A surefire way of demonstrating the existence of universal truths is to consult common experience.

No one in their right mind likes being ridiculed, made a pure object of sport or derision, robbed or lied to. From this, we can infer that there is something innate or "natural" to humanity that expects personal respect from others and respect for one's property -- and wants to be told the truth.

It also follows that other people -- all people -- count, and that an ordered society matters, since none of us is an island.

The commandments against coveting, stealing and bearing false witness condemn wrongs that are rooted in the nature of what it means to be a human being. Again, we know this from experience, because when we are the objects of another's violation of these norms, we feel violated or sinned against.

Did we need the commandments to teach us this?

No doubt, the law may function as a teacher, as St. Thomas offered, or as a reminder, in which case it is good to hear in the commandments an affirmation of what God already planted deep within us. Yet, even without legislation, I would submit that there is something in the core of every rational being of sound mind -- we commonly call it "conscience" -- that can detect and discern what is right and what is wrong, regardless of whatever passion, compulsion, delusion or sin might occasion behaviors that contradict it.

Before they got around to the Constitution, the founders of our country formulated a remarkable statement of fundamental truths that, without a doubt, have not changed at all in the 236 years since Thomas Jefferson penned them.

To wit: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

One could almost write a dissertation on the Declaration of Independence as a literary text: its economy of style and expressiveness of language. Whatever the depth and breadth of the framers' understanding of "Creator " (we know that most of them were Deists), there is no question of their understanding and respect for the divinely "given" nature of our fundamental rights: that their source lie outside any mere human authority or power.

We see this in the very next sentence, an affirmation that the role of government is to secure these rights -- not to create them -- and that it is human beings who "institute" (they avoid the word "create" here) government to protect these "unalienable" rights.

It is inescapable that "unalienable" means that no human authority -- of which government is one -- may compromise the exercise of these rights.

Why the civics lesson here? Actually, this is not about civics -- nor politics, which it is above. No textbook can teach what must be discovered and affirmed by every human being. These rights are constitutive of our humanity and the very order of civil society itself.

Without them, as history can illustrate, civilization comes apart at the seams. Deny or distort these rights and the seeds of violence are sown.

That is why it is so important for us to come back to our first principles before we decide whether we want to be (or vote) Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal.

As this important presidential election looms, a good consultation with one's conscience is in order, especially for Catholics who have a very rich tradition of moral and social teachings which not only affirm these fundamental rights, but also place them in wide and rich contexts like the issues of the sanctity of human life, religious liberty, public order, the freedom to move and migrate, the right to personal ownership and the commensurate good stewardship of goods and resources so that all humanity will enjoy the benefits of our common home in God's creation.

On the important role of the state in safeguarding and creation conditions favorable to the exercise of freedom of conscience while maintaining public order in the face of both domestic and international challenges, a reflective reading of the Declaration on Religious Liberty ("Dignitatis Humanae") of the 1960s' Second Vatican Council is well worth the while.

A well-formed conscience will ensure a harmony between the exercise of our individual rights and the promotion of the common good, between personal freedom and social responsibility.

Catholic voters have no good reason to enter the polling place without informed minds and well-formed consciences. In exercising our civic duty we also fulfill our moral responsibility to live, in word and in deed, as disciples of Jesus. (Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)