Over at dotcommonweal, I posted on a Catholic Democrat who made recourse to the infamous “prudential judgment” distinction in explaining why he was not supporting the immigration reform legislation supported by the Catholic bishops. The comment thread made me once again acutely aware of how problematic and confusing it is to separate issues into ones involved prudential judgment and ones that do not, and then imply a hierarchy of importance or centrality based on this contention. The effect of such a distinction is to center Catholic moral teaching on issues where absolute norms are articulated, and then claim a kind of immunity to episcopal teaching on other matters.

I want to break down what I see as the key problems with this way of proceeding:

First, there is the obvious problem that numerous absolute norms are not in fact the focus of absolute legislation. Some of these absolute norms – such as the one against adultery – are not even subject to significant conflict within the Catholic community. Yet legally we now tolerate adultery, even if we frown on it in terms of social norms. This is also evidently true in terms of contraception. As I’ve mentioned before, the root of this problem is confusing “absoluteness” of norms with “importance.”

Second, there is a sense in which virtually all absolute norms are subject to prudential judgment at the level of civil legislation. True, there is a limit here – genocides, slavery, the total confiscation of property. But thankfully most debate in our society never approaches advocating these extreme conditions. Abortion and euthanasia might be the closest candidates. Yet even in these cases, the issues inevitably requires prudential judgment, because (a) these matters are matters of toleration of individual choices, rather than direct government activity to force immoral choice, and (b) at least in the case of abortion, the existing circumstances of legal abortion force judgments (short of constitutional abolition) that involve incremental change.

Third, the social encyclicals are filled with statements that, while more complex than “X is wrong,” nevertheless are stated in terms of moral rules. Take the issue of immigration, the one under discussion here. In Laborem Exercens (para. 23), Bl. John Paul II states that:

The most important thing is that the person working away from his native land, whether as a permanent emigrant  or as a seasonal worker, should not be placed at a disadvantage in comparison with the other workers in that society in the matter of working rights. Emigration in search of work must in no way become an opportunity for financial or social exploitation. (italics added)

The wording here is quite clear. John Paul II bases this admonition on two deeper truths: the right to emigrate from one country to another, and the priority of labor over capital, both of which are repeatedly stated in magisterial teaching. The foundation for this teaching is firm and deep. Now we must ask ourselves: do we live in a society that relies on migrant labor for essential functions? Is that migrant labor placed at a disadvantage in terms of workers’ rights? The answer to both questions is plainly yes. That is why we are having a debate! (For more on this, see Matt Shadle’s excellent recent post on the 10th anniversary of the US Bishops’ letter Strangers No Longer.) Is the teaching above subject to “prudential judgment”? Yes, in terms of overall policy proposals… but it is clearly not open to such judgment in terms of the necessity of its aim to solve the problem of a shadow workforce of human beings who are deprived of rights and subject to exploitation.

Fourth, those who disagree with the prudential judgments of the bishops on this or any other issue seem to me to bear a significant burden of proof. Such a disagreement is not a non-rational disagreement of taste or opinion; it is (if it’s prudential!) a judgment of reason, and therefore (as one dotCW commenter noted) initiates discussion, rather than ends it. Perhaps in some cases, this disagreement is benign, in the sense that there are two different legitimate approaches to a problem, each with somewhat different pros and cons, varying and uncertain effects, etc. Say, regulation versus some kind of cap-and-trade for controlling carbon emissions. In other cases, however, the disagreement is not benign – that is, advocating one position necessarily and logically involves thinking the other to be (at least in part) illegitimate. Ordinarily, it would be an important responsibility of bishops’ conferences and statements to signal ways of distinguishing these two sorts of disagreements. Some complex legislation might include elements of each kind of prudential judgment. I am not an expert on immigration policy, but it would seem that while there might be benign disagreements about how freely we should allow immigration to happen, the question of workers already here and contributing to the economy is a situation where the bishops say that it is urgent to have legislation to regularize their status – and to disagree with this would not be benign, but to suggest the bishops are in error in their defense of John Paul II’s basic statement.

Fifth, I think this issue is most concerning because of a larger phenomenon in which the “prudential judgment” card becomes a way to avoid the organic unity of the whole of Catholic teaching, and to do so in order to maintain one’s overall alignment with the policy priorities of one or the other party. To use personal examples, but not to single out people, I do not believe that Rep. Lipinski or Rep. Pelosi have grasped the Catholic vision of human and social life – but I believe that the bishops and the magisterium have come significantly closer to doing so. I believe last year’s debate over Rep. Ryan’s budget was a matter of the same thing: a question not about the details of policy, ultimately, but about a significant misunderstanding of the wholeness of Catholic teaching. (Just to be clear: this is not a judgment on anybody’s soul or eternal salvation, or even of their sincerity, or even of whether one could vote for them!) By claiming “prudential judgment” in these significant discussions, what is obscured is the claim Catholic teaching makes to be a complete vision, a unified whole. That vision does not provide a simple blueprint for policy. However, it does provide clear orientation for the ends of policy, an orientation that is in significant conflict with the philosophical assumptions (or if you prefer, the theological anthropology) that founds other kinds of policy.

Sixth, in light of the claim of the Catholic vision to be a unified whole, it seems to me at base more honest to proceed as revisionists have done, by claiming that a policy disagreement on a significant issue is indicative of a potential need to revise the thinking of the tradition – a possibility which has precedent, though is not perhaps so easily thought through as is sometimes assumed. Putting it in terms of the “other side,” it seems to me that it would be more honest of those who oppose episcopal teaching on economic or immigration issues to suggest that an aspect of the overall magisterial vision is flawed. Most notably, it seems to me they would have to argue that the medieval notion of the common good still lingers in its medieval, organic form in Catholic teaching, and needs to be rethought in light of the distinctive character of the modern, pluralistic nation-state. (Note: I would oppose this argument personally, but it strikes me as an honest claim that would require us, e.g., to overlook or revise our understanding of earlier encyclicals,) However, by using “prudential judgment,” one is able to maintain the pretense of fidelity… and unfortunately reduce it to a handful of absolute norm issues.

I like many others have been impressed with Pope Francis’ forceful and consistent teaching, by word and example, of the comprehensive vision of the Catholic moral life. I would suggest that Francis’ words and actions are anticipated in the Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate, which, for the first time, developed a theology of Catholic social teaching that was completely linked to some of the traditional “absolute norm” issues. It is the enormous potential of such a vision to revitalize Catholic life and witness that is undermined by the “prudential judgment” excuse. The Catholic Church remains a “big tent” where the expectation of absolute agreement on complex social policy is neither possible nor even desirable. However, if such disagreement is not anchored in a thicker common vision, it is of little use.