Print Article | Email Article | Write To Us

A reader asks about prudential judgments

07/14/2013 Comments (78)

I am a relatively new Catholic (2 years confirmed on May 1, so please be patient with me), and am running into some confusion over the correct balance between obedience to the Bishops and where prudential judgment comes into play when it comes to the matter of finding political solutions to problems. I tend to run into Catholics, either in person or online, who fall into one of two categories: (a) Everything the Bishop says or supports is 100% gospel truth and you are not Catholic if you don't automatically jump on the bandwagon of whatever the Bishop is promoting right now, and (b) Everything the Bishop says is just a suggestion and you can make your own judgment about these things. Position B is obviously wrong. No question in my mind on that one. But where I am confused is on Position A and to what degree we are to submit our own logic and reason to the opinion of the Bishop on political matters when you disagree with the manner of implementation of our moral principles. I was under the impression that the Church and the Bishops are to teach the moral principles that should undergird our solutions, but that the actual work of solving these problems falls to the laity and implementation itself is a matter of prudential judgment so long as we are working within the boundaries of those moral teachings. I've read quite a few things lately that suggest (or flat-out say) that this is wrong and that we are supposed to submit ourselves to whatever the Bishops think on matters of implementation.

Now, for me issues such as abortion and SSM are no- brainers. The Bishops teach that intentionally killing an unborn person is wrong. Therefore abortion must always be wrong because it is the intentional killing of an unborn person.That's a pretty direct correlation. Same thing for the issue of same-sex unions. But when it comes to other political matters I get very confused.

For example (and this is only one of many I could give), the current illegal immigration debate. The Bishops have lent their support to the current "comprehensive" bill. Now as far as the morals undergirding their position, I agree completely that all people have intrinsic value and should be treated with dignity and respect. So I can agree that we should not be kicking down doors and dragging kids out of their parents arms and I also agree that no entity should interfere with the Church's ability to minister to people, regardless of their status.

But when it comes to supporting this bill, I have issues. First, I don't think it's a good idea to do "comprehensive" anything. Look at Obamacare for the prime example of the kind of gigantic mess these types of bill cause. There are also, historically, lots of awful little surprises tucked into these type of bills that come back to bite us eventually and has we known that x was snuck in there we might not have supported it. In this particular bill it's just come out that there is a biometric database of all US citizens that would be implemented if the bill passes and is signed into law. Hello, Big Brother! Second, I would rather this be done in pieces and in the daylight- instead of in back rooms between "gangs" where who knows who is even writing these bills, and we all know no one reads them- so we can see what is actually passing, and make sure it is actually implemented.

So I guess my question is am I a bad Catholic because I would see this problem be solved in pieces instead of defaulting to the "comprehensive" position of the Bishops? I have these same views on a lot of other subjects as well. Economics and the reach and role of government are other areas in which I struggle with their conclusions. I agree with the moral premises that the Bishops teach us (keeping the well being of the poor front and center) but I disagree with the various methods of implementations that they endorse and I think that some of what they endorse does not help the poor in the long term and undermines our position and our charitable mission in communities and the lives of individuals. Is is OK for me to see the implementation part a different way or does that make me a bad Catholic or a cafeteria Catholic?

Sorry to write a book for you. But I truly want to be loyal to the teachings of Our Lord and His Church and in this area I am really struggling to see things clearly.

Thanks so much for your time!

I would say it sounds like you are being a faithful Catholic.  Once things move away from articulation of basic principles of faith and morals (of which more in a moment) to "how to live that out through the machinery of state" you are definitely in the realm of prudential judgment and lots of factors come into play where the judgment of the bishops is simply human judgment trying to figure out how to practically apply the principles of Catholic moral theology.  In such cases, it may well be that you have specialized knowledge about, say, economics or the Latino community or the technology of genetic engineering or the latest developments in crowdsourcing or whatever that your average bishop lacks, and therefore you may know more about some better practical way to implement Church teaching than he does. 

So, for instance, in my case the bishops might offer some general exhortation about how Catholics need to evangelize the internet. That statement is, broadly speaking, sound (yes, Catholics need to evangelize the internet). But from that broad premise may proceed concrete recommendations proceeding from a poor knowledge base. In short, a bishop who does not himself use the internet much may make suggestions about blogging that are highly impractical or simply naïve.  A bishop who, for instance, urges bloggers to "only link to sites that contain no materials offensive to the faith" would mean well, but would also be saying something that is essentially impossible to do if you want to actually evangelize the internet. 

As an actual blogger, I would have to disagree with this recommendation because I know the interconnectivity of the internet means that in order to, say, link to a video by Fr. Robert Barron, I have to link to the Youtube site that contains a ton of blasphemous commentary on the video from angry atheists yelling at Fr. Barron.  In short, it's my painful duty to tell the well-meaning bishop that to get on the Internet and engage in evangelism at all means to talk to people who have every bit as much ability to link to other sites as you do and who will immediately start linking to all sorts of things contrary to the faith. The Internet is the agora where Paul goes to get beaten up, not the sanctuary where we go to pray.  More than that, even the most orthodox site in the world is inevitably just a click or two away from something immoral or heretical.  So while I can certainly respect the bishop's good intentions and would agree that, no, I should not link, say, a porn video to illustrate how bad porn is, it is still wholly impractical and impossible to evangelize the internet while avoiding all contact with sites containing materials offensive to the Faith. In such a case, I would charitably assume the odds are very good that a recommendation like that is born of the fact that your average bishop spends no time on the internet or blogging, because he's busy being a bishop.  But while I would disagree about the prudence of that particular recommendation, I would not at all disagree with the basic point that the internet needs evangelism and we are called to do that.

Similarly, in your case, if your knowledge of the nuts and bolts facts on the ground concerning, say, immigration compels you to think that some of the practical recommendations are unrealistic or harmful to human flourishing (which is the goal here, after all) then you have to obey your conscience.

That said, my one caveat here is the following:  Lots and lots of Catholics have fallen into the habit of what I call "Simon Peter Says" thinking when it comes to the guidance of the Church.  That is, instead of beginning with the assumption that our normative attitude as Catholics is to give assent to what the Church guides us to do, while also exercising prudence in those areas the Church herself urges us to exercise prudence (such as your situation), many Catholics take a massively reductionistic approach to the Church's teaching and frequently talk as though, unless the Church has infallibly defined some point of teaching and forces us, under pain of damnation, to obey it, you can basically do whatever you like.  This is a pan-Catholic phenomenon.

So, for instance, a common argument from people who reject the Church's clear, unambiguous and authoritative teaching on artificial contraception is that the Church has not infallibly declared, pronounced and defined that artificial contraception is immoral.  They then go on to point to various theologians who say it's fine to use artificial contraception and announce that there are therefore "two traditions" in the Church on the matter and you can feel free to blow off Humanae Vitae and the Catechism.  The magical words invariably invoked to ignore the bleedin' obvious teaching of the Church here are "prudential judgment" and "conscience."

Similarly, back when the Bush Administration was busy torturing people and calling it "enhanced interrogation" Catholics who supported the gravely and intrinsically immoral sin of torture (to our shame, in greater percentages than the general population) were busy coming up with all sorts of excuses for torture, including the ridiculous claim that "until the Church infallibly defines X (waterboarding, cold cells, strappado, suffocation, terrifying children with insects, among other techniques used by our government) as torture, we simply have no way of knowing what torture is".  So, once again, "prudential judgment" was pressed into service to ignore the bleedin' obvious teaching of the Church with the pretense that it was impossible to know what torture was since the Church had not spelled out every single possible permutation of torture. (Strangely, torture advocates never pretended that it was impossible to know what abortion was despite the fact that the Church has also never spelled out every conceivable abortifacient technique or drug.) 

The struggle to ignore the clear, obvious, and authoritative teaching of the Church on torture, like that struggle to ignore the clear, obvious and authoritative teaching of the Church on artificial contraception, boiled down to "Unless Simon Peter Says it infallibly you can completely ignore it".  The idea was to take the Minimum Daily Adult Requirement approach to the Church's teaching.  Instead of asking, "How do we treat prisoners humanely as the Church commands?" the question was instead, "What can we get away with?  How much abuse can we heap on prisoners without it technically being a mortal sin?"  And even though we had prisoners die from our tortures, the insistence on protecting the power to torture trumped the obvious teaching of the Church.  Some Catholics even insisted that opposition to torture was actually in opposition to the Church's prolife position instead of, very obviously, a corollary of it.

But the key, in both cases, was that the drive was to minimize the clear, obvious, and authoritative teaching of the Church in favor of some ephemeral cultural imperative involving either great desires (Limitless Sex!) or great fears (The Terrorists Will Kill Us All!).  In addition to these motivators for ignoring the clear, obvious, and authoritative teaching of the Church are money, power, and honor.  As a general rule of thumb, it's always a good idea to check our pulse when the Church offends us and try to see if one of these basic drives are being thwarted by the call of the gospel to die to ourselves.

Bottom line:  The Church does not function by the maxim, "That which is not forbidden is compulsory".  Nor does she function by the "Simon Peter Says Principle".  When the Church offers us clear, unambiguous, and authoritative teaching our duty is to give it assent, not to search for loopholes and Clintonian redefinitions of obvious things like "artificial contraception", "torture", or "baby".  So unless a case can be made that the Church's guidance is really going to result in immorality, or is radically impractical, counterproductive, or destructive of human flourishing, our default position is to be obedience, not "How little of the Church's teaching can I get away with obeying?"  In the cases of artificial contraception, abortion, and of torture, no such case exists. 

But similarly, when the Church offers some statement that, say, recycling is a good thing, or supporting 40 Days for Life is encouraged, our response should be to look at that in light of the tradition as well, and not in light of our polarized politics.  So even though recycling is reflexively seen by some as one of those "green left liberal" things and 40 Days for Life is reflexively seen by others as one of those "conservative rabble rouser" things in polarized American media discourse, our thought should not be boxed in by the cramped political categories of American civic life.  Our first thought should not be "Will I be perceived as a green left liberal or a conservative rabble rouser?"  It should be "However I am perceived by the worldly mind, how can I be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ and do my bit to follow the Church's lead by taking care of creation and working to defend the dignity of human life?"

In the end, then, our obligation to God is to assume that the Church's guidance is generally reliable, rather than to look for loopholes.  We are particularly obliged to do that when the Church challenges our cherished prejudices, deepest fears, and most disordered loves.  One particularly important clip 'n save mental checkpoint we should always have in the back or our mind is "Are you trying to justify using evil means to achieve good ends?"  This is, hands down, the favorite moral heresy of our age.

Hope that helps!

Filed under mailbag

About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
  • Get the RSS feed
Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.