As a priest I am very careful to avoid the trip wire of partisan politics. The Catholic faithful are currently a very politically divided lot. One thing is sure, if I speak to a topic in a way that is perceived as taking sides in a political matter, I will be loved by about 40%, hated by about 40% and 20% will have no idea what I am talking about.
Another factor is that it’s not always easy to decide what a political issue is. Many of the critical moral issues of our day have woven themselves into the political fabric of our times. I may intend to speak against abortion but some insist that I am just a shill of the Republican Party. I may quote right from the catechism regarding the duties of this nation to immigrants and some will say that I’m just a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party. Now I surely will and do speak to the moral issues of these days, but I have to be very careful to stick to the issue, since people are very prone to listen with partisan, rather than Catholic ears. But honestly, it is a very difficult balance.
Then too, there are just some issues I should stay away from. I am not an expert on every public policy matter. I am aware that reasonable men and women differ on the best policies to deal with concerns of Americans. There are questions about the size and role of government, the proper level and way of taxing, the degree and extent of necessary welfare reform, the percentage of affordable housing in a given area, etc…., many reasonable people just differ on these things. Is it my role as a priest to opine on these topics? Should the pulpit be used to weigh in on these things? How about the bulletin?
Recently here on the blog there was a discussion about Cardinal Wuerl’s interview on Fox News Sunday and his reflections on the issue of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT). Many people in the comments box wanted him to specifically denounce the repeal of DADT. TO be sure, the question of homosexual activity is a moral issue, and the Cardinal articulated that. But DADT is a policy question. For 17 years now the military has allowed Gay people to serve, but insisted that their sexual preference be kept private for the sake of morale. Such has been the policy and it appears that this policy is going to gradually change.
Now what’s a bishop to do in cases like this? Is it sufficient for him to restate the Church’s position on the wrongfulness of homosexual acts and stay out of policy debates? Or should a bishop articulate a clear position, for or against, on a policy like DADT? What is most prudent and effective? What are the limits?
A matter of prudential judgment – The fact is, not all bishops agree on those limits. This is because determining those limits is a matter of prudential judgment. Judgments such as these vary from person to person, from issue to issue, and from region to region.
Whose ox? Even many of those commenting on last week’s blog and wishing for a more direct denunciation of DADT by the Cardinal, would probably be far less happy to hear him or another bishop indicating support for legislative efforts such as the DREAM Act or giving a negative opinion on the Arizona immigration law. Some might even opine that the bishops were overstepping their role in making such comments or that they don’t really understand the issues involved.
What is most prudent? So, on the one hand, people on both sides of the political aisle are often eager to draw the bishops into matters where reasonable people debate. On the other hand, when the given bishop does not take the desired side, they are often said to have over-stepped their authority, or that they are excoriated as being “just a bunch of left-wingers,” (or) “just operatives of the Republican Party.” Does all this really help the bishops in the end to preach the Gospel? Or does in merely cause them to be labeled and written off as mere political opponents with political motives?
I do not ask these as merely rhetorical questions. As stated the answer to many of these questions is matter of prudence. That the Church should annunciate moral principles is clear. When and to what extent the clergy should opine on matters of policy and legislation is less clear and requires great prudence. If all we do is annunciate principles we risk merely preaching abstractions and generalities, and this is akin to irrelevance. However if we clergy go too far into policy and legislative details we may well over step into an area that rightfully belongs to the laity, to experts and to the political process.
As a concluding example to this pondering I want to quote from an article by Deal Hudson who critiques the Bishops for not being more hawkish on the principle of subsidiarity. Then I want to ask some questions:
U.S. district court judge Henry Hudson, responding to a suit brought by Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, recently ruled the new health care law unconstitutional. Hudson found the legislation represented an “unchecked expansion” of congressional power. He explained that Congress does not have the authority, even under its power to regulate interstate commerce, to force a citizen to purchase private insurance coverage…..
When I first commented on the Virginia decision, I noted that no official response had been released by the USCCB. That remains the case. But with the likelihood that the Obama administration’s version of universal health care will be dismantled either by the Supreme Court, the Congress, or both, the USCCB should be looking for other ways of reaching the same goal….
While the bishops objected vigorously to the presence of abortion funding in the legislation, they seem untroubled by the question of its general constitutionality, one that comports closely with the principle of subsidiarity as articulated in Catholic social teaching….
Commentators on the Catholic culture wars focus on abortion, marriage, and homosexuality while completely overlooking the deep divisions over subsidiarity and the role of government in seeking the common good.
But now that a state court has found that the principle of individual liberty is violated by the health-care legislation, the questions of subsidiarity and individual liberty again come to the fore. As this case, and perhaps similar cases, moves toward the Supreme Court, the USCCB will no longer be able to duck questions about expanding the power of the federal government.
It’s a good moment in our nation’s history for all of us to take a fresh look at our founding documents. And while we are at it, Catholics can lay them alongside the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church and note how a limited government with a separation of powers, as well as a respect for individual liberty and free enterprise, is not antithetical to what is found there.
In effect Mr Hudson wants to draw the US Bishops into the debate about the size of Government. He of course is free to do so and to seek, as he does, to influence them to weigh the principle of subsidiarity more heavily in their thinking.
However I wonder how prudent it would be for the bishops to be drawn into a debate about the size and role of government here in America. We are a democracy wherein the electorate exercise considerable influence over the size and role of government and the level of taxation, if they choose to. Is it really the role of bishops to determine the extent and role of government in a free democratic republic?
It is surely appropriate for the bishops to speak to the principles of subsidiarity, and solidarity and to encourage balance in an over all sense. But if Mr. Hudson wants them to enter the healthcare debate with a “subsidiarity ruler” this may be more difficult. Consider some of the following:
1. What is the exact and best level of subsidiarity to be sought? I know its the lowest possible level. But what is the lowest possible level?
2. Can everyone agree and find the lowest level?
3. Is this the federal government?
4. Is it state government?
5. Is it purely private companies?.
6. Or is it a combination?
7. What combination?
8. Do reasonable people disagree?
9. Then who is right?
10. Who is to decide?
In other words, What’s a bishop to do?It is perhaps easy for the Mr Hudson to want to draw the bishops in on this question. But of course he would want them to agree with his level of subsidiarity. Reasonable men do differ on what the proper level of government involvement is. Liberals generally want a higher level and conservatives a lower level. I tend to be fearful of big government and would wish to limit its scope. Am I right? What is the metric we are to use here to gauge proper subsidiarity? What is level should the bishops use? Or is it enough for them to set forth the principles of Solidarity and Subsidiarity, and for lay people, (such as Mr. Hudson), to take these principles into the public arena and influence policy as they see fit? Should bishops reject the healthcare bill on the basis of subsidiarity?
Is that wise to apply the principle to a specific piece of legislation when the exact metric for subsidiarity isn’t even clear? Or is it best for the bishops to allow the political process to make that determination of the proper balance between solidarity, subsidiarity and the proper scope and role of government.
What’s a Bishop to do?
Now these are actual questions I am asking. I would like to know what you think. I would ask that simple attacks on the bishops be kept out. What I’d like to do here is to ponder what is prudent and perhaps discuss some norms and limits.
Here the Pope articulates some Catholic Social Principles including subsidiarity.