Tag Archives: conscience

What does the Church have to do with politics?

October 4, 2012


Photo/KitAy. Licensed under Creative Commons.

It’s been an interesting year and I’m not surprised that I’ve heard some interesting questions like,  “Why are the bishops interfering with politics?” and, “Why is the Church trying to tell me how to vote?”

These questions reveal concerns that the Church is trying to manipulate voting and that it’s placing itself in the political sphere when it shouldn’t.

In a culture unreasonably fearful of Church encroachment on the State–even though the founding fathers proposed separating the two mostly for the opposite reason—some are skeptical when the Church speaks on controversial social issues, especially near an election.

What is the Church trying to do and where in Church teaching does say she has the authority?

History of speaking on policy issues

The bishops have long spoken out on issues affecting public policy. During World War I, they created a council to enable U.S. Catholics to contribute funds for the spiritual care of Catholic servicemen. For the better part of a century in this country, they also have promoted Church teaching on issues including education, care for the poor and immigration.

The Church should always have the freedom to preach the faith, to proclaim her teaching about society, “and also to pass moral judgment in those matters which regard public order when the fundamental rights of a person or the salvation of souls require it,” the Vatican II Council Fathers wrote in the document Gaudium et Spes.

Informing Catholics—and even non-Catholics—about Church teaching on important social issues is especially the U.S. bishops’ responsibility, they write,

The Church’s obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society is a requirement of our faith. It is a basic part of the mission we have received from Jesus Christ, who offers a vision of life revealed to us in Sacred Scripture and Tradition.

While the Church’s position on certain important social questions is motivated by our faith-based moral conscience, it is on the level of the social and societal impact of these issues that the Church addresses them with us and our fellow citizens with a view to promoting the common good of all, according to Father Timothy Cloutier, judicial vicar for the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis.

Faith helps us see more clearly the truths we discover through reason regarding the sacredness of human life and the dignity of each person, which is the heart of Catholic moral and social teaching, according to the bishops, who add,

“Because we are people of both faith and reason, it is appropriate and necessary for us to bring this essential truth about human life and dignity to the public square.”

Why so outspoken about the HHS Mandate?

Why has the HHS Mandate, the federal government’s requirement that many employers who fall outside the government’s definition of a religious institution must cover contraception and sterilization through health insurance, so essential that the U.S. bishops have been so outspoken about it?  Especially since polls say a majority of Catholics think employers should supply this coverage in their health plans?

Of course, it’s a complicated issue.  There is the Church’s opposition to contraception.  Most notably, the bishops have emphasized that they are speaking out for protection of the Church’s own institutions, “the care of the souls of the individual faithful, and with the common good.”

Of especially great importance in this case is the freedom to practice religion. According to another Vatican II document it’s a matter of human dignity—one of those core teachings the bishops mention.

As for the Church trying to tell us how to vote, I’m pretty sure there will never be a sample ballot stuffed into my parish’s bulletin telling me how to choose  “Catholic-approved candidates.” Also, IRS law prohibits clergy from preaching at Mass about political candidates.

Helping to form consciences

But by illuminating and clarifying Church teaching on important issues, the Church helps me form my conscience so I can make sound moral voting judgments based on the truths of the faith.

Whatever you think of the Church’s involvement in the public arena, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est that it’s not her place to directly enter politics to make a more just society. At the same time, she plays a role in promoting justice. The Church:

cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.


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‘The Hunger Games’: Has it come out in time?

March 29, 2012



What’s all the fuss about “The Hunger Games” trilogy?

There’s not much not to like about the books: love story, drama, humor, revolution, friendship, family, patriotism, murder, mystery, sci-fi, war, military strategy, mind games.

No religion, outwardly at least. But definitely moral choices. The idea of people being willing to sacrifice their lives to save others, that has a familiar ring to it.

Thousands of young people reading the Suzanne Collins series have adults following suit, and the movie is a box office blockbuster.

Personally I wonder, has this tour de force come out in time?

Is this our future?

Can a make-believe story that shows dramatically a society in which a very few are extremely well-off and the rest of a nation an underclass wake up its readers to what’s happening in the United States this very day?

Can reading this fiction penetrate enough American brains so that we see the reality of our own 2012 culture, one in which one life is more valued than another? One in which the middle-class is not just shrinking but being hammered into submission?

Yes, “The Hunger Games” is about the evil of war and the horror of taking the life of another. The very thought of children killing other children is abhorent — as is the killing of any child, any human being at any stage (even in its mother’s womb). And children killing children as a form of entertainment for a privileged upper class doubly so.

But readers (and moviegoers) have to be able to equate the context of this futuristic, post-apocalyptic trilogy to life right now, and then to life as it very well could be in the years ahead.

Medicine, food, rights for just a few?

In “The Hunger Games,” the privileged in the Capitol district have incredibly advanced health care, science-fiction type of treatments, while in backwater District 12 where heroine Katniss lives, her mother treats the sick and wounded on her kitchen table with homemade remedies.

Some Christians today want to destroy the small steps the United States has taken to provide health care for those who aren’t fortunate enough to work for companies that have insurance plans.  As one of the books’ characters applies moss to a wound to slow bleeding, I recalled a benefit a corporate CEO received upon retirement: His health care paid for the rest of his life. Like with the millions this man was making every year he hadn’t stashed away enough to pay for his own health care!

In “The Hunger Games” there are fences around each of the districts of the fictional country of Panem, and those who dare to illegally cross a border in search of food are punished or killed. It is impossible for a thinking person not to picture Mexican workers willing to risk their lives to sneak over, under and around U.S. borders in search of work so they can eat and feed their families.

Is it right and good and just for Katniss to cross the border to help her mother and sister survive but not right and good and just for Juan and Juanita to do the same?

When some Mexicans enter the United States they do so illegally.  Absolutely.

But tell me you can read “The Hunger Games” and not hope that Katniss doesn’t get caught on the wrong side of the fence.

You may or may not agree with the Catholic bishops of this country as they protest forcing Catholic institutions to pay for contraceptives and sterilization in their employees’ health insurance policies because it is a violation of the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment. But you were on the side of Katniss, Peeta and Gale as they struggled to overcome the conscience-compromising policies of a powerful fictional government, weren’t you?

Time to ask ourselves hard questions

Here’s a good question to ask after reading or viewing “The Hunger Games”: What’s happening in my world that troubles my conscience but that I feel I can’t do anything about?

And how about a few more questions. We learn through authoritative studies about the growing gap between the rich and the poor. When we read “The Hunger Games” or see the film, it isn’t a reach to see how that kind of society of haves and have-nots is happening in our day. What might it take for America’s middle class to dissolve to the point that those with decent salaries and benefits could become like the underclass in Ms. Collins’ fictional world?

Would it take a so-called “right-to-work” act?

Maybe legislating collective bargaining rights out of existence?

Dissolving the nation’s health care act?

Sending good-paying jobs overseas where people are willing to work for half the salary so that a corporate CEO can retire with health care paid for life?

We see and hear the stories everyday about people who lost their jobs, lost their homes. They used to donate food to the food shelf; now they feed their families thanks to those same food shelves.

Talk about hunger games.

Bob Zyskowski is The Catholic Spirit’s associate publisher / general manager.

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Understanding and Protecting Your Conscience

February 9, 2012

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There is no surgical procedure to remove the conscience. When it is formed correctly, it gives light and life. Photo/Army Medicine Licensed under Creative Commons

If the conscience were an internal organ, I think we’d be able to have it surgically removed. As it is, we can deaden our conscience but I don’t think it’s possible to completely kill it even with the strongest poison.

While I’ve never sought to destroy my conscience I have  tried to silence it now and then. Thanks to my parents and all the people who’ve helped to positively form my conscience since I was a child, I can now recognize what a great gift it is.

While there are always plenty of threats to conscience health, an especially big one is on the horizon, so I thought it would be good to look at what the conscience is, how it’s formed or malformed, and what the Church says about external forces that try to coerce us into violating our conscience.

Our conscience is our “most secret core and sanctuary,” according to the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes. It’s where we are alone with God “whose voice echoes in our depths.” Deep within our conscience is a law inscribed by God that calls us to love and to do what is good and avoid evil. And if our ear is tuned to it, we hear it at just the right moment.

The Catechism states that conscience judges choices, bears witness to authority of truth and welcomes the commandments. By the judgment of reason, we recognize the moral quality of acts we’re going to perform, that we are performing or that we have done. (CCC 1777)

Bl. John Henry Newman put it this way:

Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise … [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.

Like virtues–and vices–our conscience is formed to an extent by habits. We have to learn and practice its interior law. Throughout our entire lives it must be formed and our moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful and formulates judgments according to reason. To make moral decisions, not only must our conscience be formed but it must be informed about the topic.

There are some ground rules for acting in good conscience:

  • One may never do evil so that good may result from it;
  • The Golden Rule: “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.” (Mt. 7:12, Lk. 6:31, Tob. 4:15)
  • Charity always proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience: “Thus sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience … you sin against Christ.”

As we exercise our conscience, “there are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.” (CCC 1756)

When someone ‘s conscience is malformed or when they make errors of judgment in moral conduct, it’s for one of these reasons: ignorance of Christ and the Gospel, bad example, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejecting the Church’s authority and teaching or lack of conversion and charity. (CCC 1792)

If our conscience is formed properly, the Church teaches that we have a right to act in conscience and freedom to make moral decisions. The Vatican II Council Fathers wrote that man “must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters. (Dignitatis Humanae)

We’re obliged by our conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are “contrary to the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ (Acts 5:29).” (CCC 2256)

The federal government’s mandate that nearly all employers offering their employees health insurance provide free contraception, sterilization and some aborifacient drugs is directly at variance with Church teaching. Not only would this new rule force many Catholic organizations to violate their consciences but also Catholics throughout the country who will be forced to pay through their health plans for the “free” services.

In reference to the Church’s position on contraception, the encyclical Humanae Vitae states:

“Every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of the natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil.

This seems like the right moment to listen for the voice of God in our conscience. As St. Augustine said:

“Return to your conscience, question it … Turn inward, brethren, and in everything you do, see God as your witness.”


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