So far I’ve agreed with Bishop McElroy that the distinction between principles and prudential judgments should be consistently applied to both social evils and intrinsically evil acts, but I’ve suggested that he is not consistently following his own advice.
But there is another way he might have made his argument, and I think it would have been stronger. Suppose we agree that the decision to press for an increase in the minimum wage, rather than, say, a change in vocational training, is a judgment of prudence. And suppose we further agree that the decision to press for a series of graduated restrictions on abortion, rather than an immediate comprehensive prohibition, is a judgment of prudence too. But notice: The Church does press for graduated restrictions on abortion. Why then may she not press for an increase in the minimum wage? If one judgment of prudence is within her purview, why not all judgments of prudence? Aren’t all judgments of prudence the same?
What this alternative argument gets right is that the Church does sometimes press judgments of prudence, and not just about abortion. Consider the run-up to the Second World War. She might have contented herself with restating the principles which Nazi ideology denied, but she went further. “With burning concern,” she judged that the Nazi regime had committed atrocities in violation of these principles, and condemned it for them.
What the alternative argument does not get right is whether all judgments of prudence are the same. Some are so urgent and obvious that no person of good will could deny them; they are inseparable from the defense of principle itself. But most are either not so urgent, not so obvious, or neither. Principle can be defended without insisting on them, and reasonable debate among persons of good will may even improve them.
The Church must ardently press the former kind of prudential judgment. With equal ardor, she must resist the temptation to press the latter kind.
Sadly, human beings are capable of dispute even over the question of which things are reasonably indisputable. It is sufficient to point out that this does not imply that they all really are.