Prudential judgement and public policy

Jason Hall, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, spoke about criminal justice reform at the Catholics @ the Capitol event Feb. 9 in Frankfort, Ky.

Jason Hall, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, spoke about criminal justice reform at the Catholics @ the Capitol event Feb. 9 in Frankfort, Ky.

When you hear the words Catholic Conference of Kentucky (CCK) or United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in the context of public policy, you might think of pro-life legislation related to abortion or abolition of the death penalty.

Perhaps your mind goes to support for immigrants or criminal justice reform. Others might jump to recent hot-button political issues such as conscience protection or universal access to health care. We hope you have seen our recent activity in support of school choice.

Some might never even have heard of either organization.

The CCK and USCCB are collaborative bodies composed of all bishops in Kentucky and the United States, respectively. The USCCB has many duties, including liturgy, Scripture translation, particular canon law legislation applicable to American Catholics, among many other areas.

At both the state and federal level, the bishops exercise their roles as pastors and leaders to exercise prudential judgment and speak out on policy issues of the day.

As executive director of the CCK, I have the privilege of representing the four bishops of Kentucky in Frankfort, working with state legislators and other state leaders. As leaders and pastors, the bishops have an obligation to set the tone when it comes to issues of great moral importance, such as those listed above.

The laity rightfully have the larger role in the development of public policy at the ground level because the laity have expertise the bishops often lack. The laity are doctors, nurses, lawyers, health care administrators, building contractors, teachers and every other type of professional and worker imaginable.

We are all called to take the moral teachings of the church, following the example set by our bishops, and bring our expertise to bear on the policy questions of the day.

Of course, this means we might often disagree with one another. That is to be expected and even encouraged. Assuming we are all committed to the common good, as articulated in the teachings of the church, we should engage in respectful, healthy debate about the best means to achieve our agreed-upon ends.

This process of taking the teaching of the church and applying it to real-world political and policy questions involves what the church calls “prudential judgment.” Prudential judgment does not mean “non-binding church statements we are free to ignore.” It refers to this exercise of applying church teaching in a prudential way, that may sometimes involve legitimate differences of opinion.

Different issues involve different levels of prudential judgment, but every issue requires at least some. The church’s teaching on abortion, for example, is quite clear, but which approaches are the best ones to protect the unborn child and support women in challenging pregnancies? That question requires some prudential judgment, although the options are relatively limited.

On other issues, like taxation, the bishops may propose general principles on the need to adequately fund needed public services and to do so in a way that best respects the preferential option for the poor. There are many approaches that could satisfy those concerns to varying degrees and a lot of expertise is needed from tax experts, economists, and the like, in order to arrive at the best tax system.

How does all of this play out in the work of the CCK? First, we keep the list of issues we actively work on fairly short, leaving lots of policy areas to the leadership of lay men and women who have expertise and who feel led by the Spirit to engage in various policy debates and causes.

However, on issues that arise where we feel we have an opportunity to make a positive impact and provide leadership, the bishops will exercise their own prudential judgment and take a position. This provides all Catholics with a solid example as to how they can go about doing the same thing in their own areas of expertise and concern.

Some of these issues receive less attention than the hot-button ones listed above. In the coming weeks, we will explore a few of those to see how the church is witnessing to Gospel values in the public life of our Commonwealth.

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