Friday, August 10, 2018

No Matter How You Slice It, It’s Still Baloney: Thoughts on Dissent Masquerading as Prudential Judgment

Certain Catholics are trying to deny teachings they dislike. Most recently it involves the refined teaching on the Death Penalty. The argument tends to run as follows:
  • The Catechism of the Catholic Church is not infallible. 
  • Therefore it can err.
  • Therefore the Pope’s addition must be a prudential judgment that can be ignored.
The problem is, this argument has an an unspoken assumption: that whatever is not infallibly declared can be set aside as an opinion. This argument is popular, but the proposition was condemned over 150 years ago:

Pius IX, Syllabus of Errors

The fact is, the Church normally teaches using the Ordinary magisterium. The use of the extraordinary magisterium (an ex cathedra teaching or an ecumenical council) happens under rare circumstances where a teaching needs to be nailed down for the good of the faithful. For example, the Church has always believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But it was not given an infallible definition until 1215 in response to the rejection of that teaching by Berengarius of Tours. 

Under the logic of the dissenters, a Catholic would be able (before 1215) to ignore the teaching of the Church on the Eucharist as a “prudential judgment.” But that’s false. It should also be noted that previous dissenters tried to use this argument to justify disobedience to abortion or contraception. Because the teaching rejecting it fell under the aegis of ordinary magisterium, dissenters argued it was non-binding.

Whether the people who make these arguments are ignorant about Church authority or whether they knowingly reject it is a matter for the individual’s confessor. But knowing or not, they are in error. The Code of Canon Law makes clear that teaching requires obedience and rejection of that authority runs the risk of schism:

can. 751† Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.

can. 752† Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.

can. 753† Although the bishops who are in communion with the head and members of the college, whether individually or joined together in conferences of bishops or in particular councils, do not possess infallibility in teaching, they are authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the Christian faithful entrusted to their care; the Christian faithful are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind to the authentic magisterium of their bishops.

can. 754† All the Christian faithful are obliged to observe the constitutions and decrees which the legitimate authority of the Church issues in order to propose doctrine and to proscribe erroneous opinions, particularly those which the Roman Pontiff or the college of bishops puts forth.

Prudential judgment is not a matter of “optional obedience.” It is a matter of determining how to best cooperate with a teaching. It can never contradict the Church teaching however. #2309 of the CCC provides an example of what prudential judgment means. In listing the requirements of a just war, the Catechism states, “The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.” In other words, the determination of whether a conflict meets the requirements of legitimate defense is a judgment of the one doing the defending—but not whether to obey. This assumes, of course, that the person is rightly seeking to follow Church teaching and not feigning obedience while acting to contradict it. 

Applying this to CCC #2267, one might have been able to debate whether a particular case met the criteria of prudential judgment as phrased by St. John Paul II. But under Pope Francis, that debate of “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity,” is no longer open. By saying:

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

the Pope teaches there is no further debate on whether the death penalty is an option. It is inadmissible and we must stop supporting it. Is it possible that in a hypothetical future, conditions would exist where we no longer have “effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.” But unless those conditions become a reality, as determined by the Church, we do not have the right to ignore this teaching and call it “prudential judgment.”

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