Catholic voters remain deeply confused about when they are morally obligated to vote as their Bishop or the Pope teaches, and when they don’t. The reason is simple: Catholic voters are unaware of the distinction between the handful of issues that are “settled” and “non-negotiable,” and those that are not – meaning “prudential judgments.”
Most political issues are prudential, meaning the individual person applies a general principle to a specific situation. Issues of immigration, war, taxation, climate change, minimum wage, education, foreign policy, and internet policy are all prudential. Whereas, the settled matters (meaning settled through Church teaching), are five in number: abortion, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, euthanasia, and marriage, because they are intrinsically evil and can never be voted for or supported in any way by Catholics.
Prudential judgments are rarely black and white. Most political judgments, like the act of voting itself, require prudence, the rational application of principle to practice. People of good will can come to different conclusions based upon the same principle. An example would be the principle taught by the Catechism of the Catholic Church about health issues: “Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good.” [CCC 2288)] One person might argue that this principle is best applied here by ‘single payer, universal coverage’; while another could argue the health care system operates best when it is subject to market demand and, therefore, competition for services. Catholics are obliged to think about this principle and come to a good conclusion. But the amount of information and expertise required to properly apply this principle is staggering, which is why we must depend on guidance from our Bishops and other properly informed sources.
Arguments can be made that this is what politics is, the superiority of one conclusion over another. But no single prudential judgment is morally binding on Catholics, even if it is made by a bishop, the bishops, or the Pope himself. Prudential judgments made by Bishops collectively, or any single Bishop, are neither settled or non-negotiable; so, all Catholics bear the responsibility of making prudential judgments for themselves. The judgments made by our bishops and the Holy Father (especially his encyclicals) offer information and guidance, rather than directives.
Since 2001, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has released more than 100 pastoral letters and statements that take positions on dozens of public policy matters ranging from handguns, racial prejudice, healthcare, climate change, immigration, treatment of the aging, farm laborers, and war in the Middle East. These statements are intended to educate Catholics on pressing issues of law and policy. For many Catholics, confusion has been created by this official commentary of the Bishops on such a wide range of issues. The bishops themselves recognize the potential for confusion and have addressed it. “We do not claim to make these prudential judgments with the same kind of authority that marks our declarations of principle.” Instead, the letters are attempts to apply Catholic principles to concrete situations. But the authority of bishops in matters of faith and morals, as they make clear, “does not extend to their prudential judgments in other matters.” An eloquent example of the Bishops on the settled issue of abortion is the 1998, “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics,” was published two years after President Clinton’s veto of the partial-birth abortion ban passed by Congress, in spite of resistance from Catholic Democrats.
Sound prudential judgment is a habit of mind that reasonably applies general principles to specific historical situations. Catholics profit from the education in social teaching offered by the bishops and the Holy Father through their various documents, including pastoral letters and papal encyclicals. We can learn from the bishops’ and popes’ examples of how to think prudentially and how to gather the expertise and data necessary to put principle into practice. But the habit of prudence belongs to each individual and not to a group. Prudence is not prudence when it is handed down like a rule to be followed. Individual prudential judgment follows from principles and cannot be commanded or dictated by the Church.
The U.S. bishops have clearly stated that “decisions about candidates and choices about public policies require clear commitment to moral principles, careful discernment and prudential judgments based on the values of our faith.” People of good will may apply ethical principles and come to different prudential judgments, depending upon their assessment of the facts at hand and other issues.
For the Catholics who may cringe at the idea of disagreeing with a Bishop, here they are telling you, “It’s OK! You must think and decide for yourselves on these matters.” What’s important to recognize, above all, is the commitment to principle at the core of policy recommendation. What must be considered is how effective a policy will be in implementing the principle that underlies it. Catholic principles apply to all political issues but, in many cases, do not lead prudentially to only one acceptable or “official” Catholic position. However, abortion, euthanasia, and gay marriage are matters of principle that do not admit prudential judgments and, therefore, can never be supported. While the bishops’ teachings on prudential judgments about policy and legislation guide us, but do not bind us, their teachings on faith and morals are binding.