A couple days ago I posted about a response made by a writer at The American Catholic to an auxiliary bishop of San Francisco, Most. Rev. Robert McElroy, who – mirabile visu – asserted that Catholics should feel equally compelled to defend the sanctity of unborn human life and to demand that their government fund social justice programs in these USA and abroad.
It was important for the writer and others to respond to the bishop’s inaccurate notion because – aside from the fact that it will pit bishops against each other, publicly – this sort of argumentation weakens the Church’s Magisterium.
Here is an example of where he went wrong. From His Excellency’s piece that stirred this up:
Many different types of choices are compatible within a full commitment to Catholic teachings on economic justice.
But choices by citizens or public officials that systematically, and therefore unjustly, decrease governmental financial support for the poor clearly reject core Catholic teachings on poverty and economic justice. Policy decisions that reduce development assistance to the poorest countries reject core Catholic teachings. Tax policies that increase rather than decrease inequalities reject core Catholic teachings.
This is what the bishop infers is on an equal footing with defense of the unborn.
To be fair, this is subtle. But we cannot give him a pass.
If we are told by Church authorities that it is the Church’s teaching that we are obliged morally to support specific government programs, and yet we know that these same programs are wasteful and ineffective, we will eventually conclude for ourselves that the Magisterium is just plain dumb and that we don’t have to listen to what the Church teaches. We have seen this movie before.
In my own comments I wrote:
We know that the killing of the unborn is wrong. We are not to do it. That is, we avoid doing it because it is evil. It is a negative command, – THOU SHALT NOT – which makes it narrow and easy for us to see clearly.
On the other hand, to alleviate the plight of the poor, we take positive actions. That leads to choices about how best actively to help the poor. Helping the poor in the best way for the poor brings us to make choices between strategies, moral contingent choices, about which we can disagree. We have a panoply of options. You and I can, for example, disagree that burning basket loads of money in inefficient government programs is the best way to help the poor. We can strive to help the poor through other means. Choose some, but choose some!
I sense that some people might be a little puzzled by this.
Here is the best distillation of the principle I used that I have found so far.
From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Aquinas’ Moral, Political, and Legal Philosophy
3.4.4 Exceptionless negative norms: more urgent though not all or always more important
Negative norms such as the three sets of norms just discussed are more urgent and direct as implications of love of self and neighbor, but are not necessarily more important in other dimensions of importance. That is to say, they are applicable and to be followed semper et ad semper, always and in all circumstances, whereas the applicability of affirmative norms (requiring one to act in a specified kind of way) is semper sed non ad semper: always applicable subject to there being (as is not always the case) suitable circumstances. Kinds of conduct that are contrary to a negative moral norm of this type are “intrinsically wrongful” (intrinsece mala).
Only negative norms can be exceptionless (and not all negative moral norms are). If affirmative norms could be exceptionless, there would be inescapable conflicts of obligation, but since morality is simply (the set of standards of) full reasonableness, there can be no conflict of duties each truly and inescapably obligatory in one and the same situation: one cannot truly be perplexus simpliciter – that is, in a dilemma such that, through no fault of one’s own, any choice one makes will be immoral. (It is, however, possible that my prior wrongful choices or my culpable negligence in forming my conscience put me into a situation such that I have applicable and irreconcilable duties and will be in breach of one or more of them whatever I choose or do or omit: I am then perplexus secundum quid, that is, in a dilemma but of a qualified, derivative kind, only in a weak sense unavoidable.)