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“Ask a Priest: Why so Much Talk About ‘Prudential Judgment’ but not Abortion?”
Q: Please elaborate on the phrase “prudential judgment.” It is used greatly, even by priests and bishops, in regard to how to vote as a Catholic. It appears to replace the “most paramount issue of abortion” as being our responsibility as Catholic voters. We have no clear guidance on these. Also, the argument of the “seamless garment” seems like an excuse to vote for a pro-abortion person or issue. Can you enlighten me? – L.N.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Prudential judgment in this context means that a Catholic should decide on a course of action based on the known facts and under the guidance of moral principles presented by the Church.
In practice, it applies to cases where people could consider the same situation differently and ethically come to different conclusions.
The phrase itself doesn’t negate Church teaching that abortion should be considered of paramount importance.
But let’s focus on your question. Why might some priests and bishops prefer to speak of prudential judgment? A few reasons come to mind.
First, talk of prudential judgment might have more appeal to laity, who are called as free moral agents to bring Gospel values into worldly venues. The phrase puts the ball in their court, so to speak.
Second, it can avoid direct mention of abortion, which some people might interpret as a veiled endorsement of a candidate. Many Catholics resent it if they think the Church is trying to tell them to vote for a particular candidate.
So, the use of “prudential judgment” is a way of exhorting Catholics to bring their faith to bear in their voting, without the appeal sounding partisan.
As you intuit, the “seamless garment” argument is a related matter.
The argument holds that issues such as abortion, the death penalty, militarism, euthanasia, and social and economic injustice all demand a consistent application of moral principles that value the sacredness of human life. “Seamless garment” is another name for the consistent ethic of life espoused by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.
Unfortunately, some people use the seamless garment as a way to justify their support of pro-abortion candidates or stances. They interpret it to mean that all issues are of equal weight.
Now, the seamless garment argument is not without merit. It tries to remind us that justice requires attention on many fronts.
Some people, for instance, might put all their focus on opposing abortion but not pay any attention to issues such as poverty or the plight of immigrants or the reckless spread of arms. The Church has concern for all these areas, without ignoring abortion.
We shouldn’t think that we have to choose between either opposing abortion or opposing other social ills. It’s not “either-or” but “both-and” — with the understanding that the right to life has a pride of place among our priorities.
For more reading, a National Catholic Register posting might help.
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