Dear Prudence

Translating Moral Principle into Public Policy

There has recently been much talk about whether Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget is faithful to the principles of Catholic social thought—or is instead a libertarian rejection of the church’s commitment to the poor. In response to the Ryan budget, the chairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Justice, Peace, and Human Development, Bishops Stephen Blaire and Richard Pates, have written that “the needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.... Just solutions, however, must require shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and fairly addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs.” In a later interview, Blaire said, “The budget is not just a financial document; it is a moral document: Are you cutting services to the poor and leaving the military alone?”

Yet other bishops—for example, Ryan’s former ordinary in Milwaukee, Cardinal Timothy Dolan—have praised Ryan as a strong Catholic, and some have gone considerably further. Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, one of the country’s most thoughtful bishops, has raised questions about those who have challenged Ryan’s claim that his budget is authentically Catholic. In a recent interview Chaput said, “Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to go to hell. Period. There’s just no doubt about it. That has to be a foundational concern of Catholics and of all Christians. But Jesus didn’t say the government has to take care of them, or that we have to pay taxes to take care of them.”

Although that last sentence is literally true, its use in this context is deeply misleading. Jesus also didn’t tell his disciples to count on the government to respect religious liberty, forbid abortion and same-sex marriage, or provide the lion’s share of the budget of Catholic Charities across the United States, but today these are all expectations of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). A lot has changed since Jesus’ day, including the rise of democratic governments, which citizens rightly expect to play an essential role in the achievement of the common good, particularly in protecting the weakest among us, who are threatened in a me-first culture. As Pope Benedict XVI has said, economic life “needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics” (Caritas in veritate, 37).

We should not be shocked that a bishop can make a mistake in explaining Catholic doctrine. As renowned canon lawyer Ladislas Orsy, SJ, argued in The Church Learning and Teaching, each bishop receives at his episcopal ordination a charism ensuring the help of the Holy Spirit in witnessing to the Word of God, but this doesn’t guarantee that he will make no mistakes in exercising his charism. And because in our tradition the bishops in communion with one another are the final arbiters of doctrine, it is all the more important that they be theologically well informed.

It’s always possible for bishops, like anyone else, to be misquoted in the press, but a pattern of public statements by several high-profile bishops seems to point to misunderstandings of two basic elements of Catholic moral theology. This becomes clearer if we continue with the next sentences in Archbishop Chaput’s discussion of Ryan’s budget:

Those are prudential judgments. Anybody who would condemn someone because of their position on taxes is making a leap that I can’t make as a Catholic.... You can’t say that somebody’s not Christian because they want to limit taxation. Again, I’m speaking only for myself, but I think that’s a legitimate position. It may not be the correct one, but it’s certainly a legitimate Catholic position; and to say that it’s somehow intrinsically evil like abortion doesn’t make any sense at all.

Intrinsic evil and prudence are the key notions here. Fifty years ago, the quite technical concept of intrinsic evil was mostly confined to the writings of professional moral theologians. Today it appears in just about every episcopal statement on public policy in the United States. An action is intrinsically evil if it is always and everywhere morally wrong. (Recall that most evil actions are not always evil and depend on context: taking a life is acceptable in defense of one’s own life; stealing a car is acceptable if it’s the only way to get a dying person to the hospital.) The problem is that the standard of intrinsic evil seems to have become a litmus test for what is essential Catholic moral teaching. Perhaps I misunderstand him, but in the passage I’ve quoted the archbishop seems to be arguing that because neither reducing taxes nor cutting government assistance to the needy is an intrinsic evil, neither can be described as contrary to Catholic teaching.

The problem here is that, while some actions are both intrinsically evil and extremely important (abortion being one obvious example), other actions—for example, masturbation—have traditionally been considered intrinsically evil but are far less important. And while torture is both extremely important and intrinsically evil according to church teaching, few bishops are calling for stricter legal standards against torture, even after the excesses of Abu Ghraib.

It is therefore a serious mistake in Catholic moral theology to conclude that the category of intrinsic evil creates a bright line between matters of greater and lesser moral importance. Pope John Paul II cautioned against this very error in Veritatis splendor (53): “The fact that only the negative commandments oblige always and under all circumstances does not mean that in the moral life prohibitions are more important than the obligation to do good indicated by the positive commandments.” Somehow many of our bishops seem to have become convinced of the contrary: that if something isn’t intrinsically evil, it’s necessarily less important, and we may not even be sure that the tradition holds it to be wrong.

What has led so many bishops to this position? Although every bishop I’ve ever asked says he doesn’t allow such things to influence his thinking, my own guess is that the nasty reports to Rome of episcopal “error” by a small number of militant Catholics have pressed many bishops to retreat from the plains of moral ambiguity where everyday life occurs into the canyon of unassailable moral certainty. And in this process, theologically challenged lay Catholics hold their bishops to a standard of doctrinal purity that Pope Benedict himself has rejected. Recall that Benedict made twice-divorced French President Nikolas Sarkozy an honorary canon of the pope’s cathedral, St. John Lateran, in spite of Sarkozy’s public support of prochoice policies. In the United States, meanwhile, many bishops won’t even allow prochoice politicians to speak at Catholic colleges in their dioceses—not even to speak about, say, environmental policy.

This brings us to another point: prudence, which led Pope Benedict to honor Sarkozy in spite of their doctrinal differences. Prudence is regularly overused in addressing economic justice and underappreciated in discussing life issues. Thomas Aquinas taught that prudence is the virtue that allows us to take concrete action as we live out our moral principles. At its best, prudence allows us to foresee what will occur and judiciously decide how best to put our principles into practice. Laws distinguishing between first-, second-, and third-degree murder arise out of prudence in applying the principle “thou shalt not kill.” Similarly, it took prudence for the bishops to move from the principle that all abortions are morally wrong to their support for a health-care reform bill that would have incorporated the Hyde Amendment, which allows the federal government to pay for abortions in the case of rape or incest. And yet the leadership of the USCCB later claimed that it was only principle, not prudence, that led them to reject the Obama health-care law on the grounds that it would fund abortions.

While prudence is nearly invisible in the bishops’ teaching about life issues, it is too often used to trump all doctrinal concerns in discussions about economics. In the interview quoted above, Archbishop Chaput seems to be suggesting that because it requires prudence to determine how much tax revenue to raise in order to help those in need, there can be no Catholic criticism of Paul Ryan’s circular argument for lower taxes. When the discussion is about spending, Ryan argues that the government can no longer afford to help the needy as much we do now. Yet when the discussion is about the tax policies that determine what we can afford, Ryan insists that we should never raise taxes, no matter how low they are already. This is the content of Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, signed by Ryan and 95 percent of the Republicans in Congress. Federal income-tax receipts as a percent of GDP have been lower the past couple of years than they’ve been since the 1950s. We “can’t afford” to help the poor only because we’ve decided to lower income taxes instead. And, as Bishop Blaire reminds us, even without raising taxes, more money could be spent on programs for the needy and less on the military if our priorities were what they ought to be.

What about Ryan’s concern for the size of the national debt? Isn’t this a good reason to cut government expenditures? We’ve all heard it argued that the national debt will swamp our grandchildren. But if debt were Ryan’s real concern, why would his plan spend the savings from budget cuts on further reductions in income taxes? Even Fox News admits that the Ryan budget would add $3 trillion to the national debt over the next decade.

Then there’s the claim that lower taxes for the rich will result in more jobs, which will end up helping the poor. Jobs are indeed the long-term solution for the able-bodied poor, but during the economic slump the wealthy have moved much of their money into safe, non-job-producing investments. For example, the monetary value of the world’s (largely unchanging) supply of gold has doubled from $4 to $8 trillion since the financial crisis began. The wealthy undertake job-creating investments only when they judge it will make them wealthier—not simply because Congress gives them a windfall tax break unrelated to job creation. Today firms and investors are holding back, sitting on the sidelines with trillions in cash. They don’t want to start making refrigerators that will only sit in a warehouse until economic activity heats up later. Giving the wealthy more wealth by means of tax breaks will not create more jobs in the current economic climate.

Ryan has also claimed that reducing government help to the poor is actually good for them, because it reduces dependency. In fact, far fewer of the poor are dependent than right-wing rhetoric suggests—most of the able-bodied poor are eager to find a regular job—but dependency is indeed a danger in helping others, and we must be savvy about it. Still, how does the dependency argument justify the dramatic cuts Ryan proposes in assistance to those too old, too young, or too sick to work? Or cuts in retraining programs that help the able-bodied poor qualify for a job so that they can support themselves and their families?

Finally, there is the claim that government should leave care for the poor to the churches and the private sector. Of course we should not depend on the government to do it all. But it is a right-wing illusion that private donations will take up the slack if the government reduces assistance to the poor and vulnerable. Across the nation, 62 percent of Catholic Charities’ budgets and a similar proportion of Lutheran Social Services’ budgets come from state and national governments, not from private contributions. Cut government aid significantly and these agencies will have much less to work with.

Thus we find that the five arguments most often made in support of Ryan’s economic plans—budgetary constraints, the national debt, job creation, welfare dependency, and a shift to private charity—don’t really explain his policy priorities. Something else must be going on.

From the Catholic perspective, society, market, and government each have an essential role to play in securing the common good. Paul Ryan’s budget arises from his underlying political philosophy, tersely formulated in the assertion that “government is the problem.” Notwithstanding recent attempts to revise his personal history, he made clear in a 2005 speech to the Atlas Society what originally motivated his interest in politics: “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” As the theologian Vincent Miller has argued, Ryan’s political philosophy is completely at odds with the principles of Catholic social thought, which rejects both individualism and collectivism as deeply inadequate accounts of authentic human flourishing.

One final clarification is needed. Describing a handful of moral issues as “non-negotiables” furthers our misunderstanding of Catholic moral theology because it reinforces the two errors identified above. First, it implies that for these few issues both the underlying moral principle and a particular plan for the political implementation of that principle are morally binding on all Catholics. Second, mistaking certainty for importance, it implies that Catholics can demote other similarly fundamental moral commitments that all the modern popes have insisted on—for example, the role of government in protecting the poor and ensuring the right of workers to organize.

Intrinsic evil and prudence are both fundamental realities in the moral life. But it is a serious mistake from the perspective of Catholic moral theology to use intrinsic evil as the litmus test for what’s truly important, or to use prudence as a cover for public policies that distribute benefits to the prosperous at the expense of those who can’t meet their own needs.


This article has been funded by a gift from Margaret O'Gara and Michael Vertin in honor of James O'Gara.

About the Author

Daniel K. Finn teaches economics and theology at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University. His most recent book is Distant Markets, Distant Harms: Economic Complicity and Christian Ethics (Oxford, 2014).



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God bless you for speaking truth even though "power" isn't listening.

Great commentary. I learned something. Bravo Dan.

I don't agree completely with Ryan's budget plan. However, it is unclear if Ryan's plan is Romney's plan. IMO, this has to be clarified and explainded. On the other hand, Obama's plan is far from perfect and has made things worse, not better. His claim that things are getting better forgoes the reality that his policies made these worse for 3 years, then things started to get better. In the end, we are back to where we started when he took office and implemented his stimulus plan. There is little optimism that Obama's plan is the answer to our fiscal and social problems. 

Unfortunately, no politician reflects all the positions and teachings of the Catholic Church. Some are so-called pro-life, but are for saving the life of the mother when the fetus threatens it and the fetus cannot survive under any circumstances (the Phoenix case); others are for more entitlements for the poor but are also in favor of same-sex civil marriage. The list goes on.

Benedict XVI, as cardinal, said it best. Catholics need to use the principle of proportionality when making informed social ethical and political decisions. No candidate is defined by one issue. This is where prudence and wisdom are most important, as well as charity and justice. It is all a big balancing act.

In almost every election since I was able to vote, I have voted for the lesser of two evils. This is the case again in 2012. I am saddened by this, but as Michael Barbieri notes, the principle of proportionality must prevail.

I am grateful to Dan Finn for his incisive and clear analysis. He is one of our best and those who do not know his work should get to know it. Level-headed and not seduced by rhetoric, his analyses are always reliable.

When weighing a libertarian approach to abortion {pro choice}, I find Romney more narrowly pro-choice and Obama more broadly pro-choice. But both are pro-choice in certain circumstances, dividing only on the circumstances.

I find Romney-Ryan ideologically so opposed to Catholic Social Thought that the choice is clear. Having to decide between two "limiited pro-choice" candidates, the ticket with the less obnoxious opposition to Catholic Social Teaching is the lesser of two evils.

Would that it were otherwise, but Finn helps us see that a vote for Romney-Ryan is, in effect, a vote for a (limited) pro choice ticket oppposed to the traditions of Catholic Social Teaching and a vote for Obama-Biden is a vote for a (limited, but broader) pro-choice ticket that is far more in line with applying Catholic Social Teaching.

The latter is the lesser of two evils, IMHO If one votes on principle (and some may abstain on principle), why should one not vote for the latter?

Today Romney is sounding more pro-choice.  He's courting the women's vote.  His morality is quite flexible and practical.  As the debate showed, he'll say whatever it takes to win.  He is a great businessman, a great salesman.  Yet his business policies and practices have not created jobs here at home, but instead overseas.  Also as the debate showed, he's very comfortable and very good at firing people -- and large fowl. We saw the essence of Romney in his remarks to Jim Lehrer about firing him and Big Bird.    

This is an interesting article and certainly timely. As others have commented, there seems to be no candidate with an unobjectionable platform. As we sort through all the rhetoric, we hope for the prudence, as Professor Finn says, to help us forsee the consequences of our decisions.

Finn doubts that lower taxes for the rich will result in more jobs for workers, but then states that the rich have moved their wealth into low-risk investments such as gold rather than into job-producing investments (I take this to mean equity shares or participations in businesses.)  But logically, anyone with money to invest, whether rich or middle class, appreciates that a lower tax on the profits from business, whether delivered through the corporate or the personal income tax system, will increase the after-tax reward for taking the same investment risk. (Of course, in any business risk, a loss is also possible.) So, with lower taxes, more investors are likely to put their money at risk, creating jobs. Dr. Christina Romer, who chaired Obama's Council of Economic Advisors during the first two years of this administration, concluded that every income tax increase since WW II has had a negative impact on GDP, and every tax decrease has had a positive impact on GDP. That has an impact on workers and on the poor. In the high-tax decades of the mid-20th century, innovation was suppressed, job growth slowed, millions were left in misery, and the money-flows at non-profits were stifled.

 I do not doubt the statement that 62% of the budgets of Catholic Charities come from state and national governments. But let's add an important disclosure. One hundred percent of the 62% comes out of the pockets of taxpayers, just as does the balance, through charitable donations. Government can be a wealth-redistributor, but government is never a wealth-creator. Whenever government takes a dollar in taxes, however noble the purpose and however well-administered the program, that tax dollar is not available for any other purpose, including charitable donation or investment. We sometimes fall into the trap of believeing that "government" has its own resources. Actually, in every election we are choosing how to use the products of our own labor or investment. Some we render to Caesar and some we render to God, etc. Our decisions have consequences for workers and for the poor. Let's hope for prudence, and make the best choices for the common good.

Joseph J. Dunn  Author of After One Hundred Years: Corporate Profits, Wealth, and American Society.

Insightful comments by Joe Dunn.

I agree that when it comes to taxes and redistribution, the issue is not as black and white as Finn describes. Romney's plan has some merit and is better than Obama's plan. I am not against taxing the rich "more" but the revenue gained is dwarfted by the enormous debt, deficit and questionable spending we have to address. I am for a safely net for the poor, and believe we need to do as much as possible for them. Nevertheless, this must be accomplished within budetary reasonableness and without seriously harming them. However, we might be better off prioritizing the available funding and directing the funds to both new and existing programs that will better serve the poor. Educatiing the poor and creating jobs for them is better than entitlements.

As for Terry's comment, it is perplexing:

Would that it were otherwise, but Finn helps us see that a vote for Romney-Ryan is, in effect, a vote for a (limited) pro choice ticket oppposed to the traditions of Catholic Social Teaching and a vote for Obama-Biden is a vote for a (limited, but broader) pro-choice ticket that is far more in line with applying Catholic Social Teaching.

Catholic Social Teachings cover a wide series of issues, not just the issue of pro-choice with circumstances. I think Terry's opinion (and Finn's) do not consider other social and ethical issues like same-sex marriage. Obama is for same-sex marriage and made that clear in a major speech on this subject. Romney believes marriage should be between a man and a woman, but leaves the decision to the states. 

Another social and ethical issue is contraception. Obama passed the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) that forces many Catholic institutions (e.g., Universities, Hospitals, Charitable) to offer contraceptive coverage. Romney made no such "mandate".

While I have my own opinion about these and other social and ethical issues, it is not very clear what candidate represents the lesser of two evils.  More importantly, there are a host of social and eithical teachings, and each candidate's position on them, that must be weighed. In the end, there is no decision (e.g., a vote for Romney or Obama) that is right or wrong.


Joseph Dunn seems to forget the Greatest Generation's top bracket paying income taxes at 90 percent for 20 years, paying off WWII debts, helping other countries with theirs, building the freeway system, and investing in returning warriors with the GI Bill that educated over a million highly trained professionals including scientists and engineers, thus helping create the middle class we are now losing. Now most of those in the sciences and engineering are foreign students who return to their home contries after graduation. Back then there was no whining then about taxes on the wealthiest.  The wealthiest then were patriotic, creating jobs here at home, not shifting them overseas. 

What if our top bracket paid at 45 percent for 10 years?  That would be one-fourth of what the Greatest Generation gave for the common good. That's about what Warren Buffet has suggested. 

I remember, and historical records support my recollection, the "90 percent years" as decades in which there was, in fact, limited innovation and limited job growth (referenced in several of JFK's main speeches) followed by high inflation. For white men and their families, the fifties and sixties were golden years, and are so remembered. For African-Americans, these were years of such severe social and economic segregation and oppression that they produced the urban riots of the late 1960s. Women in the 1950s and 1960s could choose from a variety of vocations: housewife, nun, teacher, nurse or secretary. A more accurate and just appraisal of the high-tax decades might thus be: limited opportunity and benefits shared unequally. Hardly seems like a way to promote the common good. Our American history is rich with lessons on what has worked, and what has failed, in promoting the common good, but we must put aside our favorite axioms and embrace the data and the human experience if we are to have that Prudence  that Aquinas describes.     Joseph J. Dunn

Joseph J. Dunn

You raise some good points.  One of my main points that I perhaps did make well enough:  We now need SOME increased revenue, SOME increased taxes.  At least during and after WWII we taxed at an extremely high rate to pay for the war.  With our last two wars we didn't raise taxes; we lowered them.  And now the right seems loath to make any tax increases at all for any reason.  Another point was that we are not patriotic today: country and the common good is scarcely considered, corporations are persons and labor is a commodity, and wealth is increasingly concentrated in the top one percent or top point zero one percent, more and more excluding the common good. 

Greed is not good.  It is still one of the seven deadly sins.    

No doubt, we need more revenue. Now let us get the benefit of our historical experience to see whether higher rates (on corporations? on incomes greater than $250K? etc.) would produce more or less revenue, based on our historical experience. As you point out, we've been here before, several times in the past hundred years. Of even greater importance, we are told as Catholics to consider all our policies (including tax changes) with a view toward a preferential option for the poor. Research by Obama's chief economic advisor, Dr. Christina Romer, documented the negative impact on GDP resulting from each tax increase since World War II. Does this forseeable impact on the poor (and on workers) line up with our duties of a preferential option for the poor, and to promote the common good?  Whatever we think about corporations, or wealthy people, we have these duties. Our policies should focus on those duties, rather than on somehow counteracting greed, or restoring patriotism, or (as in the 1930s) to "soak the rich." Intuitive approaches to taxation have sometimes proven drastically wrong and inflicted suffering on large numbers of our people. Fortunately, we have a century of experience to draw upon, if we will take the time. That is Priudence.      Joseph J. Dunn

Just what is prudence when it comes to determining what is needed for the poor? Do we merely calculate the need and fund it? This is not an easy question to answer. Consider the fact that we have many people on welfare that don't want to work. If they could find employment, the income (mostly at mininum wage) would be not much greater than what they get from the government. This may not represent the majority of those on welfare, but we have issues that must be resolved.

The other problem is the alarming percent of minority women who have children out of wedlock. They have very little means of support but where is the accountability and responsibility of the so-called husband or father? Are there means of enforcement for irresponsible fathers? What do we do when the mother does not press charges or refuses to cooperate? Many other women have husbands that have abandoned them or refuse to work. Many make money by selling drugs.

Don't misread what I say. Most or many poor people have legitimate problems and they need our sence of love of neighbor. However, what we are doing is merely criticizing one candidate's position, and concluding that this is a vote for the lesser of two evils. Prudence is about the larger picture because a candidate is not defined by one issue. 

I am all for a safety net for the poor, but prudence also means considering all the facts and issues and the other problems our nation has. I don't know what the so-called number is, we have the poor and near poor and this is a growing number.  

Pointing to virtue, the common good and our responsibilities to God and neighbor, is appropriate. However without specifics it is an abstraction. Why doesn't the Church put forth a "plan" and not just criticism. How much should the rich be taxed; what is fair? Would this solve the economic problems of the poor? Do we merely fund whatever the number is and cut othe programs regardless of the consequences. I think not. Each candidate has many speaks in their eyes. However, to criticize one candidate about one of his specks when the other might have a plank in his, is also what prudence is also about. 


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