What’s A Bishop to Do? A Pondering of the Role of the Bishops in Questions of Public Policy

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.[1][2]

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.

36 Replies to “What’s A Bishop to Do? A Pondering of the Role of the Bishops in Questions of Public Policy”

    1. Yes, I have viewed the video in question. There are surely some extreme examples he offers that are reprehensible. I wonder though as to the questions I raised. How say you? In matters of abortion and communion these are internal Church matters and the bishops in question have surely misled here. But what of the sorts of issues I raise? More marginal ones. Any thoughts about the proper lines here?

      1. First, let me apologize for not thanking you for such an excellent blog and for actually responding to comments (not many do). I feel I must disagree though with your questions above being labeled as marginal. Questions 1-10 are, in my opinion, incredibly important questions for today. I also feel that most of the above questions have already been answered.

        “It is an injustice, a grave evil and a disturbance of the right order, for a larger and higher organisation, to arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower bodies.”

        “If I [Leo XIII] were to pronounce on any single matter of a prevailing economic problem, I should be interfering with the freedom of men to work out their own affairs. Certain cases must be solved in the domain of facts”
        – both of the above are from Pope Leo XIII

        One foundational belief that has been abandoned and forgotten in the last 100 years or so is that the family is the bedrock of a society. As I understand it, the order went along this line in terms of subsidiarity: family -> community/church -> state government -> federal government. This of course could be broken down into much smaller pieces but for the sake of space I’ll leave it at that. Over the last 100 years, the west has been indoctinated into believing that the state (federal government) is the answer to every question. Is it the families responsibility to care for its senior members? No, Uncle Sam is going to hand them a Social Security so they can be independent (while enslaving future generations with unfathomable debt). Is it the local communities responsibility to raise local funds for a project? No, they just need to lobby Uncle Sam and ensure that new earmark in a completely unrelated bill. For the past century, Americans (and Europeans) have been brainwashed into believing that we can shuffle all of our responsibilities, problems, needs, wants, etc. onto the state and all will be fine and dandy. The nice, big, friendly state will take care of us. Sadly, many bishops have more than just accepted this but actively promote it. They give lip service to the evils of socialism but have no problem with the government forcing people with threats of heavy fines and jail to participate in an unconstitutional and immoral program that gives the state complete control over the lives of its citizenry.

        To sum things up, what the bishops need to to do is grow a backbone, stop socializing with socialism, dismantle the “social justice” nonsense thats has replaced true social justice, and do their jobs. And that goes for Cardinal Wuerl too. Thanks for being the patron of this blog, now would you stop giving Holy Communion to heretics and schismatics when they come to town to spend my money on nonsense.

  1. My mother always said “Everything has a place and everything should be in its place”- this is relatively simple with things like sweaters, toothbrushes and pots and besides Mom always got to choose the place. So I ask What’s a mother to do, when trying to teach her children to be charitable, just, and good citizens? Don’t forget to brush your teeth, say your prayers dear- Oh and remember the principles of subsidiarity when you vote!

    While we should and must turn to our Bishops for guidance in church teaching, we as lay Catholics also have a responsibility to educate ourselves and speak articulately about Catholic social principles. Sometimes we take the easy road and leave the Bishops and priests out on a limb when they speak and we don’t back them up.

    Thanks for all the time you dedicate to these blogs. God bless you!

    1. Yes, the temporal order really does belong to the Lay faithful who have the expertise and role in the renewal thereof. I wonder why so little has been done to develop this. We seem to have plenty of eucharistic ministers (which really belongs to clergy) but we have so few of the faithful engaged in the transformation of the political and social order. Further, so many of the one who ARE out there are dissenters. Where are the lay FAITHFUL? We do some work here in out interfaith network work to develop lay leaders but it seems little else is done.

      At any rate thank you for this insight and for your encouragement.

      1. Well lay people stepping up and transforming the world while living in the world (but not of the world) would be more in keeping with charism of Vatican Council II than the changes you discussed in your previous blog,. At any rate you do a great job keeping us educated, motivated and articulate. 🙂

      2. I think you are quite right Msgr. The prudential applications of public policy belong to the purview of the laity, which with its very specializations apply the principles laid out in the Faith. Without this specialization in say economics, episcopal particular pronouncements on these issues can be quite awful. The last thing we need is bishops out there stating that it is morally imperative that the minimum wage must be $8.25 an hour. (Should we expect them to have done the math themselves?)

        Clearly, then, the role of the bishop is to proclaim the faith, and to enunciate those various principles that either comprise or are derived from the Natural Law. And the laity explores how to put the faith and these principles into action.

        I think a problem arises, however, when we try to insert the idea of Church/state separation into our Catholic vision. In truth, there needs to be a large distinction between the two, but no separation – our Faith informs every aspect of our lives, including the prudential applications of law in a modern democratic state. Bishops, I think, are too wary of this line. Because of this, I think many bishops shy away from those in office, perhaps with the idea that they don’t want to seem to cozy with them, when in fact the bishop should be out in front engaging the various politicians from day one.

        Another problem that I think occurs is that this is a one- step move for the bishops….they preach, and the people either do it or they don’t. End of story. No, the bishop needs to be looking for real solutions. Yes, it may be in a person with a degree in marketing to make an effective campaign for Catholics to come back to the Church, yet if no one preaches to those in marketing and seeks them by the wayside, they often will not respond. If pastors and bishops cannot exhort the faithful to the Gospel in transforming society, then their homilies are simply either yay…Jesus loves you….or (rarely) boo sin. What about a bishop who says I think our diocese needs X….present a vision for why it should occur, and what he’s willing to invest (from himself, and not just diocesan funds).

        Coupled with this last thing, I think many homilies are geared to reach people where they are. This, of course, is not bad. Telling people to love their families, their co-workers, their fellow suburbanites,etc is fine. But in order to seem relevant, i think too much ground has been lost to exhorting people to do great things. Part of this is a societal malaise following the last half century – but while the Church should never be forgetful of the holiness of the every day, if it doesn’t inspire man to be great, and to do great things, who will?

      3. Thanks for these good distinctions and ideas. It would be helpful if the bishops either encouraged or worked with groups of skilled lay people who could take the principles to the next step.

      4. Regarding why the Lay faithful are not developed in the role of renewing the temporal order . . .
        3 words: Catholic Higher Education

        The Catholic Colleges and Universities need to be the transmitters of first principles in order to also be fertile ground for human creative capacity. As in an economy, ideas must be based on truth. Modern education has become generally bereft of this transmission as absolute truths and things like the classics have been demoted to insignificance. The liberal arts education has been replaced by the material/science curriculum in modern education, and Catholic schools have very often followed the current in order to compete in higher education. They have by-and-large lost the regard for the importance, the sheer practical impact, of Catholic identity and it’s effect on personal, and hence societal, action and behavior. This has killed Catholic evangelization in the temporal realm and the application of Divine Revelation to man’s life on earth. People without faith end up as people without sense, hence the insanity of current society and the desperate battles fought to accomplish something as straightforward and principle-driven as . . . BALANCING A BUDGET.

        What is so horrifying about public policy today is the monumental ignorance, many times stubborn and willful, demonstrated by authorities and public figures, including “Catholics.” A materialistic sense of knowledge prevails and Reason is rejected if it does not serve predetermined, self-centered and self-serving ends. Revelation is outright mocked, ridiculed and attacked. Morality has been exiled from society and its ruling position with regards to public life, and insensibility has prospered as a result.

        What is the impact on the temporal realm? From the political point of view, generalizations made by a Bishop about CSD in regards to an issue can actually be counterproductive and disruptive to the political process, which involves an inordinate amount of talking, psychological maneuvering and posturing. That talk is a specific language, coming from a specific mindset and culture (political culture). When a Bishop makes a public statement about CSD with regard to a policy issue in a general, moral sweep rather than in specific practical recommendations, it’s like an Italian interrupting two Germans engaged in an argument, each only speaking their native language. The result is confusion, not clarity. (Never underestimate the foreign-ness of political, economic, sociological or psychological language . . . ESPECIALLY because the words used are recognizable in the vernacular. You have a greater probability of understanding the jargon of biologists precisely because you will recognize it as the language of a specific study and profession, not words of the English language.)

        If the laity are to make an impact in the temporal realm, they need an excellent education and formation in temporal fields of study, but they also need excellent education and formation in their faith. Lay Catholics need to stop crowding around the altar and instead crowd the public sphere as is proper to their role.
        Likewise, the Bishops should restrict themselves to managing the official, legal and other specifically administrative and public business of the Church appropriate to their office while leaving policy matters to Lay Catholics. Their influence is best expressed, and their service is best rendered, by their spiritual and moral direction and formation of the laity in the temporal order. The Bishops will actually contribute more to a truly creative debate by engaging the laity directly via their relationship to them as their spiritual fathers, with the common ground of their shared Catholic Faith, than they would otherwise (as is the current reality).

        The developments of advocacy and activism on the part of the Bishops since Vatican Council II have essentially accomplished the construction of a modern version of the Church’s temporal authority in the Middle Ages. The only difference is that the Bishops’ influence is through nonprofit groups and lobbyists rather than through feudal titles and holdings. That temporal role was necessarily surrendered, as should it’s modern replacement.

  2. I recently saw the phrase ‘like herding cats.’ Even though I don’t have much to offer on the subject and don’t mean to make light the topic, I think this is good catnip. Speaking of catnip here are some interesting facts:


    When a cat encounters catnip, it usually sniffs it, rubs against it, licks it & finally eats it. It’s actually the sniffing that produces the high, it’s believed that cats eat catnip to bruise the catnip & therefore release more of the nepetalactone. The high produced will usually last between five & ten minutes.

    When sniffed, catnip will stimulate a cat, however when eaten it will act as a sedative.

    Around 50% of cats are affected by catnip, and those that are, are affected to differing degrees. Kittens younger than 8 weeks old aren’t able to enjoy it’s effects. In fact, they show an aversion to it. The response to catnip appears to be inherited as an autosomal gene. It’s not just domesticated cats who enjoy the effects of catnip, many lot of wild species also enjoy it. Cats can smell 1 part in a billion in the air. Males & females, entire or desexed, there appears to be no one group who is more readily affected by catnip than another.

    The effects of catnip seem to change from cat to cat. I have one cat who drools & rolls on the floor, I have another one who becomes very hyperactive, a third becomes aggressive, and picks fights with the other cats when he’s had catnip. Catnip is not harmful to your cat. They won’t overdose on it. Most cats know when they’ve had enough & will refuse any further offers.

    Interestingly, researchers say that nepetalactone is about ten times more effective at repelling mosquitos than DEET, which is the active ingredient in most insect repellents. It was also discovered that catnip repels cockroaches too!* Plants aren’t alone in containing nepetalactone, some insects & ants also contain it. It’s been speculated that this protects them from insects.

    Rats & mice are also believed to have a strong dislike of catnip & will avoid places where it grows.

      1. I suppose I’m just another cat without any answers. However, I don’t think it’s the clergy’s place to involve themselves directly with the gov’t on many social issues, but to aid in the forming of the laity’s conscience. However, It seems to me that no matter how loudly the laity or the ‘people’ speak informing the gov’t of the ‘will of the people,’ contrary decisions and legislation are enacted and we are told it was the will people when clearly it wasn’t or isn’t.

      2. Ok. I understand. I think that the laity are most effective in swaying gov’t action when the group together in coalitions, or interest groups. Too bad there are not many such Catholic coalitions. Here too I think the bishops can encourage more of this though leave the details and leadership up to the laity

  3. I am not very articulate in these matters, but I do know that I dislike it when too much faith is put into public policy. Yes, some laws are immoral, like the govt. sanctioning abortion and making it legal, so the priests and the bishops should speak out against it and we should support them, but social justice issues can be tricky. I don’t trust the govt. to necessarily make good decisions because they think they’ve made good policies, but in the long run, you can see they’ve undermined the family. Now don’t anybody gang up on me, but an example would be social security. I think instead of having our ageing parents with us, it has led to having parents living alone. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. I’m not sure … but when the govt. says it’ll take care of something, then people naturally think they don’t have to take care of it, and we forget that we are our brother’s keeper. This is just one example.

    It is the responsibility of the people to educate themselves on the political issues and vote responsibly for the candidates who will do the most good, the least harm (and it’s not always easy to judge) and I do appreciate when our priest will guide us on some thorny issues.

    I think the Bishops have a very difficult job because they have to speak the truth of the Church in this secular world and advise people who only want to hear half-truths. It’s like going into a den of wolves. It must take great courage. But it is definitely not a “party” issue. Truth is truth. It does not matter whether you are a democrat, rat or a cat.

    1. Thank you. This is all very well said. You are right in saying that social justice issues are tricky. And it may be that in many of these issues organized groups of Catholics will gather into groups that form very different opinions. However it would still be progress if these differing Catholic groups were using Catholic social and moral principles rather than just trying to start with a political perspective and “baptize” it. Hence if the Catholic groups made the study of Catholic teaching their forst goal and then sought to apply that teaching to their political action and reasoning I think we’d be off to a great start.

  4. As a general matter, the Framers (at least those who came to be on the Federalist side of the Founding debate) believed that the “bulwark of our freedom” was the limitation on governmental power contained within the articles of the Constitution. The Anti-Federalists (who lost the debate, but whose refrain continues to echo in important ways—whether we hear it or not) objected on the grounds that a democracy required a level of virtue in the citizenry that would only be maintaned in a small, agrarian republic where people were tied to the land.

    Now modern liberals (who are by no means the heirs to the Anti-Federalist legacy for those keeping score), have taken the machinery of an energetic Hamiltonian national government and “put in the service” of “individual rights.” This attempt to justify the means by reference to the end is problemmatic at its core—but rendered dangerous (one might argue poisonous) when the people’s representatives cede the definition of “rights” to a Judiciary that begins (think Griswold v CT and Roe v Wade) to leave the express rights articulated in the Bill of Rights and further Amendments and “create” rights that do not exist (the Roe v Wade abortion “right” is based on a notion of privacy that has no foundation in the U S Constitution and no honest person can argue otherwise).

    The fact is that many observers of American democracy have noticed that there is a tendency for democracies to allow the egalatarian principle to erode political freedom—that’s why we needed a representative form of democracy–to check the passions loosed by the principle of equality. (I think that may be the catnip point although I much prefer the Tocqueville and Burke formulations!)

    My recommendation to the Bishops: don’t wade into matters of prudence without immersing yourself first in the tension at the core of our founding principles. But once immersed, wade in on the side of Truth, not Party. As the greatest president of the 20th century stated so well: There are simple answers to our problems, just not easy ones. We have to summon the courage to do what we know is right. The Bishops (IMHO) have been gifted with the obligation to preserve the Faith that contains the Truth. Speak that Truth to Power.


    1. Ok, Bill. Well said. I wonder if you have also considered gathering groups of the faithful to study such things both in the founding documents and in the social teaching of the Church? In the “if I were a bishop file” I can see a lot of priests saying that they would, as a bishop, want to gather lay leaders such as yourself and hear the wisdom and also the differing opinions on such matters and also encourage them to organize around such principles soupled with Catholic Social teaching, even issue position papers.

  5. I think that if Bishops simply teach the basics, the moral underpinnings of the way we should order our lives then these insights would form the policies and the legislations at some point. It would seem that the average catholic in the pew is simply clueless as to how our Bishops teach and what principles need to brought to the dicusssion. I’m sure you have explained this in your post and many previous ones as well so i’m not saying anything important. Maybe this example is simplistic but i remember years ago (Reagan years) when the USCCB issued a position on specific bombs that were being deployed in Europe and my father said, ” these bishops should be talking about how bad it is for people to be living together and no response about their contracepting when these things are threatening their souls more than bombs in europe!” I think what he meant was that the clear moral doctrine of our faith is more important for our entry to heaven than some of the policy things we put so much time into… i think thats what he meant but then again … it was my dad….

    1. Yes, you are right that policy debates can distract the clergy who end up opining on various matters outside their real area of expertise and meanwhile their own faithful are in disarray. There is a saying in scripture: “They made me a keeper of vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept.” (Song 1:6) Hence part of a bishop’s prudential judgment in such matters is where his attention is best fixed.

  6. Msgr. Pope —

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful article and for your obvious concern with striking the right balance between moral teaching and political involvement. My first thought, in answer to the question posed by the title, was: “Oh! Please preach the Gospel.” It’s so simplistic and so basic, I suppose, but, as a 22-year-old Catholic, I’ve been shocked and astonished at how few of my peers know the basics … I grew up in the Bible belt, and some of the few Catholic kids in my area didn’t know we believe in the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist — Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. Some didn’t know we believe baptism to be efficacious. Perhaps even more importantly, some couldn’t even articulate a basic model of the Gospel: We are sinners, Christ is the Son of God who died and rose to take away our sins and to give us hope for a new life freed of sin, and we participate in that life of grace, which He opened up for us, through the sacraments. Political questions are important, but no public policy will save us eternally. And, actually, come to think of it, neither can sheer morality. Only Christ can. We are so blessed to have the fullness of truth — and so many, many people — in faraway nations and near at home — are starving to hear it.

    Incidentally, I work at a think tank dedicated to policy research and analysis, so I by no means say this to skirt the difficulty of political problems. I say this because Christ is truly who He says He is and, as more and more people recognize Him for who He is, the debate will grow softer, the search for solutions more sincere, and the ultimate Answer more obvious.

  7. I believe the clergy should make their opinions (and policy preferences) known when the political issue is clearly a moral one as well. I suspect that is their Christian obligation (and ours, too, when it comes to voting).

    I believe the clergy should not intervene when the political issue is not directly a moral one – be it taxation, size of government or whatever. I realize there are gray areas – but unless we can see clearly how policy X would contravene the 10 commandments and the basis of Catholic faith, I favor keeping out of it.

  8. Dear Msgr,

    Thank you for posting this reflection on the role of Bishops and public policy. It is such a tricky issue to be sure in our own pluralistc society. On the one hand we have the notions of separation of church and state, individual freedoms versus societal freedoms, various versions of constitutional history, etc. Yet at the same time, as disciples of Christ we are called to another set of guiding principles, namely that to love God and love your neighbor (yes even those on the opposite side of the political debate) as yourself.

    I know a long time ago I read Jim Wallis’ “God’s Politics.” Now in recent months Jim Wallis has been entering into the public policy debate against Glen Beck and has gotten more political than I care for. But the basic premise of his book is that when you look at the major policy issues facing our society, the teachings of Christ in the gospel are truly radical. Like you alluded to (and Wallis teaches this too) the church is and should be very strong on issues of life (abortion, euthanasia, end of life care). But also, too, the church is equally radical on the other side on the issues of immigration, poverty, social welfare and the like. Christ commonly and frequently calls us to have love for both our neighbors and enemies, as well as the poor and destitute of society. I think the Gospels call us to look at the reality that those who are poor in wealth, or poor in moral, or lack any kind of spirituality are who we are called to care for.

    In terms of the bishops and what they should or should not do, their call is clear: to preach the Gospel. And to truly do so is to acknowledge the Truth in every opinion, every side, and every political party. Nobody has it 100% correct in terms of moral issues, even the Church herself (we and our priests, bishops and even the Holy Father, are afterall only humans). I just wish people would stop looking at it in terms of black and white and political parties. We are Catholics, and as our name implies — we are a universal church with a universal call to do God’s will here on earth. Just as there are gifts of spirits, some of us will preach the gospel as it pertains to the right to life, others of us will preach the gospel when it comes to end-of-life treatment. Some of us will seek to end the death penalty, some to decrease the amount of poverty in our world. We are all united in our universal beliefs and as such, shouldn’t be damning the other. While we may have ‘freedom’ as understood in the political sense and freedom of choice as given to us by our creator, we are also called to a higher good for both ourselves and our neighbors. And that is what makes Christ’s message sometimes so hard … it sure as **** ain’t easy, but that is why we have a lifetime to try and figure it out.

  9. Re: “In other words, What’s a bishop to do?”
    Rediscover the identity of being a successor of the Apostles. Once that identity is clear, then the mission will be defined. Given that framework, one can judge whether an issue or problem is one that is within the scope of the episcopacy. Agere sequitur essere.

    Re: “Another factor is that it’s not always easy to decide what a political issue is.”
    If you define “political issue” as one that pertains to partisan politics, then that should not be a consideration as everything has a political dimension. Rather, religious leaders need to focus on pastoral, doctrinal and moral theology and the social and behavioral sciences that support them and have no regard on what party is aligned to that position. In history, the Church has opposed both the right – fascists and the left – communists. They should be immune from the guilt trips arranged by the Alinsky mob who are intent in pursuing their own agenda.

    Re: “Or does in merely cause them to be labeled and written off as mere political opponents with political motives?”
    For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who don’t, no explanation is sufficient. Back in the seminary, I was taught not to be concerned with human respect.

    Re: “Now what’s a bishop to do in cases like this?”
    Get political scientists, lawyers, sociologists to present the issue vis-à-vis evangelical principles. Then, prayerfully identify the problem if indeed it is pastoral. If so, make the decision and see to its implementation. Anything less is negligence.

    From Rick at http://www.divine-ripples.blogspot.com/

  10. Although I predict this comment won’t be popular on this blog but the POSSIBLE (not certain) case of Bishops overextending in this manner that I thought of was the instance of the USCCB bishops insisting that legislators must oppose the final health care reform bill. It can be argued (and has been) that they based their principled ultimatum on a technical and debatable legal/legislative question (on whether public funding of abortion would take place). Begs the question why this wouldn’t have been a prudential judgement issue while of course maintaining that public funding of abortion is always immoral.
    I know an argument can be made the other way (USCCB made it at http://www.nccbuscc.org/healthcare/11-01-10-commonweal-response.shtml).
    One thing I know for certain is it can’t be easy being a bishop :>

  11. I am not a usual poster–people are generally far more elegant than I. This issue (as a current solider) has particular interest to me.

    I am personally glad that our Cardinal did not make a direct opinion on DADT, because it has nothing to do with Church teaching. Allowing gay people to serve is in the interest of justice. The CCC demands that they be treated as fairly as any other person who wishes to serve their country in the Armed Forces (“Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.” @ 2358).

    People (IMHO) are mistaking homosexual acts with homosexuality. DADT is not a policy to “let the gay service members have sex” (although it is already happening; it will just be more openly discussed). It is a policy to not have people hide their sexuality.

    The Church needs to focus their efforts more on the promotion of chastity. “Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.” (CCC 2359)

    The Church is not against homosexuals; in fact, I would venture we (should) think that every person is worthy of God’s unconditional love.We are against marriage of homosexuals because it is not the sacrament that God created. We are against homosexual acts (although I can see where this word may be meant to be broad to include any action between homosexual persons–kissing, holding hands??), as they are against non-chaste actions among heterosexuals.

    DADT is about equal treatment of all persons, not a license to fornicate.

  12. Teach. A bishop should teach.

    For instance, during the recent health care reform issue, what I longed for was a straightforward articulation of the specific values which I, as a Catholic layperson, should apply. A few bishops undertook to do this (that I found, at least): Archbishop Finn and Bishop Naumann, Bishop Nickless, and Archbishop Chaput. These bishops prepared documents for the faithful of their dioceses that articulated a range of moral considerations that as faithful Catholics had to be accounted for in our thinking.

    In contrast, some statements from the USCCB in particular, took a different approach. It presented policy analysis with which reasonable people could differ and failed to explain its judgment on the obvious questions (e.g., what about subsidiarity? What about excessive centralization of government and increased bureaucratization of social services – something about which the Holy Father warned). This left me as a conscientious Catholic in a difficult position: the moral questions I needed explained were ignored leaving me with a policy analysis that was not persuasive, but clothed with the prestige of Christ’s successors.

    In short, bishops should do what they do best: teach. As much as possible, they should focus on the ends/values and accept as legitimately Catholic any means that does not negate those principles (or involve a direct moral evil).

  13. I’m a little late on commenting on this, but I just wanted to say thank you for your time and responding back on the blog posts. I appreciate that you put yours and the Church’s viewpoint on topics out there, and that you take the time to respond to people that comment. I think the bishops have a tough job. Social issues are not easy to comment on, and the bishops and our Cardinal will have people thinking they are wrong whether they stayed silent or spoke up about an issue. From a medical standpoint, in my job I deal with different issues every day. It’s sometimes very difficult to do the right thing in a world of people who have many different opinions and views on what the right thing is. For instance, if my hospital decided to start practicing abortion, the easy thing would be to leave (they aren’t to my knowledge, but this is just a theoretical issue for the sake of this comment). The difficult and the right thing to do, I would suppose, would be to stay and stand up against abortion. If everybody runs away from the problem, then it’s not being solved. Even if there’s different viewpoints on a problem, it’s better than totally ignoring it. I’m glad that our Bishops and our Cardinals speak up on issues, and in a way, I’m also glad for the debate on the issues. Great post, and thanks for bringing light onto what our priests and bishops deal with in speaking about certain issues.

  14. What might Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio, S.J. say about the principle of subsidiarity these nearly 200 years later?

  15. Hello Msgr. Pope,

    First I would like to say thank you and God bless you for this blog! I found it about a week ago, exactly when I needed it (Praise God) and have been sharing it with all of my friends here in snowy Central New York ever since. It is a blessing to be able to read and be actively involved in today’s issues with other people, including other faiths, and to have feedback from someone within the church. As you stated, I think many Priests are fearful of stepping on political toes, so they avoid any subject which might be in some way related to politics, which I believe is a huge mistake. I believe if the church stepped up and taught the importance of the Catholics’ role in politics (not only as concerns abortion), people might begin to see the importance of their role in government and understand that not only can they effect change but that is their responsibility to do so! But I mean this in a way differently than most people would think….

    This past year, I have become actively involved in politics. I am not running for any office but have been helping politicians that I think would help this county/state/country. I have also been educating myself as to the history of this country, particularly the historical foundations that led to the beginning of the United States and also the who/what/where/why of the Constitution. I signed up for a class (taught by a Mormon phD incidently) and joined a local book club in cunjunction with the class. Although we are of many faiths, we are able to have open discussions of not only politics but also of the differences in our faiths. Politics AND religion! This, in turn, has led me to do some deep research on the history of the Catholic church and the meaning behind some of our historical writings (including St. Augustine, which has become my favorite); the things I have learned, I have been able to share with my group! To my surprise, one of the people that most understands our teachings now, is someone who is NOT a Catholic! He and I have had ‘heated’ discussions but in the end, I believe the Holy Spirit spoke to his heart! Had I not put myself out there, this could never have happened. God cannot use us if we do not put ourselves out there. I guess that is my point…

    We, as Catholics, are called to action. That means getting a better understanding of our faith and of our government and then taking action to ensure that God’s laws are represented in our goverment and its officials….but that does not necessarily mean our Catholic doctrine.

    One has only to think of old England to know the fallacy as to this thinking. The poor English people had laws that were specific to particular doctrines (Catholic and Protestant) and they faired very poorly. As to inserting our specific Catholic beliefs into governmental law, I do not think this is wise, unless it is a law that defies God’s laws (one of the Ten Commandments). Otherwise, the government would be catering to specific religions and specific doctrines and that is NOT what this country was founded on; it was founded on freedom for all, as long as your beliefs do not hurt me or infringe on my beliefs in some way. By allowing beliefs in all religions and doctrines, we guarantee our own freedom to believe and follow our own Catholic faith.

    Ultimately, things like ‘gays in the military’ ie homosexuality, is specific to certain religious beliefs. If we curtail or make unlawful the things that are specific to our doctrine, what will we do when someone comes along and curtails and makes unlawful the things that we believe in? I believe that the church teaches us God’s laws, and we are to go out and choose representatives accordingly BUT we must be knowledgeable about all the issues, not just the religious ones.

    My best example of keeping things in the hands of the people, and so the church, and out of the government is the example of the church’s teaching of taking care of the poor. My church does alot for many different groups that help the poor and we are able to do this due to the donations of our church family. Our local government, which has been unable to keep spending within its budget for decades, is constantly increasing taxes on almost everyone. This past year, they decided to tax all the defunct Church schools. This resulted in a great loss of income to the churches but only a moderate addition of income to the government. Here is the difference between the two though: With ten thousand of dollar (give or take, coming in from three churches, so a total of about 30k), there is not much the government can do. Thirty thousand dollars did not even save ONE teacher’s position; it did not pay off the county’s debts and it certainly did not go towards charitable foundations, as they have all received stiff cuts. Contrast this with thirty thousand dollars in the hands of my church: we could feed 150 men at the homeless shelter 600 hot meals (amazingly, it costs us only $50 to feed 150 men good hot meals). The difference is simple! The church has 5 volunteers that go grocery shopping, cook the meal, transport the meal and serve the meal; not to mention, the time and ability for us to connect with the men, reach out to them, and build relationships that in the end help many. How much would this same meal cost, if the government were to take it over? Five people, $10/hour, for about 9 hours, that’s $450, not including the food which is shopped for in different stores, in order to get the best deals! But we’ll give them the $50 for meals, bringing the grand total up to $500 PER MEAL. That comes out to 60 meals as apposed to 600 meals! And that does not even take into consideration the cost if insurance for the governmental workers, transportation, etc. etc. and, lastly, it does not consider the loss of the personal honest caring that comes from us to the men…… the most important aspect of what we do!

    In the end, it is important for us lay people to become educated and vote with our heads, not our hearts. While it may be nice to say the government should be responsible for the poor, it is not what God calls us to do….. we are not to pawn off the duties God has called US to do onto our Government, which cannot give these people what they need and what we can give them. The Government is an institution; when was the last time an institution showed you love, made you feel special, helped you out of your poverty and showed you the path to salvation?

    So what’s a Bishop to do? Exactly what you are doing! When the laws break GOD’S LAWS, you have to speak out. When the law breaks Catholic doctrine, praise God that we can live our lives according to our faith and try to elect leaders that will give us the greatest freedom to do this. And by all means, recruit people from your church willing to speak and teach on both, in order to help those just starting out on this journey of being involved in politics.

    God bless you Msgr. Pope!

  16. Just a quick comment to link to an article I think nails the problem on the head
    from an intra-ecclesial perspective so to speak:
    — forgive the hubris of a mere catechist telling a Bishop what to do, chuckle!

    As I see it — rather than from an inter-ecclesial perspective ie local church Ordinary to local church Ordinary or collaboration amongst the various ecumenical leaders and distinct from extra-ecclesial worldview, that erroneous understanding of ‘separate’ social spheres of Church, state or native cultures — the patrimony we Catholics are called to be just stewards of encompasses both tangible assets (aka temporal or material wealth in private and public hands) and intangible assets (aka eternal or spiritual health in individual persons conjugal unions, other covanental communities such as Diocesan education and healthcare providers and extending ultimately to religious orders and their various special charisms). The best book I ever read on this concept of social justice from such a ‘patrimony- matrimony’ POV is the “Constitution under Social Justice”
    by Bl. Antonio Rosmini, an aide to Pio Nono

  17. This period of history (during the civil war) is usually taught from a home-grown Founders POV that may miss the earth shattering consequences democratic ideals made on established social order of millenia:

    Too often the discourse in modern western societies dwells solely on the temporal and neglects totally the real sins being committed by state participants – the citizens or their rulers and benefactors of state interventions and those burdened with providing the means to dispense such benefits. Moral hazard is a trendy new term being bandied about since the financial crisis to describe the inherent corruption found in sinful structures (Pope JPII’s turn of phrase In the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus “On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum” to describes moral concerns of “human ecology”).

    What’s a bishop to do?
    May I recommend educate yourself and your chanceries on the concept of moral hazard by reading 13 chapter “The Cultural and Spiritual Legacy of Fiat Inflation” in http://blog.mises.org/8833/the-ethics-of-money-production/
    1. Inflation Habits
    2. Hyper-Centralized Government
    3. Fiat Inflation and War
    4. Inflation and Tyranny
    5. Race to the Bottom in Monetary Organization
    6. Business under Fiat Inflation
    7. The Debt Yoke
    8. Some Spiritual Casualties of Fiat Inflation
    9. Suffocating the Flame

    There’s certainly controvery to be found in the Catholic blogosphere, consider Catholic legal theorists

    Perhaps our failure to comprehend property rights (allodial or entailed? See PBS’s excellent Downside Abbey for more on that topic) is the root of the evil rather than money per se. As much as Americans may consider feudalism has been vanquished, our currency overlords would beg to differ. They reserve the right to determine the purchasing power of our fiduciary media in aggregate, with narry a thought to the impact on currency holders the world over. When our creditors can finance their military expansion at our expense, one could even make the argument that debt is treason…. food for thought when prices of food staples are rising exponentially leaving marginal peoples adrift to fend for themselves – and they may not elect peaceful means to meet looming existential needs. “Universal destiny of goods” is the first concept the US Bishops will need to include in any glossary the Vatican produces….!

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