Mark Shea: What prudential judgement is and is not

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God gives us freedom to create new and different approaches to the ways we should navigate that world for the common good. We should use it wisely. PHOTO: Elijah Hiett/Unsplash

One of the little mottos that comes down to us from the Tradition is “In essential things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity”.

It conveys the wonderful sanity and freedom of the Catholic tradition and is one of the many things I have always appreciated about the Catholic mind.  Such an attitude is light years away from the cramped worldview of Heresy and its evil step-child Ideology.

Heresy and Ideology are both attempts to imprison the understanding of a large, complex, and mysterious universe in the cage of a small, All-Explaining Theory of Everything.  For the heretic and ideologue, everything is electricity, or economics, or evolution, or some other mania by which all other things are measured.  And when the facts don’t fit the simple All-Explaining Theory of Everything, the facts are thrown out because the Theory is all in all.

In contrast, the Faith, while it adores God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, is curiously circumspect.  The Church’s approach is to essentially say, “We don’t know much, but we do know that we believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth” and to go on reciting the rest of the Creed.

But that said, pretty much all the rest of every form of human knowledge is left to the experts in their respective fields to suss out. There is no Catholic Math, no Catholic Physics, no Catholic Organic Chemistry. But there is Catholic wisdom on what to do with these disciplines, such as “Don’t use math to send missiles full of nukes or chemicals to kill populations.”

The Faith is unafraid that science and reason will somehow discover something that disproves the revelation because God is both the Creator of Nature and the Revealer of the supernatural truths of Jesus Christ.  So it takes the attitude of the author of Proverbs who said, “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out”.  Every scientist, philosopher, artist, and theologian who has ever sought to penetrate the truth of things in this world is exercising the royal dignity of the human person to understand the amazing world God has made and find out what he is up to in the great act of Creation.

Among other things, this means we have extraordinary freedom given to us by the Holy Spirit to create new and different approaches to the ways we should navigate that world for the common good.  There are a few moral guidelines that always apply as we do so, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1789):

– One may never do evil so that good may result from it;

– the Golden Rule: “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.”

– charity always proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbour and his conscience: “Thus sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience … you sin against Christ.” Therefore “it is right not to… do anything that makes your brother stumble.”

All of these are difficult to obey depending on the circumstances, but the first guideline is particularly stiff for us humans because, as G.K. Chesterton observed, while people do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.

Consequently, we have all sorts of little strategies for excusing beloved evils, and Catholics are no exception to that rule.

One beloved trick we deploy constantly is to appeal to “prudential judgement”.  The common misunderstanding of this phrase is that you only have to listen to the Church when she speaks dogmatically.  The rest of the time (goes the claim) you can invoke “prudential judgment” and blow off whatever the Church says.

But in fact, this is not so because we are supposed to obey the Church’s guidance in all matters unless we have very good reason not to.  The key blunder is this: Prudential Judgement concerns how best, not whether, to listen to the Church’s guidance.

So, for instance, when Holy Church counsels us to get vaccinated against COVID since this is life-saving not only for you but for your neighbour, prudential judgement says that, all things being equal, you go and get shot—even though no dogma decrees it.  The only exception is for those who cannot be vaccinated for health reasons such as an allergy to the vaccine.  Then it is prudent not to.  But that makes it even more prudent for all those with no medical issues to be vaccinated whether they like it or not—for the love of their neighbor and the common good.

Prudential judgement is, in short, about prudence, not about whether or not we feel like listening to the Church’s guidance.  It asks, “How can I most sensibly and practically apply the Church’s guidance?” and not “How can I wriggle out of listening to the Church’s guidance if I just don’t feel like it?”

Related:

Mark Shea: Prudential judgement as a smokescreen for dissent