Thursday, February 13, 2020
Although posted many years ago, I came across this again recently and it no longer appears to be retrievable online. I’m redacting it into a more general discussion of the purpose of a blog on Catholic Legal Thought (rather than focused on the controversy of the moment that prompted the original post). I hope it still resonates today.
In blogging on the Mirror of Justice, we should not just be talking to each other but mindful of our larger audience, who are not always privy to the richness and diversity of perspectives, projects, and internal dialogues that constitute the growing and exciting field of Catholic Legal Studies. In so doing, we often are responding to what we see as errors by other public commentators, including other Catholic thinkers. But whenever we poke at supposed flaws in another Catholic thinker’s message, we should acknowledge the flaws our own ability to get out our message and to more effectively penetrate the culture with our alternative approach toward thinking about issues of legal and public moment.
We should not make the mistake of treating the blogosphere as the universe. Most of us blogging on Catholic legal issues devote far more attention to these matters in the context of serious scholarship published in traditional venues and through carefully developed presentations and responses at conferences. Questions about Catholic teaching and social justice are the subject of regular and spirited debates among Catholic legal scholars of all political hue in symposia and at various conferences. While blogs, such as Mirror of Justice, are an important means by which Catholic Legal Studies is developed, a blog hardly substitutes for the other means either in terms of scholarly depth or community-building.
And in translating Catholic teaching into public-regarding proposals, we must remember the principle of prudential judgment in Catholic thought. That the laity are given the apostolate of working within the political realm means that the Church must respect and honor the different expertise of political leaders, economists, lawyers, and others regarding appropriate measures undertaken to promote social justice. Most questions of public policy involve prudential judgments that should be guided by moral principles—and here is where Catholic Legal Studies is important in offering a framework for discussion and principles upon which to draw—but upon which persons of good will and common faith reasonably may differ.
For example, whether certain circumstances present the occasion for the use of military force in accord with principles of just war or whether a particular piece of legislation regarding provision of governmental benefits to the disadvantaged or disabled is the best means to advance the preferential option for the poor are questions that demand both morally sensitive and realistically pragmatic evaluations. In answering such policy questions, the decision-maker often must balance conflicting moral precepts or justifiable human interests, or at least may find that the underlying moral principles do not point unambiguously in one direction.
Church leaders contributing to a moral dialogue in public society appropriately may opine as to whether a particular measure or proposed course of action contributes to or undermines the common good. But policy suggestions by clerical or lay leaders in the Church must not be mistaken for the teaching of the Magisterium on matters of doctrine and morals to which all faithful Catholics must confess. In sum, most policy choices involve the exercise of prudential judgment, and the Church respects the expertise and special vocation of those holding public office in making those decisions.
In contrast with most public policy matters, which require prudential judgment and on which persons taking different views do not thereby fall out of communion with the Church, there are certain forms of societal behavior that implicate public policy that are so manifestly and grievously wrong as to be categorically prohibited. In these instances of intrinsic evil—slavery, genocide, racist oppression, and abortion—moral principle and public policy effectively merge, sharply circumscribing prudential judgment.
Finally, we should avoid the common categorical error of too readily and simplistically labeling Catholic thinkers in secular political terms. I do not mean to resist the label conservative, which has its purpose, but neither is it fully descriptive of my thinking or my engagement with the Catholic intellectual tradition. Whether categorized as conservative or liberal, one point of consensus among those of us across the spectrum on the Mirror of Justice is that we intend to be a contradiction to this society, in seeking common ground or at least a common framework for discussion that transcends ideological lines.