A long-running battle between the so-called Catholic left and the so-called Catholic right concerns which political issues the Church should speak about and which ones she shouldn’t. One crucial distinction is that teaching the basic principles of Catholic social doctrine go to the heart of her charism, but she has no special expertise in prudential judgments about how to apply them.

For example, the Church rightly insists that the effect of laws and policies on the poorest and most vulnerable must be considered before their effect on other groups. This is a principle of social doctrine. But she is not qualified to say whether a high minimum wage would help the poor by raising their incomes, or hurt them by throwing marginally skilled laborers out of work. This is a judgment of prudence.

As my choice of example may suggest, I think the Church often blurs this distinction. After all, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops thinks that it is qualified to analyze the effects of the minimum wage.

So when a friend told me about an article in America, which according to my friend denied that the distinction between principle and prudence has merit anyway, I expected to disagree with it.

Well, I disagreed with many things in the article, but to my surprise, it didn’t deny that distinction. It was actually making a point about a different one, between social evils and intrinsically evil acts. But in the course of the argument, it came very close to a third distinction, and that one is crucial.

Could unraveling these three distinctions help Catholics who want to be faithful to the teachings of the Church but who disagree about governmental social policy come a little closer? I hope so. Let us try.

The article, “A Church for the Poor,” is by the most rev. Robert W. McElroy, auxiliary bishop of San Francisco. He writes, “It is frequently asserted, particularly in election years, that issues pertaining to intrinsic evils do not necessitate prudential judgment, while other grave evils like war, poverty or the unjust treatment of immigrants are merely prudentially laden issues on which people of good will can disagree.” But “the truth is that prudence is a necessary element of any effort to advance the common good through governmental action.”

In other words, Bishop McElroy accepts the distinction between basic principles of Catholic social doctrine and prudential judgments about how to apply them. His complaint is not that we shouldn’t distinguish them, but that we ought to apply this distinction consistently—not only when we are considering social evils such as poverty, but also when we are considering intrinsically evil acts such as abortion. Both kinds of issues involve core principles of Catholic teaching which cannot in good faith be denied and both of them involve prudential judgments about which reasonable persons may disagree.

Excellent point. The devil is in the details.

Part 2 tomorrow:  What devil?  What details?