One hears a lot these days about “civil discourse” and the dangers of partisanship. After years of enjoying good arguments with close friends and colleagues, I’ve found that both sides are best off when they understand precisely what they are contesting. In any argument, one must understand whether one disagrees with the other about basic principles or goals, or whether both members of the discussion wish to settle on the means to an agreed-upon end. When it comes to basic principles or goals, it is hard, if not impossible, to compromise. None of us wants to “compromise our principles.” But when it comes to means, there should be room for discussion.

If those who initiate debate mistake an argument about means for an argument about principles, they will find it hard to see that the subjects of their debate are prudential matters about which people of good will can disagree. In May, a large group of Catholic academics illustrated this problem when they responded to Catholic University of America’s commencement invitation to Speaker of the House John Boehner by publicly challenging Boehner’s fidelity to principles of Catholic social teaching. Leveling against Boehner the charge that his legislative record on government aid to the poor is “among the worst in Congress,” the authors of the letter cited Boehner’s lack of support for government-sponsored initiatives as evidence that he is a Catholic who fails “to recognize (whether out of a lack of awareness or dissent) important aspects of Catholic teaching” on social justice. “We write in the hope,” claimed the authors, “that this visit will reawaken your familiarity with the teachings of your Church on matters of faith and morals as they relate to governance.”

As an argument that a Catholic politician fails to uphold standards of social justice when he fails to support certain legislative projects, the letter to Boehner carries at least two fundamental mistakes. First, in labeling Boehner’s record on social justice one of “the worst in Congress,” the signatories have in effect separated one’s position on abortion from one’s record on social justice. There can be no effective action on social justice where there is no respect for life. Respect for life is the foundation of sound social doctrine.

Second, and more critically, the signatories have confused means to achieve social justice with the principles of social justice, and have thus overstepped the bounds of what they can legitimately argue about Boehner’s fidelity to “principles of the common good, the preferential option for the poor, and the interrelationship of subsidiarity and solidarity.” The letter failed to present the possibility that Boehner might in fact share the authors’ commitment to principles of social justice, and instead jumped right to a criticism of Boehner’s means of achieving it. To make an effective case against Boehner’s political record, the letter should not have called into question his commitment to principles. Instead, it should have taken issue more explicitly with his legislative steps toward social justice as means to achieve the ends which principles dictate, not a failure to recognize the principles themselves. First, however, it should have acknowledged that Catholic politicians like Boehner who are entrusted with care of the community in the political realm have a “legitimate autonomy” with regard to “this or that institutional or constitutional solution” to problems of social justice, as John Paul II explains in his encyclical Centesimus Annus.

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Though the letter to Boehner reveals just how important it is for us to distinguish disagreement about means from disagreement about principles, allow me to turn to a different and perhaps more broadly applicable illustration of my claim.

We now have an economy in which there is roughly 9% unemployment across the board—higher for those in the underclass. In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II frames unemployment as a violation of social justice:

The obligation to earn one’s bread by the sweat of one’s brow also presumes the right to do so. A society in which this right is systematically denied, in which economic policies do not allow workers to reach satisfactory levels of employment, cannot be justified from an ethical point of view, nor can that society attain social peace.

As recently as last week, President Obama has continued to pledge his commitment to increased employment as a top priority for his political agenda. He held up a standard nearly identical to the one advanced by John Paul II: “I will not be satisfied until everyone who wants a good job that offers some security has a good job that offers security.” Unfortunately, according to a recent article by David Leonhardt, today 20% of men between the ages of 25 and 54 are unemployed. That’s up from about 12% in 2008. So, should I look at these statistics and conclude that the president is making insincere statements? That he is not really committed to ending unemployment, nor to achieving social justice? Should I encourage a group of prominent academics to write a letter reminding President Obama of his obligation to ensure that each person’s right to work is protected?

Perhaps not. Why not? Because I have no doubt that Barack Obama is fully aware of his obligations to the poor in this country, and I would be a brat to remind him of something that he undoubtedly spends hours of his day worrying over. The issue here isn’t whether our goals are the same—I trust they are. What is at issue is the means he is using. And here is where there is room for principled disagreement among people of good will. For that reason, I will continue to disagree with President Obama’s policies, but I will not accuse him of willfully violating the principles of social justice—except with regard to his stance on abortion.

As a matter of social justice, I have every reason in the world to remind politicians that their first obligation is to persons and not institutions, and that workers and adequate employment for them must be a priority in economic policy, and not merely, say, “growth.” By the same token, I have no special expertise and thus no standing to lecture President Obama on how to get the country to full employment. Quite naturally, as a citizen, I can continue to disagree with his policies—how to achieve full employment is a matter for prudential disagreement. But out of a sense of civility and charity, I will also refrain from leveling the accusation that President Obama has “failed to recognize” his duty to the poor. I would prefer to say not that he has “failed to recognize” his duty to the poor, but that his policies have failed to achieve the goals we both share with regard to the poor.

For my part, I continue to believe in the country’s need for a sound fiscal policy and full employment. I suspect that President Obama and Speaker Boehner share those goals, even if all three of us would undoubtedly disagree over the means to achieve them. Thus it would probably be bestthat is to say, it would probably serve to muddy the waters the least—if all sides were to keep a focused eye on shared principles and their distinction from means to achieve those principles. Men and women of good will can come to agreements about the best means; we can try things and learn from mistakes; we can adjust our strategies and try different approaches. If we turn all such discussions into one-upmanship over principles—“you don’t really care about the poor,” “you don’t really want to help workers get jobs”—then we’ll never be able to engage in the sort of discussions we need to achieve the goals that we, in fact, all share.

All of us need to be reminded at times to keep our priorities straight, and we should reflect regularly on what choices we would be making if we did. But few of us like to be told that we don’t care or love enough.