Catholic Social Teaching
It seems, at the moment, like one of the best ways to start a fight among a bunch of serious Catholics is to start throwing around the term “prudential judgement”. However, for such a frequently used term, the concept is not often defined, and given all the contention around it, I think it would be helpful to try to write a fairly brief post defining it and examining why it seems to be the center of so much controversy.
Prudential judgement is the application of the virtue of Prudence to some given situation in making a judgement as to the virtuous course of action. The Catechism defines Prudence as follows:
1806 Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; “the prudent man looks where he is going.” “Keep sane and sober for your prayers.” Prudence is “right reason in action,” writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle. It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. 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. [emphasis added]
So a prudential judgement is the application of moral principles to a particular case in order to achieve good and avoid evil. Thus, obviously, saying something is a matter of prudential judgement does not mean that “there is no right answer”. The process of making a prudential judgement is one of judging which is the virtuous action to take in a given circumstance. Prudential judgments are definitionally moral questions. “Is vanilla or chocolate ice cream more tasty?” is not a matter of prudential judgement, it’s a matter of personal taste.
Often “matters of prudential judgement” are contrasted with “intrinsic evils”, especially in matters of political discourse. This leads to a lot of angst in some quarters. What is the difference?
An action which is intrinsically evil is something which is always and everywhere wrong. To use one of the standard examples: Abortion is an intrinsic evil in that the act of abortion can never be a just action. The taking of human life is not an intrinsic evil because it is an action which is unjust in some circumstances (murder) but just in others (self defense, just war, times and places when the common good requires the use of capital punishment). (My goal is to be short here, so I’m not going to enter into discussion of double effect.) As this example shows, just because something is not intrinsically evil doesn’t mean that it isn’t worthy of very, very serious moral reflection. Clearly, one can’t say, “Killing another human being is not intrinsically evil, so reasonable people can feel free to differ on it.” The prudential judgement of “does this situation justify the taking of human life” is clearly a moral question of the very highest magnitude.
Why then this distinction between “intrinsic evils” and “prudential judgments” in political discussion among Catholics? I think reason is that some moral principles seem to have political applications so obvious that there can be little room for variance in judgement. For instance, abortion is often cited as an example of an intrinsic evil on which Catholics may not vary in their opinion in politics. It is a belief held by much of the political left in this country that there is a “right to choice” in regards to abortion, in other words that a woman has a fundamental human right (which the state must respect and protect) to choose to have an abortion if she so chooses. From a Catholic moral point of view, one may not have a right to do something which is evil. I cannot have a “right to choose to torture” or a “right to choose to murder”. As such, I think it’s legitimate to say that a Catholic may not hold that a person has a right to procure an abortion.
The words “Ryan” and “poverty” are almost never more than a few words apart these days. Here at TAC, and elsewhere in the politosphere, Paul Ryan’s views on government spending and poverty are just about all anyone can talk about. The main anti-Ryan talking point is that he is a heartless Objectivist who is fundamentally opposed to the interests of “the poor.” If the definition of “racist” these days is “anyone who is winning an argument with a liberal”, the definition of “Objectivist” these days might be “anyone who is winning an argument with a Catholic liberal.”
Personally, I don’t think Ryan is “against the poor.” But not for the reasons you might think. Many people are defending his budget on the grounds that it does not harm “the poor.” While I agree that his budget does not harm the interests of low-income Americans, this is not the primary reason I would defend Ryan’s ideology. I have a different reason.
I do not believe poverty exists as a meaningful category in the United States, with some exceptions that I will make clear as I proceed. Very few people in the United States are truly poor, and most of those who are live an environment of such wealth and opportunity that simply defining them as “poor” does not tell us much about their objective status. Lest I suffer the fate of Todd Akin for appearing cruel and insensitive to those who struggle with problems associated with poverty, let me clarify.
“Show, don’t tell” is an admonition often given to writers. Usually it applies to fiction, but it works with non-fiction as well. If you make an assertion about someone’s beliefs, it is generally good form to provide evidence supporting your argument, at least if you want to be taken seriously. It is true that the blogopshere doesn’t necessarily allow for extended treatises, yet it’s still possible within the confines of a few hundred words or more to demonstrate credible evidence of your assertions.
When it comes to Paul Ryan and his evil Randian ways, however, such worries are cast aside. Already his critics are harping on how the influence of Ayn Rand on Paul Ryan calls his judgment into question. And it’s not just the usual suspects making these arguments, Continue reading
The story of the Catholic teen, Margeaux Graham, that was first told here at The American Catholic continues to gain momentum in the media. In the meantime she has written her story in her own words because I asked her to describe her experience for the young adult audience at Ignitum Today. I think it’s important for people to know how this happened, and how unexpected it was in this nation.
Desire, doubt, honor, excitement, shock, and disappointment are the emotions preceding discrimination in the modern world. I have felt all of these towards a very unsuspecting organization, the Florida Girls State program sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary.
The Girls State program is a once in a life time opportunity that is only available to high school juniors. Three girls from my school are nominated each year for the opportunity to become delegate.
The previous year’s delegate came to my AP American History class and told us about her experience in the Girls State program. She made it sound very appealing, talking about the friends she made and the various things she learned. She also told us about the a variety of college opportunities that the delegates would get, such as ten points added to scholarship applications, special considerations when applying to colleges, and three credit hours for American government. I knew I wouldn’t be chosen, I am the quiet kid in class, do my work and only answer aloud when called upon. I was certain I would not be chosen.
To read The American Catholic’s coverage of Margeaux’s stand, see these articles:
In articles, interviews and addresses, U.S. Representative Paul Ryan is defending — not without controversy — his 2013 budget proposal (see “The Path to Prosperity: A Blueprint for American Renewal”) as an application of Catholic social teaching, inspired by his Catholic faith.
In an April 10 interview with CBN News, Ryan responded:
To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society of the principal of solidarity where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good. By not having big government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities.
Those principles are very very important, and the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life. Help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence.
The U.S. Bishops Conference conveyed their thoughts on the FY2013 Budget and spending bills, which in their words “repeated and reinforced the bishops’ ongoing call to create a “circle of protection” around poor and vulnerable people and programs that meet their basic needs and protect their lives and dignity.”:
Bishops Blaire [chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development] and Pates reaffirmed the “moral criteria to guide these difficult budget decisions” outlined in their March 6 budget letter:
1.Every budget decision should be assessed by whether it protects or threatens human life and dignity.
2.A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects “the least of these” (Matthew 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.
3.Government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote the common good of all, especially ordinary workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in difficult economic times…
Just solutions, however, must require shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and fairly addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs.
In April 16 and April 17 letters to the House Agriculture Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee addressing cuts required by the budget resolution, Bishop Blaire said “The House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria.”
Marc Thiessen defended the congressman from “a bishop’s unjust attack” (Washington Post, 4/23/12) along with (Fr. Robert Sirico (of the Acton Institute) — the latter, however, disagreeting with Ryan’s equasion of subsidiarity with federalism.
This past week, U.S. Representative Paul Ryan further presented his case in a column for the National Catholic Register: Applying Our Enduring Truths to Our Defining Challenge, April 25, 2012):
As a congressman and Catholic layman, I am persuaded that Catholic social truths are in accord with the “self-evident truths” our Founders bequeathed to us in the founding ideas of America: independence, limited government and the dignity and freedom of every human person. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, I am tasked with applying these enduring principles to the urgent social problems of our time: an economy that is not providing enough opportunities for our citizens, a safety net that is failing our most vulnerable populations, and a crushing burden of debt that is threatening our children and grandchildren with a diminished future. … [read more]
On April 26th, Paul Ryan gave a lecture at Georgetown University, entitled “America’s Enduring Promise”, in which he once again addressed the challenge of America’s exploding federal debt, which he characterized as “the overarching threat to our society today”:
The Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has charged that governments, communities, and individuals running up high debt levels are “living at the expense of future generations” and “living in untruth.”
We in this country still have a window of time before a debt-fueled economic crisis becomes inevitable. We can still take control before our own needy suffer the fate of Greece. How we do this is a question for prudential judgment, about which people of good will can differ.
If there was ever a time for serious but respectful discussion, among Catholics as well as those who don’t share our faith, that time is now.
Ryan’s appearance at Georgetown was prefaced by a scathing letter from some 80 members of the faculty irate over his alleged “continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few.” An organized protest of Ryan on the actual day of the event was distinguished by a notable lack of participation. Continue reading
I have to say, I’m not the biggest fan of the GOP or most of its politicians. Of course I consider the party to be marginally better than the Democrats on most issues, and so if I grace the polls with my presence, I tend to prefer GOP candidates. But this is hardly a ringing endorsement. Nor can I possibly count my political support for Ron Paul as support for the GOP, since he rejects significant parts of the party platform, rhetoric and practice.
Paul Ryan, however, is someone I have begun paying attention to. Since he has invoked Catholic Social Teaching (CST) as the basic foundation of his approach to the federal budget, he has become quite the person of interest among combatants in the Catholic media and blogosphere.
Ryan recently penned a column which appeared in the National Catholic Register titled “Applying Our Enduring Truths To Our Defining Challenge.” It is worth reading. I will quote some of the highlights here. His main point:
As a congressman and Catholic layman, I am persuaded that Catholic social truths are in accord with the “self-evident truths” our Founders bequeathed to us in the founding ideas of America: independence, limited government and the dignity and freedom of every human person.
Absolutely! Human dignity and freedom are indivisible; every assault on a legitimate right or liberty is an affront to human dignity. It is no coincidence that those philosophers who have most despised liberty have also most despised man himself, viewing him as little more than a machine comprised of pleasure and pain receptors.
Thinking this post (written last night) over again in the light of morning, it strikes me that while getting a lot of the real text out there is doubtless is a real service, many people simply won’t read the whole thing, so I’m adding the following summary bullets at the top. The document:
- Blames easy money and easy credit for the origins of the global financial crisis (classic Austrian business cycle explanation)
- Criticizes a “liberalist approach” to avoiding intervention and the failure to bail out Lehman Brothers (notes later that financial institutions should be bailed out on condition of contributing to the real economy through “virtuous behavior”)
- Notes that globalization has been a huge benefit to many, but has left others behind
- Calls for people to remember spiritual and ethical considerations rather than putting their hope in technocracy
- Expresses concern that speculation has hurt global markets and the developing world in particular
- Praises the G7 and G20
- Suggests the need for a global “authority” stronger than the UN or IMF
- Says that such a world authority would have to be voluntary in nature, not use force or compulsion, and would probably start as an association of a smaller number of nations (like the G20 or EU)
- Expresses concern that financial markets have grown faster than “real markets”
- Endorses the idea of a world central bank
- Lists as purposes of a world authority and central bank that it would: 1) encourage free trade and efficient markets, 2) prevent excessive government deficits, 3) pursue sound money, 4) prevent speculation and excessive credit, 5) fund itself via a financial transaction tax
Now on to the detailed post.
If my circle of Catholic acquaintance on Facebook is any guide, there’s been a fair amount of buzz going around about the “note” released Monday by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace: TOWARDS REFORMING THE INTERNATIONAL FINANCIAL AND MONETARY SYSTEMS IN THE CONTEXT OF GLOBAL PUBLIC AUTHORITY. Those of a more left-leaning description did some preemptive crowing that this would “put the pope to the left of Nancy Pelosi”, but having downloaded a copy of the full document yesterday I figured I’d avoid any commentary, read the document cold, and post thoughts on the text itself.
First, a little context: This document was written by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, an office responsible for providing thought on social justice issues. This is, thus, not something written by the pope, but it does come from people that Benedict XVI has put in charge of thinking on political and economic issues. The document itself is fairly short and less densely written than most encyclicals. Given what it covers, it seems to me that there’s not really any teaching presented here, per se, but rather an attempt to summarize the understandings of certain experts about the current global economic situation, and then to apply well established Catholic moral teachings to the current world situation.
Without getting further into editorializing, I’m going to work through a number of quotes from the text while providing some notes with my own thoughts on it. I’ve preserved the numbered headings of the original document. (The document is in the block-quote indents, my notes are in the out-dents.)
1. Economic Development and Inequalities
In material goods markets, natural factors and productive capacity as well as labour in all of its many forms set quantitative limits by determining relationships of costs and prices which, under certain conditions, permit an efficient allocation of available resources.
This is a fairly standard observation, but as a pricing guy I found it interesting that one of the first things in the document was a note to the efficiency of price as a means of achieving efficient markets.
In monetary and financial markets, however, the dynamics are quite different. In recent decades, it was the banks that extended credit, which generated money, which in turn sought a further expansion of credit. In this way, the economic system was driven towards an inflationary spiral that inevitably encountered a limit in the risk that credit institutions could accept. They faced the ultimate danger of bankruptcy, with negative consequences for the entire economic and financial system.
The speculative bubble in real estate and the recent financial crisis have the very same origin in the excessive amount of money and the plethora of financial instruments globally.
This is interesting in that it is an essentially Austrian account of the sources of the financial crisis: blaming it on easy money and easy credit. As Blackadder observed a while back, this wouldn’t be the first time that a Vatican official has taken an explicitly Austrian (and anti-Keynsian) stance on economic issues.) Continue reading
When it comes to the media, nothing seems draw its members more than a group of Catholics who are protesting Church teaching. It doesn’t matter much where the protest is staged, outside of a local parish, a diocesan cathedral, a chancery office, or even at a bishops’ meeting. Listening to the protesters who are getting their “face time” on television, one might walk away with the mistaken impression that there’s absolutely nothing the Church has to say about anything that is of any worth for today’s world.
Arguably, the biggest protests—coming from those who claim “the People are the Church”—have to do with the Church’s alleged “misogyny.”
Contrast that image of publicity seekers with that of a group of Catholic obstetricians and gynecologists, MaterCare International (MCI).
Today is the Feast Day of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. I honor her today as a convert to Catholicism who, after finding Jesus in the Catholic Church, was eager to find people in the Church who were good models for me in these troubling times that we live in. Back then, in 1991, good models of Christian virtue were easy to find in Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa.
It was Mother Teresa who taught me what authentic social justice is. Get up. Do something. Work for those who have need. Stand up and do something yourself. Be active yourself. No matter who you are, reach out to those around you in need and help. Open the door for the elderly woman. Help the poor mother struggling to care for her children. Wipe the brow of the dying man.
Mother Teresa lived a dark night.
The Dark Night. Throughout 1946 and 1947, Mother Teresa experienced a profound union with Christ. But soon after she left the convent and began her work among the destitute and dying on the street, the visions and locutions ceased, and she experienced a spiritual darkness that would remain with her until her death.
Many of us experience dark nights. I have myself. I am in awe of what she did with her life while enduring this dark night for so many years.