instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, January 30, 2004

Moral principles and prudential policies

I've decided that, from now on, whenever I see or hear someone write or say, "We need a political party that is good on all aspects of Catholic social teaching," I will reply, "So start one."

If eveyone starts doing this, maybe someone really will start one, and we can all join it and find something else to complain about (like, "We need to win an election once in a while.") (Actually, in Maryland we'd just need to win 1% of the votes for the highest office on the ballot (on the order of 20,000 votes) to remain a recognized political party.)

The rub, however, comes in the form of the questions: What are "all aspects of Catholic social teaching"? And what does it mean to be "good" on them?

The USCCB produces its "Faithful Citizenship" document every four years, which at the very least should inform the party's platform review. (I'm assuming a party good on Catholic social teaching isn't going to be schismatic or monarchistic.)

I've noticed, though, a tendency to move from quoting a magisterial or episcopal document on social issues straight to a particular policy. To invent an example:
As "Faithful Citizenship" says, "The Church calls on all of us to embrace this preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, to embody it in our lives, and to work to have it shape public policies and priorities." We support a workfare program to raise the poor out of poverty; our opponents do not. Therefore, we are closer to Catholic social teaching than they are.
What is missing is the recognition that such a prudential policy is not an exact translation of the moral principle, but an application of that principle combined with other principles, some from fields other than morality, to yield a prudential judgment on the best way to embody the principle in our lives, public policies, and priorities.

I suppose, then, if you want to evaluate a party against Catholic social teaching, you need to do the following:
  1. Construct a list of the key "themes at the heart of our Catholic social tradition."
  2. Determine whether and how the party addresses each theme.
  3. Determine how far the party's stated or implied moral principles guiding how the theme is addressed match those of the Church.
  4. Compare the importance the party assigns to the theme to the importance assigned by the Church.
At this point, you should have a good sense of how well the party aligns itself with Catholic principles. Notice this can be done without evaluating the party's specific policies, except insofar as they embody the principles. Whether a particular policy has a chance of working is a separate question from whether it is an expression of a preferential option for the poor.

Too often, I've seen the inference made that, because a particular policy is judged by the inferrer to be ineffective, the policy itself is evidence the party doesn't really accept the moral principle on which the policy is based, when the real disagreement is over other, perhaps economic or political, principles.