The Civic Duty of Catholics toward the Common Good
By Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke
Conscience, our guide in divine charity
God Who has made us in His own image and likeness, making us His co-workers in the care of the world (Genesis 1:26-30), and who has redeemed us by the Precious Blood of His only-begotten Son (Acts 20:28), has inscribed within our hearts His law which gives life and overcomes death (Deuteronomy 30:11-20). Conscience is the voice of God within us, assisting us to choose good and to avoid evil, in accord with God’s law. Our conscience helps us to choose what is true and not to fall prey to self-deception, the deception of others and Satan’s deception, all of which would lead us to betray the truth about ourselves and our world. It is our conscience which leads us to choose a particular action, which judges the goodness or evil of the action as we carry it out, and helps us to assess the goodness or evil of the action, once it has been done (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1777-1778).
Because of the sacred nature of conscience, we must enjoy the right to act in accord with what our conscience dictates. We must be free to make a personal decision to do what is good and to avoid what is evil. The right to act in accord with our conscience, however, presupposes that our conscience is informed with the truth which God has inscribed in our heart and revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures. We are obliged to inform our conscience with the knowledge of God’s law, both the natural law inscribed in our hearts and the law revealed in God’s Word taught with authority by the Church (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1783-1785).
To the degree that our conscience is not informed by the divine truth, to that degree our conscience is liable to an erroneous judgment. There are times when we make a wrong moral judgment because of ignorance of the truth. Sometimes, we are responsible for the ignorance because we have failed to seek out the truth or have dulled our conscience through repeated sin. Sometimes, we are not responsible for our ignorance. In any case, it is always our responsibility to inform our conscience with the truth, especially with the help of our teachers in the faith, the Holy Father, the bishops in communion with the Holy Father, and our priests, co-workers with the bishops (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1790-1794). The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” summarizes well for us the means of forming a good conscience: “In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path; we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church” (No. 1785).
I write to you in order to assist you in reflecting upon the Word of God and to know the authoritative teaching of the Church regarding the complex moral questions which our nation faces and which we all face in electing the leaders of our nation. I write to assist you in informing your conscience as fully as possible, regarding your responsibilities as a citizen. I do not claim to be wise and can offer no wisdom of my own. What I give you is the wisdom of the Church, the wisdom of Christ.
Common good and human life
We are morally bound in conscience to choose leaders at all levels of government who will best serve the common good, “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (Gaudium et spes, No. 26a). “[T]he sum total of social conditions” embraces a wide spectrum of concerns which the Catholic voter must have before his or her eyes, for example, safeguarding the right to life and the sanctity of marriage and the family; securing domestic and international peace; promoting education and public safety; assisting those suffering from poverty; providing sufficient and safe food, health care and adequate housing; eliminating racism and other forms of injustice; and fostering justice in the work place.
The “fulfillment” which the common good helps us to attain is not self-fulfillment in the popular sense. It is, rather, the fulfillment of God’s plan and destiny for us and our world. It is the fulfillment of our high calling as sons and daughters of God in God the Son, co-workers with God in His care of the world and of our brothers and sisters.
In considering “the sum total of social conditions,” there is, however, a certain order of priority, which must be followed. Conditions upon which other conditions depend must receive our first consideration. The first consideration must be given to the protection of human life itself, without which it makes no sense to consider other social conditions. “The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2273).
The safeguarding of human life is understandably foundational to all other precepts of the natural law. The Church’s teaching, from her very first years, has underlined the particular gravity of taking the life of another, made in the image and likeness of God, except in the case of self-defense, that is, the legitimate defense of self or others (Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae, “On the Value and Inviolability of Human Life,” March 25, 1995, Nos. 52-55).
Within the considerations for the protection of human life, the protection of the life of the innocent and defenseless, and of the weak and the burdened must have primacy of place. There can never be justification for directly and deliberately taking the life of those who indeed are “the least” (Matthew 25:45). Such an act is always evil in itself, intrinsically evil. Society, rather, is called to treasure its members who are weakest, in the eyes of the world.
For that reason, Pope John Paul II reminds us that “among all the crimes which can be committed against life, procured abortion has characteristics making it particularly serious and deplorable” (Evangelium vitae, No. 58a). In treating the evil of procured abortion, the same Holy Father concludes: “No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church” (Evangelium vitae, No. 62d).
The Church’s teaching on the intrinsic evil of procured abortion forbids the destruction of human beings from the moment of fertilization through every stage of their development. It is intrinsically evil to destroy human embryos, even for some intended good. Pope John Paul II, referring to the Church’s perennial teaching on the respect for human life, reminds us: “This evaluation of the morality of abortion is to be applied also to the recent forms of intervention on human embryos which, although carried out for purposes legitimate in themselves, inevitably involve the killing of those embryos. This is the case with experimentation on embryos, which is becoming increasingly widespread in the field of biomedical research and is legally permitted in some countries. … It must nonetheless be stated that the use of human embryos or fetuses as an object of experimentation constitutes a crime against their dignity as human beings who have a right to the same respect owed to a child once born, just as to every person” (Evangelium vitae, No. 63a). The same Holy Father further reminds us that the solemn duty to protect human life extends also to “living human embryos and fetuses – sometimes specifically ‘produced’ for this purpose by in vitro fertilization – either to be used as ‘biological material’ or as providers of organs or tissue for transplants in the treatment of certain diseases” (Evangelium vitae, No. 63b).
Excerpts from Pastoral Letter “On Our Civic Responsibility for the Common Good”, 1 October, 2004.
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Lord God, as the election approaches, I seek to better understand the issues and concerns that confront my city, my state and my country, and how the Gospel compels me to respond as a faithful Catholic and a citizen of Heaven and Earth.
I ask for eyes that are free from blindness and a mind that is free from darkness. Please grant me the grace to love You more and to love my neighbor as myself. Make me truly a Christian without Borders so that I may cherish every teaching of the Catholic Faith and love each and every one of my brothers and sisters, especially those in most need.
Give me the strength to choose Your will above all things and to stand for what is right! I pray for the courage to defend the innocent, protect the helpless, and oppose abuse and deceit.
I ask for ears that will hear the cries of the millions of unborn children massacred through abortion. I ask for the grace not to be deceived by the voices of evil, error and darkness. I ask that my mind and heart may be open to the Truth; I ask for greater Faith and the strength and valor to defend the family and true marriage.
My dear Jesus, grant me discernment so that I may choose leaders who hear Your Word, live Your love, and walk in the ways of Your truth. Shed Your light and mercy upon us, and guide us to Your Heavenly Kingdom. Amen
At this crucial moment in the history of our beloved country, let us turn to Our Blessed Mother and pray:
O Most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy, at this most critical time, we entrust the United States of America to Your loving care.
Most Holy Mother, we beg You to reclaim this land for the glory of Your Son. Overwhelmed with the burden of the sins of our nation, we cry to You from the depths of our hearts and seek refuge in Your motherly protection.
Under Your title of the Immaculate Conception, You are the Patroness of the United States. Look down with mercy upon us and touch the hearts of Your people. Open our minds to the immense value of souls and renew in us a profound respect for the sanctity of life. Bring an end to the merciless and senseless killing of the innocent and the defenseless. Please grant us the grace to understand the serious responsibilities that accompany human freedom.
May our voting in this election promote respect for all human life, safeguard the sanctity of marriage and the family, and foster the good of all.
Through Your intercession, may God bless our homes and our nation! Amen.