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.

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