Matter of conscience

As Catholics, we hear over and over again — especially during an election year — that we have to vote our conscience. Unfortunately, according to a new and extensive survey, even Catholics who say they pray daily, attend Mass at least once a week and “consult their conscience,” it appears they have no idea what “voting one’s conscience” means — or what conscience itself means.

The responses — along with the percentages of Catholics inadvertently admitting their lack of conscience-based catechesis — in the Pew Research Center’s Religion in Everyday Life report are alarming. This is especially crucial in an important and tumultuous election year with so much at stake. Core teachings such as marriage, family and life issues are increasingly under attack. And since we should always be following the proper steps in forming our conscience (not only when elections roll around), the results are obviously chilling.

Pew based the results primarily on a survey of nearly 3,300 participants and found that practicing Catholics are not very likely to consult Church teaching or Scripture, or turn to guidance from the pope and other Church leaders, when making important moral decisions. But they still believe they are “consulting their conscience.” They also express confidence in the way they make decisions. Heaven help us.

From the survey: “Three-quarters of U.S. Catholics (73 percent) say they look to their own conscience ‘a great deal’ for guidance on difficult moral questions. Far fewer Catholics say they rely a great deal on the Catholic Church’s teachings (21 percent), the Bible (15 percent) or the pope (11 percent) ... .”

“Catholics who are highly religious are more likely than less religious Catholics to turn to Church teachings, the Bible or the pope for guidance on difficult moral questions. Still, far fewer highly religious Catholics say they rely a great deal on any of these three sources for guidance on tough moral questions than say they rely on their own conscience,” the Pew Center researchers stated.

Did you catch that last sentence concerning highly religious Catholics, defined as those who go to Mass every week and pray on a regular basis? They think they’re just fine talking to friends and family, reading a few articles, watching a few news programs and then making up their minds on whatever moral dilemma they’re facing. But if they’re not consulting Scripture and the Church, what are they using for their moral compass? While the Church encourages dialogue with others when it comes to forming your conscience, it is clear that it hardly ends there, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“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 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).

The Catholic dictionary also says what conscience really is and isn’t:

“The judgment of the practical intellect deciding, from general principles of faith and reason, the goodness or badness of a way of acting that a person now faces.”

It is an operation of the intellect and not of the feelings or even of the will. An action is right or wrong because of objective principles to which the mind must subscribe, not because a person subjectively feels that way or because his will wants it that way.

It looks like we have a very big problem and a lot of work to do heading into the presidential election — and beyond.

Teresa Tomeo is the host of “Catholic Connection,” produced by Ave Maria Radio and heard daily on EWTN Global Catholic Radio and Sirius Channel 130.