Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Mirror of Justice offers a "Prudential Judgment" Conference Report, I

Get the story here!

Hat tip to Amy Welborn

The gist:
The first day featured, among other things, two pretty much polar-opposite papers concerning the scope of the category of judgments that ought to be called prudential and left primarily to the laity and to political leaders rather than to bishops. In his keynote address, Chris Wolfe (Political Science, Marquette) emphasized that although the magisterium has power to make particular political judgments, it should exercise caution and do so only sparingly. Chris argued that because (among other things) policy issues are factually complex, the bishops have limited competence in many areas, and the laity should be energized (through taking responsibility in their fields of expertise) rather than enervated, the bishops should usually place much more emphasis on forming the laity spiritually and morally than on taking policy positions. On a later plenary panel, Michael Baxter (Theology, Notre Dame) gave a paper called "The Trouble With Prudence": the trouble, in his view, is that treating issues as "prudential" easily degenerates into a device for setting some moral problems aside (whether abortion or unjust war) in order to achieve one's overall preferred moral-policy goals (whether left or right). He called on Catholics to be plain speaking in naming evil, to be more disciplined in avoiding cooperation with evil, and to renounce political utopianism that leads one to justify evil in the name of promoting an ideal such as democracy or freedom.
Thomas Berg's response:
First, I appreciated Michael's warnings about the dangers of the category of prudential judgments degenerating into crude "end justifies means" analyses. At the same time, however, there are plainly powerful arguments for making a choice for one imperfect political alternative over another, at least when the only other option seems to be a practical inability to promote justice in the political sphere at all (in anything other than the very long run). This raises long-running issues in Christian ethics about "realism" vs. "faithfulness," whether Christians should "take responsibility" in the political sphere, and what precisely "taking responsibility" means. But wherever one stands on that debate (my own view is pretty significantly "realist"), I don't think that urging Christians to renounce political utopianism gets one very far in resolving these questions. One plainly can support one political party or the other without buying into a utopian view of what that party offers. Indeed, a Christian can be driven to choose one political alignment over another not because it offers a utopia, but because there are no utopias in this fallen world and we are called to achieve what justice we can.
Consider also that among the conservative arguments for calling a lot of issues prudential -- and thus leaving them to the politicians and policymakers -- is that when the bishops pronounce on too many specific policy questions, they lose their credibility to speak on the foundational ones like abortion. This assessment may well be true, but it seems itself to be prudential in nature, and surely arguments can be made the other way. The willingness of the bishops to speak boldly on other issues of life and dignity, from the death penalty to immigration to others, could easily bolster their credibility on abortion among many Americans who would otherwise dismiss them as simply anti-women reactionaries. Conversely, the silence of the bishops on those other issues could hurt their credibility on abortion; and criticism of the bishops' competence and judgment on the other issues -- including denigration of the idea that they might speak "prophetically" in those areas -- could lead to a questioning of their competence, judgment, and ability to speak prophetically on any case, including on abortion.
While I'm as wary of conservatives invoking "prudential judgement" as I am of liberals crying "conscience", I understand the difference. Prudential judgements play a role in implementing authentic moral principles. Two people that seek to show solidarity to the poor may do so in opposite yet morally appropriate ways. Appeals to conscience in order to justify violations of moral principle just aren't the same thing.

Having said that, prudential judgements that amount to little more than apathy for people certainly do not implement any kind of moral principle. Those that would place their faith in an unfettered market, bowing before it's perfect efficiency, while the fallen people that operate within that market stomp on the unfortunate, aren't making prudential judgements. They're either blindly or willfully defying Christ's commandment.

While Fools may cringe at the ridiculous utterances of some of our Bishops, let's not forget that beneath the chauncery-staff-drafted dribble lay the kernal of the Faith, in which we all place our hopes. Let's give our Bishops' prudential judgements due consideration. If we still need to pursue prudential judgements in divergence from them, then so be it. At least we'll have done our part to test our conscience's accordance with the Truth.

Conferences such as the one Mr. Berg describes offer all of us an insight into how best to honor CST. More of them, please!