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A friend recently wrote, expressing a worry that his parish priest sometimes takes up political issues too quickly and too freely.

My friend is by no means a quietist. He’s a First Things sort of fellow, very committed to the significance of faith in the public square. One can’t read the Sermon on the Mount and think otherwise.

But the specifics of electoral politics are a messy business, and it’s often a long way from the principles of Catholic social teaching to the specifics of political choices.

Even the politics of the pro-life cause isn’t always clear. The imperative to protect innocent life translates pretty directly into opposition to our current legal arrangements, which permit abortions. But what will move us forward? Here political judgment comes into play, which is a species of prudence. Should I vote for a pro-life Democrat on the theory that a lasting pro-life consensus will require bipartisan cooperation? Or is the next Supreme Court appointment so decisive that I ought to vote for the Republican candidate?

These difficult questions are all the more pressing when it comes to economic justice. Raise the minimum wage? Yes, it seems like a clear case of expressing a preferential option for the poor, but as some point out the effect may be to reduce the number of jobs for the poor. Bottom line: further isolation from the culture of work that is also an important social value, much championed by Pope John Paul II. What, therefore, is the “Catholic” way to vote?

In view of these ambiguities, about which men and women of faith and of good will can disagree, there is a danger when we theologize our political judgments. It threatens the unity of the church by turning prudential judgments about how to implement Catholic social doctrine into defining issues.

This doesn’t mean that anything goes. Obviously, one cannot claim to be in accord with the magisterium of the Church will asserting the women have a right to abort the children in their wombs. And one cannot affirm social Darwinism or Ayn Rand’s view of the natural right of the rich to dominate the poor and imagine oneself in accord with Catholic teaching. The clerical vocation is to teach the principles that must norm and leaven civic life—some available to reason; others stemming from the Gospel. But the distance from moral principles to political parties should induce caution.

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