In Defense of a Cardinal Virtue

on June 3, 2013


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(John Carr’s response to the below column is here.)

By Marjorie Jeffrey (@MarjorieJeffrey)

In a recent piece for America Magazine, John Carr seems to advocate an end to the practice of prudential judgment, in the name of blind obedience to – it would seem – whatever the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has to say about national politics. A critique of prudence is not something Catholic thinkers have ever advocated. Thomas Aquinas defined prudence as “wisdom concerning human affairs” (STIIaIIae 47.2 ad 1) or “right reason with respect to action” (ST IIaIIae 47.4). In order to make a prudential judgment, one must know both the universals and the particulars concerned, since “actions are about singular matters: and so it is necessary for the prudent man to know both the universal principles of reason, and the singulars about which actions are concerned” (ST IIaIIae 47.3; Cf. STIaIIae 18.3). That does not mean that prudence is a kind of mathematical equation, that by plugging in the variables one can achieve a perfect prudent decision. Besides knowing the particulars and the universals applicable in any given situation, the most important piece of knowledge in the practice of prudence is the telos, or end. Prudence does not establish the end towards which we aim; the end already exists, and prudence is the deliberation upon the appropriate means to reach that end.

The end towards which one assumes Mr. Carr advocates we strive is the human good – that is the end sought by Aquinas and other great philosophers. Prudence is the cardinal virtue upon which we rely to help us determine the best means to achieve the good end. It is the best help that human reason has. Prudence, which is an intellectual virtue, relies upon a host of other moral virtues for its functioning – but that is a treatise for another time. (See Aristotle’s Ethics.)

Prudence is primarily the virtue of the statesman; however, since our nation is based upon the rule of the people, it is the duty of every citizen to practice prudential judgment. It is here that we arrive at Mr. Carr’s point: that statesmen ought not to mislead (in his view) faithful Catholic citizens into believing that they have the option of deliberating about the best means toward the human good. And this is false. While there are certain Catholic teachings on faith and morals that bind faithful Catholics in their voting habits, there are simply some political issues that the bishops may make policy prescriptions about, but do not bind Catholics. For example, knowingly to vote for a pro-choice politician is deemed a mortal sin for a baptized Catholic. However, to oppose amnesty for illegal aliens is not. Why? Because absolute moral evils, such as abortion and euthanasia, carry much greater moral weight than do other political issues. The government of a nation does not have a moral imperative to allow any individual to cross its border – because that is prudentially insensible. Furthermore, in the case of capital punishment, the Church has always left such decisions up to the legitimate temporal authority, although in recent years the Chruch has urged that resort to the death penalty become rarer. But there is a clear difference here; resort to abortion is never a matter of prudential judgment, since it is intrinsically evil. Resort to the death penalty is always a matter of prudential judgment, since it depends on a number of factors. Similarly with immigration reform, a statesman has many prudential considerations before the good of a non-citizen who has flouted American law, such as the economic good of American citizens.

Unfortunately, Mr. Carr’s confused piece is not without precedent; he carried out a confused agenda while employed by the USCCB. While working at the USCCB, he served as Chair of the Board of the Center for Community Change, a Soros-funded progressive, pro-abortion organization. During his tenure with both organizations, the USCCB awarded $150,000 to the Center for Community Change through a 2001 Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) grant, promoted the group on its website, and exchanged speakers at various events. This provided a clear Catholic endorsement of the Center’s activities. Given his history of preferring political activism over faithfulness to Church teaching, his new employment at Georgetown University may be unsurprising to many.

Christian principles ought always to inform prudential judgment, since faith and reason are partners in the eternal dance of creation. To divorce them is a mistake. To attempt to silence rational discourse about the proper role of government and prudent courses of public policy in the name of Catholic teaching is, in the most charitable of views, misleading. Mr. Carr is correct that the views of Catholic bishops deserve serious attention. But they may not always deserve action.

  1. Comment by Christian Salafia on June 3, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    The killing of innocents is a mortal sin, as well….even if you dress it up in “fighting terrorism” clothing.

  2. Comment by skotiad on June 3, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    How exactly can you “dress up” something like “fighting terrorism”? No one denies it’s nasty business, but the self-serving Religious Left likes to paint the Right as a gang of bloodthirsty sadists, not even remotely true. The same Religious Left gives a thumbs-up to “reproductive choice,” which, come to think of it, is an attempt to “dress up” the act of killing innocents.

    The Left doesn’t understand prudence because their core value is feeling good about themselves. Waving the white flag to terrorists is evidence of their “inclusiveness.” Approving the killing of unborn children is “compassion” for women. This self-congratulatory nonsense may pass for deep thought on the Left, but no thinking Christian can possibly subscribe to such ridiculous positions.

  3. Comment by Dean Allen on June 3, 2013 at 11:08 pm

    Marjorie wrote an excellent article.

    The comment about innocents and terrorists in the same sentence is either completely stupid, or the rantings of an insane person. Terrorists are never, by definition, innocent. Killing them is always doing God’s work.

  4. Pingback by John Carr Responds to Marjorie Jeffrey’s Column | Juicy Ecumenism - The Institute on Religion & Democracy's Blog on June 4, 2013 at 11:02 am

    […] you ( in your column) seriously misunderstand or misrepresent the substance of my column on prudential judgment. Your […]

  5. Comment by Papa Mincho on June 4, 2013 at 11:23 am

    “But there is a clear difference here; resort to abortion is never a matter of prudential judgment, since it is intrinsically evil. Resort to the death penalty is always a matter of prudential judgment, since it depends on a number of factors.”

    IT EVIL! So of course, there’s never a reason why a pro-choice argument might be valid, while there’s ALWAYS a reason why the state can legally murder people. Glad to see the theocrats are still resorting to false equivalencies.

    Juicy Ecumenism–producing the most contradictory, overwritten anarcho-capitalist screed outside of a George Will article! Do you think you could worm in a semicolon into your next article?

  6. Comment by Dean Allen on June 4, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    Marjorie Jeffrey seems to be drawing a firestorm of criticism from the Catholic left for her defense of traditional values, acting prudently and doing what is right.

    Since I am not Catholic, I will not pretend to give any opinion or advice to those of you who are on strictly Catholic matters of theology.

    As a Christian, I feel quite competent to discuss ethics and morality. We all appear to be in full agreement abortion is always evil. As a strong supporter of the pro-life position I am always grateful for the reliable assistance of my Catholic friends as we fight that evil together.

    When Catholics leave the archaic details of their own rather intricate theology, and enter into expressing general opinions on secular legal and political matters, I am very comfortable joining those discussions.

    As a man who has been a very dedicated pro-life activist all my life, I have a pet peeve with those on the left who denigrate the pro life cause by erroneously comparing it to judicial bodies imposing the death penalty in appropriate cases.

    Pro-life and the issue of the death penalty are as dissimilar as night and day. One is not connected to the other in any manner and I find assertions of equivalency offensive – aside from being factually wrong.

    There are dozens of differences between the two issues but two huge differences will suffice here. First, the most obvious. In the crime (you may also define it as a sin, but it is a common law crime) of abortion is always the taking of INNOCENT life; whereas imposing the death penalty is the taking of GUILTY life. No educated person is so stupid as to equate guilty and innocent with each other. Some are evil enough they choose to ignore the glaring difference to suit liberal political agendas.

    The death penalty is imposed by duly constituted officials, including grand juries, prosecutors, judges, appellate judges, and, of course, the accused has the right to be represented by counsel and tried by a jury of his peers. Even the most heinous criminals are also given a presumption of innocence which the state always has the burden of overcoming. In sharp contrast, with the crime of abortion, the innocent victim receives no due process, no defense, no presumption of any rights and the act of abortion is either for the caprice of the mother or the financial gain of the abortionist.

    The second huge difference between abortion and the imposition of the death penalty is the purpose served by each. In the case of abortion, it is primarily for the convenience of the mother enabling her to engage in immoral conduct without any responsibility for her actions, and without even having to tolerate some inconvenience. Morally, it would be no different if we allowed mothers to shoot two year olds for throwing temper tantrums.

    In contrast the death penalty is often justified and serves a number of very valid purposes for the betterment of society. The most obvious of these is the 100% effective prevention of recidivism in defendants who are monsters and will otherwise return to a life of rape, robbery, murder, torture and treason.

    Vigorously applied (which it has never been in the United States) the death penalty could have a deterrent effect on potential criminal activity by other low-lifes. But there is simply no disputing the death penalty is always 100% effective in preventing recidivism.

    When we as a nation tolerate millions of abortions, we cheapen respect for human life and encourage immoral sexual activities.

    When any nation abolishes the death penalty, that nation has abdicated its God ordained responsibility to punish common law crimes. This erodes respect, first for the law, and eventually for the regime in power. Citizens are left to more primitive and informal recourse to justice. They take the law into their own hands because they have been refused justice by the state.

    When some monster brutally tortures, rapes, and murders a member of my family; he needs to pray the state will give him a quiet peaceful, dignified, painless execution strapped to a gurney and talking to his loved ones. Because if justice is left to the families of victims, they will not be so humane.

    I will leave theological questions about the government of the Catholic Church to my friend Marjorie Jeffrey and all the Bishops, Cardinals and Popes who study and understand such matters. When the Catholic Church crosses in to the field of secular politics as both abortion and the death penalty do; they can expect to be held to the same standards as the rest of us.


    Dean Allen

  7. Comment by raybnnstr on June 5, 2013 at 9:06 am

    Papa Minch, you ought to try thinking and debating instead of cliche-spewing. Let’s see all the bumper-sticker phrases you worked into 3 short paragraphs:
    – screed (translation: anything a lefty disagrees with)
    – contradictory (anything a lefty disagrees with)
    – overwritten (contains truths liberals dislikes)
    – theocrat (Christian who is not aggressively left-wing)
    – capitalist (people who don’t like having the government steal from them)
    – false equivalencies (what a liberal says to sound deep).

    If you’re going to engage in debate, you need to dump the cliches that are so dear to the liberal heart and start using precise terms. Capital punishment is not “murder” – big difference. It’s a punishment for a convicted criminal, not just a jaywalker but someone who has committed serious crimes, usually the taking of one or more human lives. An unborn child is not a criminal – it’s an innocent, killed for no reason than being an inconvenience to its heartless mother. Innocent human life vs life of convicted felon – you can’t grasp the difference? Killing innocent people IS evil. Got it?

    Btw, any writer with a functioning cerebrum will take it as a compliment to be compared to George Will, one of the clearest thinkers of our time. Marjorie ought to take your post and hang it on her office wall, with the reference to Will highlighted.

  8. Pingback by The Evangelical Immigration Table Exposed As Another Soros Front | Juicy Ecumenism - The Institute on Religion & Democracy's Blog on June 5, 2013 at 11:00 am

    […] which are intrinsic to Christian faith, over important but less theologically binding issues of prudential judgment, such as federal entitlement programs or immigration. Evangelicals lack this clear tradition […]

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