We’re approaching the 2016 elections in November, and in the next few weeks I want to offer you some thoughts that might help you as you prepare to vote. This week I want to speak about conscience, since we are taught by our Church that we must always follow our conscience.
But it is not only the Church that values following one’s conscience. We see it in the views of the founders of our country. James Madison, in his 1785 letter Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessment, wrote,
“The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man … The equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his Religion according to the dictates of conscience is held by the same tenure with all our other rights.”
Thomas Jefferson, not a religious man, wrote,
“No provision in our Constitution ought to be clearer to men than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority."
If this is the state of things, then there are very important questions to be asked:
What is “conscience?” Isn’t it the same as my own opinions and feelings? Doesn’t everyone have the right to his or her own conscience?
The answer to the first question:
conscience is NOT the same as your opinions and feelings
. Why not? Because conscience is the activity of your intellect (your thinking and judging ability). Your feelings come from another part of your soul and should be governed by your intellect and your will. Your opinions are not identical to your conscience because your intellect bases its judgments on the natural moral law, which is built into your nature and expressed in the Ten Commandments. We don’t invent the natural moral law; we discover it within ourselves.
In short, your conscience is the voice of truth within you, and your opinions are to be in harmony with that truth. Your feelings need to be educated by virtue so they are in harmony with conscience’s voice of truth.
Because of our spiritual brokenness as a result of original sin, our feelings are not always in harmony with the truth. The original sin was to try to be like God, and we all at times act as if we were gods by making ourselves the center of everything, and not the true God. In this way we connect ourselves with original sin.
As Catholics we have been given by Jesus the gift of the Church’s teaching authority (what we call “the Magisterium”). It is not easy to always be in harmony with the natural law which comes from God, and the Magisterium assists all people of good will in understanding how the natural law applies in a given circumstance. That enables us to have a correct conscience, and thus we can feel guilty when we are guilty, and feel morally upright when we are morally upright.
So we are to follow our conscience when we vote, but we should do what we need to do to have a correct conscience, that is, one that is in harmony with the natural law, not just based on feelings or opinion.