I Wish I Could Feel How It Feels To Be Free

An irate email prompts me to revisit the matters of clericalism, the role of the laity, and the exercise of prudence I've been going on about for the past several posts. Just for a moment let me take the question out of the realm of support for the Iraq War.

All these years since Vatican II, people still seem not to understand that the “role of the laity” has nothing to do with lay people taking on clerical functions (becoming eucharistic ministers and the like), and everything to do with them transforming the world in which they live by individual Christian witness and the proper exercise of their own expertise, talents and authority within their own state in life. In a recent blog post, someone complained that Bishop Chaput admitted bishops weren’t experts on immigration and said it was the job of the laity to find a good solution to the immigration problem. I say good man –he knows his role, and he knows the laity’s as well. The role of the laity in finding solutions proper to their own states in life and sphere of responsibility is elucidated in Vatican II and, most recently, in Benedict XVI’s own encyclical, Deus Caritas Est.

Now, to take a case I confront all the time in my “mommy” circles. Suppose you are a Christian parent. Should you send your kids to parochial or public schools or should you homeschool? It is Church teaching that parents are the primary educators of their children. They have the responsibility to educate their kids –and the Catholic understanding of education entails the additional and primary responsibility of forming children’s character and educating them in the faith. There is also, as the Vatican II document on education states, an obligation in conscience to support Catholic schools because of their charitable and evangelizing work.

Just as some people misread the Scriptures by “proof-texting” –that is, taking verses in isolation instead of reading them in the context of the whole—so we Catholics tend to focus on the parts of Church teaching that justify our preferences. So there are homeschooling groups which will insist that homeschooling is the Church’s preferred model of education because “parents are the primary educators of their children.” And there is also a prominent Catholic apologist who teaches that if you can afford it, it’s immoral not to put your kids in Catholic schools, because there is “an obligation in conscience to support Catholic schools.”

Of course, neither is correct, and such absolute prescriptions belie the freedom of mature Christianity. The Church offers us moral principles by which to educate our consciences, but we aren’t slaves who do what we’re told (though I find that many of us really do wish to be told what to do, as a way of evading responsibility for our choices). We’re free agents who have to make decisions about how to apply the principles in our lives. Your clergy and your Catholic friends can offer you moral guidance and friendly tips to guide your decision-making, but even the Pope can’t tell you whether to homeschool your children or send them to a public or Catholic school. If he knew you personally he might have an opinion, but he cannot know as well as you do all the factors as they apply in your own life, you are the one who will have to give account to God for your decision, and, moreover, you are a free moral agent. For those three reasons, no one else can take that decision from you.

Applying the principles of the virtue of Prudence (scroll down a few posts), you have to deliberate, make the best decision you can, then act accordingly. If some new datum comes into play (you lose your job and can’t pay tuition, the school turns out to have terrible discipline problems, etc.), then you can revisit the question. But so long as there are no new data, you have no reason to revisit the question. Lying awake each night agonizing over your decision –or worse, vacillating such that the school year’s halfway over before you commit, or you start with one method, doubt yourself, try something else, such that the kid changes schools every other month –these are not signs of thoughtfulness, but of a deformed will. Prudence is a moral virtue anyone can exercise, but for Christians this kind of agonized self-doubt is particularly wrong because it indicates a lack of confidence in God. If you have a faithful prayer life, he himself is going to help you make decisions. Can you make a mistake? Of course, but in that instance he himself will enlighten your conscience and help you to steer right. To live in a state of perpetual anxiety over moral decisions that were well and honestly made is a fault against prudence –take no thought for the morrow.

To return to the question of the war. The Catechism (#2309) makes the principles by which a just war is to be evaluated clear, but the final authority for interpreting how those principles apply in a given situation does not lie with clerics at any level of authority, but those who have responsibility for the common good –our political leaders. It’s all very well what the rest of us think –we should reason and persuade all we can. But in the end, the fitness or rightness of going to war is none of our call, not even the Pope’s. The President has access to information that the rest of us do not have, so he’s the one best able to make a judgment. And he has the responsibility (no one else in the world will stand before God to answer for how he exercised his office), and for that reason the authority.

We desperately need a deeper and more reasoned discussion of how (or if you like, if) Just War applies in a time of terror. But we also need a deep humility about the limits of our reason because none of us on any side of the debate is sitting in on the threat level briefings the President receives every day. Most of the information he has is classified, and we will not know it or be able to evaluate it for many, many years –if ever. (Incidentally, this –the fact that we don’t have access to classified information—is why it is important to elect men of good character. Because in some matters we have no choice but to trust them.)

I don’t say that ought to prevent us from making our arguments – but I see little evidence that the President’s critics –left or right—remember that they can’t and don’t know the whole story. In Catholic circles, it might be well to recall that our role is not to sit in judgment over the President (the Pope doesn’t), but, with deep respect for the burdens of his office and his decision-making authority, to help enlighten the path to right conduct. You might call it solidarity.