Showing posts with label prudence. Show all posts
Showing posts with label prudence. Show all posts

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Usurpation: When Preference Replaces Church Teaching

One thing the 2016 elections makes clear is that while our preferences and Church teaching may be similar, they are not the same thing. In saying this, I don’t indict my fellow Catholics of being “bad Catholics.” What I mean is, what we think is the best way to live as a Catholic are sometimes prudential judgments where other faithful Catholics can legitimately disagree. So, if we insist that our prudential judgment is the only way to follow the Catholic faith, we end up being unjust to those who follow their own prudential judgment.

It’s easy to make that judgment. Some Catholics do make bad decisions while believing them to be compatible with Church teaching. When that happens, we do have to help them understand (in charity) what the Church does teach. The problem is, we tend to think that because some go astray, it means whoever reaches a different decision than we do must be guilty of the same thing. We see this happen in disputes over what sort of laws we should pass in response to national events and what sort of votes we should cast to be faithful to the Church and her teaching.

What we should remember is, the Church teaches us about truth, morality and the need to follow it if we would be faithful Catholics. She does not tell us we must vote for candidate X or law Y. As Benedict XVI wrote:

[#9] The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim “to interfere in any way in the politics of States.”11 She does, however, have a mission of truth to accomplish, in every time and circumstance, for a society that is attuned to man, to his dignity, to his vocation.


 Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2009).

If we act against the truth taught by the Church (such as calling an openly pro-abortion candidate “the real pro-life candidate”) we do wrong. But if people take to heart the teaching of the Church and, properly understanding it, their conscience leads them to vote differently than we prefer, we cannot attack them as being bad Catholics. We can debate (in charity) whether certain reasoning is accurate, but we can’t say they choose to do evil because they do not embrace the third party option or do not think the recent slate of gun control legislation will solve anything.

When one Catholic accuses another of supporting evil when it is only a difference of prudential judgment, this is what St. Thomas Aquinas calls usurpation—a case “when a man judges about matters wherein he has no authority” (Summa Theologica II-II q.60 a.2 resp) [†]. We don’t have the authority in judging a man an evildoer when he follows Church teaching in good faith and to the best of his ability. We can shake our heads and disagree. We can offer charitable arguments on why we disagree. But if we equate our preferences with Church teaching, we usurp her authority when we judge.

If we don’t get this attitude under control, it sometimes becomes suspicion of the Church herself. If we continue letting our preferences usurp the teaching of the Church, we risk becoming judges of the Church where the Church can only be right when she does our will. That too is usurpation. The Church binds and looses because God gives the Church this right and responsibility. We do not have such a right.

But when we claim the Church went wrong and can only repair herself if she follows our preferences, we are usurping what God has given His Church. It doesn't matter whether The Church seems inept or error prone to us. God has given the successors of the Apostles the right and obligation in leading the Church and we trust Him to protect the Church. If we feel called to reform the Church, we must work under her authority, not against it. St. Francis of Assisi, for example, did not write abusive articles about how awful the Church was. Instead, he followed Our Lord’s call to rebuild His Church, by giving obedience to the Pope and bishops.

We can have preferences about how the Church should handle things. That’s not wrong in itself. It goes wrong when we make our preference the yardstick that measures the Church, when it should be the Church that measures our preference. When we start viewing the Pope as a burden, or claiming that the Church went wrong after Vatican II, or thinking her moral teachings are arbitrary teachings she should abandon, we have gone wrong, and may be guilty of scandal if we lead others into this rebellion.

The way to change, is to learn the teaching of the Church and to avoid condemning the Church herself or people who strive to be faithful just because they go against our preferences. in the course of being faithful. Some Catholics may not like that others oppose certain gun control measures. Some Catholics may be in a civil war over whether to support Trump or a 3rd party. But before condemning them, we need to learn both what the Church allows and what motives these fellow Catholics might have for their decision. 



[†] The whole response is worth reading:

I answer that, Judgment is lawful in so far as it is an act of justice. Now it follows from what has been stated above (A. 1, ad 1, 3) that three conditions are requisite for a judgment to be an act of justice: first, that it proceed from the inclination of justice; secondly, that it come from one who is in authority; thirdly, that it be pronounced according to the right ruling of prudence. If any one of these be lacking, the judgment will be faulty and unlawful. First, when it is contrary to the rectitude of justice, and then it is called perverted or unjust: secondly, when a man judges about matters wherein he has no authority, and this is called judgment by usurpation: thirdly, when the reason lacks certainty, as when a man, without any solid motive, forms a judgment on some doubtful or hidden matter, and then it is called judgment by suspicion or rash judgment.


 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne).

Friday, September 11, 2015

Some Important Words from St. Francis de Sales

I’ve been reading the St. Francis de Sales book Of the Love of God, and in book ten, I came across two very important chapters about zeal that goes too far. It seems appropriate today to post these chapters and share them in the hopes they will be useful to the individual Catholic. In these chapters, he discusses what proper zeal guides us to do and how the examples of zeal by the saints and in the events of Scripture may not be handled properly by the average man in the street—in fact, they may actually do harm. (One example is how people cite St. Paul rebuking St. Peter in a special case. St. Francis de Sales points out that not all people are gifted in a way to do this in a good way.

So I offer this posting of those chapters to my readers.


The Wise Guidance of Religious Zeal

IN proportion to the loving warmth and vehemence of zeal, so is the need that it be wisely guided, else it will easily outstep the limits of discretion. Not, of course, that the love of God, however fervent, can ever be too strong in itself, or in the impulse it gives to the mind; but it is wont to call in the use of the intellect and the passions to effect its object, and these are liable to act too vehemently, and so to hinder zeal, and make it unruly. We see an instance of this in Joab killing Absalom in spite of David’s stringent orders to save his life. In like manner zeal sometimes calls in the aid of anger, bidding it destroy the sin, yet spare the sinner; but passionate zeal, once roused, is like an unruly horse, who cannot be held by bit or bridle. So, again, the householder of whom our Lord tells2 had to check the impetuous zeal of his servants, who would have rooted up the tares at the risk of rooting up the good grain also. Indignation is a strong, vigorous servant, capable of great things, but so eager and inconsiderate that it is wont to do more harm than good. Our peasants say that the peacock is a bad inmate, for although it will Keep a place clear of spiders and the like, it spoils more than it saves. Anger is a natural reinforcement to reason, and grace uses it in support of zeal; but it is a dangerous ally, apt to get the upper hand and overthrow both reason and charity, and we are never safe or sure that it may not suddenly spread like a flame, and become destructive. It is indeed a desperate act to let a besieged city fall into the hands of one who may prove a master instead of an ally.

Self-love often deceives men, and disguises itself under the garb of zeal. Zeal has perhaps made some use of anger, and anger in its turn plays its own game under the name of zeal; under the name only, for, like all other virtues, the real thing itself cannot be used to any evil purpose.


A notorious sinner once cast himself at the feet of a holy priest, humbly seeking absolution, whereat a certain monk named Demophilus gave way to the fiercest indignation at the sight of such a penitent drawing so near the altar, and with blows and sharp words drove him thence, abusing the priest who would have received him, and removing the sacred vessels from the altar, which he held as desecrated. Demophilus proceeded next to write boastfully of what he had done to S. Denys the Areopagite, who answered him in a tone worthy of his teacher S. Paul, pointing out how indiscreet and unwise such zeal was, and illustrating his rebuke by the following instance. A Candiate Christian had been won back to Paganism by one of his former friends, whereupon a certain pious man, Carpus by name, who appears to have been bishop of Candia, was so moved to wrath that he prayed to God to destroy both with the thunderbolts of His wrath. But the Lord opened his eyes in a vision, and he beheld heaven open, and Jesus Christ sitting on His Throne, surrounded with angels, and beneath the yawning gulf, on the edge of which stood the two men he had wished to overwhelm, trembling with fear, while certain men stood by striving to thrust them in. So great was Carpus’s wrath that, as he told S. Denys later on, he scarce cast a glance upon the Blessed Saviour and His company of angels, but gloated on the spectacle of those wretched men, whose fall he longed to hasten, till, raising his eyes, he beheld the All-pitying Saviour rise up and extend His Hand to those miserable beings, while the angels strove to draw them back. Then our Lord turned to Carpus, saying, “Smite Me rather, for gladly would I suffer anew to save men. Bethink thee whether thou wouldst choose to fall into that hellish gulf, or to abide with the angels.” Some men think there can be no zeal without anger, whereas true zeal rarely if ever employs it. The surgeon never uses his knife save in extreme necessity, and holy zeal never uses anger save in a like extreme moral need.


Concerning certain Saints whose Zealous Indignation is in nowise irreconcilable with the above

WE read that Moses, Phinehas, Elijah, Mattathias, and other eminent servants of God, exercised a zealous wrath on sundry occasions; but then we must needs bear in mind that these were great men, who had full command over their anger, and knew how to control their passions, like the centurion in the Gospel, saying to one, “Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh.” But we are of a very different sort, and have not the same empire over ourselves; our steed is not so trained that we can “volt and revolt”2 at pleasure. A well-broken retriever will follow the game or hold back as his master bids, but a young dog is disobedient, and strays. Those great saints, who have subdued their passions by dint of long-practised virtues, are able to wield their wrath at will; but we, with our unruly, ill-trained impulses, dare not let anger loose, lest, once at large, we know not how to restrain it. S. Denys tells Demophilus, above mentioned, that he who would correct others must first give good heed that his wrath do not gain the mastery over his better self, and that it is vain to cite Phinehas or Elijah as examples, for our Lord Himself checked a like spirit even in His disciples. We all remember the circumstances to which S. Denys alludes—how Phinehas slew the impure, and Elijah called down fire upon Ahaziah’s soldiers, in token that the Lord was King.4 As also our Saviour’s reply when James and John asked to be permitted to imitate Elijah, and destroy the Samaritan village which denied their Master entrance: “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of,” thereby teaching that His zeal was mild and gracious, never exercising fierce wrath save when all other possible means were unavailing.


When that great master of theology S. Thomas Aquinas lay in his last sickness at Fosse-neuve, the Cistercian monks around asked him to expound the Canticles to them, as S. Bernard had done. To which the Saint replied, “Dear fathers, give me the mind of S. Bernard, and I will expound the sacred words as he did!” Even so, if we poor weak Christians are called upon to put forth zealous wrath like those great saints we read of in the Scriptures, it behoves us to answer, “Give us their spirit and their light, and we will do as they did.” It is not every one that knows when or how to be angry.


Those holy men were under God’s immediate inspiration, and therefore they could exercise their wrath fearlessly, inasmuch as the same Spirit Which kindled restrained it within due limits. Such anger is not that “wrath of man” of which S. James says that it “worketh not the righteousness of God.” Although S. Paul calls the Galatians “foolish,”3 and withstood S. Peter “to the face,” is that any reason why we should sit in judgment on nations, censure and abuse our superiors? We are not so many S. Pauls! But bitter, sharp, hasty men not unfrequently give way to their own tempers and dislikes under the cloak of zeal, and are consumed of their own fire, falsely calling it from heaven. On one side an ambitious man would fain have us believe that he only seeks the mitre out of zeal for souls; on the other a harsh censor bids us accept his slanders and backbiting as the utterance of a zealous mind.


There are three forms which zeal may take: First, the vigorous action of justice in repressing evil; and this appertains solely to those whose avowed office it is to censure and correct, but unfortunately a good many persons who have no right to such office assume it. Secondly, earnest zeal performs striking actions for the sake of example, to remedy evil, and the like, courses open alike to all, but which few care to pursue. And thirdly, a very admirable form of zeal lies in patience and endurance with a view to hindering evil, but scarce any one is found to exercise this. Ambitious zeal is more popular, and men do not let themselves see that it is a mere veil to intolerance, self-seeking, and anger.


Our Dear Lord’s zeal was chiefly displayed in dying to conquer death and sin, wherein He was closely followed by His chosen vessel S. Paul, as S. Gregory Nazianzen well says, “He fights for all, prays for all, is jealous over all, burns for all; nay, more, for those who are his kinsmen in the flesh he could even wish himself accursed! O superabounding courage and zeal! fit copy of Christ, Who bore our griefs and carried our sorrows!” Even as our Lord bore the sins of the world, and died an accursed death for man, being all the while the Beloved Son of God, in Whom He was well pleased; so the Apostle was willing to bear all things, yet without ever willing to lose the Love of his Master, from which, he says, he knows nothing could ever separate him. So, too, the Bride of the Canticles, affirming that love is strong as death, which separates body and soul, goes on to say that wrath (or jealousy) is cruel as the grave,2 for it is like to hell, which separates the soul from the sight of God, but it is nowhere said that love or zeal in anywise resemble sin, which alone separates us from God’s Grace. And indeed, how could ardent love desire such a separation, when love is very grace itself, or at least cannot exist without grace? We find a not unapt copy of S. Paul in S. Paulinus, who gave himself up to bondage in order to set another free.


Blessed is he, says S. Ambrose, who knows how to control zeal! And S. Bernard says that the devil will speedily mock a man’s zeal if it be not according to knowledge. Zeal must be kindled of charity, governed by knowledge, strengthened by faith. True zeal is the offspring and life of charity, and like charity is patient, kind, peaceful, free from hatred or bitterness, “rejoicing in the truth.” The action of true zeal is like that of an ardent sportsman, who is diligent, careful, active, and very stedfast in the chase, but without fretfulness or passion, for that would only hinder his pursuit. So true zeal is ardent, but gentle, stedfast, painstaking, and indefatigable, while its false semblance is noisy, proud, fierce, quarrelsome, and unabiding.


 Francis de Sales, Of the Love of God, trans. H. L. Sidney Lear (London: Rivingtons, 1888), 347–353.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

On the San Francisco Homeless Scandal and Rash Response to News Reports


Yesterday, a scandal was alleged in terms of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. The issue is the existence of a sprinkler system that was installed two years ago. The allegation made is that the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption was attempting to drive away the homeless by installing a sprinkler system near doorways, that were scheduled to go off at night. The story has an extremely wide reach—I’ve seen reports in British news sites for example. Unfortunately, the general assumption is that the Church did deliberately set out to harass the homeless, and that assumption has been adopted uncritically by some Catholic news sites and even some Catholic bloggers who should know better.

Preliminary Considerations

Before we begin, I would like to lay out a few principles of consideration. First of all, the idea that harassing the homeless is a good idea is not compatible with the Catholic teaching on concern for the poor. So, if the intent was to harass, then the intent can be judged morally wrong. However, before the intent can be called morally wrong, it needs to be established that this was the motive.

Knowing and Not Knowing

The problem is the secular stories are based on a nameless "cathedral staff member” who is quoted as saying, that the sprinkler system had been installed “to keep the homeless from sleeping in the cathedral’s doorways.” Is it true? Does this member have an axe to grind? Is he/she highly placed enough to know? We don’t know, and not knowing makes it difficult to know how much weight to give the testimony.

But we do know that auxiliary Bishop William Justice has described the intent of the system as, “The idea was not to remove those persons, but to encourage them to relocate to other areas of the cathedral, which are protected and safer.” He tells us that the archdiocese informed the people dwelling there that the system was being installed and “The idea was not to remove those persons, but to encourage them to relocate to other areas of the cathedral, which are protected and safer.” The described purpose of the system was to deal with needles and feces being left in the cathedral’s hidden doorways (they are considered high risk sources of blood borne pathogens). We are told that his predecessor was told by the SFPD that installation was recommended.

We are also told that it turned out to be ineffective, and was installed without the proper permits. Bishop Justice said the system would be removed by the end of the day.

The Issues of Concern

The issue of concern here is the question of rash judgment. The Church is accused of intending this system to drive away the homeless. Bishop Justice explicitly denies that this was the intent of the archdiocese. So the question is over whether the allegation is true or not.

As is often the case, I think Aristotle’s definition of truth fits here: To say of what is that it is and to say of what is not that it is not. So the question is, whether what is alleged happens to be true or not. Is there any evidence for it? Is there any reason that the veracity of Bishop Justice is to be doubted? Are there other explanations that fit the facts other than “bad will” that fit the facts?

That is where the Catechism’s discussion of Rash Judgment is important:

2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:

— of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;

— of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;

— of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

I also find St. Thomas Aquinas to have some very valuable distinctions on the topic:

I answer that, Judgment is lawful in so far as it is an act of justice. Now it follows from what has been stated above (A. 1, ad 1, 3) that three conditions are requisite for a judgment to be an act of justice: first, that it proceed from the inclination of justice; secondly, that it come from one who is in authority; thirdly, that it be pronounced according to the right ruling of prudence. If any one of these be lacking, the judgment will be faulty and unlawful. First, when it is contrary to the rectitude of justice, and then it is called perverted or unjust: secondly, when a man judges about matters wherein he has no authority, and this is called judgment by usurpation: thirdly, when the reason lacks certainty, as when a man, without any solid motive, forms a judgment on some doubtful or hidden matter, and then it is called judgment by suspicion or rash judgment.


Reply Obj. 1. In these words Our Lord forbids rash judgment which is about the inward intention, or other uncertain things, as Augustine states (De Serm. Dom. in Monte ii. 18). Or else He forbids judgment about Divine things, which we ought not to judge, but simply believe, since they are above us, as Hilary declares in his commentary on Matth. 5. Or again according to Chrysostom* He forbids the judgment which proceeds not from benevolence but from bitterness of heart. (Summa Theologica, II-II q.60 a.2 resp.–ad 1)

So, to have a just act of judgment it must proceed from an inclination of judgment, be made by on who is in authority (which in this case can mean, someone who knows what they are talking about) and is based on a prudent judgment of the facts. If it lacks these things, it is an unjust judgment. So, if the judgment does not have a solid motive, or is formed based on things we don’t or can’t know, then the judgment is rash, and thus condemnable.

Assessing the Charges

Looking at the news articles and blog allegations, it seems to me that the condemnation of the Archdiocese is based on something that is merely alleged and not proven, where a just judgment presumes knowledge of the inward intention. Could Bishop Justice be lying? It’s technically possible, but the onus of proof is on the accuser. The account of the bishop is that the system was installed with good faith but was done badly. To say his account is untrue is to claim knowledge of his inward intention—something that would require a reliable and trustworthy witness who knows his intention was otherwise. A person who tries to argue that the intention must have been bad because of the bad effect is assuming something as true that has to be proven true.

My question to the scandalized Catholic is this: Where is your readiness to give a favorable interpretation rather than a condemnation? If you could not find a favorable interpretation, did you ask how the archdiocese understood it before judging? These things are required before one can correct—with love.

I can only speak for myself, of course. But my conscience forbids me to take part in the bashing of the archdiocese. As I see it, to do so is to require information impossible for us to have.

Conclusion—The Need for Prudence

We need to distinguish between the concept of willing to do evil and having a good will, but having something unintentionally cause harm. The fact that some homeless were soaked was not good. But, if it was the latter (good will), then the accusation that it was intended to harass the homeless is unjust. One can certainly ask for a change in policy to better serve the homeless. But in doing so we need to be both respectful and prudent.

I say respectful because if we take the attitude that “Bishop So-and-so is a jerk because he didn’t do what I wanted,” we’re being judges of the Church, not “laborers in the Lord’s vineyard."

I say prudent because it’s easy to come up with a wonderful theory that helps every person in the world. But whatever we propose to do must be within the capacity of a group to achieve. If we don’t have the funds or the manpower to carry out a wonderful theory, it will come to nothing (see Luke 14:28-30). We need to trust God of course. But prudence is about asking how do we best do what God wants us to do. As the Catechism says:

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.”66 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.

Prudence keeps us from being either too reckless or too timid in our serving God. It’s easy to promise the moon and then fall short. It’s also easy to be overwhelmed by the seeming obstacles in our path.

So here’s my thought as I read this. It’s clear that the Archdiocese does a lot in helping the people in need in San Francisco. But there is always need for more workers and more donations. So people who look at these news stories about the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption and feel their sense of justice tell them that something needs to be done have the right sense of course. The question is, what are these people going to do about it? Tomorrow the sprinkler system will be gone. The homeless and the health hazards will still be there, and the archdiocese has a finite set of resources.

Many may feel compelled to speak out against the wrongs done. But fewer actually do more than that. It’s like the political humorist PJ O’Rourke once said, “Everybody wants to save the world but nobody wants to help mom with the dishes.”

Just something to consider.

Some Sources to Consider as a Counterpart to the Secular Reports: