We all have an unscientific weakness for being always in the right, and this weakness seems to be particularly common among professional and amateur politicians. But the only way to apply something like scientific method in politics is to proceed on the assumption that there can be no political move which has no drawbacks, no undesirable consequences. To look out for these mistakes, to find them, to bring them into the open, to analyze them, to learn from them, that is what a scientific politician as well as a political scientist must do. Scientific method in politics means the the great art of convincing ourselves that we have not made any mistakes, of ignoring them, of hiding them, of blaming others for them, is replaced by the greater art of accepting responsibility for them, of trying to learn from them, and of applying this knowledge so that we may avoid them in the future.
Karl Popper (1957), The Poverty of Historicism, p.88.
Reading Popper’s observation, I wonder if it might not be beneficial to adopt his view of science to the pastoral life of the Church. While there are limits to the empirical methodologies of the natural and social sciences, I think clergy are as prone as politicians to image there are ” no undesirable consequences” to our decisions. This is especially so when we judge are actions to be consonant with theological orthodoxy.
But the most theological orthodoxy can provide us is the limits beyond which we can’t go if we wish to stay in communion with the Church. What dogma can’t do is tell us which of several competing plans is best. The answer to this question requires that we cultivate the practical virtue of prudence.
While piety and prudence aren’t opposed, they can’t be reduced one to other. When piety is reduced to prudence, although is to say when we act without faith, pastoral care becomes mechanical, a means of exerting and maintaining power and control. And when prudence is reduced to piety? Then what we are left with is mere ideology.
In both cases there is a failure to preach the Gospel. We can debate if one failure is worse than the other but this too is simply another failure to preach the Gospel. Piety and prudence are both needed and one without the other is incapable of communicating the life of Christ.