Political Confusion at The Catholic Conference

Putting it as clearly as I can, the bishops, when they permit their institutions to speak as they do, seem to know neither their own role in politics nor the layman’s. As a result the USCC’s statements on political responsibility are confusing at best, and a danger to the bishops’ authority at worst. There is the danger that in addressing this issue I may seem to be rejecting the authority of the bishops. By the end of this article I hope it will be clear that my concern is to uphold the teaching authority of the bishops on issues of faith or morals, while defending the freedom anyone has in political thought and action.

The bishops’ institutions, such as the United States Catholic Conference and a number of diocesan legislative networks, clearly do not understand the layman’s role in politics and therefore do not understand their own. They do not understand the layman’s freedom and hence do not know how to form it.

The bishops’ institutional statements on political responsibility have not made clear to Catholics that they have the freedom to pursue the good through different moral means. Take for instance the topic of welfare reform where, among experts, there is much discussion arising from ground-breaking research. The means that the bishops propose are dismissed by many in the field, including myself, as the well-intentioned failures of the past.

Others still hold to these discredited programs, including staff at the national offices of Catholic Charities. Like many of them, I have worked in the field out of a concern to help the poor. But we hold very different views on how to help them. Do I have the legitimate freedom to work to defeat their public policy proposals? Can I claim to be a Catholic in good standing while I work against the public policy proposals of Catholic Charities and the United States Catholic Conference? Do the bishops say I have that freedom, or do they say that to be a Catholic in good standing with the Church, even more to be a Catholic who loves the Church, I do not have that freedom or that I should not exercise it?

 

I am morally certain I have that freedom. If, on the other hand, I do not have this freedom, then I am massively misinformed and, given this article, stand in need of correction, public correction.

If I do have the freedom, not only to disagree with the bishops on these issues but to act against their proposals in public policy debates, then there are a number of interesting consequences. Then I have the freedom to publicly disagree with their political conclusions. (I do not want to publicly disagree with my bishop—more on that later.) I also have the freedom to organize networks of people to lobby against diocesan proposals on the public policy. If I am a professional in a sphere of public policy, which I am, I may even have the obligation to argue as powerfully as I can against their positions, particularly if I have come to the conclusion that they will do much harm. So as a Catholic working in public policy, or as a responsible Catholic citizen, I may find myself working hard against my bishop in public policy.

The USCC does not lay out this freedom in its statements on political responsibility. Of course to do so would make meaningless both the substance of many of the proposals and the manner in which they are made.

However, confusion in these statements on political responsibility is not new. In the 1987 document, the USCC clearly reiterated the Synod of Bishops of 1971: “It does not belong to the Church, insofar as she is a religious and hierarchical community, to offer concrete solutions in the social, economic and political spheres for justice in the world.” Yet the same 1987 document goes on to give numerous and very concrete solutions in the social, the economic, and the political spheres. Confusion abounds. Intellectual clarity used to be a given in official Catholic documents. They may not have been stimulating, but they were clear. Now they are provocative, but confusing.

A peculiar intellectual disease characteristic of modern Western thought lies behind this confusion. I call the disease “institutional busybodyism.” It is a disease unique to the human intellect and has no counterpart in biology. It is a disease of the relationships between the major institutions of government, economy, family, church, and school. In its diseased form each institution tries to do the work of one of the other institutions. The government tries to perform the tasks of the family or the school. The school tries to do the work of the family or of government. The church tries to do the work of the government . . . the clergy try to do the work of laymen. Chaos reigns. Russell Shaw calls it “clericalism”—where churchmen think their competence in matters divine gives them competence in other areas, and laymen think they will become holier by doing clerical tasks.

Busybodyism, not surprisingly, frequently leads to incompetence. Evaluation research, a relatively recent development in the social sciences, exposes the embarrassing results of this trend. Evaluation research has assessed the different effects of government family planning and job training programs. Repeatedly they expose government’s incompetence in family and educational matters by showing their programs just don’t work. Evaluation research on the effects of sex education, or early infant day care, reveals the school’s incompetence in taking on the role of parents. This new branch of social science is illustrating an old insight: there are very different vocations, and each has its legitimate autonomy.

The Church’s competence (as an institution with its God-given purpose) lies in teaching, with completeness, the faith and moral doctrine of Jesus Christ and—what is intimately related—in providing the means of sanctification (the sacraments, instruction in prayer and the virtues) for its members. The bishops’ institutions’ contributions in matters political come from aiding the formation of peoples’ conscience by authoritatively teaching, in the name of the bishops, and therefore of Jesus Christ, the moral principles that must govern all actions in social, economic, and political matters, especially when they are in danger of being obscured.

If they do that, they will certainly aid the bishops in fulfilling their public function of caring in the public realm what applies to fundamental morality, or saying it another way, what applies to the salvation of souls. Thus they would avoid confusing moral options in political actions with moral principles, to dispel the confusion between principles and legitimate options available in most political issues. Sticking to the truly moral level they will aid the Church’s mission to influence profoundly the morality of the social and political realm, albeit indirectly.

At the core of the USCC’s confusion lies its failure to distinguish between the true exercise of freedom in doing good. Faced with evil, a good person exercises his freedom by opposing it. Faced with many goods, a person is rarely constrained to choose only one way. We have no freedom to assent to evil. We have great freedom in how we pursue doing what is good.

The reasoning of the pope in Veritatis Splendor clarifies this; the commandments are always in the negative, because evil is always universally forbidden. The pope describes it as a moral floor or baseline below which one may not go. Murder, lying, stealing, and cheating are all off-limits for all, always. Thus, bishops are on very safe ground when they specify the political evil, a clear breaking of the ten commandments, that must be opposed. Whenever the breaking of a commandment of God is enshrined in public policy or common practice, it is something the bishops can very clearly speak out on to all Catholics (and others) as an evil to be opposed, a political change to be brought about.

To suggest that a specific concrete public evil be eliminated is quite within the authority of the bishops. That the bishops specify concrete evils is not only legitimate, it is helpful, salutary, and needed. All people, including conservatives and liberals, tend to neglect certain goods. That the bishops point out these neglects and call us to attend to them is also needed, frequently. But specifying for us how we ought to act specifically is not.

Specifying concrete political goods, and especially the means to attain them, is almost always an imprudent action on the part of the bishops’ institutions in our society. Nobody is obliged to pursue a particular political good in a particular way at a particular time. While we are all obliged to help the poor, we may have many different views on the best way to do so. Some will think that one particular way is not helpful and that another is more helpful. It is not the USCC’s role to say that we should elect this particular public way of helping.

The USCC’s quadrennial political responsibility pronouncements are not very prescriptive on the evils in our nation, other than on abortion, but they are repeatedly very prescriptive on the good to be pursued and the means to be used in pursuing them. They do not clearly analyze and teach where in public policy the commandments of God are violated. On the other hand, in pursuing the good, they choose among a wide array of options and teach that these ways ought to be followed if one is a responsible Catholic. They stand the true application of freedom and moral principle on its head.

To make matters worse, in the view of many experts, when they wander into the particulars of how to attain the good or avoid the evil, the USCC not only lacks competence but also frequently demonstrates an embarrassing level of incompetence.

For instance, the 1987 statement on political responsibility asks for a raise in the minimum wage while, in the same paragraph, decrying the high level of unemployment. Among economists there is near universal agreement that an imposed raise in wages leads to an increase in unemployment. While the general public is not aware of it, we cannot have the former without the latter, and the question becomes which poor group we will hurt while we help a different poor group. The same flaw exists in the 1995 statement. Some diocesan legislative networks also lobby for minimum wage increase, and request the help of the faithful in doing so—all in the name of helping the poor.

Given the gospel teaching, the bishops’ institutions will continually point out that the poor are in need of help, that everyone, particularly every Christian, will face Christ at the judgment seat and be asked how he fed the poor and clothed the naked. But among the various ways of feeding the poor and clothing the naked, the USCC cannot prescribe which political way to do it when there are legitimate competing ways. Different members of the faithful have come to well-reasoned but very different conclusions regarding what is helping or hurting the poor.

The USCC’s health care financing proposals are another large area of public policy embarrassment for many with expertise in these areas. A filial reticence to embarrass the bishops has kept a number of faithful Catholics silent. If the USCC insists on continuing such pronouncements, a full and frank discussion beckons on these incompetencies and violations of due freedom. •

To teach that only one particular way is the Catholic way is to mislead and misinform. That is why the names “Catholic Alliance” and “Christian Coalition” are wrong. For a layman to say to other Catholics that his particular insight is the Catholic way would be an obvious abuse of Holy Mother Church. The abuse is not less, and the confusion is greater, when the official Church agencies and the clergy do it.

The bishops’ institutions can be very specific in condemning a particular moral evil, but they have no competence to tell lay Catholics how to get that moral evil off the books. They should leave that to competent citizens and laymen to work out for themselves, to choose from among competing means.

Though I am a conservative Republican, I would find it offensive to find the USCC propounding a conservative policy as the Catholic way. It is as much a violation of the politically liberal Catholics’ sensibilities to have a set of conservative solutions thrust upon them as it is for conservative Catholics to have their sensibilities upset by a host of liberal policy proposals. Both are abuses of the Church. In so many areas all Catholics have legitimate freedom to choose and act politically in many different ways, and they will frequently oppose each other, though hopefully often cooperate.

The church has real competence in the area of marriage, family, and sexuality, a competence admitted by all serious scholars, Catholic or not. Yet regarding these issues the USCC’s statements on political responsibility are woefully non-specific. Many very costly social ills stem from the breakdown of marriage and the begetting of children outside of marriage. It is an area that cries out for moral leadership.

The USCC’s silence in this area indicates a degree of confusion in the whole endeavor of political responsibility. The near-total silence is a damning indicator of the confusion about the differing roles of bishops and laymen in public policy. They want to operate like laymen in safe political havens while failing to fill the divine mandate to be moral teachers.

When bishops’ institutions act outside their role they endanger the standing of the bishops’ legitimate God-given authority. To ask Church members to respect their legitimate teaching authority in moral and spiritual matters, while provoking their disagreement on political matters, is asking too much. Intellectually well-formed Catholics who love and revere the Church’s authority may be both able and willing to do it, but there are many who do not have the formation to make the necessary distinctions, and they may throw the baby out with the bathwater. If it is a grave moral evil for lay Catholics to undermine or endanger the teaching authority of the successors of the apostles, is it any less grave for the clergy or Church agencies?

Clerical busybodysim in politics is also a stumbling block to evangelization. It is asking a lot of non-Catholics to understand the true Catholicism of laymen who oppose the USCC’s positions in public policy debates. It is asking the impossible that they get a true appreciation of the teaching role of the bishops from such confusion.

A Catholic faithful that is morally well-formed will display unity in acting against concrete evils embodied in law or policy. Such Catholics would be very aware of what is “below the baseline” and immoral in our public policy, and will use their influence to erase it. At the same time, a culturally diverse Catholic community, such as we have in the United States, would likely display a significant diversity of ways to achieve political goods.

Thus in the presence of a vibrant Church, the Catholic vote could be relied on to oppose laws that legalize abortion, encourage divorce, contraception, or legalize sodomy and a host of other nonsexual evils. All these are public structures of sin. A well-formed Catholic laity will recognize them as such and use their influence to get rid of them.

However, even in getting rid of evil the bishops can rarely indicate the only way to do so. Early in the 1980s there was a political opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade, but the pro-life movement was split on the means to do so between the Henry Hyde approach and the Orrin Hatch approach. This split allowed the opportunity to slip by. Even in this area of the gravest moral consequence, there is danger in taking political sides. The bishops, by casting their lot with one approach, yielded their teaching role for political influence. Had the bishops stayed within their area of competence, acting as moral diagnosticians and teachers, the outcome might have been different. One will never know.

The bishops have a great role, possibly the greatest role, to play in the political health of the nation, but it is not in the articulation of public policy positions. Their great contribution is in forming Catholics of virtue and of sound moral intellect. Then they will see unity in opposition to evil and diversity in pursuit of the good, with solidarity between all men of goodwill, especially among members of the Church. They can have great political influence if they leave politics aside and pursue their vocation of teaching and sanctifying.

Maybe it is time for the bishops to articulate in a clear and authoritative way the complementary, but very different roles of the laity and the bishops in politics. A dialogue between laity and the bishops is very much in order. The laity have different insights from those of the bishops and their clergy—a form of knowledge arising from experience. It seems to be a knowledge that the USCC has yet to acquire. Given the Church’s and the bishops’ true role in politics, it cannot happen too soon.

By

Patrick Fagan is Senior Fellow and Director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI) in Washington DC.

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