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Immigration: The Prudential Judgment Excuse Reappears

Happily, Catholic leaders are making a big push for legislators to get behind immigration reform. The good news is that immigration reform is an issue that brings forces within the Church together, rather than setting them against one another. But unfortunately, Catholic legislators have their dodge at the ready: “prudential judgment.”

Representative Daniel Lipinski, a Catholic Democrat from Illinois, said he had listened to the bishops and priests from his district. But he said he viewed their opinions on immigration as less binding than the church’s positions on social issues.

“There are some issues that the church speaks authoritatively on, such as abortion, in protecting life,” said Mr. Lipinski, who remains skeptical about promises of increased border security. “And then there are prudential judgments that are made, informed by Catholic theology, but it’s not something that Catholics are required to follow.”

When Catholic Democrats resort to the “prudential judgment escape hatch” on an issue where bishops and liberal Catholics hold a united front, something is broken. One thing that is broken is our congressional districting system. If you look at Rep. Lipinski’s gerrymandered district, you might wonder why it was drawn that way… until you look at the incredible gerrymander created in 2011 for Rep. Luis Gutierrez, Lipinski’s (sometime) neighbor. This gerrymander is there to ensure Gutierrez a majority Latino district… with the effect of pulling Latinos out of Lipinski’s distinct to fill it with more suburban Chicago white ethnics, who are generally hard sells on immigration. What a disaster for the solidarity needed for immigration reform! 

The other thing broken is our handle on the term prudential judgment. I and others have written about this before (here, here, and a roundtable at Politicians must be reminded that, while particular policies are subject to prudential judgment, overall trajectories are not.

…properly speaking, “prudential judgment” is not merely pragmatic – not simply about the best results. It indicates “fittingness.” Certain means are intrinsically evil. But others are not. War is a classic example. War, in the just war tradition, can sometimes be an acceptable means to certain ends. BUT THIS DOES NOT MEAN ANYTHING GOES. …All is not fair in war, says the just war tradition. Thus, to say that judgments about particular wars are “prudential” is not to say that they are merely pragmatic. It means that there is a range a situations (a limited one) in which a given act is morally acceptable. Intrinsically evil acts differ – there is no range. Notice: the proper distinction here is “no range versus limited range” – not “no range versus unlimited range.”

Thus, just as wars must be criticized firmly if they do not seek just ends, so too immigration reform policies must seek ends consonant with the principles of Catholic social teaching. Rep. Lipinski may oppose details of a particular proposal, but he is bound to offer some alternative means of achieving the objectives laid out by the bishops. These include a right to immigrate to find work, the rights of families not to be separated, and the obligation of reasonable hospitality by the wealthy. These are not prudential judgments, but are necessary legislative goals.


About the Author

David Cloutier is associate professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University and editor of He is the author of The Vice of Luxury (2015), Walking God's Earth: The Environment and Christian Ethics (2014), and Love, Reason, and God's Story: An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics (2008). In fall 2016, he is starting a position at the Catholic University of America.



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I wish these guys would show more integrtiy and say " This well may be Church teaching, but I am required to represent my constituents on this legislation and here is where they stand...  "

Gerrymandering and Church teaching aside, one of the few things that will mitigate the social and economic strains of out aging population is more open immigration to augment a downward trend in our American-born population. Areas of the world with a surplus young population are subSaharan Africa, parts of Latin America, and some areas in Southeast Asia--and, yes, many are Muslims and people of color, groups that Americans are not now (and in some cases have never) welcomed with open arms. As a result, European countries seem to be attracting these immigrants at a higher rate than the U.S. 

Packing up "illegals" and sending them back when they are willing to stay and work strikes me as just stupid.

Pretty ironic that the absurdly gerrymandered Illinois congressional districts, masterminded by House Speaker Mike Madigan (a Catholic Democrat), Senate President John Cullerton (a Catholic Democrat) and Governor Pat Quinn (a Catholic Democrat) may work to subvert this legislation, whose alignment with Catholic social teaching really is - sorry - subject to prudential judgment.  Or not ironic: is it necessary to point out that adherence to Catholic teaching had exactly zero weight in their calculus in drawing up these districts?  Certainly, Catholic teaching on issues such as abortion and marriage has never made a discernible impression on any of them.

Pretty ironic, too - or perhaps "expected" is a better choice of words - that Rep. Lipinski, one of the very few Catholic Democrats in Congress with the courage to vote with the church on the single most important issue in contemporary politics, by a country mile, for Catholic social teaching, the right to life, is spotlighted by the NY Times in a way intended to make him politically more vulnerable.

There is nothing that Lipinski says in the quotes produced in the article that contradict anything the church teaches about prudential judgment.  Prudential judgment is to be applied in those instances in which church teaching admits of more than one possible answer.  That some bishops, priests and Catholic laity like the bill in question doesn't mean he has to like it.  It is his prudential judgment that counts here, not theirs.  That is why he was sent to Congress, to exercise his judgment on matters like this one.  If the people of his district don't like his judgment, their remedy is to elect someone else next time.  And even if Lipinski likes everything about the bill, he's still not bound to to vote for it.  Life in legislatures is a good deal more complicated.

And I disagree that Lipinski is obligated, right here and right now, to proffer an alternative.  If immigration reform is an important moral issue, then Congress - not just Lipinski, but Congress as a whole - has an obligation to address it.  Not grandstand, not go through motions to score political points and set themselves up for 2016 presidential runs, but *address* it.  Anyone with minimal senscience knew that the Senate bill would be dead on arrival in the House. Politically, it is more or less the equivalent of any of the 40 or so House votes to repeal Obamacare.  That represents a moral failure of the Senate (and perhaps Catholic Republican Marco Rubio deserves as much blame as anyone else).  If folks are frustrated with the lack of progress on immigration, that is where their ire should be aimed.  Congressional chambers do have a moral obligation to spend their limited time and resources on legislation that has a realistic chance of becoming law.  Border enforcement is fully consonant with Catholic moral teaching.  Is its ommission important enough to fatally taint the bill?  That is something that is subject to prudential judgment - the prudential judgment of our elected representatives and senators.


And another thing. :-)

I'm (very mildly) embarrassed to admit that I hadn't heard that the Chicago archdiocese is planning this big push to support the legislation next month.  Morally, this push, or hooplah, or whatever it is, doesn't seem any different than the Fortnights for Freedom.  I fully expect all of the many critics of the Fortnights to now decry this latest insertion of Catholic authority into the realm of politics.

Actually, this September initiative strikes me as a more direct involvement (or intrusion, if one wishes) into politics than a Fortnight for Freedom, because it is aimed at a specific bill.  A better comparison would be to a member of the clergy publicly endorsing a political candidate from the pulpit.

I write this as one who preaches with some regularity about the injustices to which undocumented immigrants are subjected: I'd be pretty uncomfortable standing up at the ambo during mass on September 8th and telling the assembly to call their Congressman.  I'm fine reviewing the relevant Catholic social teachings as part of a homily.  But a call to political action during mass - sounds like an overstep to me.  Our parishioners are smart, independent, practical people.  They have a right and a responsiblity to form their own political convictions and take action.  I'm not going to step on their autonomy.


Jim-- I think it is certainly correct that any legislation on this issue will be complicated, and will be subject to important judgments. What I am skeptical about is the use of prudential judgment as an excuse to ignore what the Church is saying. Let me give an example: Rep. Lipinski, instead of responding with this statement, could have said, "I fully share the view of the bishops that immigrants have human dignity and that we need policy that addresses the current broken system. However, the Senate bill does X and Y, and I am concerned that these policies are not in the best interests of the country (or that these do not actually ensure dignity, or that border security needs to take priority, whatever)" This would be a fine way of showing that one affirms the principles, but is raising specific questions of prudence. Prudential judgment requires giving reasons, and the problem is invoking it in a way that suggests only pragmatism or personal opinion applies. It would be entirely unnecessary to create the (false) contrast among issues that is reinforced by Rep. Lipinski's comments.

My take is that saying the gerrymandering was done for the immigration issue is definately a 'reach'  It's always  done to keep seats within a party or for a powerful candidate. .

While the gerrymandering point was a side issue, just to clarify: I don't think the gerrymandering was done for the immigration issue. It was done to ensure a majority-Latino district, which would (happily) send a Latino to Congress, but (unhappily) as a by-product creates the "white ethnic district" where Rep. Lipinski is immunized from having to deal with more Latino voters in taking his position on the issue.

David - yes, I agree that Lipinski could have better articulated his views of prudential judgment (or that those views need development).  Taken as a piece with Paul Ryan's views regarding subsidiarity, I'd say we have work to do to with our Catholic politicians.  Although, that they are even conversing about Catholic social teaching may be a hopeful sign?  Still - best to get it right.

Regarding the gerrymandering, I agree with both Ed and you.  From a political standpoint, it has been noted that gerrymandering to create "safe seats" with a particular demographic profile often brings with it the unintended side effect of draining that same demographic from adjacent seats, thus putting them into play for the other party.  This particular situation may be a variation on that theme. 


FWIW, my state is gerrymandered to silly excess by a Christian Republican House speaker, a Lutheran Republican Senate president and a Republican governor whose golden parachute was so rich he and his wife could afford to start their own church.

Now, with my credentials established, I'd like to say in passing that if it is the goal of one party to deny the African-American president any accomplishments, and if that party controlos the House and 40 votes in the Senate, then no legislation has "a realistic chance of becoming law." So if one happens to be a Democrat in the House, as Rep.Lipinski is, he is fully entitled to raise money for his next campaign, indulge in his hobbies and drop into the chambers from time to time to watch the clown act. There was, BTW, border security in the Senate bill, even if it was dead as the 40 petulant House votes on Affordable Care. There is nothing in the House bill because the clown act is taking up all the time of the majority.

I don't know if his situation actually requires Rep. Lipinski to offer alternatives to the bill or bills he feels he prudentially can't vote for. But David's point is unquibbleable when it says that invoking prudential judgment without giving a sign of what went into the judgment simply does not cut it.



It seems that Lipinski's rather blithe invocation of prudential judgment could also be used by abortion rights supporters and gay marriage supporters, no? Yes, church teaching on life is clear, but bills on abortion issues are not necessarily. There are all sorts of prudential judgments one can make about whether a bill would reduce or end abortion -- Congress never votes on wording taken from the Catechism.

Similarly, many bills -- such as those providing funding for poor children or pregnant mothers are pretty indisputably pro-life in that they support families and also help reduce the abortion rate. Yet "pro-life" conservatives routinely vote against those.

So everyone can use this dodge if Catholic pols want to do so. And they do seem to.

David Gibson's point is ultimately right - short of outright government mandating of intrinsically evil acts (e.g. forced sterilization), there are no "intrinsically evil policies." All politics is prudential in this sense. What the use of the language of prudential judgment does is create the impression of a hierarchy of moral truths, an impression that is false and misleading. A case can be made that abortion is perhaps the most serious ill of our society. It is much, much harder to make that case for the question of same-sex marriage. But that's what we should be debating - what is serious, and why. Instead, we get debate over what is absolute and what is prudential. As I always say at this point, if this is the distinction, Catholic politicians better get busy reviving the Comstock Laws... 

It seems that Lipinski's rather blithe invocation of prudential judgment could also be used by abortion rights supporters and gay marriage supporters, no? 

It could, but I don't think it happens in practice.  I don't know of any instances in which a Catholic politician cited prudential judgment for supporting abortion or gay marriage.  Rather, support for abortion rights and gay marriage often is couched in terms of support for women's privacy (in the case of abortion) and civil rights (in the case of gay marriage), that amounts to evading/ignoring the applicable Catholic teachings, rather than applying them in a prudential way.




David Cloutier.   I do not understand this sentence of yours: "When Catholic Democrats resort to the “prudential judgment escape hatch” on an issue where bishops and liberal Catholics hold a united front, something is broken."  Could you explain?

For myself, I think that politics, if it is to be effective, always involves prudential judgments about how to achieve the good that needs to be done, except, I suppose, in cases in which there is only one possible way to achieve it.  I've invoked something like the need for prudential judgment in how effectively to meet the problem of abortion, defended Catholic politicians against people who think there's only one way to deal with it, and argued that the more that Catholic bishops descend to proposing practical ways and means the less they can speak with authority. [Isn't this in a way a matter of a hierarchy of moral judgments?]

On the question of how to deal with the problem of immigration, I should think that there are many possible ways, and the virtue of prudence is needed to find the best one, with a good deal of disagreement likely to be the case.

As a Catholic liberal, my complaint about the Catholic bishops is that many of them seem to believe that "prudential judgement" means that anything goes on issues like immigration or throwing families off of the food stamp program, while NO prudential judgement is allowed on abortion or same sex marriage.  I've had agonies of conscience on whether I can continue to receive the sacraments when my bishop was saying "either vote Republican, or don't vote, or cease receiving the sacraments".  (I'd like to fiind a political party that supported serious restrictions on abortion AND a generous safety net, but unfortunately there isn't one.)

I also think the bishops are being a bit naive about politicians.  If you tell the flock "you MUST vote Republican because of abortion and SSM"  then you have ZERO clout with them about food stamps or other social justice issues.  If the votes you control are theirs no matter what they do about food stamps, why should they consider the bishops' input at all?

By the way, maybe someone help me with a question that's been bothering me.  The bishops also lay great stress that it's much more important to prevent "intrinsic evils" than "extrinsic evils" (and this argument is used to support the idea that it's ok to vote for someone who starts wars and cuts food stamps, but not for someone who is pro-choice).  What bothers me is that it seems to me that whether something is an "intrinsic evil" is to a large degree determined by the vocabulary of the language we are using.  Adultery is an intrinsic evil because we have a separate word to describe adultery as opposed to marital relations, but war is not an intrinsic evil because we use the same word- "war"- for a just war and also for an aggressive unjust war.  If we had two separate words for war, wouldn't unjust war be an intrinsic evil?  Could someone tell me if I'm missing something?

As an addendum to my previous comment: here is the most in-depth treatment of the immigration issue from Dan Lipinski that I was able to find on his website.  It dates from 2010, and is in regard to a different bill (the DREAM Act).  I didn't find anything regarding the current proposed legislation.

By way of comparison, here is Archbishop Gomez's statement to the Senate expressing support for the DREAM Act.

Is Lipinski prudentially applying Catholic teaching in disagreeing with the bishops?  Or is he just ignoring it?  It's not easy to tell.


Fr. Komonchak-- What I meant to suggest there was that, if you have large segments of the Church, including the bishops, speaking forcefully in favor of a given policy, it seems to call into question the "prudential judgment" of those who are opposing it. Your comment brings up the larger question of whether and to what extent bishops (individually or as a conference) should be speaking about policy specifics at all. Insofar as they do speak and it is valid for them to speak, at least those who reject their views would seem to have to make some effort to explain why the bishops are seeing things "imprudently." Of course, the extreme position would be to suggest that Catholic owe obedience to every policy judgments made by the USCCB - that would evidently be mistaken. But if the bishops judge that a particular policy is of sufficient importance and clarity that they will advocate for it, then I would think "prudential judgment" would require those who oppose them to give good reasons. Recourse to prudence isn't a shield from giving reasons; it's an encouragement to give them.

For what it's worth, I fully endorse, Fr. Komonchak's comment above. I would like to see some official expression from USCCB also endorse it.

David Cloutier:  I think everyone should be prepared to give good reasons for his position, including when it means disagreeing with a bishop's or an episcopal conference's policy-recommendations, but on the scale of magisterial interventions, I would not myself rate such recommendations very high.  Wasn't it St. Thomas who said that the more conctete and specific one's moral judgments are, the greater the danger of mistakes?  I don't think bishops are exempt from that  sad necessity or from their need for the virtue of prudence.  I confess that I am regularly surprised at the certainty about concrete political and economic matters that seems implied, or even expressly claimed, by people, both clerical and lay. I usually find myself in the position of not having the foggiest idea which of many possible solutions is the best one to pursue. 

May I add a little to Fr. Komonchak's latest comment. In politics, timing is always a relevant consideration for policy makers or policy advocates. Furthermore, the "shelf life" of most specific policies varies. Consider for example Federal Reserve policies. Or tax policies.

Though it may well be true that some moral principle has timeless validity, e.g. no abortions, all legislation dealing with abortions is a matter of policy. Hence, a matter of timing.

For the record, here, I am fully persuaded that the Senate immigration bill is good policy and hope that its main provisions will become law. But I have to admit both that there may be better policies and that I may turn out to have favored a policy that creates unnecessary political havoc.

David Clouthier is right about the importance of offering reasons for our practical judgments, but no such reasons are ever beyond reasonable contestation.

One more thing, please. I've just re-read Raymond Brown's "The churches the Apostles Left Behind." In it he discusses the important tension between the Pastoral and the missionary impulses. The pastoral impulse, hass to do with taking care of the presently existing flock. The missionary impulse seeks to make room for new and different people. Each impulse has its characteristic strengths to recommend it and its characteristic weaknesses that have to be acknowledged. Both impulses, please note, have to do with practice. Neither is "heritical" or unworthy.

The relevance of this distinction between these impulses has, I believe,  its analogue in  all decent political life.

An observation:

Is the perfect the enemy of the good, and is that tendency reinforced by some aspects of Catholic discourse? The bishops have reservations about the current immigration reform, and wish it were improved. But they realize this gets some of the big broad strokes right, and that seems fairly indisputable. And it could be another six years before we get this chance again. In other words, the USCCB's judgment may not be perfect, nor is this bill, but not doing anything is certainly a worse option under almost any reading of Catholic teaching.

But also remember that if the bill had included a provision for uniting same-sex couples the way it does for opposite-sex couples the USCCB would have opposed the bill -- even though that provision would have affected a relatively tiny amount of immigrant couples while providing tremendous relief to millions of families. 

Hoist on their own petard of perfectionism, or whatever moral category that might be? (Scrupulosity?)

The difficulty of "not having the foggiest idea which of many possible solutions is the best one to pursue" is partly explained and justified by the way those solutions fall into and out of favor over time. It once seemed reasonable to provide a small income to nine-year-old boys for sweeping chimneys, inculcating at the same time the virtues of hard work, thrift, and self-sufficiency. Women's modesty was preserved and their feminine delicacy spared by barring them from most forms of gainful employment. God looked with great disfavor on any mixing of the races. More recently, the War on Drugs and "three strikes and you're out" were all the rage. Welfare was the answer to poverty until it wasn't. And war's popularity still rises in tandem with the percentage of people who don't remember the last one.

Whether they are arguing from "timeless" first principles or from prudential judgment, all sides in a policy dispute always claim to have reason on their side. History suppresses a smile.

I think the problem is investing "prudential judgements" with religious commitment. By this I mean using the weight of Catholic teaching to support a particular viewpoint or to mutually excommunicate the other side. This is clearly visible among US Catholics and Catholic life.

It seems to me that the challenge for Catholic politicians is to articulate their rationale and reasons for particular policy positions in secular or according to "natural law" or at least appeal to natural reason.

And I agree with Fr. K, bishops needn't get involved at all except at the level of education and how to provide that education to their people given the collapse of institutions to deliver that teaching. They need to find new avenues and pathways. Issuing pastoral letters, etc. might not be the best way to build the capacity of Catholics to act in the public square.

Hans Kung for example is working on a new global ethics.

  • Global ethic is not a new ideology or superstructure;
  • it will not make the specific ethics of the different religions and philosophies superfluous; it would be ridiculous to consider Global Ethic as a substitute for the Torah, the Sermon on the Mount, the Qur'an, the Bhagavadgita, the Discourses of the Buddha or the Sayings of Confucius.
  • Global Ethic is nothing but the necessary minimum of common values, standards and basic attitudes. In other words:
  • a minimal basic consensus relating to binding values, irrevocable standards and moral attitudes, which can be affirmed by all religions despite their undeniable dogmatic or theological differences and should also be supported by non-believers

This seems like a positive direction to move in terms of finding ethical foundations that we can all agree on in, in a pluralistic society. 

George D: What is the difference between Global Ethic and the natural law?

David G - I largely agree with your most recent comment.  In addition, it's quite interesting that the bishops feel that whatever flaws there are in the immigration bill don't compromise it to the point that they must oppose it - but in the case of Obamacare, whose goals and primary effects (insuring the uninsured) the bishops also would have approved in broad strokes, was thought to be sufficiently flawed that they needed to oppose it.  So how does one decide when a bill's flaws reach that critical mass that one can no longer support it?

I am not sure that the comparison is perfect, in that I don't know that the bishops have called out any major concerns regarding the immigration proposal.  But other Catholics have criticized the bishops for having blind spots regarding immigration  policy - including a blind spot for border security and law-and-order concerns.  And arguably, bishops' policy recommendations shouldn't be immune from criticism.   Policymaking seems to me a degree separated from faith and morals.


George D: what is the difference between Global Ethics and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Whether it can be "affirmed by all religions" is debatable ( ) so the "minimal basic consensus" is  still work under progress. According to Wikipedia  Saudi Arabia abstained from signing in 1948 mostly for two reasons: because of Article 18 which states that everyone has the right "to change his religion or belief" and because of Article 16 on equal marriage rights.


I agree with Fr. K, Bernard D, John P that prudential judgments can change over time, can differ among people of good will, etc. However, when it is said that "no such reasons are ever beyond reasonable contestation", I must disagree. If this were true, such debates would not be matters of prudence at all, because they would not be resolvable by reason. Aquinas indicates that the further one gets from universal judgments, the more contingency, circumstance, and the like make universal judgments more difficult. But these judgments, if they are genuinely moral, are still judgments of reason. The drift that concerns me here is the sense that "prudential judgment" is a way of saying that these disputes about what to do are ultimately non-rational. I would strongly resist that. The bishops (and all Catholics) should exercise caution in overstating the reasons for supporting this or that policy. But if the reasons are strong enough, they should make clear the logic of their support. Otherwise, I fear Catholic teaching on every subject other than absolute moral norms becomes like a newspaper editorial page.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights was, I think, an attempt to enshrine natural law theory, in a modern. pluralistic context; one that would have moral force. Jacques Maritain, the neo-Thomist, was heavily involved in drafting it.

I agree that finding a consensus regarding these matters is difficult as Claire pointed out. However, without a basic, universal, rational foundation with respect to human values, I don's see how we can make progress on particular matters and have a basis for dialogue.

David Clouthier, re "no such reasons are beyond reasonable contestation": Just a few relevant points.

1. Let's exclude expressions of putative reasons that are self-contradictory or incoherent.

2. Prudential judgments concern temporal matters. They bear not only on the present but also on the future, a future which isalways in some respects not fully determined.

3. The discourse in which arguments for and against some propsed prudential judgment or for alternatives to the proposal under consideration are exercise in what Aristotle calls deliberative rhetoric. These arguments ar never cases of what he would call demonstrative arguments, arguments based on timelessly valid and sound premises.

4. It is rational to acknowledge these features of prudential judgments and not demand of them the kind of evidence that would eliminate all reasonable contestation of any proposed prudential judgment.

5. Since it regularly happens that we are forced by circumstances to make a practical judgment, even though plausible alternatives cannot be ruled out, it is both rational and reasonable to adopt some judgment that has good, though, not de3finitive, evidence in its favor.

There is nothing non-rational about acknowledging the limitations that are always in place when we search for practical responses to practical problems. These responses, if we are thoughtful about them are always open to critique, but they also permit us to make serious commitments to live by them. Without the support of definitive knowledge, we can rightly hope that we have done as well as we can.

George D. , re natural law:

I agree that we need to admit that there is some universal "law" that undrlies our efforts to distinguish the morally good from the morally bad and to distinguish degrees of goodness or badness. One might call this "law" a "transcendental" condition" for the sensefulness of our efforts to make sound moral judgments. I doubt, though that we can arrive at a definitive propositional articulation of what this "law" demands. I do think that there are some prohibitions that we can arrive at for which there is no substantial (as opposed to formal or merely logical) contrary evidence. We learn these prohibitions by reflecting on history and our own sense of injustice or unfairness. I doubt, though, that there are positive practical judgments that we can ever take to be and have always been judgments that it would be unreasonable to contest.

It bother me when people cite prudential judgement as if it were the end of an argument rather than the beginning. As you point out, the existence of a range of possible actions doesn't make any action permissible and not all goals are permissible. Only the other side, it bothers me when people don't acknowledge that in politics, almost everything is within the realm of prudential judgement because it is usually at least one degree removed from the actual actions being discussed. Permitting an evil action is different from committing an evil action, supporting a compromise that includes evil components is different from pursuing the inclusion of those elements, and voting for a politician who has taken some evil stances is different from taking those stances themselves.

The only way to remain pure is to not participate except that those who seek purity see failure to take certain actions as impure as well.


The intrinsic v. extrinsic distinction is frequently abused. It is relevant to the individual doing the act itself, but once we move outward to how we should respond to that individual's choices, whether the act is intrisically or extrinsically evil doesn't matter anymore.

George D. --

Another Aristotelian/Thomist member of the committee which drafted the Univesal Declaration on Human Rights was Charles Malik, who was also a Greek Orthodox theologian and an ecumenist.  Plus he was also an active politician in Lebanon.  He holds the world's record for honorary degrees, over 60.  Remarkable man.

I"m still very impresed that that document has stood the test of time.  Its initial adoption by so many different nations has corroborated for me that there really are some highly general if not absolutely universal moral principles.



The August issue of the TLS has an interesting review by John Cottingham of Heythrop College, London, of four books on the relation between theism and ethics and in particular on what grounds there are for establishing "objective" moral principles. The reviewer describes what many philiosophers find to be a "fatal flaw" in arguments that want to base ethics on theism:

If merely being ordered to do something by God is enough to make it good or right, this seems to make morality arbitrary and potentially irrational ("Do this because I say so"), but if, on the other hand, the God-given demands of morality are based on moral reasons ("Do this because it is just/kind/virtuous"), then the appeal to God seems to become redundant--why not simply base morality on the relevant reasons of justice or kindness or virtue?

One can recognize (although Cottingham does not mention it) in this posing of the dilemma the old fight between intellectualists and voluntarists: Are things commanded by God because they are good, or good because commanded by God? 

Here is Fr. Z's presentation:

Catholics (and all people of truly good will) cannot disagree about the evil of abortion, but we can disagree about immigration.  The former is intrinsically evil, the latter is dealt with through contingent moral choices.  We can disagree about the best way to handle the questions surrounding immigration.

Meanwhile I direct the readers attention to the document Apostolos suos, which says that the conferences of bishops – as conferences – much less committees of the conferences do NOT have a mandatum docendi.


23. The very nature of the teaching office of Bishops requires that, when they exercise it jointly through the Episcopal Conference, this be done in the plenary assembly. Smaller bodies —the permanent council, a commission or other offices—do not have the authority to carry out acts of authentic magisterium either in their own name or in the name of the Conference, and not even as a task assigned to them by the Conference.


I support full-bore immigration reform, but I guess I would agree that all decisions about what the civil law should require are prudential judgements 


However, I don't think you can be selective about it and say that decisions about civil laws regulating same-sex marriage, contraceptive benefits, and even abortion, are not also prudential decisions. 


The Catholic bishops have prudentially determined that the Senate bill provides a good, if imperfect solution, to the plight of undocumented immigrants. The USCB, advised by its staff of lawyers and lobbyists, has also prudentially determined that the bill must be passed now—or it never will be. Further they prudentially determined that given this urgency, they will urge parishioners in selective dioceses to contact selective members of Congress.


 All citizens are expected to be knowledgeable and responsible participants in shaping public policy. Catholic Bishops, as citizens, have the right to formulate, publicize and advocate their prudential political judgments. But in trying to persuade their fellow Catholics, they often suggest that their prudential assessments are moral imperatives derived directly from moral theology.


 Prudential judgments are more appropriately communicated by reference to evidence and logical argument. Prudence, after all, is embedded in rational analysis—not faith or obedience.


The USCB is in a quandary. It wants to galvanize the Catholic community to “put pressure” on elected officials, but it also wants to retain its status as a “moral voice” standing in judgment on US public life. Sorting out this quandary is a matter of prudential assessment!


Re Fr. Komonchak's 11:08 am comment today:

I too took note of the Cottingham review in TLS. What struck me was the apparent ease in taking a fundamentalistic reading of the Deuteronomic command to kill all the Caananites as a serious problem. The philosophers in question, and Cottingham himself, seem to ignore Pascal's complaint that the philosophers' God has practically nothing in common with the God of Abraham and Isaac, etc. The issue of the Biblical God's relationship to ethics is, I think, much more interesting an issue than is the standard, I'm tempted to say hackneyed, theodicy issue found in the Euthyphro. (At least some reputable Plato scholars think that the standard reading of the Euthyhro on his matteer is a misreading.)

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