Resisting the temptation to tune out guidance in forming our consciences
A few years ago my husband was outside when the 8-year-old neighbor girl, Aubrey, walked by our house with a skateboard tucked under her arm. As she looked down the very steep hill in front of our home, my husband called out to her, “You can’t go down that hill on a skateboard!”
Aubrey replied, “You’re not the boss of me!” as she proceeded to go down the hill and break her arm!
The story illustrates our great desire to exercise our freedom, yet the foolish actions we take when we don’t look to the wisdom of others or rely on good judgment. When it comes to having someone tell us what to do or what is good for us, we want to respond like Aubrey: “You’re not the boss of me!”
In the U.S. bishops’ document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” two principles are emphasized as we exercise our civic responsibilities during elections: a well-formed conscience and prudential judgment.
We rely on our conscience when we discern things such as how to vote, how to make end-of-life decisions, whether to pass along that juicy piece of gossip and myriad other choices we face on a daily basis.
Archbishop Emeritus Harry Flynn has gifted us with a guide in the form of a pastoral letter, “The Moral Conscience.” This topic has never been more significant. According to the pastoral letter, which was written in 2008, conscience is, “an act of judgment about the morality of an action one is considering doing.”
As humans, we always need to follow our conscience. But what is a well-formed conscience and how do we know if we have one? I would venture to say that Adolf Hitler followed his conscience — not a morally well-formed conscience, but in his mind he was following his own set of truths.
Left to our own wills, we may not make decisions that are good for us or others and, just like Aubrey, sometimes we need to listen to someone else’s advice. With the advances in technology, living in a “do whatever feels good” culture and the muddy political waters we must dredge through, we are blessed to have the 2,000-year-old wisdom of the Catholic Church to rely on. Forming our conscience is an ongoing process that requires work. It requires prayer, study and reflection on church teachings.
For some, any reliance on the church feels like someone telling us what to do, and that independence flag rises up with our own “you’re not the boss of me” instinct.
Although the church does not tell us who to vote for, she does tell us what to look for when applying our freedoms. Certain acts such as abortion and racism are intrinsically evil and must always be opposed, while discerning how we might solve certain societal problems may be up for debate. Our choices are not easy, but voting is ultimately a moral choice and it is up to us to exercise that choice wisely.
Here are a few action steps you can take as we approach the elections this fall:
- Download and read Archbishop Flynn’s pastoral letter on “The Moral Conscience” and the companion “Moral Conscience Study Guide” to dig deeper into the issues we are faced with today. Both are available on the archdiocesan website. If you would like to order printed copies of the letter and study guide, contact me at email@example.com or (651) 291-4506.
- Share the resources with a study group, a coffee clutch or your prayer group. Go through the discussion questions together. I assure you the conversation could get lively!
- Know the issues and the candidates. We can’t make prudential judgments unless we are informed. It is our responsibility to know and apply the Catholic Church’s teachings and not rely on popular media to sway our judgment.
Sharon Wilson is the respect life coordinator for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and a member of Divine Mercy Catholic Church in Faribault.