instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

De non gustibus est disputandum

Fr. Rob Johansen's post, "Abortion Is The Foremost Issue," is a solid rebuttal to those who say support for the death penalty is morally equivalent to support for legal abortion. I think, though, readers must be careful not to wind up giving away too much to the concept of "prudential judgment."

Fr. Johansen writes:
Once you start talking about whether the death penalty is justified in this or any case (and so must you reason, for circumstances do exist which warrant the death penalty), you have entered the realm of prudential judgment.

Who is to make that prudential judgment? As in other issues, the Church teaches that such judgments are to be made by "legitimate authority"....

Just as with the death penalty, even if George Bush was wrong in his judgment about the war, he is simply wrong, not immoral or criminal. One cannot attribute the same level of culpability to errors concerning prudential judgments on contingent matters as one can to deliberate and knowing violations of the moral law.
All very true.

At the same time, though, the fact that a decision is to be made using one's prudential judgment does not necessarily place the decision beyond moral reproach. A matter of prudential judgment can be decided in a culpably evil way.

For example, I have the right and responsibility of making prudential judgments concerning the education of my children. My judgment may prove more or less sound, depending on how prudent I am, but if I do my best there's not much others can say beyond, "A shame for those kids their father's an idiot."

However, I might also refuse my responsibility to judge prudently. If I decide my children's education will consist of watching television and dodging the truant officer, then it is not a matter of me being simply "wrong, not immoral or criminal." I would, in fact, be all three, and the fact that I would be all three would be observable to others.

Since the mere fact that something is a matter of someone's prudential judgment does not mean the person actually exercises his prudential judgment in choosing, matters of prudential judgment do come under moral analysis.

I think, then, Fr. Johansen is mistaken, or at least imprecise, when he writes:
If you say that you will not vote for George Bush because he supports the death penalty, that is your right. But if you do so, it's based on your opinion. You do so as a citizen, not as a Catholic. You cannot say that the teaching of the Church necessitates your position.
True, you can't say, "The Church teaches the death penalty is immoral per se, therefore as a Catholic I can't vote for George Bush." But you can say, "George Bush's stance on the death penalty is contrary to Catholic teaching, therefore as a Catholic I can't vote for George Bush." You'd have to defend the premise, of course, but your reasoning would most definitely be as a Catholic.

Similarly, it's invalid to argue, "Determining whether a war is just is left to the prudential judgment of the government, therefore as a Catholic I can't say the Iraq War is immoral." What you can't say as a Catholic is that there is a dogmatic Church teaching that the Iraq War is immoral.

What I'm writing is, of course, recursive. Deciding that, as a Catholic, you cannot vote for a candidate is a matter of prudential judgment, which means that decision may be wrong, and perhaps even immoral.

Near the end of his post, Fr. Johansen writes:
Even if George Bush were The Worst President Ever, that would not make voting for John Kerry, or any other pro-abort candidate, morally acceptable.
That's a strong claim, one I'm generally sympathetic to but not one universally accepted, even among pro-life Catholics. Quite often, as in "A Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics," there's a loophole allowing one to vote for the least objectionable candidate.

Still, if we accept the claim, we accept that a candidate's position on an issue may make him un-votable-for. The fact that an issue is a matter of prudential judgment does not, in itself, mean that a candidate's position on the issue cannot make him un-votable-for.