Prudential Judgment
by Christopher Dodson,
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
June 2004

In matters of public policy, some elected officials, Catholic and non-Catholic, will invariably disagree with the Church’s position on a particular issue or legislative proposal. Sometimes the issue is so morally clear and so fundamental to the faith, that the disagreement cannot be justified or reconciled with being Catholic. Other times, there can exist legitimate differences of opinion as to how to best to respond to a social problem. By recognizing these differences in “prudential judgment,” the Church acknowledges that at the level of concrete political action various views and methods can exist without running afoul of Catholic teaching.

Recently, however, it seems that many politicians have embraced “prudential judgment” as a reason for casually dismissing or disregarding the positions of the bishop or bishops’ conference. By doing so, these politicians adopt a flawed understanding of prudential judgment that, in addition to jeopardizing their souls, raises questions about character, integrity, and values that should be considered by voters.

There are at least ten reasons why prudential judgment is not a “blank check” that allows Catholics to do as they will.

1. Catholics cannot separate their faith life from their political life.

Although recent events during this election year have given focus to this lesson, it is not new. The Catechism states that Jesus summed up man's duties toward God in this saying: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." The key word here is “all.” It is not possible to serve God unless we serve Him in all our affairs, including our political activities. Believing that God is concerned only about a few “absolute” issues removes the other issues outside our spiritual life and makes them ours, rather than God’s.

2. The bishop is entitled to deference and consideration, even in matters of prudential judgment.

Although a bishop’s position may not always be binding, it is due serious consideration. The bishop, as a successor to the apostles, is our teacher, shepherd, and pastor. The Gospel has consequences for how we order society and a bishop has a proper role in bringing these consequences light in the development of public policy. Even if legitimate differences can exist, serious consideration and deference to the bishop’s view would seem proper for any Catholic that believes what the Church teaches about the episcopacy and the social implications of the faith.

3. The church’s experience deserves consideration.

The Catholic Church is the nation’s largest provider of private nonprofit social and educational services. Everyday, people working through the auspices of the Catholic Church provide healthcare, adoption services, addiction treatment programs, childcare, immigrant assistance, counseling, job and life skill training, shelter for the homeless, food and medicine to those in need, guardian care, hospice for the dying, and help for the woman facing a crisis pregnancy. Children throughout the country, often in areas without many Catholics, are educated in Catholic schools. Catholic cemeteries minister the dead and their families. The list could go on and on.

The experience gained through all these activities bear upon questions of public policy. Welfare reform, education, healthcare, guardianship services, adoption policies, and alternatives to abortion services are some of the areas of policy where the Church offers not only moral guidance, but also offers advice based on real life experiences. It would foolish for any legislator, Catholic or non-Catholic, to not consider the Church’s recommendations in these areas.

4. An informed conscience must guide our decisions.

By definition, “prudential judgment” is not merely acting differently than another. The decision must be prudent. Prudence is a virtue that directs our action to what is right. The Catechism states that a person is prudent when he or she acts in conformity with an informed conscience.

The Catechism also notes that we have a duty to inform our conscience. Thus, the mere fact that there is no “absolute” teaching on a political issue does not mean that we are free to act in whatever way “feels” right. Rather, we have a duty to inform and enlighten our conscience and accordingly.

5. Any policy must conform to moral laws and ethical standards.

The mere fact that the best approach to an issue may be a matter of prudential judgment does not mean that the approach is beyond moral and ethical scrutiny. Legitimate differences may exist, for example, as to what level Congress should set the minimum wage. Those differences, however, cannot justify leaving matters of justice and morality out of the issue such that the established amount violates the moral law or ethical standards.

6. A decision must conform to Catholic social teaching.

Similarly, merely because differences of opinion can exist does not mean a Catholic can embrace a policy that contradicts a principle of Catholic social teaching. For example, differences may exist as to how best to balance protection of the environment and private property rights. However, a Catholic should not support a policy that fails to respect the need to steward God’s creation or the proper uses and limits on private property.

7. The policy must use licit means.

Since a solution to a public policy issue must conform to the moral law, the means employed must conform to the moral law. Sometimes the goal is desirable, but the way the policy attempts to reach that goal is morally unacceptable or embraces a method contrary to the intent and spirit of the desired goal.

For example, “family caps” in welfare reform attempt to reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancy and welfare rolls by denying welfare assistance to children conceived while their mother was receiving assistance for another child. The purpose is good. However, the method used, since it discriminates against a poor child merely because of the circumstances of his or her conception and because it sends a message that poor children should not be born, is unacceptable.

Attempts to eliminate abortion by criminalizing the mother or pushing contraceptives is another example, as is targeting civilian populations to win a war.

8. The position must be based on reason and fact.

Some Catholic politicians seem to use “prudential judgment” to justify ignoring the facts or blindly following party lines. All persons are morally obligated to use reason and the available facts when deciding on a public policy matter. Debates about the death penalty provide a good example of our need to apply reason and facts.

The Church has long acknowledged that there may be times when the government can apply the death penalty to defend human lives from an unjust aggressor. However, “if non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.”

Some politicians contend that whether “non-lethal means are sufficient” is a matter of opinion and a Catholic can disagree with the bishops on the need for the death penalty. Perhaps this is true. A Catholic cannot, however, ignore the facts or the use of reason. Considering our nation’s wealth and all the penal options available, it is difficult to see how any reasonable person could disagree with the Catechism’s own assessment that “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’”

9. Personal motive must be pure.

A Catholic is not excused from his or her duties as a Christian. Even if the purpose and methods are legitimate, a politician should not advocate a policy for inappropriate reasons, such as self-interest, party politics, anger, special favors, or narrow parochialism.

10. We should avoid the appearance of moral relativism.

When a Catholic politician nonchalantly disregards the Church’s concerns on the grounds that the issue is a matter of prudential judgment, he or she furthers the appearance of moral relativism. Not all opinions are equal and not all opinions are ethically or morally sound. True and solid moral and ethical principles exist. Legitimate differences can exist, but they are only legitimate if they do not stray from these principles. Casually disregarding the bishop’s view on the grounds that “it is only his opinion and I have mine” perpetuates the notion that morality is relative.