The National Catholic Review

A final note on the controversy surrounding the fabrication of quotes, or the failure to check a quote with the person to whom it was attributed, in any event, the shoddy and irresponsible journalism exhibited by the Catholic News Agency. As important as the issue of journalistic integrity is, it is also necessary to look to the bigger issue that CNA and/or the bishops who leaked to them were trying to affect.

In his interview with John Allen, Cardinal Francis George made two observations that are critical to understanding this central issue of the Church’s role in political life. First, Cardinal George said, "Where someone draws the line on what the bishops ought to say, I think, often depends on where they’re coming from politically," and, later, he said, "What worries me more than a difference over empirical content, however, is the claim that the bishops cannot speak to the moral content of the law." The first claim needs an additional qualification: Where one draws the line on what the bishops ought to say also depends on the issue involved. Some Conservatives like to say the bishops should confine their authoritative pronouncements to the five "non-negotiables," but that idea of five non-negotiables is the creation of GOP strategists, and it is unknown in the Catholic moral tradition. Some Liberals wish the bishops would keep quiet about abortion, or at least not talk about it as much as they do, so that they can focus on other social justice issues. Everybody wants the bishops speaking out on their own issues, so the Cardinal is half right.  

His second observation is more problematic. I do not know anyone, at least no serious leftie Catholic writer or thinker, who has voiced the "claim that the bishops cannot speak to the moral content of the law." I am sure you can find a press release from Catholics for Choice, a group that does not really qualify as "serious" and, to the point, is hardly the voice of the Catholic Left. The point that has been made, and well made, is this: Bishops are the authoritative teachers of the principles of the Catholic moral tradition but, "[w]hen making applications of these principles, we realize - and we wish readers to recognize - that prudential judgments are involved based on specific circumstances which can change or which can be interpreted differently by people of good will (e.g., the treatment of "no first use"). However, the moral judgments that we make in specific cases, while not binding in conscience, are to be given serious attention and consideration by Catholics as they determine whether their moral judgments are consistent with the Gospel." Those words are taken from the opening paragraphs of the Bishops’ document "The Challenge of Peace," issued in 1983 and they seem as apt today as they did then.

I have made this point. I believe that Sr. Carol has made this point. The degree of authority the bishops enjoy, and therefore the degree of acceptance of that authority rightly expected from the laity, is definitive at the level of principle but it diminishes as the principle gets applied as a particular policy. No Catholic can, in good conscience, disagree with a moral principle of the Church such as "abortion is wrong," but trying to decide how, politically and legally, we enflesh that moral principle is an area where the bishops deserve "attention and consideration" but where, as they say, the prudential judgments involved allow for the possibility that they can be "interpreted differently by people of good will." Cardinal George’s concern about the "claims" being made that the bishops have no authority to speak to the moral content of a civil law is, I think, a bit of a red herring. We here at America are not questioning the bishops authority to teach the moral law, nor their competence to address the moral content of civil law, but as Bishop Lynch also told NCR, "I have never before this year heard the theory that we enjoy the same primacy of respect for legislative interpretation as we do for interpretation of the moral law."

Let us consider what Catholic political involvement would look like if there was no possibility of individual Catholics disagreeing with the bishops about how our moral tradition should be applied to civil legislation. Would there, of necessity, be a "Catholic Party" that would tell us how to vote. After all, if we cannot disagree about an empirical issue regarding health care legislation, what can we disagree about? Nothing. Well, then, this would make it easy to be a Catholic citizen. We would just have to wait for the bishops to pronounce on any and all issues, and that would be that. The idea that it is the right and the responsibility of the laity to carry the Christian Gospels into the secular world would become meaningless. This scenario is, of course, a red herring too.

There is one last part of this saga that I should like to mention. The history of individual bishops, such as those who leaked their comments to CNA, trying to undermine the Conference is a long history. Indeed, Cardinal O’Connell tried to kill the newborn bishops’ conference in the crib, seeing it as a threat to his authority as senior churchman after the death of Cardinal Gibbons who had been in fact, though not in title, Primate of the U.S. Church for forty years. Gibbons, unlike O’Connell, was devoted to episcopal collegiality. He once famously sided with his ideological opponents in order to keep peace at one of the annual meetings of the nation’s archbishops that served as a precursor to the USCCB. He was what is known as "a conference man" before there was a bishops’ conference.

Being "a conference man" means that you do not undermine decisions reached by the whole, even if you disagree with a given decision, because you believe that the importance of unity among the bishops trumps all but the most vital claims of conscience. And, if you do need to "send a signal" to your brother bishops, you do so gently, thoughtfully, not in an antagonistic way, not by running to a right-wing media outfit and giving a tendentious leak. Yesterday, we saw an example of "a conference man" subtly, but effectively, letting his thoughts be known to his brother bishops. At a special Mass to commemorate his eightieth birthday, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick asked Sister Carol Keehan to proclaim the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. It was a small thing really, the invitation of an old friend to participate in a special celebration. But, Cardinal McCarrick made his point: The hysterical attacks on Sr. Carol for supporting the health care law cannot be allowed to obscure the fact of her years of devoted service to the Church.

 

Michael Sean Winters

 

Comments

Robert Lynch | 6/25/2010 - 11:07am
Jim, I'm not sure why the Spirit moved me to do this, but while laughing at your ovservation I googled "on tropes and trollops" and came up with the following result:  Of Tricks, Tropes, and Trollops: Revisions to the Seduction Novel in E. D. E. N. Southworth's "The Hidden Hand" by an author surnamed "Landry", of all names!!!
 
Anonymous | 6/24/2010 - 6:33pm
Matt B, Michael B has repeated these trollops so many times, they are easily summarized as follows:
 
1. The political right in this country have co-opted the "pro-life" movement (to the extent they did not create it out of whole cloth) primarily to throw out red meat on this issue to raise money;
2. The pro-life movement has been so co-opted by the right that it even extends to most bishops who either unwittingly or intentionally support the broader political agenda of the right; and
3. These groups know full well they cannot stop abortion simply by passing a law because the Supreme Court ruled in Roe that no legislative body has the authority to pass a law (within limits) that affects abortion, and to reject Roe would be to undo most "civil rights" jurisprudence for the last 40 odd years.
 
In response to these trollops, I say: as political analysis, this opinion is so cynical and demeaning that anyone who calls himself Christian should be ashamed to utter it; as legal analysis, it is half-right, actually (his view of Roe is for the most part correct), but his view that reversing Roe is untenable is wholly unjustifiable.  The Civil Rights gains of the last 40 years were primarily statutory in nature, and EXPLICITLY granted in the Constitution, unlike the so-called penumbras that ground abortion.  One cannot support Roe's progeny and still consider oneself pro-life in any meaningful way; even Justice Ginsberg has confessed to having concerns over Roe.
Michael Bindner | 6/24/2010 - 2:56pm
I was commenting on the whole concept that the Church can say abortion must be illegal and that Catholic politicians must vote accordingly. That is incorrect - especially in the United States where abortion was not made legal by statute.

As to the health care law - the effects of the law are definitely up for debate. Richard Doerflinger has not been gifted with infallibility. Catholic legislators can disagree with his analysis and the bishops he has convinced to repeat it without falling into sin. It is silly to think otherwise.

Indeed, the way the bishops are currently conducting themselves is damaging their ability to marshall liberal Catholics in the unlikely event that Doerflinger's objections prove justified. So far, I have not heard the Planned Parenthood or NARAL have sued to have Community Health Centers offer abortion. Indeed, they cannot, because abortion is a surgical procedure and CHCs don't do surgery.
Think Catholic | 6/24/2010 - 2:00pm
Michael B what in the world are you talking about, and what does it have to do with my comments?  The Bishops' authority to announce moral principle must include some level of "application" of core inviolable principle, otherwise they don't even have authority to announce moral principle, because it will be called a mere application and not principle by its political opponents.  The Church teaches not only that abortion is wrong but that it must be illegal-that's an application, as a matter of principle, and the fact that the Church teaches it is indisputable.  If merely allowing abortion is wrong, then all the more so is it wrong to make abortion part of "health care," expand its access, and open it to more government funding.  Liberal Catholics don't have the "authority" to deny the noses on their faces, by claiming that an expansion of abortion isn't an expansion of abortion and that the Bishops have no business saying it is because that's a mere "application" of principle.  The Bishops' authority to teach abortion is wrong also includes the authority to reject legislative measures expanding it through the government.
Michael Bindner | 6/24/2010 - 1:42pm
Matt, as I've said before, making abortion illegal and overturning Roe are two very different things, since doing the latter judicially would do violence to the constitutional order regarding equal protection under law (which I suspect the bishops also disagree with when considering any issue of sexuality - from birth control to gay marriage). The end does not justify the means, however. If the USCCB and the NRLC have legislation they wish advanced to make abortion illegal by using the power of Congress to interpret the 14th Amendment (and by doing so, reset when personhood is recognized), let them bring it forward (recognizing that it must deal with enforcement and equal protection issues - like whether women who have had miscarriages may be questioned and whether tort relief may be filed if the legal person under a doctor's care dies - even if that person has a genetic defect that made life untenable).

Until they do, they have no business requiring Catholic or Democratic legislators to agree with their non-existent bill. I believe the term is put up or shut up - in other words, don't demagogue life as an issue to get Republicans elected.
Colin Donovan | 6/24/2010 - 10:55am
The issue is not that the position of the bishops on the health care legislation demands unquestioning respect, it is one of prudence (moral wisdom is assessing the act, intention and circumstances of an action). The left seems happy to overlook the complete failure of this administration to keep its most basic campaign promises to the general electorate, while working assiduosly to accomplish its ideological agenda. There is a kind of progressive myopia, or an unreasonable hope in the ''promise'' of Obama, that ignores his actual behavior. We are told that the language of the bill excludes abortion, yet that same language of health rights and reproductive rights is used elsewhere by the administration to promote abortion at the UN and in Congress. We are told that the administration would restrain a federal law from reaching the result of paying for abortions, yet the administration could not restrain its own executive branch from extending abortion to the militrary - that is, PAYING for abortion with federal funds.
So, excuse the rest of us for thinking that the Catholic left is either stupid, culpably ignorant or disengenuous (that is, REALLY supports and wants to promote abortion ''rights''). That has been the result so far from the administration and that will be the result of the Health Care bill.
charles jordan | 6/24/2010 - 10:36am
MSW's article is a good summary (though I think that in loading onto the blog bits got scrambled).  Archbishop Francis can be melodramatic. This time his emotionalism clouds the fact that the USCCB under his leadership has made mistakes. Those mistakes range from chiding men and women of good will for their decisions regarding the health care bill, to forgetting the role of the laity in preserving the deposit of faith and in living the gospel in the world, to erecting issues that are not germane to the problems the USCCB has created for itself.
Going forward the bishop's collectively and individually should accept that legislation can not be a basis for unity, or a litmus test for loyalty; sharing 'common enemies' do not make for true friends; the articulation and the reception of the magisterium is very much impaired when the bishops even appear to play politics or act like lobbyists.
Think Catholic | 6/24/2010 - 9:40am
Bishops have authority to announce moral principle, and at a certain point, the application of principle becomes a prudential judgment.  But just as it can't be true that all the Bishops' applications of principle are binding no matter how far removed they are from the original principle, likewise it cannot be true that none of the Bishops' "application" of principle is binding no matter how intimately that application aligns with the core principle.  Leftist Catholics don't believe that the Church's teaching is really purely limited to nothing but "principle."  Every "moral" teaching is an applied one or it ultimately means nothing.  And some laws implicate principle tightly enough that they trigger binding, not merely prudential, episcopal teaching.  To use your example, the Church teaches that abortion is wrong.  But the Church also teaches (in Evangelium Vitae and universally) that abortion MUST be illegal.  That's an application, as a matter of principle.  A law making abortion legal in a country where it is illegal is the proper subject of binding, not prudential, episcopal teaching.  Even more so, a law making abortion not merely legal but part of "health care" and opening it to government funding is an application so tightly tied to principle that the Bishops can speak authoritatively on it.  Who gets to decide what teachings are applications and what teachings are principles?  The Bishops of course-or else nothing they say (even "abortion is wrong") will be considered principle either, by certain Catholics.
 
How ironic for MSW to slam some bishops as creating collegial division, when the Bishops themselves were and remain fully united regarding pro-abortion health care and MSW aligned himself with attackers against their unity.  Last July MSW said he would oppose any Democrat who supported accounting schemes for funding abortion-covering insurance.  He rejected that position and broke unity.  Now he hasn't even spoken in favor of pro-life amendments to fix the pro-life problems in the bill. 
David Nickol | 6/24/2010 - 9:34am
While I have not done an exhaustive study of everything that emanated from the USCCB regarding health care reform, it strikes me that a great deal of emphasis was placed on whether or not the legislation was controlled by the Hyde Amendment itself or by the principles embodied in the Hyde Amendment. While perhaps not an unreasonable yardstick to use, last time I checked, the Hyde Amendment was not Catholic doctrine. I learned a fair amount in the run-up to the 2008 election from arguments about intrinsic evil, material cooperation, proportionate reason, and so on (although a lot of people making arguments about how to vote based on those principles did not seem to understand them as well as they thought they did). But most of the debate over the health care reform bill was about interpreting legislation, not about how to apply moral principles.