8.05.2009

Divininizing one's political opinions

I've tried to give expression to this a few times before, but I thought I'd give it one more try this evening.

I think that the greatest danger for Catholics thinking about politics is the desire to anoint one's political opinions. By this I mean the temptation (or tendency) to argue that a personal prudential judgment about political (i.e. secular and sacred) matters is somehow part of revelation. I think this is the root of authoritarianism and I think it belies a ideological or closed-minded intellectual disposition.

This disposition stems from primarily from an inability to distinguish between principles and judgments. For Catholics, this distinction is very clearly defined. Principles are not, as some would have you believe, difficult to comprehend or nuanced. They are generally quite simple and can be understood with little effort. They are also authoritative assuming that they are true. Catholics are given authoritative confirmation that their moral principles are true by faith. Catholics are not, or should not be confused about principles.

Judgments about political reality are different. They require an assembly of moral principles and additionally facts about reality. In other words, we must understand both our principles and more difficultly, we must have true knowledge about present reality. Our knowledge of circumstances is always imperfect and flawed. It is clouded by our "filter", as Fr. Corapi would say, and is subject to our limited knowledge and also limited ability to assemble that knowledge into a conceptual whole. Our judgments about political reality can go wrong in failing to incorporate an applicable principle, or by applying faulty logic, or by being ignorant of what is the case, or some combination of these things.

This is perhaps a good time to express the danger I see as inherent in reading Catholic Social Teaching. Social Teaching is a combination of both moral political principles and political judgments. We need to be able to distinguish between these two types of ideas if we are to read Social Teaching correctly. If we see prudential judgments in an encyclical, we must be able to recognize them as such. If we see principles, we must understand them as principles. We should not elevate the status of judgment to principle.

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