Perspectives — The Bishop Malone Statement

In the wake of the dispute between Governor Cuomo and Archbishop O’Connor, Bishop James W. Malone, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), has issued a statement purporting to clarify the role of Catholic bishops in American politics. Malone’s statement also quite clearly criticizes Governor Cuomo’s position that he would not let his personal opposition to abortion lead him to support any attempt to reverse the nation’s permissive abortion policy.

The bishops rightly reject “the idea that candidates satisfy the requirements of rational analysis in saying their personal views should not influence their policy decisions.” The absurdity of that position is revealed by imagining a candidate who made the following statement, “I am personally opposed to child abuse but will not impose my personal morality on others.” It is illogical for political candidates to say that abortion is not a fit subject for public policy because opposition to abortion is based on religious convictions, and then take pride in their religiously grounded support for social programs to help the needy. Those supporting a right to abortion should explain why abortion is not wrong, or why the freedom of choice outweighs the evil of abortion, or why abortion is one of those evils that the government should not attempt to prevent.

While the paragraph on political candidates has already received a good deal of commentary, the main point of Bishop Malone’s statement has gone almost unnoticed. He says that the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) takes positions on public policy issues but does not endorse political candidates. “The point needs emphasizing,” says Malone, “lest in the present political context, even what we say about issues be perceived as an expression of political partisanship.” This is. of course, an extraordinary claim — that bishops are not engaging in partisan politics when they take positions on public policy issues. Malone implies that only the episcopal endorsement of political candidates would properly be called partisanship. How can the bishops seriously maintain this distinction without blushing? Doesn’t common sense indicate that taking policy positions is a partisan endeavor and a very important one? Do not the bishops want Catholics and other citizens to vote for candidates who endorse their positions?

Bishop Malone invokes a passage from the Second 1 Vatican Council to explain his new position. “[The Church] has the right to pass moral judgment even on matters touching on the political order, whenever basic personal rights or the salvation of souls makes such judgments necessary.” Malone goes on to say that bishops fulfill their nonpartisan role as teachers with regard to public issues by taking policy positions based on moral considerations.

When stating their political opinions, the bishops, Malone believes, are establishing a framework of moral guidance for Catholics and other interested persons of good will. He even claims that the bishops’ policy positions “express the Catholic moral tradition.” In the very next breath Malone admits that Catholics and others may disagree in the application of moral principles to the facts in current policy debates. Malone thus implies that USCC policy positions cannot simply express the Catholic moral tradition. In fact, the political options of any individual or group could be ill advised and either fail to do any good or even make matters worse. At any rate, Bishop Malone and the USCC consider themselves above ordinary political partisanship as long as they are promoting human rights or social justice and pointing out the moral dimensions of issues.

As evidence of the bishops’ desire to avoid partisan-ship, Bishop Malone could have pointed to the procedures of the episcopal committee preparing a pastoral letter on the U.S. economy. The chairman of the committee has promised not to issue the first draft of the pastoral letter until after the November election, lest the bishops be criticized for trying to influence the outcome of the Presidential race. This seems to be a sure sign of rising above partisanship. But why should the election affect the timing of the bishops’ pastoral duty to instruct the faithful, unless the bishops plan to take sides on matters of personal political judgment or preference, where Catholics might legitimately make other moral choices?

Bishop Malone speaks, and over the past 18 years the USCC has acted, as though the best contribution Catholic bishops could make to the political order is by taking policy positions on a wide range of issues. By any reasonable standard most of the bishops’ policy proposals are partisan in the ordinary sense of the word. The pope’s personal representatives and European bishops even had to tell the American bishops that the second draft of the pastoral letter on war and peace mixed up Catholic doctrine with partisan politics. (A memorandum recording the remarks made at the meeting was published in Origins, April 7, 1983, pp. 691-95.) The irony is still greater. Archbishop O’Connor unsuccessfully tried to persuade his fellow bishops not to include partisan policy judgments in the final draft of the pastoral letter.

The same Second Vatican Council invoked by the bishops to justify their activism also says this:

Christ to be sure gave his Church no proper mission in the political, economic and social order. The purpose which He set before her is a religious one. But out of this religious mission itself comes a function, a light and energy which can serve to structure and consolidate the human community according to the divine law.

Back in 1931 Pius XI stated the traditional Catholic position this way:

[The Church] has the right and duty to pronounce with supreme authority upon social and economic matters: she can in no wise renounce the duty God entrusted to her to interpose her authority, not in matters of technique for which she is neither suitably equipped nor endowed by office, but in all things that are connected with the moral law. (My emphasis.)

Pope John Paul has told bishops that they have a special responsibility to be men of learning because their principal duty is to be “teachers of the truth,” the whole truth about Jesus Christ. They are to pursue justice primarily through evangelization and by expounding to the faithful the social doctrine of the Church. A statement to Brazilian bishops expresses well the pontiff’s understanding:

Your vocation as bishops forbids you quite clear-ly and without half measures anything that resembles political party-spirit or subjection to this or that ideology or system. … Ministers of the Church – bishops and priests – will be aware that their social apostolate does not consist in becoming involved in party struggles, or in options of groups and systems, but in being true “educators in faith,” reliable guides, spiritual stimulators.

Taking partisan policy positions is primarily the role of the laity according to the pope and the Second Vatican Council. There are times, of course, when the principles of Catholic social doctrine may overlap with partisan politics, as commonly understood. There are also times when the bishops can and should enter the policy arena, especially to fight clear evils. For the bishops, however, to stress taking policy positions as their most effective means of seeking justice reveals a misunderstanding of theology and Catholic political wisdom. In so acting the bishops are often speaking simply as private citizens, which they are allowed to do under the Constitution. The office of bishop, however, can be put to much better use, both for society and the Church.

The American bishops undoubtedly believe they are faithful to John Paul’s teaching by stressing the formulation of partisan policy positions in the United States Catholic Conference. They are mistaken, but are not likely to see their error in the contemporary theological climate, which is sympathetic to liberation theology and to a narrow understanding of social justice. Even John Paul and the European bishops have failed to open the eyes of the American hierarchy.

If the American bishops would pursue justice by evangelizing, by explaining and promoting virtue as well as through educating the faithful in Catholic social teaching, they would have more chance of accomplishing for society what they intend by their intense participation in partisan politics. As Leo XIII, the author of the first modern social encyclical, said, “In regard to things temporal, [the Church] is the source of benefits as manifold and as great as if the chief end of her existence were to ensure the prospering of our earthly life.” (My emphasis.) In order to be clearly beneficial to society the Church must focus on her specific mission, always and everywhere.

  • J. Brian Benestad

    J. Brian Benestad is a member of the Theology and Religious Studies faculty at the University of Scranton.

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