A Reader Objects to my Discussion of Prudential Judgment

A Reader Objects to my Discussion of Prudential Judgment May 6, 2019

He quotes this passage from my recent piece on Prudence and Climate Change:

And whenever the Church says things we dislike–be it about unjust war, torture, gun violence, a living wage, the death penalty, birth control, transgenderism, climate change or anything else–we can simply ignore it or dedicate large reserves of our time and energy to fighting the Church.

And to rationalize all this, we appeal to “prudential judgment”, which we re-define to mean “those aspects of Church teaching we decide whether or not to obey.”

But that’s not what “prudential judgment” means.  Rather, it means “judging how best, not whether, to obey the Church’s guidance.”

and then says:

For some reasons you left out of your laundry list, “the best way to deal with priests who sexually molest children.”

If the Church was massively wrong in that area of “prudential judgment,” then why should one trust the Church in, say, gun violence?  Is protecting children more complicated than determining whether greater or lesser gun control can reduce gun violence?

When John Paul 2 allowed Bernard Law to resign and was given a plum job at the Vatican and allowed to vote in future papal elections (!!!!) I called on JP2 to reverse his decision and, if not, resign.  Was I “fighting the Church”?

I don’t know if you caught this when I wrote it, but it seem apropos here:

One of the weirdly consoling things about being Catholic is that we have lots of experience of lousy shepherds. Indeed, even our very best shepherds have had their spectacular failures, starting with Peter and the gutless apostles. And, like Judas, not all have been well-meaning failures. Some have been right SOBs. The Church, like all human things, has had periods of sin and dissolution and periods of quite spectacular reform. This is part of believing in the Incarnation: that God will allow us the freedom to sin–even mortally–but that he will somehow also call out the best in us and raise up real saints out of this weak flesh and blood.

I’ve never been one of those people who wring their hands and fantasize about a Golden Age or utter the ridiculous lament, “Our bishops have lost their moral authority!” Our bishops lost their “moral authority” in the Garden of Gethsemane and never got it back. Part of the point of the Passion is that nobody has any moral authority except the One hanging on the Cross. When, raised from death, he asked Peter three times if he loved him, the point was not “Awesome job!” but “I forgive you. I give you your life back with mercy and I expect you, as the failure you are, to always remember that you are not to lord your ‘moral authority’ over anybody but to treat them with the mercy I am giving you today.”

Bishops are like math teachers, not moral exemplars. Some of them, by the grace of God, also turn out to be saints (and wield thereby a certain ‘moral authority’ because they are good men). But mostly what they do is pass along a set of truths they neither invented nor can change. They pass along a story just as math teachers pass along a set of facts about how 2+2=4. If they do their sums wrong or cheat on their taxes, they shall be judged by the Headmaster. But their failure does not in the slightest falsify what they are passing along.

So while I have been appalled by the sin and stupidity of bad shepherds, I have never for a moment found that a reason not to trust Jesus Christ. And insofar as my own competence in the Tradition permits me to check the work of a given shepherd, I don’t see why I need to simply reject them en masse as so many Catholics who announce themselves “fed up with it all” do. Tantrums are not reform.

The Church will heal again, as she has in the past, by fidelity to Jesus and his gospel and through the Same Old Thing: love of God, love of neighbor, the teaching of the apostles, creative orthodoxy, and stubbornly self-sacrificial orthopraxy that puts first the least of these (not the service of a bureaucratic machine).

Bishops have been wrong about various things over the centuries, starting with the apostles and Peter.  Their wrongness has consisted in going back on the gospel, not on proclaiming things consonant with the Tradition.  Peter, for instance, was wrong at Antioch (Gal 2) because he didn’t act according to what he himself proclaimed by the power of the Spirit in Act 15, that Gentiles were welcome in the Church.

A priest friend of mine once remarked that one of the weirdnesses of the Church is that when she meets in council and formulates her teaching, she is empowered by the Spirit in a unique way and therefore bishops in council (or Pope defining dogma) tend to speak beyond themselves.  Because of this, they literally don’t know what they are talking about and, when the council ends and they go home, the implementation of their own teaching is often badly done because they are back to being the ordinary slobs we humans are.  That’s what Peter showed at Antioch and that is what the bishops showed after Vatican II (and most other councils).  That’s why it always takes a century to implement a council.  The Church has to learn the implications of her own teaching.

For my money, the most stunning formulation of doctrine to come out of the Council was the electrifying development that man is “the only creature on earth which God willed for itself” (Gaudium et Spes 24).  This development was, of course, a response to the monstrous economic, political, and social systems of the 20th century which attempted to make human being cogs in their systems and means to their ends, whether they be capitalist, communist, Nazi, libertarian, Objectivist, racial, corporate, miiitary-industrial or whatnot.  It is a development that brings out a new dimension to the reality that the law is made for man, not man for the law, and that his dignity cannot be subordinated to any creature, including creatures of his own devising.

The bishops (including JPII) then went home and returned to the habit of thinking and acting as though man exists for the Church, not the Church for man.  Consequently, they treated victims that way “for the good of the Church.”  It was a classic institutional response, no different from any other human institution in protecting itself rather than living supernaturally, putting victims first (since they are the only creatures God wills for their own sake).  It was a failure to think with the mind of Christ.  Just like Peter at Antioch.

But it does not follow in the slightest that because some bishops failed here, therefore all all bishops should be presumed to be wrong about everything, or even that bishops who failed here are wrong about everything else.

Consider:  Even custodians of the Tradition who were not, as the bishops are, gifted with apostolic authority were regarded by Jesus as teachers who should be heeded—even when they were guilty of a crime that dwarfed the sex abuse scandal: the murder of the Son of God:

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. (Matthew 23:2-3)

Jesus understood that what makes a teaching true or false is not the character of the teacher, but its rootedness in the Tradition.  And precisely the reason the Church is given the grace of infallibility is not because bishops are awesome, but because they are sinners, fools, and crooks.  It is the Spirit, not the bishops, who makes sure the Tradition is preserved and it is the Tradition that sits in judgment of the sin and blunders of bishops.

A lot of this comes down to common sense.  It simply does not follow that because JPII erred in refusing to believe charges against Maciel or in treating Law lightly, therefore the death penalty must continue forever or climate change is a hoax or the NRA is sent by God.  To say it out loud is to see the folly of such an approach.  It partakes of the same folly as Libertarianism, which insists on a de facto anarchist approach to all governance since men are sinners.

Most of the Church’s moral guidance consists of prudential judgments which apply the tradition to real life situations.  The Church will sometimes make a bad call.  Bishops will even (as with the scandal) make corrupt calls.  But it remains the case that when the Magisterium offers its guidance, it is foolish to simply blow that off and rely solely on oneself.  The truth remains that Jesus tells the apostles and their successors, “He who listens to you listens to me.”  That does not require us to think that everything they do and say is the Word of the Holy Spirit.  But it does suggest that when a consensus of bishops is speaking to us about how to apply the tradition we should consider strong the possibility that it is worth paying attention to and when they speak in union with Peter, we should really pay attention.  No.  They are not typically speaking infallibly.  Neither does my doctor. But my doctor still generally has more knowledge than I do about his field.

The chief difficulty I have with those who habitually fight the Church whenever she fails to accessorize their ideology and politics is that they tell me they are exercising “prudential judgment” without demonstrating an ounce of prudence and often without demonstrating even elementary familiarity with the Tradition.  I can accept it when somebody tells me that their specialized knowledge of some field gives them pause about agreeing with a bishop when he holds forth on, say, farm subsidies.  But if there is one thing that conservatives and libertarians over the past 20 years have abundantly demonstrated, it is a talent for being massively wrong about practically everything from war to torture to accusing Sandy Hook parents of murdering their own kids to racism to screwing people out of a living wage to, yes, climate change.  Failure of the bishops to obey the Tradition when it comes to sexual abuse does not, in the slightest, constitute a justification for liberals to make open war on the Church’s sexual teaching, nor for conservatives to make open war on virtually everything else in her social doctrine.

Hope that clarifies where I stand.

As to your question: no, of course you were not “fighting the Church” in challenging JPII on sexual abuse.  You were calling the bishops to live by the Tradition as Paul called Peter to do that.

But it does not follow in the slightest that everybody at war with everything the Magisterium teaches is Paul rebuking Peter or Catherine of Siena.  There are extremely good arguments for the Church’s teaching about war, torture, a living wage, gun violence, capital punishment, white supremacy and all the rest of the stuff the Right Wing Noise Machine is battling the Church on tooth and nail–including Laudato Si.  Making war on all that does not do a thing about helping the victims of child abuse other than use those victims as human shields for an agenda having nothing whatsoever to do with the gospel but having everything to do with Mammon and Mars.

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