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.
It seems to me that discussions of prudence in temporal politics too often overlook that the prudential weighing of one moral principles against another is at best only half the story. In addition to prudence when we make ethical judgments based on moral principles, there also is an element of political prudence, a knowledge of what is and is not possible in a given political environment because of constitutional, legal, political, social, or cultural limitations. Will my vote for a pro-life candidate in a presidential election or a congressional election stop abortions? Realistically, no it won’t. There are four decades of persuasive evidence. So what is more valuable? Does my conscience demand that I should faithfully install candidates to office who identify as pro-life and do not or cannot end the practice? Or, does my conscience demand that I should take what effective steps I can that will reduce human suffering? That requires political understanding, not moral understanding. But the effectiveness of the moral choices my conscience makes depends on having that political understanding. And, moral purity that is ineffective does no one any good.
What is so ponderous about Bishop Paprocki, who only said more bluntly what so many bishops have said more circumspectly, is that he appears to think it satisfies the conscience to vote ineffectively against abortion when I could vote effectively against poverty.
In other words, I disagree that it’s a cafeteria we are discussing at all. It is not only the weighing of our options in a moral sense, choosing which moral principle seems more important to us, but also the prudential evaluation of what is and is not possible in American politics–a matter about which, surely, we can disagree.
But even if we admit that both political parties — or at least candidates for president — are taking positions that cannot be justified within CST, isn’t there still room to say that some departures from CST disqualify you from being a worthy recipient and others do not? As Pope Benedict has said:
“Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.” http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=6041.
And, if so, is it not a reasonable position to say that the departures of one party — though they are certainly wrong and should be fought against — are not of the same weight as that of the other party and thus require you to vote for the lesser evil? I don’t mean this as a snarky Republican propaganda piece at all. But I do wonder if there is a kernel of truth in the often mis-stated appeals of the Catholic right that being pro-abortion should disqualify you from a Catholic’s vote even if rejecting certain domestic social programs does not. (In the context of this election, where even the Republican supports abortion in some circumstances and is not credible on others, perhaps this requires a third party vote. But that is somewhat beside my point)
Steve Miles, I think you have identified a key problem with the rhetoric – the difference between being pro-life and being pro-“pro-life”. These statements about non-negotiables and intrinsic evil disqualifiers seem to me to be pro-“pro-life”, not truly pro-life. That is, they are about advancing nominal assent to pro-life rhetoric, not about preventing abortion or any other killing of innocents. Even if I believed Mitt Romney were truly opposed to all abortion in the very core of his conscience and that opposing abortion would be his overriding priority if he got elected, that seems almost totally irrelevant to me as a Catholic voter. My question is, how would his presidency affect the incidence of abortion and other evil compared to the presidency of Obama? Where is that discussion even happening in Catholic circles?
RPritchie, I think you are conflating three separate issues: the obligations of a Catholic voter vs. the obligations of a Catholic politician and what disqualifies a Catholic politician from communion in the Catholic Church vs. what disqualifies a Catholic politician as a politician. I’m seeing this conflation all over the place and it is increasingly disturbing. In the statement you quoted, then-Cardinal Ratzinger was clearly talking about what would disqualify a politician from receiving communion. I see no application of that statement to how Catholics should vote. Suppose you had two people running for state attorney general, one who as a district attorney had a history of pursuing capital punishment disproportionately and zealously in cases of Black defendants but who assented to all Catholic teachings, and one who as a judge had shown great competence, fairness, and prudent mercy but who publicly disagreed with the Church teaching on contraception. The first candidate would be welcome to receive communion while the second would be disqualified, but I hope it is obvious beyond a doubt that Catholic voters should vote for the latter and not the former.
To demonstrate the variations, I think ( not because of the CUA prof) that Ryan’s medicaid cuts will produce abortions and instances of euthanasia ( see below) but I think Obama is still worse in terms of the 4 Supreme Court judges he will appoint possibly. My area is so democratic that the electoral votes here are a given. My job is to pray that God picks the good fortune of the least damaging person.
Note: Medicaid currently pays for an astounding 37% of births in the US and pays for 60% of the elderly in nursing homes. Ryan wants to decrease the Federal donation by c. $800 billion starting now and for ten years ( Bloomberg)… but he voted twice for the Iraq war and so I have a hard time seeing him as thrift motivated and as incapable of another trillion dollar war while he cuts the poor.
I would say that there is an especially bad conversation going on about the impact of a Romney vs. Obama Administration on numbers of prospective abortions (http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/what-schneck_652897.html), as Bill Bannon has alluded. But I would go further to say that I don’t think the question even matters.
Should Romney win in 2012 and be re-elected, I suppose he might nominate as many as five justices. They might even reverse Roe. (Note the accruing mights and maybes.) But what would be the effect? To return the decision of whether abortion is legal to the states. Any woman who lives within driving distance of a blue state could obtain an abortion-on-demand. Any woman who could afford an airline ticket could do the same. No appreciable impact on the numbers of abortions. No effective change.
Suppose Romney’s presidency had a transformative effect on the American electorate, bringing fully 38 state legislatures so far against abortion that they would ratify a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution criminalizing abortions in all cases. Someone will have to make laws deciding who goes to jail. History certainly tells us that abortions will continue anyway. Obviously we’d jail those providers we could catch. (We wouldn’t catch them all.) What about the mothers? Morally and legally, it is their intent that drives the act. Shall we fill the jails with frightened, poor 15-year-old girls and other women who seek abortions?
I only mean to call attention to the inadequacy of legal remedies here. Even in a best of all pro-life worlds, we are left with ugly choices about how to enforce the prohibition of abortion. And, a best of all pro-life worlds will not come to pass. It simply won’t. So, how shall we vote? I say, with a conscience set against abortion and prudence that comes from knowing about American politics, that we should vote in ways that make pregnancy and childbearing seem safe and affordable. The rest, as far as what the legal and political system can do for us, simply is irrelevant. Our votes do no effective good.
The cause of life is a task of evangelization, not politics.