Saturday, July 27, 2019

Thoughts on the Use and Misuse of Prudential Judgment

A follower of my blog asked me about the proper understanding of prudential judgment. While I have written about it in regards to certain issues, I haven’t really discussed it in general. Given that the invocation of the term on social media is more often than not a misuse, I thought it would be useful to discuss it.

The starting point for a proper understanding can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1806 Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; “the prudent man looks where he is going.” “Keep sane and sober for your prayers.” Prudence is “right reason in action,” writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle. It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid. (1788; 1780)

In other words, in judging what we must do, we must use right reasoning to carry out our moral obligations to the best of our ability. We ask ourselves what the Church teaches and how we can best apply it to a situation our lives, neither avoiding our obligations nor acting with reckless abandon in fulfilling them.

In different areas, different people have to make the call. For example, in determining whether to go to war, it is the government who has to determine whether the conditions for a just war exist, whether the last resort has been reached, and how to carry out a just war (this responsibility is an example of why we should be praying for our government—that they might properly make these kinds of decisions). In another example, each voter must decide how to properly carry out the moral obligation to promote good and oppose evil.

What is important to remember here is that we must look to the Church to properly form our conscience. We cannot appeal to our conscience against the Church. The Catholic who acts against the teachings of the Church under the present magisterium is not judging prudently.

And that’s where a major error emerges among Catholics: the misrepresentation of the term “prudential judgment” to mean whether I should obey a Church teaching instead of how I can best obey Church teaching. When the Church teaches…

Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. From the very beginnings of the Church, the apostolic preaching reminded Christians of their duty to obey legitimately constituted public authorities (cf. Rom 13:1–7; 1 Pet 2:13–14), but at the same time it firmly warned that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). 

—St. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae #73

…we cannot invoke prudential judgment to act against that teaching or argue it is only a guideline. Yes, the Church teaching on the defense of life is more than just opposing abortion, but we cannot make that defense “optional” under the guise of prudential judgment.

We should be on our guard against arguing (or listening to an argument) that a statement by Pope or bishop condemning something as wrong is “merely an opinion” that we can choose to follow or not as it suits us as a “prudential judgment.” When the Pope or bishop in communion with him intends to teach—even if it is not an ex cathedra teaching—we are bound to give religious submission of intellect and will. As canon law tells us:

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.

That can be hard of course. In America, where we are so bitterly divided and both political parties are openly at odds with Church teaching in some way, and vicious customs treat things as morally good or indifferent which we must oppose, it is easy to think that a condemnation of political party A is an endorsement of the evils of political party B. But, if we remember that our first loyalty is to God and that we must obey Him when human laws go against Him, we can see that prudential judgment might be doing what is right, even if we suffer evil for it. After all, sometimes accepting martyrdom is the proper prudential judgment.

Some problems arise when we have multiple options on how to best carry out Church teaching. Provided that we do not falsely invoke “prudential judgment” as an excuse to evade obedience to Church teaching or to claim our political views are themselves religious obligations, it is possible to have two faithful Catholics come up with two different solutions on how to obey Church teaching.

For example, take the debate over how do we limit the demand for abortion so that, even if we successfully abolish it, people do not seek out illegal abortions? In this case, the question for prudential judgment is “in what way should I support to best help those in need so they won’t be misled into thinking abortion is a legitimate option?”

Some say we need more government programs. Others think that successful initiatives must come from individuals instead. There are merits and disadvantages to both approaches and the Church neither mandates one nor forbids the other. So long as neither option is used to evade our Christian obligations, we can support one over the other as a prudential judgment. Unfortunately people who confuse their preferences in politics with Church teaching hurl anathemas and labels against each other, like “anti-abortion but not pro-life” or “socialism.” In this case, they refuse to consider the legitimate prudential judgment of another and instead unjustly accuse each other.

To avoid this, I think we should remember some things. 
  1. When the Church teaches X, we are not free to reject or ignore teaching X.
  2. When using prudential judgment, we are not to use it to evade obedience.
  3. We need to evaluate what options are compatible with Church teaching and choose the true good. 
  4. We must not confuse the true good with our comfort and political preferences.
  5. When there are two or more options based on choosing the true good, we cannot accuse someone who chooses an option contrary to our preferences of bad will.
If we remember these things, we might avoid falling into sin by disobedience or rash judgment/calumny.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Ignoring the Watchman: A Reflection on Our Double Standard Views of Evil

When we think about the concept of doing evil, we tend to treat our own sins and those of our own faction as minor, while treating the harmful consequences of the acts from those we dislike as if those who did them were acting with the motivation of Aaron in the Shakespearean play, Titus Andronicus:

Lucius: Art thou not sorry for these heinous deeds?
Aaron: Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
Even now I curse the day, and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse,
Wherein I did not some notorious ill:
As kill a man, or else devise his death;
Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it;
Accuse some innocent, and forswear myself;
Set deadly enmity between two friends;
Make poor men’s cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears,
Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors,
Even when their sorrows almost were forgot;
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
‘Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.’
Tut! I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.

Titus Andronicus, Act V Scene I.

This way of thinking helps explain why we have a growing divide between factions today when there should be no factions in the Church. By limiting the meaning of evil to “with malice aforethought,” we do not judge our sins rightly and assume that those who disagree with us must sin in the worst way. But doing evil is to do things contrary to the teaching of God as passed on by His Church. If we knowingly disobey these teachings, we are doing evil. There are two things to remember. First, venial matter, imperfect knowledge, or less than full consent may reduce our guilt. Second that evil was done regardless of the level of guilt. By downplaying our own willful disregard to “unimportant,” we’re committing presumption. By exaggerating other’s sins to malicious, we are violating the proper sense of Matthew 7:1ff.

This is evident when we see American Catholics play the “bishops should stay out of politics” card when they teach on something that challenges our complicity on something we write off as “unimportant.” Tragically, this complicity is bipartisan. If the Church speaks out against the unjust treatment of migrants, some Catholics will object to the bishops focusing on this instead of X—with X being something that they already happen to agree with. If the Church defends life and the sanctity of marriage, some Catholics will object to this, insisting that the bishops focus on Y instead—Y being something that they just happen to agree with. Both are willing to overlook that the Church does in fact teach on X and Y as well as on the just treatment of migrants and on life and the sanctity of marriage.

All of us need to realize that this behavior is not standing up for “more important” teachings. It is rejection of the Church teachings which we dislike. Yes, we can be quite sincere about opposing X and Y. But Church teaching is about more than X and Y which don’t directly affect us.

In addition, all of us face the temptation of assuming that, because the individual bishop is not speaking about X or Y at that moment, they must maliciously oppose Church teaching on X or Y. Or, that because the bishop speaks about showing compassion to those who violate Church teaching in an area we feel vehement about, it “must” mean he is lax about the teaching in this area, or even plotting to undermine it. The possibility of him wanting to both save those sinners and protect us from committing rash judgment never seems to occur to the critics.

But see what we’ve become! By assuming that the teaching that rebukes us is “unimportant,” we deafen ourselves to the teachings that could lead us to repentance. By assuming that those who violate teachings we vehemently support must be malicious in intent, we judge in a way forbidden to us. In both assumptions, we endanger our souls.

Yes, some sins are objectively more destructive than others. But that does not mean the “others” can be ignored. I’ve often said in my blog that the deadliest sin for each person are the ones most likely to damn that person to hell. If the Church warns that something we’re indifferent to or complicit in our support for, we’re fools to ignore the warning and blame the messenger for speaking out. We should remember the prophecy of Ezekiel when the Church speaks out:

You, son of man—I have appointed you as a sentinel for the house of Israel; when you hear a word from my mouth, you must warn them for me. When I say to the wicked, “You wicked, you must die,” and you do not speak up to warn the wicked about their ways, they shall die in their sins, but I will hold you responsible for their blood. If, however, you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, but they do not, then they shall die in their sins, but you shall save your life. (Ezekiel 33:7-9)

The Church, as a watchman, is warning us. If we don’t listen, we too will die in our sins.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Reflection on a Hidden and False Assumption

Preliminary Note: This is not the only case of error out there. I could probably write a logic text using nothing but examples from anti-Francis Catholics to demonstrate bad reasoning. But it is an error that undermines trust in the Church and needs to be addressed by itself.

I had a critic take exception to my last article, arguing (among other things) that the existence of certain evils in the Church was the fault of “Rome.” It’s a common allegation, one I’ve been fighting since before I started blogging (I’ve fought the SSPX using it against St. John Paul II for about as long as I’ve been on the Internet). It does have an enthymeme in it. That hidden premise is the belief that any persistent sin in the Church can only exist because of the approval or negligence of “Rome.” Because a sin exists, a Pope they dislike is accused because if he “took action,” the sin wouldn’t exist.

The problem is, under that line of reasoning, it indicts every Pope since St. Peter, and overlooks the fact that societies sometimes have vicious customs—evil acts commonly accepted in a society despite the teaching of the Church. For example, the French and their infamous acceptance of mistresses despite the fact that the Church has consistently condemned adultery and concubinage. If the current widespread sins of Catholics “proves” the approval or incompetence of the magisterium, then it also follows that the Church is to blame for not stopping mistressing. St. Paul VI (Humanae Vitae) is to blame for the acceptance of contraception among Catholics, and St. John Paul II (consistent warnings against the culture of death) for the prevalence of abortion. Never mind that they and their successors fought these evils and urged Catholics to reject and oppose them.

Even if one only speaks about corruption among the clergy (where there’s even less of an excuse for ignorance), you can’t say that it could only exist because of approval or indifference of Rome? St. Peter Damian wrote “The Book of Gommorah” (epistle 31) about the practice of homosexuality in monasteries and urging reform. Popes did take action to reform these evils but the evil did not vanish. Are we to condemn every Pope from Leo IX forward for this fact? Abortion was condemned since the first century but some Catholics still support it. In other words, this argument aimed at accusing one Pope or one Council would actually indict all of them if the widespread existence of a sin is the fault of a Pope.

This attitude is effectively a re-emergence of Pelagianism, believing that one is able to overcome sin through their own efforts. This re-emergence assumes that the Pope just has to make a harsh enough statement and Catholics will obey. We should consider what Pope Francis had to say in Gaudete et Exsultate:

49. Those who yield to this pelagian or semi-pelagian mindset, even though they speak warmly of God’s grace, “ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style.” When some of them tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added. They fail to realize that “not everyone can do everything,” and that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace. In every case, as Saint Augustine taught, God commands you to do what you can and to ask for what you cannot, and indeed to pray to him humbly: “Grant what you command, and command what you will.”

Some things are beyond human effort and, if God’s permissive Will allows them to remain, we will not be able to overturn them no matter how much we want to (cf. Numbers 14:39-45).

This doesn’t mean “do nothing.” It means each age has its own evils and we must work to overcome them, relying on the grace of God to strengthen us for the task. Not by accusing people of malfeasance if the results are different than we want.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

The Current Danger of the Age

In the United States, a real danger for Catholics is emerging. I call it a real danger because it is not from those obviously bringing in false ideas from the outside which the faithful easily reject. It is coming from those who claim to be faithful Catholics while rejecting those with the authority to teach the faith—the Pope and bishops in communion with him—because they claim that the Pope and bishops are heretical, because they claim that what the magisterium teaches is not protected from error, because they call it an opinion or a prudential judgment.

To justify their claims, they cite their personal interpretation of Scripture and previous Church teaching, arguing contradiction between then and now, assuming that their own interpretation is true when that is what they must prove. They argue that the misinterpretation of the Pope and bishops by those outside or at odds with the Church is “proof” of their accusations of errors—ignoring the fact that these same people also misinterpreted the Popes and bishops who they do approve of. Then, when shown that their interpretation is false, either accuse the Pope or bishop of speaking “unclearly” or accusing the defenders of “explaining away” the “obvious meaning.”

The irony is, these super-Catholics who claim to promote the teachings of the Church against “modern innovations” are rejecting one of the major ones: That Jesus Christ established the Church, bestowed His protection on her, giving the Apostles and their successors (cf. Matthew 16:19, 18:18) the authority to teach in His name in a binding manner. When they teach in their role as Pope or as bishop, we are required to give religious submission of intellect and will, neither saying nor doing anything that contradicts this teaching, regardless of whether the teaching is ex cathedra or ordinary magisterium.

But when the Pope and bishops teach that we must do X or must avoid Y, Catholics are all too willing to scornfully reject those teachings if it challenges their preferred views. For example, most recently, we see some Catholics scorn and mock what the successors to the Apostles teach on the obligation to treat migrants justly, misrepresenting it as calling for “open borders,” encouraging migrants to “violate laws,” and “letting everybody in.” Whether they know this is false or they wrongly think it is true, they cannot escape the fact they do wrong: because the former is calumny and the latter is rash judgment. Both are undermining the consistent teaching of the Church. The people who do this are promoting error (in denying their moral obligations) and schism (by rejecting these teachings and encouraging others to do the same).

Below, I leave you with some of the texts that witness to the consistent teaching of the Church about our required obedience, showing it is no recently invented “papolatry.” The modern excuses of dissent were utterly alien to Catholics of the past and should not be used today either.

Texts to Study

So when S. Peter was placed as foundation of the Church, and the Church was certified that the gates of hell should not prevail against it, was it not enough to say that S. Peter, as foundation stone of the ecclesiastical government and administration, could not be crushed and broken by infidelity or error, which is the principal gate of hell? For who knows not that if the foundation be overthrown, if that can be sapped, the whole building falls. In the same way, if the supreme acting shepherd can conduct his sheep into venomous pastures, it is clearly visible that the flock is soon to be lost. For if the supreme acting shepherd leads out of the path, who will put him right? If he stray, who will bring him back? In truth, it is necessary that we should follow him simply, not guide him, otherwise, the sheep would be shepherds.

—St. Francis De Sales, Catholic Controversies

By unity is meant that the members of the true Church must be united in the belief of the same doctrines of revelation, and in the acknowledgment of the authority of the same pastors. Heresy and schism are opposed to Christian unity. By heresy, a man rejects one or more articles of the Christian faith. By schism, he spurns the authority of his spiritual superiors.

—Cardinal James Gibbons, Faith of Our Fathers

Hence We teach and declare that by the appointment of our Lord the Roman Church possesses a sovereignty of ordinary power over all other Churches, and that this power of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, which is truly episcopal, is immediate; to which all, of whatsoever rite and dignity, both pastors and faithful, both individually and collectively, are bound, by their duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, to submit, not only in matters which belong to faith and morals, but also in those that appertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world; so that the Church of Christ may be one flock under one supreme Pastor, through the preservation of unity, both of communion and of profession of the same faith, with the Roman Pontiff. This is the teaching of Catholic truth, from which no one can deviate without loss of faith and of salvation.

—Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, Chapter III

I said: “Your Holiness, I have just discovered how easy Judgment is going to be.” “Oh,” he said, “tell me, I would like to know.” “While I was waiting to come into your presence I had come to the conclusion that I had not loved the Church as much as I should. Now that I come before Your Holiness, I see the Church personalized. When I make my obeisance to you, I make it to the Body and to the invisible Head, Christ. Now I see how much I love the Church in Your Holiness, its visible expression.” He said: “Yes, Judgment is going to be that easy for those who try to serve the Lord.”

—Fulton J Sheen: A Treasure in Clay

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.

—1983 Code of Canon Law

882 The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.” “For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” (834, 1369; 837)

883 “The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head.” As such, this college has “supreme and full authority over the universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff.”

884 “The college of bishops exercises power over the universal Church in a solemn manner in an ecumenical council.” But “there never is an ecumenical council which is not confirmed or at least recognized as such by Peter’s successor.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church