system. We insist that we must care for creation by funding clean energy sources.

    Hillary is going to win Minnesota, barring a catastrophe between now and election day. If Trump even manages to make MN close, he will have gained enough ground in other states to get him to 270. Instead of throwing away your vote for one of the two major candidates, support a party that is completely in line with Tradition and the teaching of the Church

  • Mike Wyatt

    I am praying the rosary for America and the American Election. It’s going to be rough but greater Faith in God has to be the smooth path. I’m a New Zealander living in Thailand having taught in South Korea and the United Arab Emirates and now back in Thailand. These peoples may say ‘go home to Americans’ but they usually add and ‘take us with you’. People look up to the American Nation as having been a great nation. Let’s pray that through its politics and policies it may form some sound principles having been through processes which lead the leaders to consider whole truths. Namely that life is a precious not a comodity.