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Mark Shea: ‘Prudential judgement’ as a smokescreen for dissent – Capital Punishment, Part 8

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Detail from a bronze door of St Stephen’s church in Washington DC. PHOTO: Fr Lawrence Lew OP

Once we have worked through the fact that there is nothing in the Church’s tradition that actually demands that the Magisterium must approve of the death penalty, we eventually arrive at the point where the death penalty advocate has to search for another way to make his case. The customary way to do that is to say, “The magisterial call to abolish the death penalty is just a prudential judgement. And ‘prudential judgement’ means that people don’t have to listen to the Church if they don’t feel like it. Even Pope Benedict XVI (while still Cardinal Ratzinger) said in his 2004 Letter to Cardinal McCarrick on “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion” that you could ignore the Church on the death penalty and still be a good Catholic”:

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.

Here’s the thing: Benedict did not say “You can ignore the Church on the death penalty and still be a good Catholic.” That so many people think he did brings us to a deep and fundamental misunderstanding among millions of Catholics about the meaning of “prudential judgement”. For the Church does not operate on the principle “Whatever is not dogma can be ignored if you feel like it.” A Magisterial teaching need not say “Simon Peter says” in order to be owed religious submission. Here’s Lumen Gentium on that:

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[R]eligious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgements made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. (Lumen Gentium, no. 25)

In other words, the Church does not need to define a dogma to be obeyed. She simply has to say, “Do this. Avoid that.” And, unless we can produce a bloody good reason to ignore her, the default position is supposed to be obedience.

Therefore, “prudential judgement” does not mean “Feel free to ignore the Church when it says things you don’t like” because “prudential judgement” refers not to the question of whether to obey the Church but only to the question of how to obey the Church.

When the Church says “we should not kill people unless it is absolutely necessary” the docile Catholic may quibble with what “absolutely necessary” may mean and thereby “be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment”. But that means being at odds with the precise circumstance in which capital punishment may be legitimately applied, not rejecting entirely the notion that it should be applied as rarely as possible.

So, for instance, the Holy Father or a bishop may express his view that a Columbian drug lord should not be executed while a prison official close to the situation with more knowledge may say, “The prisoner is still able to run his Murder, Inc. operation from inside our prison because he has paid off the guards and we can’t stop him, so we need to execute him to protect his victims.” That’s a legitimate argument about application of the Church’s teaching on when the threat from a prisoner to the common good is real and when it is “practically non-existent”.

But it is not an exercise of “prudential judgement” to say, “The Church is just dead wrong about the death penalty. In fact, we need to fight the Church’s teaching and make sure the death penalty is inflicted to the maximum extent possible and battle to make sure this development of doctrine is ignored as error.” That’s just rejection of the Magisterium’s teaching on the death penalty. And that is the opposite of prudence – a matter we will take up in our next and final segment of this series.

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