The American Catholic right really really did not like the Vatican's statements on the execution of Saddam Hussein (see my takes here and here). Robert T. Miller at First Things, quotes approvingly of Richard John Neuhaus who claimed that "when it is not necessary for the bishops to speak on a particular subject, it is necessary that they not speak on that subject.” His argument is by now the standard one, as indeed are the examples: abortion is wrong, regardless of circumstances, whereas for the death penalty, it depends on circumstances. In particular, the Church should just stay quiet when it comes to "empirical judgments about circumstances."
This harks back to the old war horse of "prudential judgment", invoked constantly when those on the right choose to ignore certain Church teachings. And on the definition, Miller is largely correct. Avery Cardinal Dulles defines prudential as referring to the "application of Catholic doctrine to changing concrete circumstances". But if we take Miller and Neuhaus to their logical conclusion, the Church should simply not give any opinion pertaining to "changing concrete circumstances". But this makes little sense, as is pointed out by blogger Paul from Catholic Deep Fishing. He notes that the Church does indeed claim, quoting a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that certain popositions contrary some to prudential teachings are "rash and dangerous" and so should not be taught. And if you think about it for a minute, the reasoning will be obvious.
Getting back to the classic abortion versus the death penalty example, Paul challenges Michael Liccione of the Sacramentum Vitae blog who notes that Cardinal Ratzinger once wrote explicitly that "There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty [but not about abortion and euthanasia]." This does not give one a free pass to ignore Church teaching on the former subjects. It says something quite simple: if you disagree with the Church and approve of a particular abortion, the Church says you are wrong without needing to judge the circumstance. But if you disagree with the Church over a particular application of the death penalty, the circumstance must enter the picture, and "we would have to investigate the circumstances to see if it was a legitimate disagreement." To put it another way, disagreeing about facts and circumstances can have clear moral implications. It can, in fact, be wrong. Paul gives an extreme example: a government says that poor people should be executed. Clearly, disagreeing with Church teaching on this has moral implications!
And it is not only the unrealistic extreme cases that should concern us. Too often, Catholics take the term "prudential judgement" to simply dismiss the facts or circumstances that prompted the Vatican's position, even when these facts and circumstances may have serious moral implications. Why do so many Catholics disagree with the scientific consensus on global warming? Is it licit to dismiss scientific fact, on the low probability that it might be wrong? In the case that started the whole discussion, it would be hard to argue against the Church's characterization of Saddam Hussein's execution (with its untertones of tribalistic vengeance). The fiasco in Iraq results in part from legitimate Vatican concerns about proper authority, last resort, and the emergence of disproportionate evils. American Catholics like Novak and Weigel defended the war (on the grounds that one can dissent from "prudential judgments"). Who was right in retrospective? The rise of Hezbollah's power in Lebanon and the weakening of the nascent demoracy in that country is a direct implication of the Israeli invasion, which the Vatican also condemned. Again, it was right. So the key is legitimate dissent. And it is not legitimate if you refuse to consider the full range of facts, if you ignore the circumstances, or if you let a secular ideology cloud your judgment.