At the Conference, as we encourage fellow Catholics to become involved in the public square, we often refer to the USCCB document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship as a guide on how to apply the principles of our Faith to our participation in elections and political life. Before all else, to be faithful citizens, we rely on the virtue of prudence, supported by a well-formed conscience. Then, it boils down to this: 1) do good and 2) avoid evil. Like the physician who promises to “first, do no harm,” avoiding evil is where we must start in making practical judgments.
We avoid evil when we reject those things that are always incompatible with love of God and neighbor, called intrinsic evils. Intrinsic evils include abortion, euthanasia, cloning, embryo-destroying research, same-sex “marriage”, genocide, torture, racism, and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war. And this is by no means an exhaustive list. The right to life is paramount, and it is the right from which all others flow. As Blessed Pope John Paul II explained, “Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.” (Chrisitifideles Laici, no. 38).
An intrinsic evil, Faithful Citizenship reminds us, “must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned.” The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made a similar point: “It must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.”
Avoiding and opposing intrinsic evils is our first duty in the political arena, but our obligation doesn’t stop there. As Christians we have an equally important “positive duty” to do good to promote the common good of all in society. As the Bishops remind us, this responsibility includes the “moral imperative to respond to the needs of our neighbors – basic needs such as food, shelter, health care, education and meaningful work….” Caring and providing for our neighbors may be accomplished in a variety of ways, and people of good will may arrive at different prudential judgments on the best solutions (for example) to problems such as homelessness, unemployment, lack of access to health care, and a badly broken immigration system. But nonetheless, the obligation is “universally binding on our consciences,’’ the Bishops say, and Catholics “…must seek the best ways to respond to these needs.” As Pope Francis recently pleaded at his installation, “I want to ask you to walk together, and take care of one another.” To focus on one obligation – doing good or avoiding evil – while ignoring the other is to fall into two temptations that can distort the Church’s defense of human life and dignity.
We will have more to say in the weeks ahead about voting and the difficult task of weighing issues when no candidate agrees with us on every issue, but voting is really just the tip of the iceberg. The duties to do good ad avoid evil go far beyond that. They apply throughout the year, every year. They should inform our daily actions and activities and our advocacy for just policies when important bills are being debated. Our faith compels us to seek the common good and ask ourselves: How am I doing good and avoiding evil?