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On the Amazing Malleability of “Private Judgment”

On the Amazing Malleability of “Private Judgment” September 11, 2014

My reader Zippy Catholic used to note that when Progressives want to blow off Church teaching they appeal to “primacy of conscience” as the All-Excusing Catchphrase. Don’t like the Church’s teaching on the Pelvic Issues? Voila! Primacy of Conscience excuses you from obeying or even listening to what the Church says.

Meanwhile, he noted, conservative dissenters perform the same feat by invoking the magical incantation “Prudential judgment”. Does the Church bug you with its teaching on war, torture, capital punishment, your sacred wallet, the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable who happen to have been born in the wrong country? No problem! Just say the magic words “prudential judgment” and you can ignore the Church completely.

Both camps make use of Court Prophets to lend themselves an illusion of weightiness for refusing docility to the Magisterium’s teaching. Need an excuse for ignoring Humanae Vitae or Evangelium Vitae? Hey! Just quote Charles Curran or Dick McBrien or Hans Kung. Beside HV defined no *dogmas* so it’s optional.

Likewise, if you are a conservative dissenter who wants to torture somebody, just go get a screen grab of Fr. Brian Harrison’s tendentious (and long repudiated by the author) defense of torture in interrogation. Or if you want to launch an unjust war, just ignore two popes and all the bishops of the world and go read Michael Novak explaining why “prudential judgement” means you can go ahead and do it anyway. And if there’s something about the Church’s social doctrine that inconveniences you, just have George Weigel highlight it in red and gold so you can take the stuff you like and blow off the bits you don’t. Or, better still, you can simply hire a court prophet to declare to you that Catholic Social teaching is a complete myth *and* declare that anybody who says otherwise is an “idolator” for that extra-special below-the-belt sense of “‘Shut up!’ he explained” demagoguery that crushes conversation and scotches troubling intellectual inquiry in the egg.

The key to all this sort of thinking is to avoid docility to the Church’s teaching at all costs (the notion that you should listen to and obey the Church, even on on non-dogmatic issues unless you can show a *damn* good reason why not) and instead insist that as long as a single voice can be found somewhere in the Church advocating whatever you want to do or ignore then, as this guy says “the jury is still out” and you can go ahead and bullheadedly ignore the Church, even when it is quite luminously clear and unambiguous:

Yes. The jury is still out on a war that failed to meet a single criterion of just war teaching. The jury is still out on whether grave and intrinsic evil acts of torture are really always wrong when you want to call them “enhanced interrogation”. The jury is still out on whether to listen to the Church’s teaching on the death penalty when you really really want to kill somebody you could just as easily incarcerate for life. The jury is still out on whether you should help desperate children at the border or remand them to rape, sex slavery, and death in their country of origin because paperwork takes precedence over their lives. The jury is still out on whether you should give state benefits for poor families with “too many” children (though it’s not out on whether those families must not use contraception on pain of mortal sin). If you *dare* to suggest that you should heed the Church here, you are declared a “papal idolator” for thinking that docility is smart even when the Church does not define its teaching as dogma.

In all these areas, “prudential judgment” is used adroitly and perpetually to excuse dissenting conservative Catholics from listening to or heeding the obvious guidance of the Church.

But how about in matters like “whether Catholics should continue to be involved in a parade in New York?” or “whether the pope should marry couples who have been living together and have children out of wedlock?”

These questions–which really *are* matters of prudential judgment and patient of real debate and argument–are treated by many of the same Catholics who routinely invoke “prudential judgment” to ignore the Church as matters of settled dogma. In such cases, the failure of Cdl. Dolan and Pope Francis to do what the dogmatists demand is seen as yet another harbinger of the apocalypse.

Me: I think good faith cases can be made that

a) Dolan should back out of the parade since it is no longer Catholic (and hasn’t been for some time) and is merely an occasion for cheering about vaguely Irish things and getting plastered. As a local cultural event without even a tenuous relationship to the Faith anymore, it was basically inevitable that it would reflect New York’s (and let’s face it, America’s and the West’s) embrace of homosexual acts as no big deal. So to avoid giving the impression that the Church agrees with that, Dolan should back out.

BUT: This being a matter of prudential judgment, I also think that the case can be made that in absenting itself from this important part of New York’s cultural life, the Church is simply ceding the field rather than acting as yeast and that most non-Catholics would simply see this as Dolan hating on gays for whatever weird inexplicable reason Catholics do that stuff. Like it or not, the acceptance of homosexual acts (bad) and homosexual persons (good) is here to stay in the West and the Church can either engage with that or retreat into the Fortress.

Both of these are respectable cases to be made and argued in the recognition that this really *is* a matter of prudential judgment. Yet, for the “prudential judgment excuses all” Right, this is being treated as a matter of self-evident “wickedness” (in the words of one Chicken Little demagogue) and Dolan is (there is no other word for it) threatened with dangerous and reckless language like “Do not think the punishment visited on you will not be of the most severe sort when you die, perhaps even before you die, if you do not change” followed by vague calls to “have an Authentic Catholic uprising” to a mob that may well decide to make sure Dolan gets that “severe punishment” Chicken Little is calling for. (That’s the kind of language that very rightly gets the cops called and I hope the Archdiocese of New York does exactly that. As Gerard Nadal truly says, Chicken Little “has crossed a line. A very dangerous line.”)

My point is this: For a subculture that *thrives* on ambiguity and making excuses for ignoring the Church unless “Simon Peter Says” with a dogmatic pronouncement we are suddenly not in prudential judgment territory at all. When it comes to holy and sacred right wing culture war stuff, it’s dogma and there is only one possible opinion. To even consider the other side of the question marks you out as a CINO, as wicked, as not an Authentic Catholic, and as deserving “severe punishment” not only in the next life but (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) maybe in this one as well, if you catch my meaning, if you get my drift.

Same with Francis. There are cases for and against him celebrating these weddings. Against: Appearing to give approval to fornication, etc. In favor: Better to get married than to remain in fornication and so forth. (FWIW, I think the latter case is *obviously* the stronger one and is, in fact, done constantly as a a matter of pastoral practice anyway.) But the point is that it really is a matter of prudential judgment and the pope is entitled to his opinion.

But I can absolutely guarantee you that the Greatest Catholics of All Time are going to see in this prudential judgment, not a debatable case patient of differing views in good faith. They will see yet another catastrophic disaster, evil conspiracy, etc. Indeed, they are already panicking and convinced that the Synod on the Family is a Franciscan plot to undermine TRVE Catholicism. So again, prudential judgment is shown to have very strict limits. It’s useful when you want to kill or torture or crush weak and poor people, but the line has to be drawn at being merciful or pastoral or having contact with those outside Fortress Katolicus.

I look forward to the day when both real docility *and* real private judgment are exercised by Catholics toward the guidance of the Church.


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