Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Decisions, decisions…and the strenuous art of making good ones

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 25, 2024

The daily news provides us with innumerable stories which could have been uplifting but instead have become horror stories because of patently bad decisions. Of course, a few stories are the direct result of good decisions. But in general, good decisions do not make news unless they are strong decisions running against the general tide of public opinion (in which case they will be widely lamented as stunningly bad decisions). Merely by looking at yesterday’s news—in this case the news reported on the Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist, who so courageously decided to bear an unceasingly provocative witness to Christ—we see immediately that, even in Catholic affairs, good decisions can be thin on the ground.

Let us take four examples:

Catholic health system agrees to allow ‘necessary’ abortions: The nominally Catholic Mercy Health system which operates 23 hospitals in Ohio has decided to support its doctors’ decisions to perform abortions if they are judged necessary to save the mothers’ lives, while insisting that elective abortions continue to be prohibited. But the evidence of history is that many doctors have routinely justified abortion by stating that it is necessary to save the life of a mother, and who is on hand to contradict them? Moreover, the direct killing of one person to save the life of another is a decision that morally belongs only to God, our Creator. In addition to being specifically immoral for a human to commit murder, this is also what we might call a “slippery slope” decision. Given many other common medical procedures that are patently immoral, this decision is probably more frozen water on the slope.

Vatican foundation president calls for global authority to regulate AI: This story continues a long tradition in which leading Catholics, even those deeply involved in ecclesiastical affairs, seem to assume that governments and other regulatory authorities in this world can be trusted to make virtuous prudential decisions on behalf of all the rest of us—even in periods when nearly every government is devoted to undermining Christian values! But as anyone who has been paying attention to human history can attest, the possibility of good governmental decisions is at best a toss-up, and the more the principle of subsidiarity is ignored as regulators operate from an ever-higher level on the earthly pyramid, the more tax revenue is needed and the more everything tends to bog down.

This doesn’t mean all regulation is wrong; far from it. But it will generally be wrong if the vast majority of people do not understand the problem—and very few people have any idea of what, if any, dangers are posed by artificial intelligence. I advise reading Tom Fowler’s series on AI, of which two of the four parts have already been published, in order to realize exactly how little AI is understood. (Start with AI, its capabilities and threats.)

Vatican prefect doubles down in defense of use of Rupnik’s art: This touchy question centers on whether the Church should continue to display the artwork of a contemporary priest who is (apparently almost certainly) guilty of extensive sexual abuse. The exchange between reporters and the prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication—perhaps the last body which should permit itself to give scandal—reveals a disconnect between the gravity of the problem and the insouciance of the Prefect. In cases like this, discretion is clearly the better part of valor. It is better to quietly back away from the promotion of the artwork of contemporaries who have been credibly accused than to create scandal by appearing not to be aware—especially in the Dicastery for Communication—of the message being sent. Truly, the mind boggles. Yet this prefect seems to think that clerical sexual abuse is not so bad if it involves adult women (dozens of religious sisters) rather than minors….

Spanish nuns excommunicated after renouncing Pope’s authority: Between the Carmelites in Texas and this story’s coverage of the Poor Clares in Belorado, Spain, it seems that anyone can be led astray. Such situations go a long way toward explaining why the Catholic Church is hierarchical, and why it possesses the one thing every other religious group lacks, namely an infallible teaching authority. There seems to be no limit to the confusion possible in religious groups which refuse to be tethered. But Catholics must abandon the Faith to decide that ecclesiastical authority does not apply to them. To prefer one’s own will to that extent is a study in diabolical self-righteousness. It is always far safer to suffer through ecclesiastical obedience than to dispense with it.

Making good decisions

Good decisions in this world are few and far between, and even Church leaders must take great care to make decisions in a context of study, advice, the exercise of prudence, and not only special prayers but a life of prayer. It is easy enough to make snap judgements based on our own instantaneous preferences (as indeed I have done here to some extent), but making good decisions in positions of authority is one of the most weighty of responsibilities. This is as true for a father or mother in a family as for a pastor or religious superior in a Catholic institution. It is also true of each human person at every (rational) stage of life, for we must constantly make moral, vocational and practical decisions of every kind.

To prepare ourselves to make good decisions we must cultivate that openness to grace which has characterized all the saints. Without shirking our own preparatory responsibilities, we must rely on both God and his angels to protect us from our own stupidity, perhaps even our own waywardness, and even our own tendency toward what is called the “respect of persons”, that is, being influenced by the social status or prestige of those who may press us in one way or another. Where applicable, of course, we must pay close attention to the authority of the Church. And of course we must consider how our decisions will affect not only ourselves but others, especially those likely to be influenced by us, or those under our care.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, good decisions will also have to be counter-cultural in at least some ways. Perhaps it is for this reason that a very brief survey of the stories captured on any given news day will almost certainly demonstrate how rare truly good decisions are. In moral matters, at least, if we ever opt for a conclusion in line with the practice of the dominant culture, it should raise an immediate red flag.

Therefore, we ought to recall the Psalmist’s cry: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From whence does my help come” (Ps 121)? Sadly, when looking back over our own lives, we will recall a long string of bad decisions, made most frequently when we did not look for that help. (I presume I am not the only one who cannot look back very far without pain.) But trust in God will also quash any tendency to despair, for “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” This recognition lies at the very root of our responsibility to make decisions, including the understanding that even a refusal of that responsibility is a decision. In any case, the cautionary tales surround us daily. May God preserve us from ever taking our own ability to make good decisions for granted.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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