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Prudential Judgment 101: A Theological Roundtable

***NOTE: This roundtable will include posts by multiple Catholicmoraltheology bloggers. Please check back for additions to the body of the text.

Recent discussions of issues like capital punishment have raised what has become a vexed point in Catholic moral theology debates in recent years: the question of what is meant by “prudential judgment,” or more specifically the contention that some statements of Church leaders concern “prudential judgments,” thus not requiring obedience. A key text for such a contention is found in the Vatican’s Ecclesial Instruction on the Vocation of the Theologian:

24. Finally, in order to serve the People of God as well as possible, in particular, by warning them of dangerous opinions which could lead to error, the Magisterium can intervene in questions under discussion which involve, in addition to solid principles, certain contingent and conjectural elements. It often only becomes possible with the passage of time to distinguish between what is necessary and what is contingent.

The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule. It can happen, however, that a theologian may, according to the case, raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions. …

When it comes to the question of interventions in the prudential order, it could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies. Bishops and their advisors have not always taken into immediate consideration every aspect or the entire complexity of a question. But it would be contrary to the truth, if, proceeding from some particular cases, one were to conclude that the Church’s Magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments, or that it does not enjoy divine assistance in the integral exercise of its mission. In fact, the theologian, who cannot pursue his discipline well without a certain competence in history, is aware of the filtering which occurs with the passage of time. This is not to be understood in the sense of a relativization of the tenets of the faith. The theologian knows that some judgments of the Magisterium could be justified at the time in which they were made, because while the pronouncements contained true assertions and others which were not sure, both types were inextricably connected. Only time has permitted discernment and, after deeper study, the attainment of true doctrinal progress.

The US Bishops, in their guide to Faithful Citizenship offer a more detailed description of this process in politics:

32. Sometimes morally flawed laws already exist. In this situation, the process of framing legislation to protect life is subject to prudential judgment and “the art of the possible.” At times this process may restore justice only partially or gradually. … 33. Prudential judgment is also needed in applying moral principles to specific policy choices in areas such as the war in Iraq, housing, health care, immigration, and others. This does not mean that all choices are equally valid, or that our guidance and that of other Church leaders is just another political opinion or policy preference among many others. Rather, we urge Catholics to listen carefully to the Church’s teachers when we apply Catholic social teaching to specific proposals and situations. The judgments and recommendations that we make as bishops on specific issues do not carry the same moral authority as statements of universal moral teachings. Nevertheless, the Church’s guidance on these matters is an essential resource for Catholics as they determine whether their own moral judgments are consistent with the Gospel and with Catholic teaching.

It seems to me we might begin by noting two important things about prudential judgments. One, since they involve the virtue of prudence, they are not “non-moral” – they are not a matter of personal preference, like an ice cream flavor. Rather, the virtue of prudence ”enables us ‘to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.’ “ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1806; cf. Faithful Citizenship, no. 19). Thus, prudential judgments are in fact moral judgments – but they are not judgments that can be made without refer to, say, circumstances.

Two, particular “prudential judgments” are based on moral principles that the Church teaches authoritatively. So, for example, while it is a “prudential judgment” to support this or that piece of labor legislation, it is NOT a matter of prudential judgment to believe that employees have a fundamental right to unionize, to safe working conditions, and to just wages. The application of just war principles to a particular conflict may be prudential, but the principles themselves are not instances of prudential judgment.

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Meghan Clark:

Thank you, David, for getting this conversation started. Often appeals to prudential judgment do in fact sound like an assertion of preference, similar to one’s preferences for ice cream. You rightly point out that prudential judgments are in fact moral judgments and that the invocation of prudence is not an excuse to disregard the teaching and authoritative statements of the Magisterium. In a similar vein, I would like to introduce the very concrete reality that one’s prudential judgments and judgments of conscience can in fact be wrong. Catholic moral theology places high importance on conscience and in doing so creates a significant moral obligation to form one’s conscience.

Gaudium et Spes quite beautifully explains:

“In the depths of our conscience, we detect a law which does not impose, but which holds us to obedience. Always summoning us to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to our heart: do this, shun that. . . . In fidelity to conscience, Christian are joined with the rest of humanity in the search for truth and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships.” (16).

First, Gaudium et Spes begins that we detect a law which calls us to obedience, a response first to the good.  In his book Moral Wisdom, James Keenan explains,

“Conscience ‘demands’ that we love God, ourselves, and our neighbors. Conscience ‘dictates’ that we pursue justice. In fact, Gaudium et Spes reminds us that by the conscience we will be ‘judged.’ (35).

Envisioning the formation of conscience as the development of Christian lives in virtue, Keenan links the development of conscience with prudence and reminds the modern reader that while we are bound to follow our conscience, this is not a capitulation to moral relativism. That I must follow a judgment of conscience, which ultimately a true prudential judgment should be, assumes that I am going through a rigorous process of forming my conscience and judgments. Even still, that judgment can be wrong.

The relationship between conscience, and particularly judgment of conscience (conscientia), is the focus of a famous speech “Conscience and Truth,”  Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI gave to the United States Bishops in 1991.  Upholding both the primacy of conscience and moral truth, Cardinal Ratzinger states,

No one may act against his convictions, as Saint Paul had already said (Rom 14:23). But the fact that the conviction a person has come to certainly binds in the moment of acting, does not signify a canonization of subjectivity. It is never wrong to follow the convictions one has arrived at—in fact, one must do so. But it can very well be wrong to have come to such askew convictions in the first place, by having stifled the protest of the anamnesis of being. The guilt lies then in a different place, much deeper—not in the present act, not in the present judgment of conscience but in the neglect of my being which made me deaf to the internal promptings of truth.

To say that something is a matter of prudential judgment does not mean that I decide for me, you decide for you, and it doesn’t matter if we disagree – it’s “prudential judgment.” All of our judgments must be examined in the light of truth and the Gospel. All of our judgments require a rigorous process of conscience formation in which we gather all relevant information, examine in detail the context, learn and consider the applicable Christian tradition and teachings before we can make a prudential judgment.  Prudential judgment should not be understood in a modern voluntaristic way; it should be understood within this framework of the good, truth, and formation of conscience.

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Bill Mattison:

Great post David.  And I’m glad Meghan related this to conscience.  I agree with Cloutier how “prudential judgment” often functions as a “morality-free zone.”  It seems to imply acquiescence to the foundational principles, but a (complete?) trust in the relevant political authority to apply them, often on the basis of the possession of knowledge to which the public has no access.   It often appears in conservative-leaning folks who contest particular applications in areas such as economic policy and war (remember Weigel on this when the current Iraq War began).  This is no surprise.  The “life issues” (e.g., abortion, euthanasia) are recognized by the Church as “intrinsic evils.”  Thus there is no room for prudential judgment in doing them.  They can NEVER serve truly good ends (even if it seems they can).  Yet warfare can be just (though often is not), and so some such judgment is required.

All this is true.  Yet that does not mean the judgment is unassailable.  Too often “prudential judgment” functions as a conversation-ender not starter.  It is a conservative equivalent of the liberal “I am acting acc. to my conscience.”  It ends debate and (implicitly) purports to be unassailable (which is odd if it is indeed a “judgment….”)  Matters of prudential judgment do indeed require a different sort of a discussion, but they are still judgments and thus evaluable.

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Charlie Camosy:

Does anyone see a relevant difference between making prudential judgments about whether our legal and social situation permits laws against the death penalty and about whether our legal and social situation permits laws banning abortion?  Another way of asking it: what is the difference between ‘legitimate disagreement’ about whether criminals can be safely housed and our current disagreement among Catholics about whether laws against abortion will actually make things better?  (I’m thinking about pro-choice Catholic politicians who are against abortion, but argue that laws prohibiting it will not lower the abortion rate and actually endanger the lives of women…and particularly those on the margins of our culture.)

This is a genuine question.  I want to know what people think.

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David Cloutier:

The bishops address Charlie’s point in the ellipses in paragraph 32, quoted above. The legislator may tolerate a less-than-just law if the legislator deems it the “best possible” in given political circumstances. The example given by the bishops is laws restricting, but not banning, abortion. These laws may be supported, using “prudential judgment.” However, it would be important – VERY important – to distiguish such a claim from the “prudential judgment” that some abortions are in fact acceptable. No such prudential judgment can be made. The prudential judgment is not about abortion, but about what is possible at the present time.

In this way, it seems to me that a pro-LIFE politician could suggest that it is most urgent to craft laws that, for example, assist those with a crisis pregnancy. On the other hand, the tradition appears to argue quite unanimously that abortion, given what it is, must be prohibited by civil law. If one is in a position where it is NOT prohibited, then one might “prudentially” support attempts to limit it or move toward a state where it could be banned. But it would seem that one would need to acknowledge that the ultimate desirable outcome would be a ban – thus, it might be hard for such a politician to adopt the label “pro-choice.”

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Charlie Camosy:

David, do you think toleration of a less-than-just law could also imply supporting something like Roe against those who would try to overturn it because one has prudentially judged that banning abortion would actually make things worse for both prenates and women?  After all, those who are arguing against the position in the CMT.com death penalty petition are not arguing for restricting the death penalty, they are arguing (based on a prudential judgment) that it is still necessary to support the death penalty in our culture given our social and legal situation.  To make the question more concrete: do you think those who argue that any Catholic politician who supports Roe should be denied communion, but then affirm the space for Catholic politicians to prudentially disagree with the Church on death penalty, are contradicting themselves?

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Jana Bennett

Thanks for beginning this roundtable, Dave. The main thought I want to add here is related to the quote from the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian that Dave cites above, which is also one I highlight in my post on abortion and the death penalty:

But it would be contrary to the truth, if, proceeding from some particular cases, one were to conclude that the Church’s Magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments, or that it does not enjoy divine assistance in the integral exercise of its mission.

The rightful understanding of prudential judgement, as I think both Dave and Meghan have emphasized, is that it be in context of the whole life of faith. We cannot simply dismiss the bishops’ statements as mere “opinions” on matters that are deemed “prudential judgement.” And it is the phrase “specific cases” that particularly is important here. The virtue of prudence, and the practice of prudential judgement, does not refer to an overarching view of an entire issue, but rather is a judgement made in relation to specific cases. To decide, habitually, that the bishops’ statements are wrong – which often comes in the guise of saying that the bishops lack some kind of secret knowledge that only states have (and that even ordinary lay people have no access to) – is specious because it presumes that on certain issues, states are always right, but on other certain issues – namely the social issues, like abortion, that are determined always to be wrong, the state is also wrong. This is very, very dangerous ground to take – both because it limits an individual’s own ability to make prudential judgements, and also permits a kind of blindness about state activities. Events in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries should show that states are often wrong – whether it is a totalitarian, socialist or democratic government. States often do good things – but they should not be allowed to operate in a supposed morality free zone, especially where innocent human lives hang in the balance (and I am thinking here about prudential laws about war, the death penalty and economic justice).

So any argument using prudential judgement needs to take into account specific cases, and be prepared to defend their argument for why the prudential action in a specific given case is the one that they advocate. In particular, the potential action must be assessed relative to the truth of the gospel – in the case of the death penalty and just war – especially concern for the lives of innocent people, and the principle of living life from “natural birth to natural death.”

In the case of the death penalty, I think there are two ways we can reflect on specific cases. One is to think about the US as a whole, as a specific case: is the US one of those places where, on the basis of prudential judgement, there is more danger to people without the death penalty than with it? The burden of proof will be to those who want to say that the US should use the death penalty, since the principle, based on Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism, is that the death penalty ought to be rare, if not non-existent. It is, again, concerned about innocent people being murdered at the hands of the state, even though in these instances most of the people being murdered are adults.

The second kind of specific case is to reflect on particular people’s court cases where the death penalty is to be used. On this, of course, the appeals system system serves to do some kind of prudential reflection. Presuming that one has already assumed that it is prudent for the US to have the death penalty at all, it is then important, in this kind of case, to allow the justice system to do its job, but here too, we would want to be very careful to help all of us in this democratic society to reflect on whether we see rightly about this. Is our prudential judgement working well? The point of raising questions about race and poverty as disproportionate in death penalty cases is to exactly to probe the degree to which we are able to make the kind of “excellent” discernment that prudential judgement requires, and each specific case needs to have that kind of scrutiny.

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7 Comments

  1. I am uncomfortable with the assertion that because prudential judgments “involve the virtue of prudence” they are therefore “not non-moral”. Surely one must recognize that two people can be equally prudent and still come to opposite judgments about the advisability of any action. How are we to say that one choice is moral and the other immoral? At least one judgment must be in error but in what sense is it immoral?

    In the case of the bishops, I understand prudential judgments on their part to be the application of Church teaching to the solution of social problems, but their judgment can go only so far and beyond a certain point it becomes nothing more than personal political opinion. I concede that that point is not well drawn but I do insist that it exists. They may properly tell us that we need to address certain problems or that the use of some solutions is improper, but (except for issues of intrinsic evil) when they get to the point of supporting or opposing specific pieces of legislation, they are on shaky ground.

    I fail to see a moral component involved in judging the effect any action will have. That is an entirely practical consideration and bishops are no more capable of making such judgments than anyone else.

  2. Ender – I’m worried that you’re conflating “morality” with “absolute answer”. Catholic moral theology relies partly on law, partly on developing virtues. When it comes to virtuous living, we can say that there are many good answers, but also some very wrong ones. Questions about what is virtuous very definitely counts as “moral”.

    For example: we can identify many ways of acting in a loving way toward someone, in different times and places. As a fairly low-key “for instance”: I aim to act lovingly toward my daughter always – but sometimes that might mean making sure she goes to bed at her regular bed time and sometimes that might mean letting her stay up late. Prudential judgement in relation to love means, in part, identifying what will be the most excellent way of acting in love in a particular circumstance, guided, always, by the gospel. So someone’s reference to love must be in line with a Christian view of love if they are seeking to practice theology and Christian discipleship. I think this is a key point, because there are many versions of love, some of which are not related to the gospel. What counts as a “loving action” must be interrogated by other Christians.

    I think you raise a fair point about when a bishop’s consideration of something might become “nothing more than personal political opinion…” That is when we are invited to raise questions – but those questions are best directed toward whether or not the bishops are engaging rightly with the Christian tradition.

    The point most of the authors in this post are making is that while it may be prudential judgement, it is not “anything goes” precisely because what is “prudential” is a judgement that requires moral reasoning, moral skill, and understanding of Catholic doctrine.

  3. Jana – Perhaps you’re right, there is a bit of “it’s immoral only if we can prove it” in my position. If so, that is a reaction to being repeatedly bludgeoned by those claiming “you’re immoral to oppose my prudential solution”, which is an altogether too common assumption, even (especially?) among bishops.

    If you and I disagree about a prudential judgment, what basis is there for one of us to claim the other is acting immorally in supporting his own solution? Clearly some possible solutions are immoral (in the “I can prove it” sense) but usually there is a wide range of acceptable options including those that are directly opposed to one another.

    I am very wary of any claim that one prudential opinion is more moral than another, which may be true in theory but in practice seems exceedingly rare and I think you’d be hard pressed to come up with a reasonable example. I think if you try to answer Charley Camosy’s question about “whether our legal and social situation permits laws banning abortion?” you may recognize my point.

  4. Ender – I think you are making a good point about how to make claims regarding the morality of any prudential judgement. I think that’s exactly the right question to ask, in fact.

    My own thoughts about how we might go about faithfully trying to assess prudential judgement and moral life follow:

    Ideally, we, as Christians, aim to help each other become more Christ-like. One of the ways we do this is precisely by engaging in arguments, so thinking through matters of prudential judgement is exactly an argument. One definition of “tradition” that I like is that it is arguments sustained over time – I think that’s true about the ways theology has proceeded – we can note how people debated the doctrine of Christ in the patristic period, for example; those conversations get brought to the forefront every now and again. But those debates also led to some conclusive intimations of who God is – or at least, who God cannot be. And that’s important.

    Some thing like that works in all theology on my view. But if the argument is about sustained tradition, then it never can be simply that anything goes. It must always include specific reference to the gospel – to who it is we all believe in (of course – Jesus). It must also refer to all those other aspects of Catholic tradition that we draw from in trying to live the most faithful life possible.

    So, we have resources besides scripture to help us: Drawing from what Catholic tradition suggests about virtue, is that part of learning to act with moral skill involves identifying moral exemplars who most excellently display courage, hope, faith, etc. In Catholic tradition, of course, the saints are key moral exemplars.

    Understanding this kind of moral reflection as Christians helping each other reflect on how to live faithfully necessarily means argument – but hopefully Christians will also show each other how to argue well. For example, moral reflection requires humility and a ready seeking of forgiveness – this is because I think it is likely – given that we are merely human – that we are all acting in wrong ways, quite often – and this is not only in relation to moral absolutes, but also in relation to matters of prudential judgement. Hence the need for confession of sins but hence the need also to be seriously conversing with each other. If, on the matter of the death penalty, for example, we disagree but we decide to agree to disagree rather than constantly seeking Christ on this, I think we have failed each other in some way.

    But this gives perhaps a more developed sense of why we, at this blog, proceed to discuss with each other in the ways that we do. And we hope that people like you will engage us in conversation too. For I think it is true to say that you are raising exactly the questions that I, with my own fallible human insights, would not necessarily have seen.

  5. I really struggle to understand the morality involved in prudential decisions. In one sense all problems present us with a moral choice: to help or not, and this is equally true whether I address immigration reform or see my neighbor unable to start his car. Once the decision to help is made, however, where are the moral choices? I recognize we cannot do bad things to achieve good ends, but beyond that … what? In choosing actions which I believe will relieve the problem I am not making any moral decisions; my choices are based entirely on what I believe will work and I don’t see any moral distinction between insisting that a border fence be built (or not) or insisting that the battery needs replacing (or not).

    While I don’t believe (reasonable) proposals to practical problems have any moral content regardless of the nature of the problem, I certainly recognize that my reason for supporting a specific proposal may be immoral. Whether I support or oppose building a fence, the morality of my choice depends entirely on the reason for my position and not at all on the position itself. (I recognize the obvious exceptions.)

    So, going back to a point you made earlier, where is the problem with “conflating ‘morality’ with ‘absolute answer’”? Understand that this in no way implies we may do whatever we want; we have guidelines to follow (love your neighbor). I think what I’m asking is this: without judging my intent (which you cannot know), how can you judge the morality of my actions unless those actions are – in an absolute sense – immoral?

  6. Ender – If we think of moral life as only about decisions, then you are right. But on my view, the description of the moral life we have from the church is more like a spiritual journey toward the life of God than it is about decision making. We want to make good decisions; making good choices (including about what will work) are important parts of moral life.

    But there is more to it than that. It isn’t just about choosing what is good over what is bad, but about being excellent. Jesus calls us to be perfect – and that is in part what the moral life tries to name.

    Because we are human, we do do it imperfectly – but I am more able to seek the best of moral life in community, especially the Christian community that Christ himself has given us, united as we are by a desire to seek God in Jesus Christ – than I am to try to reason through everything on my own. So this is why I listen to the bishops on these matters, and why, if I have a disagreement with them even on a prudential judgement, my reasoning is always directed toward the gospel.

  7. Prudential judgements are none the less anchored in clear principles, for example: The Church teaches that Unjust War and Unnecessary Capital Punishment are clearly violations of moral code.
    If we are talking about cases of just war and necessary capital punishment than prudential judgement needs to guide the measures we take in going to war and executing the person in question who poses an irremediable threat to society.
    However, in our current political environment, bl. Pope John-Paul II was very outspoken in asserting that cases of necessary use of capital punishment are basically non-existent today in our western nations and that the gulf wars have fallen short by a long way in terms of qualifying as “just wars”. This being the case, my question is this: if we can already clearly determine that a war qualifies as unjust, then must we not unequivocally oppose it on firm moral ground as an intrinsic evil? While just war may not be an intrinsic evil but a legitimate act of defense, surely, unjust war is inherently evil putting it on the same footing as unquestionable evils such as abortion.

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