In a wonderful comment on Michael Sean Winters’s post responding to Bishop Paprocki, one writer uses a phrase I will keep for a long time. He says that “prudential judgment” and “the primacy of conscience” are “two doors to the same cafeteria.” This is brilliant. And it requires clarification.

On the one hand, both claims are strictly speaking correct. Many, perhaps most, moral choices require the virtue of prudence in order to judge properly the action that should be undertaken – in principle, even questions involving the Ten Commandments require a certain degree of prudence, in the sense of an ability to recognize the applicability or inapplicability of a norm in a given case, etc. And both Aquinas (I-II, 19) and Gaudium et Spes (para. 16) defend the idea that one should never, in any case, act against one’s conscience, because that would be in effect to choose what you perceive as evil, and thus violate the first principle of practical reason, to do what is good and avoid what is evil.

What has happened is that each claim has morphed from a carefully-defined and important element in an essentially Thomistic virtue ethics into a way of adjudicating debates about authoritative norms and individual choice – adjudicating the problem of moral freedom and moral truth, in the terms favored by Veritatis Splendor. Prudential judgment becomes a way of suggesting that particular choices require more or less “mechanical” judgments about practical matters, and therefore are non-moral (a term that makes little sense in a Thomistic ethic) or are at least beyond the moral authority of the Church. And this is specifically differentiated from “intrinsically evil acts,” which do not require any mechanical considerations, and therefore are “clear.” The Church’s teaching authority on morals is thus narrowed to a small set of issues.

On the other hand, the language of conscience also tends to lose its place in a larger scheme of practical reason. The mistake here seems typically to invoke the primacy of conscience as a justification for action, when Aquinas and Gaudium et Spes are pretty clear that the primacy of conscience in no way voids the possibility that one’s conscience is in error. That is, the primacy of conscience is not another way of saying that a moral choice is justified because it is sincerely and deeply held.

Let me be clear: COULD one be justified in acting according to conscience, in a way that contradicts Church teaching? It is possible – one would have to maintain that no moral teaching of the Church ever develops or changes in order to maintain that the conscience could NEVER be justified. But in such a case, it would be extremely important to spell out in detail the case for one’s dissenting judgment. COULD it be the case that, on a given, complex issue – say, a particular war – people of good faith COULD reach genuinely prudent judgments that did not coincide? Yes, certainly. A variety of reasons could be given here, but the most important would seem to be that such judgments involve contingent matters. To use the example of war, one of the criteria invoked by the Catechism to make a judgment about just war is that the harm involved in not fighting would be “lasting, grave, and certain.” In some instances, one can imagine virtual unanimity on such a judgment (among prudent persons), whereas in other instances, one could imagine real differences – although it would then be very important to spell out the justification for one’s judgment in real detail.

My impression, however, is that Catholics can be too ready to forego the obligation of very detailed justification and instead reach for one or the other of these options when they want to “enter the cafeteria” – that is, take apart the authoritative teaching of the Church, particularly as it is rendered in the conciliar documents and papal statements of the last 150 years or so. And it’s unfortunate because the use of these claims then reinforces the skepticism both “sides” have of the other. More honest discussion is had when one or the other side claims a larger reason to distrust those statements – for example, George Weigel’s claim that members of the Vatican bureaucracy hijacked Caritas in Veritate, or the common claim that the Church’s sexual teaching as a whole has failed to develop in the same manner as its moral understanding of other issues. I am not saying I agree with either one of these claims, but at least these claims are honest: what they are each saying is that there is a defect in authoritative statements – rather than (mis)applying moral language in ways that make it easy to dismiss the authoritative statements.

The question of the status of authoritative statements opens up a whole other issue in the Catholic world. If people want to say that they think this or that statement is simply wrong, for x or y reason, that’s fine. That makes for genuinely clarifying moral debate. But too often, the substance of the actual magisterial statements are ignored. For now, though, it would be nice if people in authority in Catholicism stopped using this language in ways that do not respect the richness of the tradition, and its careful development of reflection on moral questions. The misuse of the language makes me want to leave the cafeteria, sighing to myself that maybe – just maybe – the Catholic papal and conciliar magisterium over the last 150 years is… pretty darn impressive.