In a recent airplane interview, Pope Francis was asked about the elections in the United States. He emphasized very much that Catholics and all people should vote from a well formed conscience, a point that the United States Bishops also make in their pamphlet Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. That comment is not surprising, given that we should conduct all of all of our actions with a well formed conscience. The conscience is not simply one’s feelings at a given time about whether an action seems attractive, popular or comfortable. The word conscience comes from the Latin phrase cum sciencitia, which means “with knowledge.” And it is, or at least should be, a testimony to the truth of God about what makes for real goodness in individuals and nations. As the Catechism says, “Moral conscience . . . bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme God to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.” Catechism 1777.
However, as with all fields of knowledge, the conscience can fall into error and thus needs training and guidance. We do not form this ability to know the good and true on our own; we need other people as well. As with other knowledge of the truth, parents, well trained teachers, good reading and learning, and wise people in general are critically important. And because this discernment of right and wrong is so crucial to the progress of individuals and communities, God also gives us sacred light from on high, in the Scriptures, in the Church, in prayer and in saints. As the Catechism goes on to say “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.” Catechism 1783-1785. This reliance upon the Scriptures and the guidance of the Church is not contrary to our own thinking, but rather enables our discernment to be founded upon the certainty of God’s word and His people. From this clear starting point, free from the impulses of personal interest or popular opinion, a faithful Catholic then uses his discernment to apply these truths to specific situations, including how to how to participate in society in a manner that will make this land truly “one nation under God indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”