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.



  • Lazy Harp Seal

    Unlike last week’s well reasoned “What’s wrong with abortion politics?” by Steve Skojec, perhaps CatholicVote’s lone contributer with a brain larger than a pea, this is perhaps a prime example of what exactly is wrong with abortion politics.

    Had this article actually been about prudence it would have discussed that prudence is the virtue that fits means to an end. The single BIGGEST mistake the prolife movement has made was to allow politicians to convince prolifers that the end they they seek is making abortion illegal, NOT ending abortion. These politicians had to do that because the only thing they could offer prolifers was legislation outlawing abortion, their party couldn’t actually offer policy to improve the circumstances of women seeking abortion, so they convinced us that It’s All About Abortion Laws. Last Friday when Mississippi legislators thought their new anti-abortion laws would be upheld in court, they celebrated and patted themselves on the back for “ending abortion in Mississippi!”, while recognizing that abortions would still occur. Did the first mayor to write the laws against murder in Washington, DC get to say that he “ended murder in Washington DC!” ?
    Meanwhile, these politicians convinced us to be suspect of anyone who wanted to “reduce” abortions and doubt their true “prolife” intentions. We are forced to assume that these faux-prolifers have made reduced abortions their end; and since that would mean that some abortions is ok, they must think that abortion itself is ok; and so instead of uniting our common prolife interests, we ostracize them and deem them unpure & phony prolife. We never stopped to ask if perhaps they have the end of ending abortion, and reducing abortion was the means they thought was fitting to achieve that. If I want to stop my car travelling at 80mph, I’m going to reduce my speed until it reaches 0. Nobody doubts that because I’m reducing my speed that I don’t really want to stop. Likewise, domestic abuse is illegal (despite the attempts of 30-some “prolife” Senators who voted againt the Violence Against Women Act) but it hasn’t ended. When people say they want to reduce domestic violence, people don’t accuse them of actually being pro-domestic violence, it’s common sense to most people that they want no domestic violence, and trying to reduce it is a good way to end it.

    • Steve M

      You punch holes in other arguments and make snide reference to the author but now what should an individual do? You clearly see yourself above the confusion. Provide your guidance on how one should make their voting decisions to further the end of stopping abortion amongst others. It is extremely easy to poke others with a sharp stick and provide no value.

    • Omar Gutierrez

      @Lazy – prudence is not just about the most pragmatic means to an end, it’s about the most fitting means. I never said that improving the circumstances of women seeking abortion was a bad thing. That is a good thing. What I argued was the notion that we can just abandon the effort to make abortion illegal as though that were just a prudential throw away from our moral reasoning is wrong.

      What’s more, you’re confusing something here. No one, absolutely no one, actually believes that we can end abortion while living here on earth. No law, no amount of money for social services, no combination thereof will end abortion. It just won’t happen. The goal is not to end abortion any more than the goal of the Church is to end sin. The Church provides graces to mollify the effects of sin and the State can provide conditions that help make abortion less needed, less attractive and less available. But there will always be abortions. The point of my post was that one cannot pretend that laws against abortion are just a prudential choice among other options. Why? Because THAT it’s legal is a horrid reality that MUST change. Therefore prudence doesn’t apply here.

    • Rich

      Thank you for the thoughtful analysis. It is important to remember that women who make the decision for abortion should also be our Catholic concern. To limit Justice in Life issues only to legality is imprudent, and an unwise strategy.
      It is lacks prudence if we see abortion only as a legal issue, as it denies our culpability in creating the conditions where one may think abortion a rationale, or necessary option. Making abortion illegal may not necessarily reduce abortions, but can only be guarantee to make them less accessible. There are plenty of illegal activities that create new pathways, where combating the illegality is only part of the struggle.
      Reducing the need for abortions would also find more people willing to limit the legal access to abortion, as there are many now who favor the legal access to abortion only because they see it as necessary for some. It seems counterproductive from a pure political strategy to argue against reduction as a co-existing goal. That is for a clear expansion of a pro-life agenda to include what many others already see as life issues, including social measures that help the woman and her child to live well, with good health access, financial security, encouraging strong parental relationships.
      To limit our understanding of prudence to voting for candidates that will (eventually – as they have promised for ages) to make abortion illegal, and not being prudent in accepting those also who will make the world Just, safe and fair, is short-sighted and wrong. Further, it is wrong to limit prudence on life issues to the election alone. There remains a lot of time before the election to help groom the candidates, finding people who will serve well, and afterwards, keeping them accountable to us, despite the rhetoric prior to the election. Wisdom tells us that we best not be so gullible to accept what the candidate says at face value. Courage tells us to always keep the public officials aware of our concerns. Prudence enters into all of these interactions, and prudence dictates that we think about all of this in evaluating the candidates.

      • Omar Gutierrez

        Rich, I never limited life issues only to legality. Neither did I see it only as a legal issue. I would really appreciate it if you would strictly read what I write. Had you done so you would see that my argument is simply that making abortion illegal is a necessarily constitutive part of any pro life plan. This doesn’t mean that we cannot pursue other means AT THE SAME TIME. It just means that one is not allowed to ignore the legal structure that is unjust.

  • Aaron


    Your opinion is incredibly incorrect. All elections are on an individual basis. It is a mortal sin to vote for a candidate BECAUSE of his/her support for abortion, not IN SPITE OF it. We are called to vote for the candidates that are against abortion, regardless of party. That much is clear.

    On the third party issue, that is less clear. We should be, as good Christians and good citizens, active members of our civil society, and thus work effectively toward a just legal and civil system. This includes voting. However, while third party voting CAN take away from a pro-life candidate, that is not always the case. Consider the case of libertarians. Sure, many who vote Libertarian would vote for the “next best thing” (Republican), but many Libertarians are supporters of abortion, and therefore have a moral issue apart from their voting preference.

    • Omar Gutierrez

      Well said Aaron.

  • Rich

    The only truth in this article is that someone can say something to be prudence when it is not. Similarly, someone can claim something to be principle when it is not.
    All sides can find fault in the argument of the other, especially when they disallow any conversation to really find what the other is saying.
    It is ridiculous to argue against a person who wants to build up a safety net that they believe may actually positively influence someone from making a decision for an abortion. Just as it is ridiculous to vote for a candidate only on his statement as being against abortion. The reality is that many politician who have for years stated their pro-life position have not succeeded, and some not even really attempted to advance any real legislative or public policy that is truly pro-life.
    And it is also true that many legislators who have nor endorsed a pro-life stance have done nothing that promotes abortion. The adherence to a positive Catholic pro-life stance, cannot just be an election slogan or campaign promise. The repeated rhetoric is empty and hollow, and to suggest that a pro-life statement alone should be the major influence of an Electors Conscience is to show a remarkable lack of faith in the Electorate, as well as a rather naive view of the political reality.
    Conscience can be best formed by widening the discussion, and not conveniently narrowing it. No political party has really shown ideology that should be church-endorsed. Besides, the Elector’s conscience is not used only at the ballot, but by holding the Elected accountable, to their word, and to the people.
    While a good conscience can be influenced, it cannot be mandated. In the conscience is where the faithful citizen communicates with God alone. The rationale of acts of conscience are what may be only truly known fully by God alone. Perhaps this is why God has blessed us with a private and confidential voting booth.

    • Randall

      Wrong, wrong, wrong. It is a mortal sin to vote for a Democrat (representative of the Party of Death). Therefore it is a mortal imperative to vote against Democrats whenever possible, in such a way that a non-Democrat wins – i.e., do not waste your vote on a third party that has no chance of winning. Therefore it is currently all but a moral imperative to vote straight ticket Republican every single election.

      • Lazy Harp Seal

        This would be hilarious, but it has become so widespread and believed by so many that it’s just sad.

      • bpeters1

        @Randall — you might want to notify the folks here at CV that by endorsing Dan Lipinski in the past, they’ve encouraged people to commit mortal sins. Either that, or you might want to rethink your sweeping generalization.

      • Omar Gutierrez

        Um. Wow. No. The bishops – we still do listen to them right? – all the bishop would disagree with you wholeheartedly.

        • Rich

          Listening to the Bishops should never be about abdicating our responsibility to our conscience. Many a good saint found flaws in Bishops and Popes and called them to task. That is why our church is amazing. Not that we are right on every occasion, but that we are filled with many in this Body of Christ. Prudence calls for openness and right counsel. Prudence allows us, and really asks us to look at opinions and ideas opposite ours to help us see what is in line with what we know. Our conscience is expansive, not limiting. It is where we live the love of God.
          The Bishops can be inspiring, but may not be so at all times. Forming a good conscience is not just listening to what the Bishops say, but understanding those realities in our own lives. God gives us much in which we can study and learn, the Bishops on are a small part.

          • Omar Gutierrez

            Yes Rich that has happened. Now do you care to explain EXACTLY where the bishops are wrong?

      • Rich

        Randall, to say this is to deny that Prudence is needed in any voter. Prudence, the theme here, is not about determining for all the absolute of “mortal sin” of partisan politics. It is about the application of the universal truths to the singular events of life.
        If truly is were true that a pro-life vote is a republican vote, then why have so many republicans made such little progress on the legality of abortion? This is a false argument build on false counsel, and what Thomas would call false Prudence.
        True prudence gives great latitude to each in the way they apply the Universal truths, knowing that each prudent person is finding the “Love discerning aright that which helps and does not hinder us in tending to God.” (Augustine)
        You, nor anyone else can place the limit on what God can do based solely on partisan affiliation. That is a misreading of politics and theology.

      • Rich

        Randall, you make a serious and imprudent statement when you say that there is a moral imperative to vote against Democrats. (And a theological error is defining a vote for a Democrat as a Mortal Sin.)
        First and foremost the vote using prudence takes action that in line with their own conscience. That may or may not have much to do with the Political Affiliation of the person, despite the erroneous efforts of this website, and of this blogger.
        You may want to revisit you Catechism to look up Mortal Sin, as well as review Prudence.
        You seem to be missing the major points of being a Faithful Citizen. There is no prescribed party when it comes to either Life or Faith. God blessed us each with the ability to form conscience with prudence and the necessary parts of prudence; memory, openness and seeking good counsel (be wary of political advice disguised as counsel.) Each candidate needs to be evaluated and assessed, not just on Party Affiliation, but on true ability to deliver good action. A campaign promise with no chance of delivery is never a wise choice.
        Prudence is the mother of all virtues, and leads us to make other virtuous actions, but keeps us from being short sighted and in making errors in our judgement.

    • Omar Gutierrez

      Rich, anyone can invent a “fault in the argument of the other,” but occasionally someone actually has to look at the words of the bishops and, you know, quote them. But while I’m writing about quoting someone let me point out that I did not argue that building up a safety net is bad or that we should only vote for a candidate because they are against abortion, or that a “pro-life statement alone should be the major influence on an Electors Conscience.” The point of the above post was that some deny that making abortion illegal is a mandatory aim for a Catholic voter by claiming it is a prudential choice. Quoting the bishops I hoped to show what the bishops actually teach which is that we are morally obliged to work towards restricting abortion through the law. What do you have to offer as a counter besides taking me to mean things I do not say?

      • Rich

        Again you are using incorrect logic, faulting due to a faulty premise. Nothing in your statement of premise is true.
        Discovering the fault of an argument is the basic way of evaluating its merit. Quoting others or not does not change the merit if the premise is incorrect. Actually all I did was to state the obvious.
        I would find that you intermediate conclusion is flawed that the goal is not just to make abortion illegal, the goal of Church action is not just controlling what the state can or cannot do, although there is every reason to apply influence whereever possible. The Goal of abortion politics for the Church is to create a world (the kingdom of God) where abortion is unnecessary, and therefore does not occur. Our action must always look higher than just the earth. We engage in politics, but our lives are far beyond those limitations.
        Prudence allows us to look at opinions that are not our own and to evaluate them. Your limitation on your interpretation of the Bishops writings is not prudence. People of faith can use much to help them make good decisions. There is no need to claim political superiority of one viewpoint alone.

        • Omar Gutierrez

          That’s all well and good Rich, but I’m not talking about what the Church’s objective is. I’m talking about what the obligations of individual Catholics is. Yes, they are part of the Church, but what the institutional Church is called to do in the public square is far different than what the individual, lay Catholic is called to do. And, yes, prudence does let us look at other viewpoints. But when we start to adopt points of view that run diametrically opposed to our faith, then we have to stop or else give up the name Catholic.

      • Mara

        Omar, the right of a fetus to be born lies with the mother only. Period. This right belongs to one else. A fetus does not have a right to be born simply because it exists within the woman’s body. Even if you legislate that right away it remains the right of the woman. Laws do not change reality. Reality is what is. The only way to end abortion to to end unwanted pregnancies. The only way to end unwanted pregnancies is to raise our children so that they have high self-esteem. The only way to achieve this is to teach parents how to raise their children properly. Finally, having a child is not a right. It is a privilege that is earned.

        • Omar Gutierrez

          Well Mara, all I can say is that your position stands diametrically opposed to the Church’s teaching. The Catechism says in 2273 that: “The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation.” The Catechism goes on to say that the moment a civil law deprives a certain class of human being from the right to life, the state is denying the “equality of all before the law.” That the fetus in the womb is a human being, a member of the species homo sapiens, is scientific fact, Mara. Reality is reality. Lastly, the right to have a family is also an enumerated right recognized by the Church. The Catechism says that children are a gift from God and so cannot be considered a possession owed to a couple. However, in terms of civil law, the right of couples to procreate is firmly recognized. Your positions, Mara, are just not Catholic.

  • bpeters1

    I (a Catholic political “moderate”) think it’s great to see a Catholic on the political “right” addressing the issue of using “prudential judgment” as an “intellectual panic room.” Your conclusion, viz. “prudence is prudence only after we’ve agreed an ALL the principles first,” raises a particular question for me. All Catholics agree that among the “principles” of Catholic Social Teaching are those of solidarity, subsidiarity (though many disagree as to what this means), respecting the dignity of the individual, and working for the common good, but what about, say, teachings from Pius XI which declare that economic life should be “subjected to and governed by a true and effective directing principle,” and that it “cannot be left to a free competition of forces” and cannot “be considered and treated as altogether free from and independent of public authority” (QA n. 88)? It does not seem a stretch to say that such statements constitute “principles” if one judges “A legal system that violates the basic right to life on the grounds of choice is fundamentally flawed” to be one [note: I wholeheartedly support this statement]. In other words, I agree with you that answering this question depends in large part on what we deem “principles.” Now, I’d be interested to see some of those principles listed! Also of interest to me would be to consider what might qualify as some “second order” principles which spring directly from the “foundational” ones. We could start with one offered by John Paul II: “The obligation to provide unemployment benefits, that is to say, the duty to make suitable grants indispensable for the subsistence of unemployed workers and their families, is a duty springing from the fundamental principle of the moral order in this sphere, namely the principle of the common use of goods or, to put it in another and still simpler way, the right to life and subsistence” (LE n. 18).

    • Howard

      Yes, those are indeed principles, as are the many condemnations of socialism. Raw capitalism is a disaster; it leads to employees being trapped by employers who are only concerned about profit for the company, not the employees. Raw socialism does exactly the same thing, but with “employers” replaced by “state managers”, “profit” replaced with “power”, and “company” replaced by “state”. A mixed economy is a better arrangement, but it has to be a mixed economy governed by a true and effective directing principle which has to transend the interests of both employers and politicians. That is where we really run into trouble, because we have stopped believing in any principles greater than money or power.

      • Aaron

        In truth, Adam Smith touches, though not directly, on an acceptable principle of solidarity in his Wealth of Nations. He describes the motives of the entrepreneur as wanting to fill a need in society. To summarize, it is not profit that motivates the entrepreneur in a free market, but his effective filling of a need (profit will be the result of a successful endeavor, not the end-all). When we focus on each other as fellow human beings (which is, I believe, what solidarity is all about), the problems with socialism and capitalism because the “common good” becomes more important than money or power.

        By the way, I’ve never heard capitalism and socialism as succinctly and effectively condensed as, essentially, love of money and love of power. Kudos.

    • Omar Gutierrez

      I’d agree with you that those quotes from the popes are principles. There are “second order” principles too, and I think your quote from JPII fits with one of them. The danger is in assuming that the “unemployment benefit” must be funded by “x” amount or that it should last “x” number of weeks or even that it should be provided by the federal government.

      Thanks to Howard and Aaron for their insights.

  • Teej

    It is also helpful to understand what we mean by prudence when we use it. A good start to getting there is here:


    • Hey Prude (na-na-na-nanana)

      Ah, so it’s prudent to censor comments about recent reports in Mother Jones magazine that GOP presidential candidate Romney was part of an investment group that invested $75 million in Stericycle, a medical-waste disposal firm that has been attacked by anti-abortion groups for disposing aborted fetuses collected from family planning clinics. Ah yes, prudent in the partisan political sense that is. Don’t worry. It will get out in a big way nearer election time with pinpoint mailers to Catholic voters. Oh, “we didn’t know,” you will say . . . .

      • MichaelP71

        As much as we all would like to deny it “medical waste” (read: dead bodies of pre-born children produced by SCOTUS, POTUS, mostly Democrat lawmakers and abortionists) are a fact. As much as I would like to have a proper burial and mass for each of the deceased it just isn’t possible. So like it or not a proper way of keeping the rest of the public safefrom disease is the unfortunate responsibility of companies like that of Stericycle. Do you believe that a fairy takes away the unfortunate results of abortions making them safe, legal, rare and “waste-free”????????

      • ATW

        So, your point is?!?! No matter how you cut it, the Democratic party is far MORE anti-life than the Republican party. Obama is the most anti-life president this country has ever seen. Are you somehow trying to justify a vote for him?

  • tz1

    Strange post. CV endorsed Santorum who told everyone – every good Catholic you must vote for hArlen spectrealthough he is a pro-abort and Toomey is 100% pro-life he promised judges. And said it was a political calculation, but that was all right with everyone here. Conservatives get a pass.

    Even worse is the TSA Gate rape, torture, surveilance, do anything including war-crimes to defeat Islam is allbrushed under the same “prudence” rug.
    No, it’s worse. They add and breech the virtue of justice, so no matter how rotten, corrupt, heinous or monstrous, or even stupid the policy, if the unitary executive says it, it’s “prudential judgment” and no one can question it. If it was the DHS instead of the HHS mandating contraception in the name off fighting terror there would be no discussion on bothered consciences or calls to do something just like Catholics are content that someone watches naked images of men, women, and children all day in airports – and not infrequently are violated in their bodies if something beeps or just randomly.



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