Saturday, October 08, 2005


Understanding The Difference Between Doctrine and Prudential Judgments: Essential to the Formation of The Catholic Conscience

The formation of the Catholic conscience in regards to issues like abortion, euthanasia, contraception, out-of-wedlock sex, and homosexuality is easier than forming the same with issues like capital punishment, the decision to wage war, certain acts that take place in a just war {1}, and economic policies. Why is that?

The reason is that the former are intrinsic evils and the latter are not. To deliberately kill innocent life viz. abortion and euthanasia are not morally licit under any circumstances; nor is rendering the human reproductive organs unable to function naturally viz. contraception, engaging in the marital act outside the bonds of marriage, and sexual activity that contradicts the male-female sexual complimentarity written into human nature.

The latter, however, do not fall in to the same category. For example, it is morally licit to execute dangerous criminals when the physical safety, public order, and moral health of society require it. It is also licit to wage war when national security necessitates it. Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), in his official capacity as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated such in an communiqué to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops {2} in September of 2004:

3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia. (Worthiness to Receive Communion-General Principles Emphasis Added)

What makes it even more difficult for some to form their conscience on war and capital punishment are the stated policies of the Holy See and the late Pope John Paul II opposing capital punishment outright and most decisions to wage war.

Out of all papal prudential judgments, John Paul II stating that, due to modern penal systems the need for capital punishment is “rare, if not non-existent” in Evangelium Vitae #56 and his calling capital punishment “cruel and unnecessary” during a visit to St. Louis in 1999 has caused the most confusion.

If you read USCCB literature on the death penalty, statements from individual bishops, and programs in many dioceses across the country, one would think that a Catholic must oppose the capital punishment. Exacerbating this confusion, there are normally very trustworthy Catholic thinkers like Dr. Robert George of Princeton University saying things like, "Nevertheless, he [the pope] has taught authoritatively that the circumstances in which the imposition of the death penalty could possibly be justified are today so rare as to be "practically non-existent." (Clash of Orthodoxies pg. 241)

Pope John Paul II based his stated opposition to the death penalty squarely on his belief that the efficacy of modern penal systems are such as to render the need for capital punishment “rare, if not non-existent”; and since determining whether or not penal systems are efficacious in that regard falls within the competence of the State, and not the Church, such a statement from the pope can in no way be considered authoritative. Dr. George, just on the basis of being a legal scholar, should know that. Besides, the “rare, if not non-existent” statement is obviously speculative in nature, and no authoritative statement of any kind, much less one coming from the Church, is NEVER couched in speculative terms.

In any event, I hope that the statement from the future Pope Benedict XVI quoted above clears up that confusion on the issue of capital punishment.

It seems to me that, despite the best efforts of some, the same degree of confusion does not exist in regards to the issue of waging war.

The importance of knowing the difference between doctrinal statements and prudential judgments cannot be stressed enough. The former deal with matters entirely within the Church’s competence to speak on authoritatively and the latter involve making assessments that are outside the Church’s competence to pronounce on (e.g. efficacy of penal systems in regards to the death penalty and analyzing military intelligence and security concerns in regards to waging war.), although such assessments are to be done within the parameters of Catholic moral principles. In other words, the Church’s competence with regards to the latter issues extends only in so far as to define what those moral parameters are.

This is not to say that the prudential judgments of the Church hierarchy on such matters should be dismissed out of hand. The faithful should carefully, and respectfully, consider such judgments.

But this respect should never be understood as an impediment on the freedom of conscience (or as then-Cardinal Ratzinger put it a “legitimate diversity of opinion”) a Catholic enjoys to arrive at conclusions based on his best understanding of the facts involved--even if it contrasts with the opinion of the pope. As one is bound to obey a certain conscience, it can be said that a Catholic would be bound to disagree with the pope in such instance.

It would seem to me that this would apply all the more to a Catholic who has expertise in the pertinent secular matters (e.g. juridical, law enforcement, military intelligence, and geo-politics). I believe they have a duty to do all they can to make their views known to Church officials; and Church officials, likewise, have a duty to carefully consider such opinions.

To ascribe magisterial status to the prudential judgments of a given pope is conducive to creating a view of the papacy that is sort of a Ceasaro-Papism in reverse. For those who don’t know what Ceasaro-Papism is, it is where secular heads of state try to usurp the authority and prerogatives proper only to the pope, as what occurred in the Fourth Century after Christianity became the state religion in the Roman Empire.

Such a distorted understanding of the papal office makes it vulnerable to politicization where the pope, vis-à-vis his opinions on secular matters, becomes the vehicle of someone’s political or social agenda. This would also play right into the hands of those who wish to undermine papal authority by claiming that the papal office is no different than that of a democratically elected secular ruler. Following this logic (i.e. the power enjoyed by a secular ruler is held in check by other human elements and whose laws can be changed or repealed, and can be voted out of office), the pope’s magisterial authority can be subject to the whims of a majority.

Furthermore, since misconceptions about the papacy represent a major stumbling block for many Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians, blurring the distinction between magisterial pronouncements and prudential judgments are an impediment to Christian unity and evangelization.

Above all, distinguishing between doctrinal imperatives and prudential judgments is nothing more than obedience to our Lord who commands us to "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are Gods." (Matt. 22:21 RSV)


{1} The most hotly debated ius in bello subjects is the use of nuclear weapons. Atomic weapons have only been used in war twice, when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. I deal with the moral ramifications of those atomic bomb drops viz. Catholic principles HERE and HERE.

{2} Although contraception, homosexuality and economic issues are not dealt with in Cardinal Ratzinger’s communiqué. Everyone knows that the Church brooks no dissent in regards to the first two and that, like the issues of capital punishment and war, determining correct economic policy involve making assessments outside the Church’s competence as well as staying within the moral parameters defined by the Church.


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