I have heard numerous people recently talking about well-formed consciences and the role on conscience in terns of our moral obligations. Sometimes, I get the impression that people think that forming their conscience has to do with getting in touch with their feelings or being "compassionate," but that's not what it means to form your conscience. The USCCB puts it this way in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship:
Conscience is not something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere “feeling” about what we should or should not do. Rather, conscience is the voice of God resounding in the human heart, revealing the truth to us and calling us to do what is good while shunning what is evil. Conscience always requires serious attempts to make sound moral judgments based on the truths of our faith.
Not judgments based on our feelings, the secular mindset, the national consensus, but on "the truths of our faith."
The same document goes on to explain intrinsically evil actions and the relationship between the right to life and other human rights. As the bishops state,
The right to life implies and is linked to other human rights—to the basic goods that every human person needs to live and thrive. All the life issues are connected, for erosion of respect for the life of any individual or group in society necessarily diminishes respect for all life.
In short, without a primary right to life, the right to these other goods is in doubt. The right to life precedes them and is necessary for them. On the hierarchy of rights, it is the preeminent right, and the others derive from it.
The next few paragraphs are where people get tripped up:
27. Two temptations in public life can distort the Church’s defense of human life and dignity:
28. The first is a moral equivalence that makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity. The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed.
29. The second is the misuse of these necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity. Racism and other unjust discrimination, the use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war, the use of torture, war crimes, the failure to respond to those who are suffering from hunger or a lack of health care, or an unjust immigration policy are all serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act.
So we are required to make our decisions based on all factors, not on a single factor. We need to balance all good and evil to make our determination.
Next, they get to the crux of the disagreement:
34. Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. This is why it is so important to vote according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods. A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.
We can't dismiss issues on either side but must consider all together.
36. When all candidates hold a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.
This is the position that Mark Shea has been talking about heatedly at Catholic and Enjoying It. He takes the former position, and I the latter. Both are principled and acceptable positions based on Church teaching, and I think people should get off his back. He knows what his conscience tells him. I'm still a bit of a neanderthal and might need more convincing to accept his position, but I can't fault him for voting as he sees fit.
Finally, they sum up our responsibility and the moral weight of particular issues:
37. In making these decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions. These decisions should take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue.
Now, here's where things choices to go awry. Some people use the war and the "traditional" advocacy for the poor by the democrats as an excuse to dismiss the intrinsically immoral positions regarding life issues (abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, abortifacient "contraception"). I'm not going to defend the decision to go to war in Iraq (although I would absolutely insist that we have an obligation to stay there and try to rebuild). However, even if all war were intrinsically evil (it's not, or we wouldn't be able to have just wars for defensive purposes), the Iraq War specifically has not come anywhere close to causing the number of deaths as one year with the abortion indsutry in the U.S.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, the tally for 2005 was 1.21 million abortions were performed, "down from 1.31 million abortions in 2000." One year of abortions in the U.S.—the richest nation in the world—where childless couples frequently struggle to adopt children and often have to go overseas.
The casualities in the war in Iraq? For all U.S. and Coalition troops, 4499. Iraqi military and civilian casualties are 7412 and 43528 respectively. I find that last number appalling, and its unclear whether that includes Iraqi insurgents. However, even if it doesn't, you simply cannot compare the morale weight of the deaths of 55439 innocent and not-so-innocent people over a three year period with the deaths of 3 million of the most vulnerable during the same period.
There are many other issues: preferential option for the poor, health care, living wages, immigration, high-paying jobs. For each of these, there are proposals for addressing them on both sides—some good, and some bad. We have prudential judgment on how to address these issues, so long as we attempt to address them. The whole point of rbinging up moral equivalency was to highlight this point. A bunch of prudential judgments do not outweigh supporting an enormous intrinsic moral evil.
While the USCCB didn't come out and say that directly, the aforementioned bishops did:
Bishop Finn: "A candidate who asks us to add our weight to such a destructive momentum in our society, asks us to be participants in their own gravely immoral act. This is something which, in good conscience, we can never justify. Despite hardship, beyond partisanship, for the sake of our eternal salvation: This we should never do."
Bishops Vann and Farrell: "But let us be clear: issues of prudential judgment are not morally equivalent to issues involving intrinsic evils. No matter how right a given candidate is on any of these issues, it does not outweight a candidate's unacceptable position in favor of an intrinsic evil such as abortion or the protection of 'abortion rights.'"
How about other intrinsic moral evils such as embryonic stem cell research and torture*? The rule then is to weigh proportionality (to choose the lesser evil) or to do what Mark Shea has done. I'm willing to say I tried to reduce evil in my voting. Mark may well be a better man than me, but I think God will accept that we both are trying to do our best. I agree with Mark the torture in intrinsically immoral. The fact that it was part of Bush's policy does not mean it will by part of McCain's.
We have a duty to weight these decisions proportionally. Unfortunately, the evil and impact of abortion is disproportionate to most if not all other issues.
*McCain's position on ESCR has always been a bit dodgy, but he essentially allows for it only on existing lines or on nonviable embryos. This isn't good enough, but it's better than a wholesale acceptance. On torture, McCain is against it for military personnel but again, a bit dodgy on how intelligence agencies figure into the picture. I think he needs to "just say no."
UPDATE: A met with a Baptist friend of mine the other day, and she was under the impression that most Catholics were pro-choice. While I know there are some who are, I don't believe support for abortion is the norm among Catholics. (I've personally known only one who was outspoken in her support for it and a few others who didn't consider it as big of a deal. That's still too many.) However, I did mention that some Catholics will vote for pro-choice politicians for other reasons, typically when they lack an understanding of the matter of proportionality.
UPDATE 2: Here's an excellent testimony from an abortion survivor from the Feminists for Life organization.
UPDATE 3: This just in from the Bishop of Scranton:
“No social issue has caused the death of 50 million people,” he said, nothing that he no longer supports the Democratic Party. “This is madness people.”
UPDATE 4: The USCCB is now coming out with a much clearer statement because apparently, too many Catholics are getting misinformation.