So, we’ve heard this before from George Weigel:

Rather than expending fruitless energies defending the social welfare state as we know it—in the first few months of 2012, the bishops’ conference (as represented by its domestic policy committee) issued letters urging renewed or expanded funding for some 20 federal social welfare programs—the Catholic Church in the United States should be at the forefront of exploring the path beyond the welfare state, stressing the moral and cultural dimensions of that necessary journey. The Church has no special expertise in the technicalities of public policy; and in any event, the Church ought never have measured “social justice” by budget line-items.

Micheal Sean Winters responded:

I challenge the bishops to decline to publish Mr. Weigel’s columns until he publicly affirms that he is willing to submit his intellect and will to the Church’s teaching he is currently so keen to attack. He writes: “Catholic social doctrine is a tradition of moral realism: it takes facts seriously. And the increasing burden of the evidence is that the social welfare state as we have known it is dying—and in fact deserves to die.” No, sir. The burden of evidence merely shows that you are publicly dissenting from the teachings of the Church.

And then yesterday Rick Garnett defended Weigel against Winters:

It cannot be the case — and it is not the case — that embrace of the Church’s social teaching and magisterium requires, or even advises, us to support current policy with respect to, say, social-welfare programs and spending, or public-sector unionism.  It is sometimes hackery, but in any event it’s mistaken, to assert (as some in recent months have done) that, “because the Church supports unions, it’s contrary to Church teaching to criticize public-employee unions,” or to claim that “because the Church teaches that the political community has an obligation to the vulnerable, it’s contrary to Church teaching to express concerns about the costs, efficiency, and long-term sustainability of current social-welfare-spending practices.”

I wonder if Winters and Garnett be reconciled on this.  Garnett is of course correct that public policy is a prudential judgment based on matters of doctrine, but there is sometimes significant complexity involved in determining whether what is being contested by the Catholic (economic) right is a prudential judgement about policy or matter of doctrine.  For instance, Catholic Social Doctrine proposes that all workers have a right to a “living wage.”  One may, for instance, argue about what constitutes a living wage given a current set of social considerations…and that is one thing.  But to argue, as some on the Catholic (economic) right do, that it should simply be a market alone which determines wages seems to dissent from Catholic Social Doctrine.

In addition, there at least appear to be clear doctrines–distinct from prudential judgments about public policy–that are also called into question.  It would be interesting, for instance, to see if Weigel and others like him accept Catholic Social Doctrine on the universal destination of goods and the teaching that private property is under a social mortgage for the common good.  This seems to fly in the face of the Catholic (economic) right’s rhetoric and focus on individuals keeping the money and goods which “belong to them.”  At least if one does not dissent from Catholic Social Doctrine, what one has earned does not “belong to them”–indeed, it may even be licitly taken by others in great need without it constituting theft.  Why?  Because it is a Catholic doctrine that all private property ultimately belongs to the common good with a preference for the poor.

It would also be interesting to see if Weigel (and Garnett) would accept the same doctrine/policy distinction when it comes to life issues.  Suppose a Catholic politician says that she supports all of the Church’s doctrines on the sanctity of human life, the prohibition against killing persons, and duties to aid vulnerable populations.  But then let us suppose she has a broadly pro-choice voting record because she believes the Church, in calling for legal protection of our prenatal children, is speaking about a technical area of public policy about which it has no expertise or authority.  Suppose she believes that laws against abortion would be virtually unenforceable and harm women.  Suppose she argued that the kind of big government necessary to monitor women’s reproductive choices poses a serious danger for the common good.  Suppose she thought that the best way to save prenatal life was by creating the social conditions in which women would be more likely to freely choose to keep their child.  On this basis, then, could she vote for pro-choice legislation, against pro-life justices, etc., without publicly dissenting from Catholic teaching?


Garnett has responded (by updating the link posted above) already, and I’m grateful because it gives me a chance to make some things more clear.  He is right, in my view, to reject the “I’m pro-life but think we should continue excluding unborn children, because they are unborn, from the protections the law provides to other human beings against lethal violence” position.  He is also right in saying that the Church teaches that it is fundamentally unjust to discriminate against one class of human persons.

But the Catholic pro-choice politician I’m asking Garnett (and others) to consider does not need to worry about either of these concerns.  Given what I said about her above, she would say, yes, it is fundamentally unjust to discriminate against one class of persons, and, yes, I don’t believe that unborn children should be excluded from protections of the law simply because they are unborn children.  Remember, this person accepts all the moral truths about the personhood of the fetus, the wrongness of killing her, etc…but she also says, as Garnett does, that “to identify a moral truth is not to identify the best, let alone the morally required, policy or law.”  Why couldn’t she say that people like Garnett and Camosy who want to use the law to protect the agreed-upon dignity of our prenatal children by restricting abortion just don’t understand the practical implications of doing it this way? As mentioned above, she rejects pro-life (in this case it would be more accurate to say “anti-abortion”) laws because she believes they are unenforceable (and will therefore not protect any babies), hurt women, and create an intrusive, big government solution to the problem.

Now, to be clear, I disagree with some of her practical and prudential judgments (in particular, Ireland has shown that laws restricting abortion can do what this politician says they would not), but can we really say that her support of pro-choice laws and justices (on the basis described above and no other) dissents from Church doctrine?  At least if we set up the doctrine/policy relationship the way that Garnett and Weigel have done, it seems that she has not.  Our disagreement with her is about practical matters of public policy, something about and over which Garnett and Weigel claim the institutional Church has no particular expertise or authority.