Cardinals, Cardinal Virtues, and Clarity

No one acts prudently who violates the commandment 'Thou shall not kill'

The press is repeating Bishop (and now Cardinal-elect) Robert McElroy’s charge that excluding Catholic politicians from Communion is wrongheaded. “It will bring tremendously destructive consequences” he writes, and politics is to blame. “The Eucharist is being weaponized and deployed as a tool in political warfare.”

McElroy also points to the primacy of prudence. “Prudential judgment is not a secondary or deficient mode of discernment in the Christian conscience. It is the primary mode….This is certainly true in voting for candidates for public office. The constellation of substantial moral elements that are relevant to deciding which candidate is most likely to advance the common good…can only be morally comprehended through the virtue of prudence.”

As one invested in politics, and as a Thomist, it’s prudent for me to “gloss” the bishop’s remarks. For St. Thomas, prudence is a cardinal virtue. It is both an intellectual and moral virtue. He defines it as right reason in action. A prudent judgment involves taking careful counsel and then acting, with dispatch, on that judgment.

For Thomas, every sound action depends on prudence. He also affirms the unity of the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage. To the degree that an action is deficient in one of these, it is deficient in all of them. It’s worth noting that cardo, the root of cardinal means hinge. To the extent that we damage any hinge, we weaken all the interlinked hinges.

No one acts prudently, with right reason, who violates the commandment “Thou shall not kill.” Abortion, we know, is the deliberate destruction of an innocent baby. Nor does anyone act with prudence who acts in order to enable or encourage others to destroy the preborn. Speaker Pelosi, at the national level, does just this. So does President Biden. (So does Governor Newsom here in California.)

Human life is a core good, and Thomas notes that “whatever is a means of preserving human life, and of warding off its obstacles, belongs to the natural law” (ST I-II q. 94, art. 2). The natural law is accessible to all reasonable people, and its violation violates us all. Rather than facilitating abortion, Catholic political leaders should work tirelessly to make it not only illegal but unthinkable. Women deserve better than abortion.

Bishop McElroy, for his part, complains that “Some Catholic commentators on voting have in recent years portrayed prudential judgment as having a deficient dignity and grasp of the truth. They say that there is a categorical claim to support candidates who legislatively oppose intrinsic evils, but only a secondary claim for candidates whose proposals rest on prudential judgment for their moral discernment.” If his point is that prudence is never a second-rate virtue, I share it. But the “commentators” are probably using “prudential” to mean that some legislative actions do not directly address the core goods of human flourishing but, rather, secondary or tertiary considerations which are open to debate.

Prudence, moreover, is a far cry from a consequentialist weighing up of supposed results. Bishop McElroy needs to block this muddle. He does not do so, unfortunately, when he offers the following comment. “The death toll from abortion is more immediate, but the long-term death toll from unchecked climate change is larger and threatens the very future of humanity.”

As Stephen White has observed, “The Guttmacher Institute estimates there are some 50 million abortions performed globally each year.” He rightly adds that in any case “To compare the direct, intentional killing of innocents to the remote, unintended consequences (however foreseeable) of complex global phenomena like climate change clarifies next to nothing.” Prudence never supports the direct, intentional killing of innocents. Some Catholic politicians might pretend otherwise, but they need to be disabused. It is long past time to do so.

We have so long been “knee deep in the Big Muddy” that many see no alternative. As a candidate for public office, my chief goal has been to make better known an alternative political party that is wholly committed to a consistent ethics of life. The American Solidarity Party is prolife for the whole of life, and for this reason recognizes abortion as a preeminent assault on the common good. In doing so, it at the same time looks to the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity, and economic democracy as the sources of building up the common good.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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