Periodically the U.S. bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development issues “action alerts” urging American Catholics to contact their senators and representatives to urge them to take one position or another on various legislative deadlocks and initiatives. The latest was today’s alert to urge people to advocate programs to address poverty, replace sequestration with a “balanced” plan, raise the debt ceiling, and pass the Health Care Conscience Rights Act.
Pope Francis recently stated in his interview with Eugenio Scalfari:
I say that politics is the most important of the civil activities and has its own field of action, which is not that of religion. Political institutions are secular by definition and operate in independent spheres. All my predecessors have said the same thing, for many years at least, albeit with different accents. I believe that Catholics involved in politics carry the values of their religion within them, but have the mature awareness and expertise to implement them. The Church will never go beyond its task of expressing and disseminating its values, at least as long as I’m here.
DJPHD, call your office.
Of course, I recognize the complexity of this issue. There are very fine lines between three categories of episcopal comment on public policy or legislation: (1) Moral teaching and advocacy of virtue triggered by particular contemporary issues; (2) The declaration that a particular policy or law is intrinsically immoral; and (3) Promotion of particular measures that those who track political affairs for the bishops deem advantageous to the common good. It is inevitable that the discourse of bishops and their staff on political matters should touch on all three areas, even when properly trying to emphasize the first and the second.
I also recognize that the Pope’s comments were made in an interview; they were not issued as a disciplinary instruction to the various episcopal conferences. On the other hand, the Pope is right when he points out that all of his recent predecessors have maintained the same position. So why do some episcopal conferences still spend so much time and energy directing the laity to pursue those particular political policies determined to be “best” by the conference? I am raising this question about the many aspects of the common good for which primarily prudential judgments are required, to determine the fairest and most effective way to reach a desired goal.
This is not the province of bishops, nor even of lay persons hired by bishops to speak in their name. Painting with broad strokes, it is far more accurate to state that the bishops are better served by ensuring that lay persons are given every opportunity to grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ—in their grasp of and adherence to Catholic faith and morals, in their participation in the sacraments, and overall in an ever-deepening spirituality. The laity, for their part, should be left free to transform the secular order as they judge best. This, after all, is fundamental to the lay vocation.
Sometimes it seems the American Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development almost gets this. But insofar as they almost get it, their statements become increasingly vague. Consider their instructions on these four issues:
- Poverty: “adequately fund programs that address hunger and joblessness, and help people to rise above poverty in the United States and around the world.”
- Sequestration: “replace sequestration with a balanced plan that includes revenues as well as responsible spending cuts.”
- Debt: “raise the debt ceiling in a responsible manner so as not to harm struggling families and poor and vulnerable people in our country and around the world.”
- Conscience: “work for the inclusion of the Health Care Conscience Rights Act (H.R. 940, S. 1204). Government must not force Americans to violate their religious and moral beliefs on respect for life when they provide health care or purchase health coverage.”
The fourth item is very specific political advice to oppose the coercion of citizens into moral evil, a violation of the natural law. It is well within the bishops’ competence to speak on this question. But the other three items are either so vague or so broad of purpose as to be almost mystifying politically….
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