The Pursuit of a Just Social Order

Book Review of  Policy Statements of the U.S. Catholic Bishops, 1966-80, by J. Brian Benestad
(Available only from Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C., 1982, 206 pages).

During the past fifteen years or so, the Catholic bishops of the United States, for reasons best known to themselves, have been writing a political platform. Except for its high moral tone, it is not very different from the platforms of the two major political parties, though it resembles far more the Democratic than the Republican version. Planks of the Catholic platform accumulate as the U.S. Catholic Conference issues policy statements, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops promulgates pastoral letters, and staff members of the USCC and NCCB testify at Congressional hearings.

Examples of measures the bishops have supported include national health insurance, handgun control, the right of farm workers to bargain collectively, compensation for victims of crime, government aid for non-public schools, the SALT II treaty, guaranteed annual minimums for foreign food aid, selective conscientious objection. The bishops have opposed capital punishment, draft registration for women, development of the MX missile, the U.S. nuclear deterrence policy.

All this political activity suggests that the American Catholic hierarchy has found a new voice, a new confidence, and a new determination to effect real changes in American society. In exercising specifically episcopal leadership, the bishops have blithely bypassed the judgment of Vatican II, in the dogmatic Constitution on the Church, that the laity by their special vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God.

They have just as casually ignored the opinion of the 1971 worldwide Synod of Bishops that it is not the church’s role “to offer concrete solutions in the social, economic, and political spheres for justice in the world.” Indeed, according to the current NCCB president, Archbishop John R. Roach of the St. Paul-Minneapolis diocese, the American church should become more involved in politics, not less.

But the bishops have found a way to remain true to their role as moral guides. They have discovered that in issue after political issue there is moral or religious content that opens the door to clerical judgment. Thus, for example, racism is not simply a blight on society and an attack on human equality, but “racism is a sin” (1979). The bishops not only favor national health insurance for the good of all citizens, but they determine that a “moral necessity” exists to establish this program (1974). That farm laborers ought to be able to organize becomes a “dominant moral issue” (1973). For conscientious Catholics to be allowed exemption from certain wars is deemed a “moral right” (1971). There is a gold mine of political opinions to be uncovered by this technique, and we haven’t seen the last of them.

In 1981 J. Brian Benestad and Francis J. Butler edited a useful collection of episcopal policy statements between 1966 and 1980 — Quest for Justice. Now Professor Benestad has written his own analysis and critique of the bishops’ political thinking — The Pursuit of a Just Social Order. The book is clear, sober, restrained. It gives the bishops due credit for their devotion to peace, justice, and human rights; it takes them to task in mild terms that no one could find objectionable.

Benestad’s criticisms and recommendations derive from his identifying six general characteristics of the bishops’ policy statements:

(1)The bishops have “stressed the quest for justice through policy statements” rather than through evangelization.

(2)They have failed to educate their followers about “the very rich tradition of Catholic social thought.”

(3)They have de-emphasized the involvement of the laity.

(4)The issues chosen by the bishops for their agenda have been “mainly ‘liberal’ issues, such as economic and social equality, and human rights violations by rightist regimes.”

(5)Although the bishops claim allegiance to the principle of subsidiarity, they have ignored it as often as they have been faithful to it.

(6)The staff of the USCC’s Department of Social Development and World Peace — which has “very limited theological competence and no political diversity” — has significant influence on the content of the bishops’ statements.

Policy statements of the American hierarchy could readily be improved, Benestad says. He suggests that the bishops should:

—look at all sides of an issue

—avoid acting like an interest group;

—keep their distance from secular trends;

—avoid specific legislative proposals when possible;

—adhere to the principle of subsidiarity; and

—restrict the NCCB to evangelization and education and the USCC to application of principles to policies.

The bishops’ responsibility to educate American Catholics needs even more emphasis than Benestad gives it. It is certainly true, as he says, that

… the political and social thought of Pope John Paul II, of previous popes, and of the Second Vatican Council remain unknown to most Catholics.

It is also true, and more disturbing, that Catholic social thought is generally unknown to the graduates of Catholic colleges. The bishops are running a risk of becoming well known in Washington as lobbyists, but of being unknown to the very people they seek to lead. Pronouncements, political pressure, publicity —these get politicians’ attention. Education is another matter entirely.


Robert L. Spaeth came to Saint John’s University, Minnesota, as a visiting professor in Liberal Studies and director of Freshman Colloquium in 1977. He was appointed dean in 1979 and held that post for nine years. He resigned in 1988 to return to teaching. He died in 1994.

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