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(Photo credit: Unlvnewman.com)

(John Carr’s response to the below column is here.)

By Marjorie Jeffrey (@MarjorieJeffrey)

In a recent piece for America Magazine, John Carr seems to advocate an end to the practice of prudential judgment, in the name of blind obedience to – it would seem – whatever the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has to say about national politics. A critique of prudence is not something Catholic thinkers have ever advocated. Thomas Aquinas defined prudence as “wisdom concerning human affairs” (STIIaIIae 47.2 ad 1) or “right reason with respect to action” (ST IIaIIae 47.4). In order to make a prudential judgment, one must know both the universals and the particulars concerned, since “actions are about singular matters: and so it is necessary for the prudent man to know both the universal principles of reason, and the singulars about which actions are concerned” (ST IIaIIae 47.3; Cf. STIaIIae 18.3). That does not mean that prudence is a kind of mathematical equation, that by plugging in the variables one can achieve a perfect prudent decision. Besides knowing the particulars and the universals applicable in any given situation, the most important piece of knowledge in the practice of prudence is the telos, or end. Prudence does not establish the end towards which we aim; the end already exists, and prudence is the deliberation upon the appropriate means to reach that end.

The end towards which one assumes Mr. Carr advocates we strive is the human good – that is the end sought by Aquinas and other great philosophers. Prudence is the cardinal virtue upon which we rely to help us determine the best means to achieve the good end. It is the best help that human reason has. Prudence, which is an intellectual virtue, relies upon a host of other moral virtues for its functioning – but that is a treatise for another time. (See Aristotle’s Ethics.)

Prudence is primarily the virtue of the statesman; however, since our nation is based upon the rule of the people, it is the duty of every citizen to practice prudential judgment. It is here that we arrive at Mr. Carr’s point: that statesmen ought not to mislead (in his view) faithful Catholic citizens into believing that they have the option of deliberating about the best means toward the human good. And this is false. While there are certain Catholic teachings on faith and morals that bind faithful Catholics in their voting habits, there are simply some political issues that the bishops may make policy prescriptions about, but do not bind Catholics. For example, knowingly to vote for a pro-choice politician is deemed a mortal sin for a baptized Catholic. However, to oppose amnesty for illegal aliens is not. Why? Because absolute moral evils, such as abortion and euthanasia, carry much greater moral weight than do other political issues. The government of a nation does not have a moral imperative to allow any individual to cross its border – because that is prudentially insensible. Furthermore, in the case of capital punishment, the Church has always left such decisions up to the legitimate temporal authority, although in recent years the Chruch has urged that resort to the death penalty become rarer. But there is a clear difference here; resort to abortion is never a matter of prudential judgment, since it is intrinsically evil. Resort to the death penalty is always a matter of prudential judgment, since it depends on a number of factors. Similarly with immigration reform, a statesman has many prudential considerations before the good of a non-citizen who has flouted American law, such as the economic good of American citizens.

Unfortunately, Mr. Carr’s confused piece is not without precedent; he carried out a confused agenda while employed by the USCCB. While working at the USCCB, he served as Chair of the Board of the Center for Community Change, a Soros-funded progressive, pro-abortion organization. During his tenure with both organizations, the USCCB awarded $150,000 to the Center for Community Change through a 2001 Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) grant, promoted the group on its website, and exchanged speakers at various events. This provided a clear Catholic endorsement of the Center’s activities. Given his history of preferring political activism over faithfulness to Church teaching, his new employment at Georgetown University may be unsurprising to many.

Christian principles ought always to inform prudential judgment, since faith and reason are partners in the eternal dance of creation. To divorce them is a mistake. To attempt to silence rational discourse about the proper role of government and prudent courses of public policy in the name of Catholic teaching is, in the most charitable of views, misleading. Mr. Carr is correct that the views of Catholic bishops deserve serious attention. But they may not always deserve action.