Issues for Catholic Voters (2012 edition) – Prudential Judgement
In Chapter I of “How to Vote Catholic” we discussed the obligation of Catholics to participate in politics by voting to ensure that our legislators protect the common good, human dignity, and the rights of all. As such, it is incumbent upon Catholic voters to know and understand Church teaching, especially as regards life and family issues.
Chapter II defines and explains the principle of applying “prudential judgment” to concrete situations with guidance from the Holy Father, our bishops, and priests.
2. Applying the Principles
Unlike the defense of unborn life, political judgments are rarely black and white. Most political judgments require prudence, the application of a general principle to a concrete situation.
All Catholics bear the responsibility of making prudential judgments, but these judgments rely on information that is often not easily available. We need guidance, and Holy Father offers it through his various writings, especially his encyclicals, and the U. S. bishops seek to educate us through the publications of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
The Bishops’ Conference
The USCCB represents a merging in 2001 of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) and the United States Catholic Conference (USCC), which were created in 1966. Since then, the bishops have released more than 100 pastoral letters and statements that take positions on dozens of public policy matters, ranging from hand-guns, racial prejudice, and U.S. relations with Panama to treatment of the aging, farm laborers, and war in the Middle East.
These statements are intended to educate Catholics on pressing issues of law and policy. Some confusion has also been created unintentionally by this official commentary on such a wide range of issues: Few Catholics make the distinction between binding statements of principle and the non-binding prudential judgments by the USCCB on policy issues and its support of specific pieces of legislation before the Congress.
The bishops themselves recognize the potential for confusion and have addressed it directly, for example, in their pastoral Economic Justice for All: “We do not claim to make these prudential judgments with the same kind of authority that marks our declarations of principle” (xii). Instead, the letters are attempts at applying Catholic principles to concrete situations. But the authority of bishops, as they make clear, in matters of faith and morals does not extend to their prudential judgments in other matters.
Sound prudential judgment is a habit of mind that reasonably applies general principles to specific historical situations. “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).
Catholics profit from the education in social teaching offered by the bishops and the Holy Father through their various documents, including pastoral letters and papal encyclicals. We can learn from the bishops’ and the popes’ examples of how to think prudentially and how to gather the expertise and data necessary to put principle into practice.
But the habit of prudence belongs to each individual and not to a group. Prudence is not prudence when it is handed down like a rule to be followed. Individual prudential judgment follows from principles and cannot be commanded or dictated.
The U.S. bishops have clearly stated, “Decisions about candidates and choices about public policies require clear commitment to moral principles, careful discernment and prudential judgments based on the values of our faith” (Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility).
As Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, a former president of the USCCB, wrote about the Iraq War, “People of good will may apply ethical principles and come to different prudential judgments, depending upon their assessment of the facts at hand and other issues” (Letter to President Bush on Iraq, September 13, 2002).
What’s important to recognize, first of all, is the commitment to principle at the core of policy recommendation. What must be considered is how effective a policy will be in implementing the principle that underlies it.
- Prudential judgment is the application of principle to concrete situations.
- Catholic principles apply to all political issues but in many cases do not lead prudentially to one acceptable or “official” Catholic position.
- While the bishops’ teachings on faith and morals are binding, their prudential judgments on policy and legislation guide us but do not bind us, except in the case of issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and marriage.
By Deal W. Hudson, President of Catholic Advocate