Let the Bishops Interpret Their Document
The dotCommonweal blog links to a Vox Nova post by Mornings Minion reacting to the clarifications which various bishops have issued to their dioceses on the USCCB document Faithful Citizenship and its application in the coming election. However, there are clearly some serious problems with MM’s analysis, and I think it’s worth looking at them in order to try to understand what our bishops are saying during this election season. MM opens provocatively:
In recent weeks, we are seeing something of a backlash against the USCCB’s Faithful Citizenship document– the most articulate and theologically sophisticated treatise of these issues by the US bishops ever– mainly by the usual suspects, but also by a small but vocal minority of bishops.
More than sixty bishops have thus far issued letters or statements in which they have provided further guidance on how Catholics should apply their judgement to the principles articulated in Faithful Citizenship — mostly with a mind to emphasizing the important of “life issues”. The Faithful Citizenship document was approved by 250 of the bishops in session, so clearly, the document as it stands represents a wide consensus of the Catholic bishops in the United States. And yet, with more than sixty bishops issuing their own explanatory documents, there is clearly some sort of disagreement going on.
MM believes that he has it pinned:
For the first time, the bishops deliberated in open forum, and amendments and alterations could be proposed. After debate, the document was approved by all but four bishops. Pretty unanimous.
The advantages of such a process are obvious. With sufficient ownership over the document, the bishops can speak with one voice and resist sending misleading and contradictory advice to the faithful that would only serve to underline their collective authority. And yet, this seems to be happening. The fact that more than four bishops have issued their own interpretations suggests that some are not fully atuned to the responsibilities of collective ownership. For sure, every bishop has the right to to instruct his own diocese on all matters of faith and morals. But surely, on a key national question as this, they should endeavor to speak with a single credible voice? What I find particularly strange is the tendency for small groups of bishops to issue joint statements– as happened in Kansas and Texas, for example. How can we say that a document endorsed by 250 or so bishops has no weight and one endorsed by only 2 does?
MM then goes on to emphasize that the bishops are merely exercising their prudential judgement on election issues (defining prudential judgement correctly as “an application of a principle to particular facts and circumstances”) and then provides his own detailed criticisms of the guidance provided by the bishops of Dallas and Ft. Worth.
Really, though, I think MM is very much missing the boat by classifying all this activity as a “backlash” against Faithful Citizenship. Nor does it seem appropriate to classify nearly 25% of the bishops as “a small but vocal minority”. Rather than accusing the bishops of not being “fully atuned to the responsibilities of collective ownership” I think it would behoove American Catholics to ask themselves: are the bishops trying to tell us something about the document they themselves wrote?
The bishops gave us a document in which they discussed at length the way in which a Catholic with a well formed conscience should weigh all of the different concerns which we are faced with as US citizens during this election. As is appropriate for such a document (and as you can expect given that the 250 bishops involved obviously had varying judgements on the relative weight of various issues in the current political landscape) it very much focused upon the principles of how Catholics should weigh the different types of issues, and provided no judgements as to how one ought to use this intellectual framework to reach a decision. This is, I would say, just as it should be. And while the document is frankly rather longer and more involved than the average lay Catholic will have patience to read and digest, it is I think a very good document.
However, as soon as the document came out, a number of highly partisan Catholic writers (Mornings Minion very much among them) immediately set to work to make the case that the document should be taken to mean that one not only could vote for a pro-abortion politician (which given sufficient proportional reasons, one certainly may in certain circumstances) but that the document practically could have been titled, “Faithful Citizens Should Vote For Obama.”
This is not surprising, in a sense. There is a long history of Catholic membership in the Democratic Party, and despite the near complete dominance in the party of pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, pro-euthanasia and generally secularist ideologies in the last thirty years, many Catholics continue to have a great deal of affection for that party and some of its policies.
Clearly a number of the bishops believe that issues such as abortion should weigh very heavily in people’s thoughts as they consider the political landscape this year, and given that the bishops are intended to be our shepherds in faith and morals it certainly doesn’t seem appropriate to me that lay bloggers should be blasting back, “You gave us a document we can conveniently twist to mean whatever we want, now shut up and let us tell you what you meant.” Since the bishops are our pastors, the very least that we can do as laity is listen respectfully to what they say.
Those, like MM, who don’t like the political implications of what the bishops have been saying should consider that perhaps much of this outspokenness is of their own making. I know that I’ve been receiving 2-3 emails a week at my DarwinCatholic blog email address from groups such as Catholic Democrats, Catholics United and Matthew 25 Network — each email repeating claims that the moral and intellectual structure laid out in Faithful Citizenship means that I must vote for Obama. Over at Vox Nova, MM has been cranking out posts of a similar tenor.
Now it’s one thing to argue that Democratic objectives such as single payer health care and an increased minimum wage will do huge amounts to help the poorest among us, while simultaneously arguing that a McCain administration would do little to help the unborn. I disagree that such measures will actually help the poorest among us very much — I think there are much better policies that one could follow — and I think that there would actually be a huge difference in abortion policy between McCain and Obama administrations, but I can at least respect such an argument as being honestly made. However, when politically left leaning groups have cited Faithful Citizenship again and again as explicitly supporting their cause, they can hardly be surprised if many of the bishops — many of whom it seems do think that pro-abortion views should be seen as disqualifying in all but the most extreme circumstances — it should hardly surprise people if a number of bishops choose to come out and make their own judgements as to how to weight issues more explicit.
If one does not want to be chastised by the bishops, one should endeavour not to use their collective authority to support a view which many of them do not in fact hold.
UPDATE: Loyal reader Michael Iafrate points out in a somewhat bombastic post linking to this one that many of the Bishops in Deal Hudson’s list of 61 do not say “that a vote for Barack Obama is unacceptable”. I can’t make out where in his article Hudson claims that the bishops say this, and it’s certainly not what I claimed they said, but clicking through to a number of the articles I find that many of them are making the simple and obvious point that a Catholic may not be “pro-choice” nor may a Catholic support legislation which acknowledges the legality of abortion. I don’t think that changes the point of my article at all — since I was writing in response to MM delivering a tongue lashing to the bishops of Dallas and Fr. Worth — but it should be noted that a number of Hudson’s 61 bishops do not specifically mention Faithful Citizenship in their linked letters, and so can not be considered to be directly addressing the interpretation of the document itself. My apologies for any confusion caused by that.
Update2: Sed contra, Rocco Palmo (not a conservative partisan by any stretch, and generally someone who does his research) gives a figure of fifty US bishops who have “said that the most important issue for voters in the forthcoming presidential election is abortion”. He doesn’t cite his source, but given that he’s picked a more conservative number that Hudson I’ll assume that he’s done his own research, and he certainly follows episcopal politics more closely than I.