At last we've arrived. After nearly two years, more than a dozen debates, hundreds of millions of dollars, endless television advertisements, and an army of candidates, we have now come to the moment when we must cast our ballot.

This is a privileged moment. It is one of our defining duties as a citizen, the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, and it is one we should not take lightly.

We are not just voting for a president, but we are also voting for a member of the House of Representatives, and many of us are voting for senators and governors, mayors and other elected officials. In each of these elections, the Church expects us to enter that voting booth first and foremost as a Catholic citizen.

The Church does not tell us whom to vote for. This frustrates some Catholics who want the sureness of knowing one candidate wears the seal of approval. It also frustrates others who love to stereotype the Church as telling its members what to think.

Unfortunately, there is a third group: Catholics who have come to act as if the Church has nothing to say on these matters. They see the role of the Church as some sort of pious social organization, and they make little effort to consciously form their conscience in light of Church teaching. They may vote out of reasons of self interest or party loyalty, but they are not voting consciously and conscientiously as Catholics.

Yet the Church has always had a social vision based on the Gospel that obliges Catholics to "build a more just and peaceful world through morally acceptable means, so that the weak and vulnerable are protected and human rights and dignity are defended," as the bishops wrote in their recent document on faithful citizenship.

The starting point is always human dignity and human rights. First and foremost is the right to life from conception to natural death. From abortion to the destruction of human embryos, from euthanasia and "physician-assisted" suicide to genocide, the right to life is of paramount concern.

But other issues ranging from torture to racism are assaults on human rights and dignity, as is unjust discrimination or the targeting of noncombatants in war.

The Church also encourages its members to respond to the basic needs of human beings -- food, shelter, health care, education and employment. Catholics are called to defend marriage, welcome the immigrant and protect the environment.

There is in all of this a great moral ecology that stems from our belief that each one of us is made in the image and likeness of God, and we are asked to respond to those who are weakest among us with love, justice and compassion.

There are wrong ways to approach the election as a Catholic. Not being informed about our Catholic teaching is wrong. (Go to www.faithfulcitizenship.org for help in this matter.) Voting based on rumors and baseless personal attacks is wrong. Voting based solely on the race of a candidate is wrong as well.

The right way to vote is to prayerfully consider the issues in the light of what the Church teaches.

Voting is always a prudential judgment, but if we seek to inform ourselves and to understand the electoral choices in the light of our Catholic faith, then we have done our duty as Catholic citizens.

May God bless our country during this time of trial and uncertainty.