Catholic moral theology has a great way to sift through some of the hardest moral debates.
Two-thousand-fourteen was a contentious year in the Catholic community as debates on a variety of issues divided the faithful. In the 2014 election, 54% of self-described Catholics voted for Republicans, with that number rising to 60% among white Catholics. Healthcare and immigration reform, Common Core education standards, religious liberty, American foreign policy – including the torture debate – and even the normalization of relations with Cuba all provided fodder for often acrimonious food fights among Catholics.
The year about to commence will no doubt provide more of the same. Republicans in Congress have promised to repeal Obamacare, pass the Ryan budget and reverse President Obama’s executive order that protects up to 5 million illegal immigrants from deportation. Pope Francis is set to release an encyclical letter on the environment that may acknowledge a human role in climate change and provide a principled framework for Catholic policymakers. And by this time next year the 2016 presidential campaign will be in full swing, with Catholics debating the war against ISIS, entitlement spending, economic inequality, educational reform and other issues.
Catholics who engage one another on these and other issues usually rely on arguments that sound valid on the surface, but which are in fact misunderstandings, if not deliberate distortions, of Catholic teaching. For instance, Catholics on the left will often deploy the principle of “freedom of conscience” to make the case that support for abortion or same-sex marriage is licit if one has reflected deeply on the issue and concluded that such support does not violate their personal conscience.
In a similar way, Catholics on the right will often appeal to “prudential judgment” to buttress their support for torture or preemptive war, claiming that the Church extends great latitude to civil authorities to decide what is right or wrong in a given instance.
Again on the surface, both the freedom of conscience and prudential judgment arguments appear to have the endorsement of the Church. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), we read that, “in all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law.” (CCC, #1778) The Catechism then goes on to quote John Henry Cardinal Newman: “[Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.”
But on closer inspection, we find that the freedom of conscience, even the obligation to obey one’s conscience, does not constitute a kind of “get out of truth” card. First, one has a responsibility to form one’s conscience in accordance with the truth. “Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator.” (CCC, #1783)
So, how do we form our consciences? “In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.” (CCC, #1785)
Last, we must recognize that the freedom of conscience doesn’t ensure a morally sound conclusion: “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.” (CCC, #1790)
Moreover, the deliberately ignorant conscience is still liable for the penalty of sin. “This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man ‘takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.’ In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.” (CCC, #1791)
The misapplication of “prudential judgment” is much like the misreading of “freedom of conscience.” Prudential judgment is also not a “get out of truth” card, and it does not mean that everything not specifically prohibited is permitted. Rather, prudential judgment refers to the responsibility of officials to apply the principles of Catholic teaching in given circumstances; again, not to ignore or rewrite those principles, but to apply them. “The lay faithful should act according to the dictates of prudence, the virtue that makes it possible to discern the true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means for achieving it. Thanks to this virtue, moral principles are applied correctly to particular cases.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, #547)
Under the responsibility of prudential judgment officials may not substitute utilitarian or consequentialist logic for the principles found in Catholic teaching. Instead, they are to evaluate the concrete situations in which they find themselves and creatively craft policies in accordance with those principles. “Prudence makes it possible to make decisions that are consistent, and to make them with realism and a sense of responsibility for the consequences of one’s action. The rather widespread opinion that equates prudence with shrewdness, with utilitarian calculations, with diffidence or with timidity or indecision, is far from the correct understanding of this virtue.” (Compendium, #548)
Far from being a moral free-fire zone, prudential judgment is merely conscience in action, with the same responsibilities. “Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it … Prudence is "right reason in action," writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle … It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.” (CCC, #1806)
Unlike torture or abortion – neither of which can ever be permitted – many of our contemporary debates revolve around issues in which Catholics are called upon to exercise both the freedom of conscience and prudential judgment, both properly understood. The Church provides us not only with her moral teaching, but also with a rich set of principles for evaluating our own right intentions and actions. She also calls us to engage with others in a spirit of charity, reconciliation, and peace. This call most especially applies to other members of the Body of Christ. Clarifying our terms can go a long way toward helping us do that, and perhaps even toward solving some of our nation’s most intractable problems.
Mark Gordon is a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 31 years and they have two adult children.