The comment thread on our recent post about the bishops’ plans to write an economic pastoral brings up a confusion that plagues current Catholic discourse. This post is meant to offer some clarification of terms, so as to improve the conversation. (It is NOT an extended scholarly treatise on the history and nuance of the terms. What I am looking to do is offer some clarification of the ways in which the terms work in contemporary discourse. Let me quickly state for the record that I know there are all sorts of technicalities I’m glossing over in what I say below. Commenters should feel free to point pout misleading errors!)

The problem: For some Catholics, there is a strong distinction between “authoritative moral teaching” and issues where there is room for “prudential judgment.” In the strongest version of this distinction, the set of authoritative moral teachings of the Church is limited to certain absolute negative norms having to do with “intrinsically evil acts.” All other matters are about “prudential judgments,” and any Catholics – but perhaps especially the Magisterium – should be wary of speaking too strongly about any particular stance. A weaker version of the distinction grants that the Church has moral teaching beyond negative norms, but that any application of this teaching to specific acts is “prudential” and outside the scope of authoritative teaching.

In making this distinction, there arise problems in how the terms “intrinsically evil acts” and “prudential judgment” are deployed, as well as a third problem of what “authoritative” means. Let me deal with these in sequence, leaving the authority question for a different post. First, “intrinsically evil acts” are NOT actions which are especially or “very” wrong. I say to my students, “intrinsically” does not mean “very,” but rather “always” – or more precisely, under any circumstances. A synonym might be “objectively evil acts.” (Here I will refrain from a discussion of the technical term “object.”) Why are certain acts singled out in this way? Any act that is evil is an act which is incorrectly aimed at an end or goal. An act that is intrinsically evil is one which always aims at a bad end. It always includes an end that is contrary to the proper ends of human life. One may have many ends for procuring an abortion (e.g. to finish schooling), but included in the means to these ends is killing another human. One many also desire the good end of planning a family, but contraception is always an evil means to this end, since it involves the separation of the procreative and unitive meanings of sexuality. One may quibble with these arguments – here I am simply interested in their structure. An intrinsically evil act is one which involves an immoral means. And what makes the means immoral is that it is incompatible with the ultimate ends of human life.

What is the ultimate end of human life? Let us, for simplicity’s sake, simply name it as love of God and neighbor. Everything we do should aim at that end. Intrinsically evil acts may try to aim at that end – but they always aim at something that is actually contrary to it. But all our other acts should aim at this end as well. And it is here where the virtue of prudence comes in.

Prudence (Thomists, please forgive the simplification) is the ability to match means to ends, to make judgments about seeing and acting that “fit together,” in order to move toward the ultimate end. This, it seems to me, is totally lost in the discussion of “prudential judgment.” In fact, what people who use the term above mean is something like “pragmatic judgment” – “whatever works best.” This is a slide directly into consequentialism. All actions which are not intrinsically evil are to be judged on their consequences. In the strong version above, that makes them “non-moral.” In the weaker version, it means that scientific experts in some field or another can tell you how to make the stuff happen.

But, properly speaking, “prudential judgment” is not merely pragmatic – not simply about the best results. It indicates “fittingness.” Certain means are intrinsically evil. But others are not. War is a classic example. War, in the just war tradition, can sometimes be an acceptable means to certain ends. BUT THIS DOES NOT MEAN ANYTHING GOES. Actually, two quite strong moral judgments come into play here. First, war can be a means to some ends, but not to others. War is ruled out for things like feeding your family or seizing another nation’s oil supply. It’s not that family and oil are bad. It’s that war is not a proper means to these ends (for numerous reasons, which have been elaborated in the just war tradition). Secondly, as a means, its use must still adhere to moral principles. All is not fair in war, says the just war tradition. Thus, to say that judgments about particular wars are “prudential” is not to say that they are merely pragmatic. It means that there is a range a situations (a limited one) in which a given act is morally acceptable. Intrinsically evil acts differ – there is no range.

Notice: the proper distinction here is “no range versus limited range” – not “no range versus unlimited range.” Thus, it is within the purview of the Catholic encyclical tradition to rule out policies and systems which reject private property, as well as libertarian ones which absolutize it. The Catholic tradition maintains that private property should be ordered (as it was by God) to the common good, which includes the individual good, and that doing so is the responsibility of both individuals and the governing authorities (Catechism #2406: “Political authority has the right and duty to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good”). The Catechism’s treatment of the seventh commandment lucidly outlines these responsibilities, which are quite obviously moral. Yet (as we know) they involve many prudential judgments – ones that most importantly differ from family to family and society to society. The US bishops, speaking for a particular society, can properly “narrow the range” of such judgments further. But even a narrow range still may include a set (but not an infinite set) of possibilities.

Even here, there are a whole range of actions that the Catechism (#2409) explicitly prohibits.

Even if it does not contradict the provisions of civil law, any form of unjustly taking and keeping the property of others is against the seventh commandment: thus, deliberate retention of goods lent or of objects lost; business fraud; paying unjust wages; forcing up prices by taking advantage of the ignorance or hardship of another. The following are also morally illicit: speculation in which one contrives to manipulate the price of goods artificially in order to gain an advantage to the detriment of others; corruption in which one influences the judgment of those who must make decisions according to law; appropriation and use for private purposes of the common goods of an enterprise; work poorly done; tax evasion; forgery of checks and invoices; excessive expenses and waste.

What a list for the confessional!! Of course, one will undoubtedly recognize that many of these descriptions involve further prudential judgments – what is an “unjust” wage or “poorly done” work? But don’t we all know obvious examples of these sorts of acts? Certainly! Moreover, one could use these descriptions to ask very critical questions about business lobbying and many forms of advertising, to name just two large targets in our own society. Can the bishops state how lobbying should be regulated? No. Can they state that it is clearly a problem that needs to be fixed, hopefully by the businesses themselves, but if not, by lawmakers? Yes.

The “intrinsic evil” versus “prudential judgment” confusion happens most especially when people take particular moral rules, and make conformity to those rules the ULTIMATE END of life. The Pharisees are an obvious foil for this problem in the Gospels. And Catholic moral theology (I thought) had reached a consensus that pre-Vatican-II moral theology was afflicted by this disease (called “legalism”). The cure is not to throw out rules. Jesus knew that. The cure is to put rules within the entire context of the real meaning of life – called “the Kingdom” or “love of God and neighbor” or “the reconciliation of all things” or “eternal life.” This does not necessarily relativize the rules – indeed, as Jesus often taught, it makes the rules even more stringent than the Old Testament commandments. But then, perfect love does not simply mean following the rules and being pragmatic. It means exercising a charity-infused prudence about all our choices, so that:

Man’s earthly activity, when inspired and sustained by charity, contributes to the building of the universal city of God, which is the goal of the history of the human family. In an increasingly globalized society, the common good and the effort to obtain it cannot fail to assume the dimensions of the whole human family, that is to say, the community of peoples and nations, in such a way as to shape the earthly city in unity and peace, rendering it to some degree an anticipation and a prefiguration of the undivided city of God (Caritas in Veritate, #7).