Prudential judgement is the application of the virtue of Prudence to some given situation in making a judgement as to the virtuous course of action. The Catechism defines Prudence as follows:
1806 Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; "the prudent man looks where he is going." "Keep sane and sober for your prayers." Prudence is "right reason in action," writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle. It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid. [emphasis added]So a prudential judgement is the application of moral principles to a particular case in order to achieve good and avoid evil. Thus, obviously, saying something is a matter of prudential judgement does not mean that "there is no right answer". The process of making a prudential judgement is one of judging which is the virtuous action to take in a given circumstance. Prudential judgments are definitionally moral questions. "Is vanilla or chocolate ice cream more tasty?" is not a matter of prudential judgement, it's a matter of personal taste.
Often "matters of prudential judgement" are contrasted with "intrinsic evils", especially in matters of political discourse. This leads to a lot of angst in some quarters. What is the difference?
An action which is intrinsically evil is something which is always and everywhere wrong. To use one of the standard examples: Abortion is an intrinsic evil in that the act of abortion can never be a just action. The taking of human life is not an intrinsic evil because it is an action which is unjust in some circumstances (murder) but just in others (self defense, just war, times and places when the common good requires the use of capital punishment). (My goal is to be short here, so I'm not going to enter into discussion of double effect.) As this example shows, just because something is not intrinsically evil doesn't mean that it isn't worthy of very, very serious moral reflection. Clearly, one can't say, "Killing another human being is not intrinsically evil, so reasonable people can feel free to differ on it." The prudential judgement of "does this situation justify the taking of human life" is clearly a moral question of the very highest magnitude.
Why then this distinction between "intrinsic evils" and "prudential judgments" in political discussion among Catholics? I think reason is that some moral principles seem to have political applications so obvious that there can be little room for variance in judgement. For instance, abortion is often cited as an example of an intrinsic evil on which Catholics may not vary in their opinion in politics. It is a belief held by much of the political left in this country that there is a "right to choice" in regards to abortion, in other words that a woman has a fundamental human right (which the state must respect and protect) to choose to have an abortion if she so chooses. From a Catholic moral point of view, one may not have a right to do something which is evil. I cannot have a "right to choose to torture" or a "right to choose to murder". As such, I think it's legitimate to say that a Catholic may not hold that a person has a right to procure an abortion.
However, as we get to less direct applications of moral principle to practical situations, there comes to be more room for disagreement. Perhaps a good way to look at this would be to sidestep for a moment our contemporary political issues and look at one of Thomas Aquinas' more controversial prudential judgments: He held that although fornication was always wrong, and prostitution was necessarily an act of fornication (and thus acts of prostitution are always wrong), it was not necessarily prudent for the state to try to ban and stamp out the practice of prostitution, because trying to enforce such a ban would cause greater evils than not doing so.
I don't agree with Aquinas on this one, at least in regards our own time and place, but since the example seems outrageous right now I think it underscores two important points: First, it's possible to have differing prudential judgments from serious Catholics even on seemingly very black-and-white moral issues. Second, when faithful Catholics find themselves strongly disagreeing on a matter of prudential judgement, the key difference is over the practicalities of the application of moral principle, not the moral principle. So, if I found myself in a debate with Aquinas about whether to outlaw prostitution, my arguments would necessarily need to address his concerns as to the potential ill effects of enforcing a ban on prostitution and how those ill effects should be measured against the evil effects of not banning it. It would not make sense for me to keep insisting to him, "But don't you know that prostitution is wrong?" (One of the difficulties in these kinds of debates is that often the participants harbor the suspicion, perhaps with justification, that the person on the other side doesn't really think that the evil under discussion is all that wrong. I have no way to deal with that here, though, so I'm going to leave it aside.)
The more complicated the practical application, and the more pieces of knowledge and assumption other than the moral law at stake that analyzing the situation depends on, the more we will expect to see variance among faithful Catholics on an issue of prudential judgement. For instance, many on the left objected to the following comments from Archbishop Chaput in a recent interview:
Question: "What about the wing of the church that says a party that supports the Ryan budget also ought to cause concern?"While many accused Chaput of suggesting that because something is open to prudential judgement, that it thus isn't a moral issue, what Chaput is doing here shows, I think, a very clear appreciation of the difference between moral principles and the prudent application to particular situations. First, he very clearly states the principle and the absolute necessity of living it out to the best of our ability: "Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to go to hell. Period. There’s just no doubt about it." He then makes it clear that faithful Catholics may, through the exercise of prudence and their understanding of the situation, come to different conclusions as how to best follow this moral principle. In so doing, he makes it very clear that although our understanding of what is best to be done may vary widely, we cannot shrug this off as "just a matter of prudential judgement" because our salvation rests on our ability to honestly follow this principle to the best of our ability.
Abp. Chaput: "Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to go to hell. Period. There’s just no doubt about it. That has to be a foundational concern of Catholics and of all Christians. But Jesus didn’t say the government has to take care of them, or that we have to pay taxes to take care of them. Those are prudential judgments. Anybody who would condemn someone because of their position on taxes is making a leap that I can’t make as a Catholic...."
Some may feel that this still leaves too much room for people going astray. After all, in some quarter "conscience" has been used as a sort of get-out-of-sin-free card over the last fifty years, with people insisting that they can ignore Church teaching on certain issues so long as they follow their own consciences, thus ignoring the moral imperative to rightly form our consciences.
There is legitimacy to this concern. Especially when it comes to debating issues such as federal budgets and economic policy, citizens are being asked to form opinions on subjects which are incredibly complex and which even experts in the field often do not agree on. To take just one example, when asked about Paul Ryan's budget in the same interview, Abp. Chaput replied:
"The Ryan budget isn’t the budget I would write. I think he’s trying to deal with the same issue in the government I’m dealing with here locally, which is spending more than we bring in. I admire the courage of anyone who’s actually trying to solve the problems rather than paper over them. I think a vigorous debate about the issues, rather than the personalities, is the way through this problem. It’s immoral for us to continue to spend money we don’t have."You'd think that the idea that one should not continue to spend more than one makes (thus running up debt) would be fairly non-controversial. But in fact, you'll find economists subscribing to "modern money theory" who insist that government debt is simply not a problem and that we should never pay off the debt and never run a budget surplus (because, in their theory, this would cause a recession.) More in the economic mainstream, you'll find varying opinion among economists as to whether government deficit spending during a recession can "jumpstart" the economy by getting money flowing, or whether increasing debt simply makes the situation worse, and a whole range of gradations in between. Certainly, it behooves the archbishop, if he's going to form a prudent opinion on budgetary policy, to read a bit about these various schools of thought, but given the variance of opinion even among experts in the field, I think it's understandable that well meaning Catholics with the same moral principles will nonetheless come to very different policy preferences when they attempt to apply prudent judgement to the circumstances as they understand them.
One of the difficulties here is: For many of those deeply attached to particular points of view, it becomes nearly impossible to imagine that reasonable people might differ. This is exacerbated when people are arguing about topics on which their understanding is not necessarily comprehensive in the first place. And so often we find people questioning motives rather than realizing how different other people's beliefs about how the world works can be. (e.g. "If Paul Ryan really cared about balancing the budget, he wouldn't be proposing tax cuts." and "If Obama really wanted to grow jobs, he wouldn't be threatening to raise taxes.")
Many among our bishops, Chaput and Dolan among them, seem to recognize this reality: that well meaning Catholics will necessarily differ on questions such as how the economy works or what will be the result of various policies, and that we would necessarily see an incredibly wide range of different ideas of what it means to concretely apply the moral necessity to "help the poor" in the political arena. Thus, when they acknowledge that there will be disagreement among the faithful on those issues that are subject to prudential judgement, they acknowledge that even among well formed and prudent people, opinion will vary on what is best to do. This doesn't mean that what decisions we make don't matter. It just means that it is very difficult to reach comprehensive agreement on what our situation is, how the incredibly complex systems of our economy and our culture work, and what actions we should take in order to achieve the common good. Indeed, we should expect that Catholics will, in good faith, passionately disagree on many of these "prudential judgement" issues.