September 15, 2013
Prudential Judgment. The Lord Jesus Christ has blessed His Catholic Church with the fullness of His Divine Revelation, coming to us in both Sacred Scriptures and Sacred Tradition, and handed down to us especially through the ministry of his apostles and their successors, the popes and bishops, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, under that same guidance over the last 2000 years the Church has gained an ever deepening understanding of that Revelation, so that today we possess a vast treasury of Catholic doctrine(s) teaching us how to follow Christ.
Even so, applying that treasury of doctrine to the choices of everyday life is not so easy. For example, there is no specific doctrine that tells you what particular clothes you should wear today, or the name of the person you should marry.
But Catholic doctrine does give us basic criteria for making those choices. And, the same Holy Spirit who guides the whole Church also guides the life of every Christian. And on top of that, every human being has the gift of reason, the ability to rationally figure things out.
So when we face the choices of life—big and small—as Catholics we take all that treasury of doctrine(s) and compare those to the facts at hand, and then use reason and the grace of the Holy Spirit to make the very best judgment, or choice, we can. This process is called “following our conscience,” and this choice we make is called a “prudential judgment.”
But the problem is, there are a lot of variables here: Do we know what the Church teaches on a particular issue? Do we know all the facts, and see them clearly? Are we reasoning well: sometimes we’re less logical or more emotional than we should be. And then sometimes we fail to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us.
Because of that, different people—even truly good Catholics—can often reach different conclusions about the same particular choices.
Right now we see two great examples of this in issues facing our nation. First, consider the choice to make about a military intervention in Syria. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, strongly opposes this intervention, calling instead for peaceful dialogue. In doing so he’s applying the Church’s doctrines that we must love our enemies, and should try to turn the other cheek. Moreover, he may also be invoking the Church’s Just War Doctrine, that lays out criteria as to when we can or cannot morally use violence to defend ourselves and others.
Those are some of the key doctrines that we must consider in looking at the U.S./Syria intervention. But then comes the hard part: applying doctrines to facts, with reason and grace. So this is not so much a matter of doctrine, but more a matter of prudential judgment.
All of us, including the Pope, bring different factors to this choice. We approach it with different perspectives, information, emotions, experience and even facts. So that even when we do our best, we can still be wrong—even the Pope.
As Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in 2004, just a few months before he was elected Pope: “While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, …There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war ….” [Even if that means] “a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father.”
Now consider the second example. The last few months the Bishops in the United States have been very outspoken in support of the Senate’s immigration reform bill. There is no doubt that doctrines of the Church are involved. Clearly, Church doctrine tells us we have to love our neighbor, no matter what country he comes from or how he came here. And we have to welcome the stranger and protect the oppressed.
But Catholic doctrine also tells us that we all have to obey the just laws of the country we live in, or want to live in; and that every nation has a right to make reasonable requirements about who may immigrate into it. As Jesus says: “Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar….”
Once again, different people have different perspectives, experiences, etc.. And then there’s this huge bill with all sorts of complicated provisions. So that you take all these together, beginning with doctrine, and applying reason and grace, and different reasonable people, even good Catholics, can come to different prudential judgments. Even if they disagree with the Bishops.
Unfortunately, some try to argue that all decisions are a matter of prudential justice. That is nonsense. Catholic doctrine unambiguously holds that some things are always wrong in themselves, “intrinsically evil,” including things like murder, abortion, contraception and homosexual acts. So, for example, just as it is always evil to kill someone simply because they are in the U.S. illegally, it is also always evil to kill someone simply because they are in their mommy’s womb and unwanted. No arguments to make, no prudential judgment involved, just doctrine.
Now, from all this some may think that I disagree with the Pope on Syria, or with the Bishops on immigration. But actually, I’ve been careful not to interject my own prudential judgment here.
Even so, sometimes a priest—whether he’s a Pope, Bishop or Pastor—finds it necessary to share his judgment with his flock, just as Pope Francis has done with Syria. And this can be very helpful sometimes. But even so, the flock should not confuse sharing judgment with teaching doctrine. Which is why I’m writing this column: to help you to put all this in the larger context of Catholic teaching.
New Religious Freedom Committee. For many years our parish has had a very robust Respect Life Committee (RLC) which has done an excellent job of coordinating our “pro-life” efforts. I can’t say enough about the good work of this group, especially its chair, Liz Hildebrand.
The RLC’s work naturally involves an active involvement in and awareness of the “cultural” debates taking place in the “public square,” i.e., the culture, the media, politics, government, etc.. So over the last two years I’ve relied on it to coordinate the parish’s response to other rising issues in the public square, especially the attacks on marriage and freedom of religion and conscience.
However, as these “other issues” have become more prominent, I have decided to delegate them to a new committee called the Religious Freedom Committee (RFC). The membership of the two committees, Respect Life and Religious Freedom, will be virtually identical, with basically only the leadership responsibilities being separate. I want to thank both Liz Hildebrand, and Bob Laird (chair of the new Religious Freedom Committee), and all the committee members for their cooperation and collaboration in these important efforts.
Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles