Document Type

Article

Publication Date

8-25-2009

Abstract

In their statement, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. Catholic bishops acknowledge that “the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in the light of a properly formed conscience.” This essay argues that, in light of this responsibility, it is important to affirm a commitment to the primacy of conscience as that idea has been understood in the Catholic tradition. If we really expect voters and public officials to make responsible, conscientious decisions about matters of public policy, we should not speak in ways that suggest that the proper formation of conscience is simply a matter of falling in line with church teaching. Such an approach will not contribute to the ability of voters and public official to make conscientious decisions, because church teaching does not generally speak definitively to the concrete questions that voters and public officials face. The essay articulates an understanding of the primacy of conscience that is rooted in a proper understanding what conscience is and of the relationship between conscience and truth. To be a human person is to have a duty to seek the truth in order that one can form for oneself right and true judgments of conscience. As one seeks the truth, one is bound to adhere to the truth as it is known, and one is bound to order one’s life in accord with the demands of truth. In all our activities we are bound to follow our conscience. This is what it means to speak of the primacy of conscience. The essay also discusses the demands of proper conscience formation, which exclude a mistaken notion of the autonomy of conscience. We each have to commit ourselves to forming for ourselves right and true judgments of conscience, but we cannot form our consciences by ourselves. Proper formation of conscience must be attentive to the teaching of the church and the insights of human reason. It must also be guided by the balancing virtue of prudence, which is appropriately attentive to the limits of what it might be possible for good law to accomplish under existing social, political, and constitutional conditions. In the midst of often deep moral disagreement in our society, respect for the primacy of conscience calls us to engage in the respectful dialogue that is essential if we are to join together with our fellow citizens in an authentic search for truth, forming hearts and minds committed to making choices that will protect human dignity and promote the common good.