When is Prudence Prudence?

A bit ago I wrote about prudential decisions and the economy. In that case, many laity and several bishops were complaining about the prudential application of principles to the Ryan budget by Bishop Stephen Blaire. Bishop Blaire laid out some great principles but then seemed to close off any possible discussion between Catholics of good will who came to opposing conclusions about the budget.

But, it occurred to me to ask about whether those complaining cry “prudence” when really it’s just that we don’t like the obvious conclusions to which the principles point? In other words, when is prudence prudence, and when is it just an intellectual “panic room” into which we hide when we don’t have a better argument?

To begin to answer my own question, I immediately thought of Catholics who defend their voting for a pro-choice candidate. They cry “prudence” all the time when it comes to abortion. You may have heard the argument before. It tends to sound something like the following, though I’m sure readers have had different experiences or versions of it:

John Lennon stopped Yoko Ono from aborting their only child Sean.

The Catholic who wants to vote for the pro-choice candidate says that they believe as all Catholics do that abortion is a terrible thing, which is why they agree that the goal of the Catholic voter is to protect as many unborn lives as is possible.

Therefore, as that’s the goal or principle and we all agree on it, then the prudential decisions made in achieving that goal are where we ought to be able to disagree. Some Catholics say no compromise. Some Catholics say we have to engage in the art of the possible. And some Catholics say let’s forget the law and just try to make abortion a rarity.

Yes, they argue that overturning Roe is the wrong strategy to take. It’s not practicable. Who wants bands of marauding police men bashing down doors to try to get to the teenage girl who dares to have an abortion? It just won’t sell.

Soooo, they argue, let’s vote for candidate ‘X’ … or, ahem… ‘O’ because, even though they’re on record for supporting a Constitutional right to abortion, they will increase social services, which will improve the lives of the poor women who predominantly seek abortions, thus causing them to turn away from this evil in the first place. In the process, we help the poor and save lives. What’s more, overturning Roe will only send the question back to the States. How are we saving lives by doing that?

QED: we will save more lives by voting for the pro-choice guy who loves the poor than for the pro-life guy who so obviously despises everyone who doesn’t make gobs and gobs of money. It’s my prudential application of the principle. What’s wrong with that?

Yes. What IS wrong with that. Well, all of the above sounds good, but then a line from the Bishops’ document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship leaps to mind. It reads something like this:

“A legal system that violates the basic right to life on the grounds of choice is fundamentally flawed.”

This is very important, because the problem with the argument from prudence used by our friends above is that they’ve got the principle all wrong… or I should say they’ve only got part of it right. The principle or the goal of Catholic activity towards abortion is not just to vaguely save lives. The goal is making it illegal. See, the bishops teach us not just that abortion is a bad but human activity we cannot hope to contain. The bishops teach that any legal system that provides a so-called right to kill one’s own child is “fundamentally flawed.”

And I should note that this line comes just a sentence or two after the bishops say in paragraph 22 that abortion “must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned” by “individuals and society.” Society means not just the culture but also the State since legal systems are run by States.

Therefore, dear friends, it is decidedly not a matter of prudence as to whether or not we should work towards making abortion illegal. We have a moral obligation to make it illegal. Punto – as my Spanish-speaking mother would say, period, the end, case closed, basta cosí. If we can’t make it illegal tomorrow, then we work with what we have and pass laws that restrict it as much as possible.

The mental gymnastics necessary for justifying a vote for the guy who will keep it legal will always be difficult. Like the bishops I believe that there are times of grave moral consequence that allow a Catholic to vote for a pro-choice candidate. But let’s not be fooled into thinking that the reasons many site, and that I reproduce above, are just different prudential decisions in a spectrum of acceptable choices for Catholics. The goal is to save as many babies as possible, yes, but we do so by making abortion illegal and/or by restricting it through law.

Of course, this makes life for everyone difficult when one political party has defined itself as the party that will forever keep abortion legal. The days of “safe, legal and rare” are over. From now on, the Democratic Party is up front about making sure abortion will be legal, you’ll pay for it through your tax dollars, doctors will be forced to perform them or lose their jobs, and your Catholic school will have to pay for abortifacient drugs. But then the bishops are not responsible for what the Democratic Party chooses as its platform.

I should note, too, that there is no evidence that the increase of spending for social services will result in lowering abortion rates faster than passing laws that make abortion more difficult to procure. Dr. Michael New has demonstrated this over and over again, and bless him for his work.

So when is prudence prudence? Well, maybe the quick answer is that prudence is prudence only after we’ve agreed on ALL the principles first.



  • Jordan

    The surest way to protect the sovereignty of the Church over legal affairs is the establishment of a Catholic confessional state. Even the last century has amply shown through the regimes of Francisco Franco in Spain, the Ustaša in Croatia, and (in an attenuated sense) Maurice Duplessis in Quebec, that confessionalism is ultimately not a viable way to enact laws in keeping with Church teaching. All of these regimes to varying degrees violated human dignity and rights in the name of Catholic sovereignty. I doubt that many American Catholics would trade rule-of-law for the liberty and exaltation of the Church in the hands of a dictatorship-police state. Indeed, Quebec in particular became thoroughly irreligious and socialist after the fall of Duplessis (the Quiet Revolution), thus soundly rejecting the notion that confessionalism inculcates a strong national Catholic identity.

    Ireland, though constitutionally pro-life, has in effect merely decriminalized the procurement of abortion outside of Ireland. This is not exactly aligned with Omar Gutierrez’s goal or the goal of the institutional Church. Although Irish doctors who perform abortions are subject to prosecution, Irish women who travel to Britain for an abortion are not prosecuted. This is not the same as full criminalization of abortion. Criminalization implies that both the abortionist and woman who has procured an abortion are subject to criminal penalties.

    When calling for the criminalization of abortion (the logical end of “making abortion illegal”), it is important to remember the history of states which have succeeded in criminalizing abortion or legally forbidding abortion procedures within a country. Mr. Gutierrez has presented the legality/illegality of abortion as a bipolar issue. In fact, the question is fraught with legal, political, and societal difficulties which cannot be solved by blind allegiance to a single political party.

  • Rich

    I’m glad you addressed the fallacious logic of voting for a big social services spender “to save lives.” In principle it’s wrong because it is a forced taking (thoguh taxes) and is not consistent with the individual call to be charitable. It’s often treated as essentially a “collective penance” for a “collective sin” of “allowing poverty” or some such. There are poor people, people in need, people who are sick. We cannot turn away from our “individual mandate” from God to love and care for our neighbor, especially one who is poor (by any definition). Simply acquiescing to higher taxes to purportedly provide money or services in our stead does not fulfill that mandate. There is no collective sin, only individual sin; we must avoid “collective penance,” for it truly also does not exist.

  • fakename

    I’m not sure if this was submitted yet, but basically I would like to ask a few questions:

    (1) Granted that it’s not true that the proposition “we should make abortion illegal” is just a prudential matter, could it be true that “we should make abortion illegal now and by this process” is?

    (2) The Catholic Encyclopedia defines a good custom as a law. If that is true, then can one make abortion “illegal” by decentralized means too?

  • question

    What happens when someone thinks that the most prudent way towards getting something to be a law is to not try to make it a law right now?

    The question is still controversial it seems, if the question is not “whether we should make abortion illegal” but rather “can we, and thus should we, make abortion illegal now”.

    Plus, “law” means many things and even a good custom can be called “law”. So it seems that even individual, person-to-person work against abortion seems to suffice viz. moral obligations.

    Is that valid or not?

    • Omar Gutierrez

      That’s a fair question, question…who is also “fakename”… so I’ll answer both questions here. The question of prudence does enter when we start talking about how to make abortion illegal. John Paul II noted that sometimes we can only do what is possible, and if making it illegal now is impossible then we do all we can to restrict it through the legal process. The fact is that the majority of the country is more pro-life than the laws we have on the books currently. So let’s get those laws passed. Unfortunately the Democratic Party is determined to block those laws despite the mainstream support for things like parental notification laws. As for law and custom, not all customs are laws and you can’t use the words interchangeably. Person-to-person work against abortion will always be needed. My point is simply that we cannot abandon anti-abortion legislation in the name of such work. To do so would be to maintain a legal system that is “fundamentally flawed.” I’ll point out also that the bishops and the Catechism are clear about how they use the word law. They are both talking about legal systems, not just customs. So, no it’s not valid to use custom instead of law here. Thanks for the question.



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