Thursday, January 01, 2015

Why Prudential Judgment Isn't an Excuse to Ignore Papal Teachings That Are Not Infallible

The arguments on both sides concerning torture and waterboarding have become tone deaf, with few exceptions. I appreciate Jimmy Akin's careful analysis of the question and definition of torture, even if I don't agree with it. But I am also not in favor of bashing people on either side as either "heretics" because they are requesting more clarity on the definition of torture or as weak-kneed and deluded because they have a line that they believe cannot and should never be crossed (or contravened as Pope Benedict put it).

The problem I want to address primarily is the argument that it's acceptable to dismiss papal statements out of hand simply because they are not infallible pronouncements. This is not correct. We do not have the right to dismiss fallible teachings by our bishops or the pope out of hand. We have the right to determine how we will apply a teaching, but no right to ignore the teaching. That's where "prudential judgment" comes into play. We have to prudently apply the boundaries that the Church has given to us.

The belief that it is acceptable to dismiss fallible teachings comes from a common misconception about competence and makes no distinction between the moral theologians and philosophers (and certainly others) who are competent to question these matters and the lay persons who so frequently use the classification "prudential judgment" as an excuse to dismiss papal teaching and argue (or simply agitate) for the opposite position. The teachings of the Church do not give us that option. That goes for those who argue for laxity on pelvic matters as well as those who interpret the teachings on violence and torture with few restraints.

Lumen Gentium outlines the relationships among the members of the Church, as well as the obligations of each. Section 25 of that document states the following:
Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.
To paraphrase slightly, when bishops teach in communion with the Roman Pontiff on matters of faith and morals, "the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent."

And this does not means solely in the area of infallible doctrine. In fact, the rest of the passage states
This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will
Again, to paraphrase, even when the pope does not speak ex cathedra, we are expected to adhere to the teaching with religious assent.

This matter is clarified in a document published in 1990 by Cardinal Ratzinger under the auspices of the CDF entitled , the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian. In this document, Cdnl. Ratzinger notes those teachings that are not infallibly defined and the Holy Spirit's role in guiding such decisions.
Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles [bishops] teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and in a particular way, to the Roman Pontiff as Pastor of the whole Church, when exercising their ordinary Magisterium, even should this not issue in an infallible definition or in a "definitive" pronouncement but in the proposal of some teaching which leads to a better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals and to moral directives derived from such teaching. 
The sticking point, and this is where people get confused about "prudential judgment," is this statement in section 23 of this same document:
When the Magisterium, not intending to act "definitively", teaches a doctrine to aid a better understanding of Revelation and make explicit its contents, or to recall how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith, or finally to guard against ideas that are incompatible with these truths, the response called for is that of the religious submission of will and intellect.(23)
What does this mean? It means that we accept that the Church actually teaches what has been stated and we submit to it. Prudential judgment does not come into play in terms of the teaching itself, but into the application of it. Now, that does mean that there's some room for discussion of such teachings, but keep in mind that the audience of this document is theologians (and we can expect Catholic moral philosophers as well). For the remedy in this instance, we have to turn to section 24. It begins, "The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule." We are, by default, to accept the judgment of the Church. Remember that this is a directive, not to lay people who have no particular competence to adjudicate these matters, but to theologians whose job it is to adjudicate such matters. 

So right off the bat, most lay people are not to be making these decisions without formation and direction from the Church. A lay person whose who competence is not Catholic moral theology or philosophy is to be guided by the authoritative teaching of the  Church—not by individual theological or philosophical opinions by one or two individuals who may be competent in their own right to entertain such questions.

A single Catholic theologian or philosopher does not speak for the Church. The bishops in communion with the pope speak together for the Church. It's their lead we are to follow. If they change a reformable teaching, it's in their power to do so. A theologian's opinion is not to be our sole guide on a matter.

The document does outline procedures for addressing errors and oversights in reformable Magisterial teaching. Here's what it says in the third paragraph of that section:
But it would be contrary to the truth, if, proceeding from some particular cases, one were to conclude that the Church's Magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments, or that it does not enjoy divine assistance in the integral exercise of its mission.
So even in the area of reformable judgment, theologians have to use caution. Again, there's no mention of how lay people should behave concerning matters of prudential judgment. Of course, it makes sense that they have to make practical judgments in some areas, but the norm is to accept what the Church teaches.

Finally, the document turns to those mattes where a theologian, in conscience, cannot accept a position of the Church. Section 27 adds:
If, despite a loyal effort on the theologian's part, the difficulties persist, the theologian has the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented. He should do this in an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve the difficulties. His objections could then contribute to real progress and provide a stimulus to the Magisterium to propose the teaching of the Church in greater depth and with a clearer presentation of the arguments. 
So the theologian's jobs is to bring the objections to the attention of the Church and not to agitate publicly for a contrary position. They pose the question to the Church, and the dialog continues among the competent authorities. 

In each case, the obligation for lay persons who are not competent in such areas is to accept the teaching of the Church. It's fine to have questions, to ask for clarification, and to seek greater understanding. That is, in fact, also an obligation. However, if theologians are not granted permission to agitate in public, then by implication, neither are lay persons who lack standing to make such arguments.

So seek clarification, ask questions, and dig deeper. However, if your response is, "Well, that's just the pope's reformable opinion," then you're going down the wrong path. You might still have reservations, but your obligation is "submission of will and intellect."

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