Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Necessary Distinctions - Prudential Judgement & Catholic Social Doctrine

Evangelical Catholicism offers some thoughts today on " Three main weaknesses of today's Catholics", in which Katerina disputes First Things' Robert Miller).

In the comments, Michael Joseph takes a jab at the "neoconservative Catholics":

What's interesting about Miller's article is the utter indefensibility of his claims that bishops do, in fact, have a ceratin "arena" in which their authority properly operates. The separation he artificial creates between the area of "faith and morals" and "political judgments" is not only historically implausible, it is a non-ecclesial importation which creates an a priori framework with which Miller evaluates and gauges episcopal statemets. His separation is a growing trend among some self-styled "neo-conservative" Catholics who, most times unwittingly, filter ecclesial statements into contrived categories such as "absolutes", "doctrinal inference" and "prudential judgment". And yet, where in the history of our Church does such a filter derive other than in our modern times?

I would never advocate an all-out surrender of thinking or a blind obedience to the bishops or the pope. Such is not real faith. However, the subject and object of all magisterial statements is God, and by extension through the Body of Christ, man himself. Thus, political and social teachings of the magisterium are rooted in the very same doctrinal tradition as faith and morals. The similiarities between many "progressive" Catholics and many "neo-conservative" Catholics are become clear: the tendency to dash the synthesis of doctrine, morals and social teaching to pieces on the rocks of their a priori, uncritical, compartmentalizing limitmus tests.

Again, I would have to point out Benedict's observation that "Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia,", that some areas are open to legitimate differences of opinion -- namely in the application of Catholic social doctrine to particular circumstances. Presumably this room for legitimate disagreement between Catholics extends to economics, welfare reform and resolution to the problem of illegal immigration as well.

In discussions of such topics, charity and civility should prevail. Benedict XV, a notable influence on our present Pope, offered some wise advice in Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum (Nov. 1, 1914):

23. As regards matters in which without harm to faith or discipline - in the absence of any authoritative intervention of the Apostolic See - there is room for divergent opinions, it is clearly the right of everyone to express and defend his own opinion. But in such discussions no expressions should be used which might constitute serious breaches of charity; let each one freely defend his own opinion, but let it be done with due moderation, so that no one should consider himself entitled to affix on those who merely do not agree with his ideas the stigma of disloyalty to faith or to discipline.

24. It is, moreover, Our will that Catholics should abstain from certain appellations which have recently been brought into use to distinguish one group of Catholics from another. They are to be avoided not only as "profane novelties of words," out of harmony with both truth and justice, but also because they give rise to great trouble and confusion among Catholics. Such is the nature of Catholicism that it does not admit of more or less, but must be held as a whole or as a whole rejected: "This is the Catholic faith, which unless a man believe faithfully and firmly; he cannot be saved" (Athanas. Creed). There is no need of adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism: it is quite enough for each one to proclaim "Christian is my name and Catholic my surname," only let him endeavour to be in reality what he calls himself.

It's fairly common practice for us to throw around labels when debating fellow Catholics -- "progressive", "neocon", "neo-Catholic", et al. But I do think that Benedict XVI's advice strikes a chord of truth and is something we should take to heart. ("Neocon", for the record, is one label that has been abused to such a great degree that it is often used in complete ignorance of its intellectual roots. I can't think of many self-styled neoconservatives -- I suspect that the trio of Catholics to whom the "neocons" label is commonly applied by their critics, Fr. Neuhaus, George Weigel, and Michael Novak, would probably eschew it if they could).

I agree with Michael that "lack of knowledge of Catholic Social Teaching can result in perceiving the Church's statements on political, economic, and social matters as mere sentimentalism with no adequate application to the world we live in today." To dismiss the teachings of the popes and our bishops in such a manner is certainly a temptation and weakness. But I think it describes but one erroneous and dangerous trait that is present in Catholics today. The other, as Prof. Miller rightly observes, is that:

. . . many Catholics, even highly educated ones, are so poorly catechized that they don’t distinguish between statements they are required to believe with theological faith, statements to which they ought give a religious submission of will and intellect, and other statements that they need only respect and consider in forming their own judgments.

This is not to say that bishops should never speak on questions beyond faith and morals, including on particular questions, such as the execution of Hussein. When they do so, however, it would be better if they were clear on the nature of the statements they are making and the kind of deference faithful Catholics should give them. As things are, such statements tend to engender more confusion than clarity.

Worse, the current situation is ripe for abuse: Bishops, like everyone else, prefer it when people agree with them, and so some bishops are tempted to enunciate positions and invest them with the authority of their office, even when those positions go beyond matters of faith and morals and depend on particular, even idiosyncratic, views about empirical circumstances. There is a danger, in other words, of bishops leveraging their legitimate authority in faith and morals into the political arena by implicitly passing off empirical judgments as if they were teachings on faith and morals commanding the assent of faithful Catholics.

I wonder if such an unjustified extension of ecclesial authority that Prof. Miller has in mind is the 2003 statement by Bishop Botean of the Romanian Catholic Diocese of St. George in Canton, Ohio, charging that "any direct participation and support of this war against the people of Iraq is objectively grave evil, a matter of mortal sin," -- and going on to equate "direct participation in this war is the moral equivalent of direct participation in an abortion." These are lengths that not even the Pope, nor Cardinal Ratzinger, nor the USCCB, would go to in their opposition to the war.

The distinction between faith and morals" and "political judgments" is more than "artificial" and "contrived", as Michael asserts. In fairness to Prof. Miller, contra Michael's characterization I don't think he is insisting that "the magisterium should stick to faith and morals instead of making statements about 'empirical judgments'" -- but only that Bishops, when rendering prudential judgements on political (or economic) matters, should do so with clarity about their nature, lest they perpetuate the present confusion. Even Dietrich Von Hildebrand in The Vineyard of the Lord cautioned against the inclination "to adhere with complete loyalty to whatever our bishop says" and a "false idea of loyalty to the hierarchy" which failed to make such necessary distinctions.


  • Vatican Official Notes Catholics' 3 Weaknesses - secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi. Zenit News Service January 29, 2007.

  • 3 Weaknesses of Modern Catholics Deal Hudson responds:
    The American Catholic Church has certainly experienced this since Vatican II. Just yesterday we lost an icon of Cafeteria Catholicism, Father Robert Drinan, my former Congressman from Massachusetts, who many see as one of the founding father's of a failed philosophy that promotes a false dichotomy between faith and politics. When given an opportunity during the 2004 presidential election to present a unified voice on the sanctity of human life and the centrality of the Church's teaching on this issue, the USCCB punted and allowed each bishop to develop their own approach in dealing with wayward politicians.

  • Another example of why distinctions matter would be the thankfully now-defunct Presidential Questionnaire from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). As Austin Ruse noted (Holy Democrats National Review Sept. 14, 2004):
    The questionnaire is presented every four years by the USCCB to the major party candidates. It is supposed to help Catholic voters determine which candidate best reflects the teachings of the Church. What has happened is that, through it, some candidates have been able to show that even though they support abortion they still merit the votes of faithful Catholics because they happen to be good — that is to say liberal — on gun control, the environment, immigration, and the minimum wage.
    One of the weaknesses of the questionairre was equating hard and fast (Karl Keating would say "non-negotiable") teachings of the Church on abortion and euthanasia with other issues permitting a variance of opinion between Catholics -- the end result being that when
    Democratic Senator Richard Durbin prepared a legislative scorecard drawn up using these same legislative priorities of the USCCB lobbyists. The list included all and sundry Democratic proposals and Durbin discovered — voila! — that John Kerry was the best Catholic in the Senate.
    As Michael Joseph will no doubt agree, promotion of Catholic social doctrine in a "systematic and comprehensive" manner should not be confused with an erroneous conflation of doctrinal and prudential judgements as occurred in 2004. (I expect we'll see more political deceptions of this kind in the advent of the 2008 Presidential campaigns).

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