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Mark Shea: Prudential Judgment and Minimum Daily Adult Requirement Catholicism – Part 1

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Pope Paul VI makes his way past bishops during a session of the Second Vatican Council in 1964. Photo: CNS file photo

Here’s a little passage from Lumen Gentium you don’t hear much about these days:

Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious 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 judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.

What this means in plain English, is that we are to try to obey the Church as best we can even when the pope is just giving his best, good faith, estimate on how to proceed in applying the Tradition.

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That is, by the way, how things are most of the time.  Most of the time, the pope is not laying down dogma.  Dogma is, in fact, very rarely what the pope has to say on a daily basis in addressing, say, what to do about migrants in the greatest refugee crisis since World War II.  He’s not giving us dogma when he says that invading Iraq is a terrible idea in 2003.  Nor is he offering dogma when he says that we should abolish the death penalty.  Nor, by the way, is he articulating dogma when he promulgates Humanae Vitae (though he is articulating the ordinary magisterium).

That’s not a problem if you actually take the teaching of Lumen Gentium seriously, because your default position will be, “Just try to obey the pope whether or not he speaks ex cathedra and you will be fine.”

But lots of Catholics these days not only don’t listen to Lumen Gentium, but have no idea what it says.  Instead, they have imbibed what I call a “Simon Peter Says” theory of obedience to the Church: the idea that you only have to listen to the Holy Father or the Magisterium when they speak dogmatically and infallibly and that, the rest of the time, you can blow it off.  This leads to a Minimum Daily Adult Requirement approach to the Faith that seeks, not to obey Jesus completely, but to see how much you can get away with avoiding him and what bits of the gospel you can cannibalize to accessorize your politics and/or lifestyle.

If you are on the Left, the way you blow it off is by appealing to “primacy of conscience”.  “I don’t have to listen to the Church’s pelvic issue teaching because I believe primacy of conscience means I can sleep with my girlfriend because we truly love each other” is the general template, though a host of different partners and genders can be mixed and matched to supply the argument against sex inside marriage to one person of the opposite sex.

If you are on the Right, the preferred jargon for blowing off the Church is “Prudential Judgment”.  “I can ignore the Pope on virtually the whole of Catholic social teaching from just war to torture to gun violence to a living wage to capital punishment to the environment because that’s all Prudential Judgment junk” is the general form of that line of argument.  Sometimes, this is beefed up with the classic line, “Where does the Church teach that the Pope is infallible in every prudential judgment he makes?”

What people who make this argument never do is ask where the Church teaches that they are infallible ever, particularly when they have a track record of being repeatedly and massively wrong and seldom demonstrating an ounce of prudence.  When your track record includes committing the United States to a catastrophic war in Iraq, arguing for the incredibly counter-productive use of torture that murdered innocents and produced reams of false testimonies, supporting a Gun Cult that that slaughters 35,000 people a year and massacres schools full of children, backing an economy that is driving the next generation into crushing debt, a barbarous penal system supported only by Communists and Islamic despots, and a warming planet and an ocean filled with plastic garbage continents the size of France, it might be good to rethink the genius of your Prudence before attacking the Pope for his.

It’s not complicated.  Just listen to the Church and try to do what she teaches, even when she is not speaking dogmatically.  The Church has no dogmatically defined teaching that you should not play in traffic or put beans up your nose. Still it’s a good idea not to do these things. When the Holy Father urges us to, say, reduce our traffic in arms or not kill people if we don’t absolutely have to, he is not binding us with a dogma.  Because free sons and daughters of God should not have to be compelled to do the obviously smart, right, and good thing.  They should do it because it is smart, right, and good and they are free sons and daughters of God.

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