Political Confusion at The Catholic Conference
by Patrick Fagan
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 nonspecific. 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
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
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
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.
Patrick Fagan is a senior policy analyst at the Heritage
© 1995-1996 Crisis Magazine
This article was taken from the June 1996 issue of "Crisis"
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