The Church’s merely prudential judgments

One thing I just love about Pope Francis is that he makes us think about how the Magisterium works.  I have seen more claims this way and that about what is or is not magisterial or authoritative since he began his pontificate than in the decade previous.

With regard to his recent change to the Catechism, my old classmate Alan Fimister has argued this way:  if it is not a change in doctrine then it is merely a prudential change, but if it is merely a prudential change then it is outside the purview of the Magisterium:

What do we mean by ‘a prudential judgment’? Some things are questions of right and wrong, true and false, but other questions are matters of expediency. Such questions of expedience are proper to the clergy (e.g. what topic to preach on today) while others are proper to the laity (e.g. should we use daylight saving time in this country). Vatican II teaches that “the effort to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which one lives, is so much the duty and responsibility of the laity that it can never be performed properly by others.” It is the task of the magisterium to lay out the principles of faith and morals and the task of the laity to conform the civil order to those principles and so to judge their application in various concrete circumstances. The judgment that we now possess “more efficacious detention systems that guarantee the due protection of citizens” is thus one that is “so much the duty and responsibility of the laity that it can never be performed properly by others.”

He takes his premise from the Vatican II decree Apostolicam Actuositatem on the apostolate of the laity.  Even from the snippet he quotes, you can see that he’s misreading the text:  to make a judgment about the current situation is not the same thing as to “infuse a Christian spirit” into every aspect of the situation.  A judgment requires only insight, whereas “infusing a Christian spirit” into an entire cultural situation requires living in close contact with it—which is the distinction of the laity.  We find the same point made in the Vatican II dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium:

What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature. It is true that those in holy orders can at times be engaged in secular activities, and even have a secular profession. But they are by reason of their particular vocation especially and professedly ordained to the sacred ministry. Similarly, by their state in life, religious give splendid and striking testimony that the world cannot be transformed and offered to God without the spirit of the beatitudes. But the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven.

So no, forming prudential judgments about the situation of the world is not the exclusive role of the laity.  As the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes puts it, “the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.”

Let’s spell that out a bit.  Every practical judgment—every practical judgment made by anyone ever—is a composition of universal principles and an estimation of the concrete details of a situation.  When for example Pope Leo XIII told the French that they should work with their government rather than trying to over throw it, this involved both the universal principle that one should not overthrow a legitimate authority and the concrete estimation of the situation in France—namely, that this particular government had not lost its claim to legitimacy.  In other words, every practical judgment includes as part of it what Alan Fimister calls a “merely prudential” judgment.  If we say that the Magisterium shouldn’t make judgments of that kind, then we are saying that the Magisterium should never give any practical direction at all.  In fact, we would have to say that the Church should be careful never to enunciate universal principles in a way that takes concrete situations into account.

Another friend made a similar but different claim, citing Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Immortale Dei.  He did not indicate which text he had in mind, but I assume he’s thinking of some such text as this:

One of the two has for its proximate and chief object the well-being of this mortal life; the other, the everlasting joys of heaven. Whatever, therefore in things human is of a sacred character, whatever belongs either of its own nature or by reason of the end to which it is referred, to the salvation of souls, or to the worship of God, is subject to the power and judgment of the Church.

Here the Pope sets out the traditional doctrine that Church and state have differing roles based on differing goals.  But notice that both Church and state are tasked with judging concrete realities:  Leo XIII does not divide the roles (as Fimister does) such that the Church makes universal judgments while the State makes particular ones.  Rather, the Pope says that the Church’s unique purview is whatever has to do with the salvation of souls or the worship of God.  Even concrete situations that have to do with the salvation of souls or the worship of God.

That’s a big purview.  It would certainly take into its sweep how we handle the death of the wicked.

But everything I have said is haggling over a matter of principle.  The Church’s practical judgments are not infallible, and the particular judgment that seems to be implied by Pope Francis’s statement is—well, questionable.  By which I mean to say that I can’t see how it is possibly true.  See the comments on my previous post from Dominic and Owen.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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Fr Paul McDonald
Fr Paul McDonald
5 years ago

The present Encyclical seeks to show the fruitfulness of the principles enunciated by Leo XIII, which belong to the Church’s doctrinal patrimony and, as such, involve the exercise of her teaching authority. But pastoral solicitude also prompts me to propose an analysis of some events of recent history. It goes without saying that part of the responsibility of Pastors is to give careful consideration to current events in order to discern the new requirements of evangelization. However, such an analysis is not meant to pass definitive judgments since this does not fall per se within the Magisterium’s specific domain. John… Read more »

5 years ago

How would one infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community except by making judgments concerning temporal realities in the light of the Gospel? You confuse the clergy with the Church. The Church does not make fallible judgments, the clergy certainly do. The clergy are entitled and even obliged to make prudential judgments on spiritual matters qua clergy (such as what topic to preach on today) they may also make prudential judgments in a private capacity on temporal matters (should we use daylight saving time in this country) but they abuse their position if… Read more »