As we saw yesterday, Bishop McElroy doesn’t argue that we shouldn’t distinguish between basic principles and prudential judgments, but that 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.  I closed by saying that this is an excellent point, but the devil is in the details.  Why?

First a bit more explanation.  Concerning poverty, the bishop says the principle which cannot be denied in good faith is that “Catholic teaching demands robust and effective legal sanctions against abortion.” Refusal to support legal restrictions on abortion is inexcusable, even if a legislator argues “that he is in fact doing more to reduce abortions by his support for aid to the poor and health care programs.” On the other hand, reasonable persons may disagree about questions like these: “Should the law criminalize abortion for the mother or for those performing the abortion? Alternatively, should there be noncriminal sanctions? What is the best pathway to outlawing abortion: a series of graduated proposals beginning with parental notification and prohibitions on late-term abortion, or an immediate full court press for comprehensive prohibitions?”

Concerning abortion, he says the principle which cannot be denied in good faith is that “In addition to promoting conditions that provide meaningful jobs for their citizens, nations must provide a humane threshold of income, health benefits and housing.” It would be utterly unjust to “systematically . . . decrease governmental financial support for the poor,” “reduce development assistance to the poorest countries,” or enact “tax policies that increase rather than decrease inequalities.” But reasonable persons may disagree about “financial structures,” “incentives for wealth creation,” and “income support programs that enhance rather than undermine family life.”

Now that devil.  The first difficulty with these examples is that the bishop’s statement of the principle to be defended concerning abortion is far too mushy. He should at least have said that abortion should be discouraged in every practical way, including robust and effective sanctions, sanctions implemented with the greatest possible swiftness and urgency (conceding that since citizens both in and out of government have to be persuaded, the swiftest possible way might conceivably be a series of graduated restrictions, becoming tougher over time).

More to the point is the second difficulty. Although the bishop complains that the distinction between principle and prudence ought to be applied consistently, he does not consistently apply it either. To keep the distinction straight concerning poverty, he should have said something like “governments must earnestly seek the most effective means to raise the level of meaningful employment at good wages, and to ensure that all citizens have access to decent housing and health care.” This would leave open just what the most effective means actually are. Instead he says the government should simply “provide” people with these good things.

It may seem a dubious proposition that the poor are really better off if governments simply hand over income with no strings attached, but whether dubious or not, it is a judgment of prudence. If the bishop thinks it is not a judgment of prudence but a principle of “economic justice,” all I can say is that St. Paul disagrees with him: “If anyone will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work” (2 Thessalonians 3:10–11).

Notice too that the bishop wants to have it both ways. To say as he does that reasonable people may disagree about how income support should be structured is to say there may be strings attached. Yet his warning that such support may not be systematically decreased is to say there may not be. For what is it to enact, say, a work requirement, but to say that for good reason, the income support of those who refuse to work shall be systematically decreased?

Conclusion tomorrow.