But What if They're All Republicans?

"But what if they're all Republicans?" my Catholic friend exclaimed at the conclusion of a brief exchange over the American Bishops' recent initiatives in defense of religious freedom. The Bishops' campaign was provoked by recent HHS regulations which force Catholic institutions to violate Catholic moral teaching by offering contraceptive and abortifacient coverage in employee health plans. My friend was not denying the importance of the issue, but was instead questioning the (perhaps unconscious) political motivations of the Bishops. Perhaps the Bishops were more interested in torpedoing Obamacare than in standing up for rights of religious conscience and practice.

My friend's response to the Bishops' campaign is dismaying, because it treats the Bishops as if they are simply one more player in the political arena. It is also dismaying because it captures something of my own concerns on other issues: the question "but what if they're all Democrats?" encapsulates my suspicions of some of the Bishops' present and past official positions. Because the political conflicts of our age are so sharp, many evaluate the policies and positions of Bishops primarily by whether they benefit progressive or conservative agendas, not by whether they are faithful to the tradition of Catholic Social Doctrine (CSD). These days the evaluation of everything hinges on its effect on the disposition of forces in the political contest; if as you read this article you are trying to figure out whether it hurts or helps your side in some policy argument, then you know exactly what I mean.

Matters are not helped by the fact that the U.S. Bishops actively advance a specific political agenda in Washington. On the day I am writing this (May 10) the Bishops' website urges us to support House Bill 4128 ("The Conflict Minerals Trade Act"), House Resolution 278 ("Global Security Priorities Resolution"), and House Bill 4213 ("Tax Extenders Act of 2009"). In Washington, D.C. and the states, the Bishops are organized like a lobbying group – there are even "Catholic lobby" days in New York and California. Because these political actors are Catholic shepherds, it appears that the Church is simply another political player. This gives rise to disheartening exchanges between lay Catholics of different political stripes over who is dissenting from, and who is in obedience to, CSD.

What are the Bishops to do when their pronouncements on politics are sure to be greeted with disdain by Catholic Republicans or Democrats, and are treated primarily as fodder for the continuing political conflict? Since Bishops are citizens, they have a duty to be informed about public policy, and of course they will have opinions on the important political issues of the day. They might be Republicans or Democrats but must they have official political opinions, and institutional structures to lobby for action?

I argue here that Bishops should be more discrete in their political advocacy – that their campaigns for specific policies erode their authority to teach the principles of CSD, and reduce their effectiveness in inspiring the faithful to change society for the better in line with that teaching. I cannot reject outright the obligation of Bishops to take specific positions on political issues – to support or oppose bills – when the stakes are high. But the hysterical political rhetoric of the age makes it seem that the political stakes are always high; according to the preferred rhetoric, one's political opponents are never simply wrong; they are unfeeling or ignorant about the poor and the needy, are lawless tyrants, are bigots, are intolerant. Perhaps in the current environment it would be prudent for Bishops to be less involved in the political fray. This does not mean that the Church should be less involved; it is the job of the laity (of all political stripes) to sanctify the social order. To help the laity to carry out their mission, the Bishops need to shepherd, sanctify, and teach them, and to resist the temptation to act on their behalf. They must support and trust the laity to act to sanctify the social order.

The question at issue here is not whether I agree with the political stands of the Bishops (I sometimes agree with, and sometimes reject, their specific policy proposals), but whether they should be acting on behalf of the Church in these specific ways.

To make this argument, we must first discuss prudence (or practical wisdom), the virtue by which we (Bishops and laity) look, judge, and act in the world. From the perspective of prudence, the respective roles of Bishops and laity in the political order become clearer.

Prudence, Bishops, and the Laity

Since the Catholic Church puts a heavy emphasis on prudence in its moral teaching, we should begin with its definition of prudence, found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (para. 1806): "the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it." Prudence is the virtue by which we act in the world to realize the good: to love God and our neighbors as ourselves in concrete ways. Prudence takes the good-in-general ("our true good") and makes it concretely real in particular circumstances.

Prudence is a virtue because making good decisions about what to do when it comes time to act is very different than deciding what to do in a general sort of way. The prudent person takes the good-in-general seriously enough to want to instantiate that good in the world, but making abstract goods real requires more than a commitment to the good-in-general. There are no sure formulas for action in the world; not every good can be realized in every situation, and some goods can only be realized through creative compromise with uncooperative circumstance. Prudence is the ability to discern in this chaotic world the possibilities for achieving something good. Because we can never be as certain about the results of our actions as we are about our commitment to the good-in-general, prudence brings into play virtues like justice, courage, temperance, faith, hope, and love.

Prudence ought to guide the translation of the principles of CSD into practical institutions, laws, and initiatives. A full understanding of the nature and requirements of prudential action suggests two foundational principles:

Principle #1. One can never be as certain about action to instantiate the human good as one can be about the human good itself.

Certainty about the principles of CSD does not result in certainty about what to do. Moreover, two people can be equally committed to the principles of CSD and yet come to different conclusions about what to do. In recognition of this principle, Bishops distinguish between principles of CSD and application, and assert a greater authority to teach the principles. For an excellent example of this distinction, see the American Bishops pastoral on the economy from 1986, Economic Justice for All, paragraphs 134-35. However well this distinction is stated, it can never be made or emphasized often enough. It is all too easy for Bishops and laity to forget that Bishops are not speaking with the same authority about application as about principle.

Principle #2: One cannot exercise prudence for another.

Human beings acquire the virtue of prudence through practice, by making decisions in those things for which they are responsible, and through reflection on their experience. Joseph Pieper, in The Four Cardinal Virtues, makes this point forcefully: "By their very nature such [prudent] decisions can be made only by the person confronted with the decision. No one can be deputized to make them. No one else can make them in his stead" (p. 27-28). When bishops go beyond teaching principles to advocate for specific actions, they rob the laity of the opportunity to exercise and develop prudence. This is not only bad for the laity; it is counterproductive for the Church. A group of prudent Christians, well-instructed in the principles of CSD, is a better leaven for social transformation than a group of passive parishioners faithfully carrying out their Bishops' political program (or worse, contemptuously ignoring it because they reject the Bishops' politics).

Prudence for Bishops, and for Laity

I would like to suggest that the primary political responsibility of a Bishop is to teach the principles of CSD. By 'primary', I mean that, no matter what other role a Bishop takes in the social order (voter, lobbyist, political advocate), no matter what his political persuasion, he will always have a responsibility to teach the principles of CSD effectively. No one else has the charism and authority to teach the faithful, although every other person has the responsibility and authority to act in the public square for the public good. This difference in charism demands a certain discretion from Bishops in public life.

When a Bishop takes a political position or initiates a political program, he does so in addition to his primary responsibility. He should only take on this extra task if it complements his teaching office. It may be that the example of a Bishop's political involvement does indeed bolster his effectiveness as a teacher: a teacher who joins a picket line or a demonstration puts an exclamation mark on his teaching. In the current political environment, however, I fear that a Bishop exercising his rights as a political actor undermines rather than increases the effectiveness of his message to the faithful. On any controversial issue over which people of good will may disagree, like immigration or welfare reform, a Bishop will alienate roughly half of his flock by taking a firm stand either way. This may be necessary when the stakes are high – when a serious violation of human rights must be prevented. Are the stakes always high? It seems so from the perspective of contending political parties, but their standards of urgency should not be the Bishops' standards.

Bishops have an alternative to direct political action: they can teach the principles of CSD to the laity, inspire them to reform society in light of those principles, and then set them loose on the social order. This can be done in such a way that Catholics from left to right are challenged to act in light of CSD, with the prayer and blessing of their pastors.

This sort of teaching, which discretely declines to teach the definitive applications while teaching the principles, is not without precedent in other fields. Any good teacher whose discipline consists of concepts plus politically contested applications will exert his authority more strongly when teaching the concepts than when teaching the applications, because he wants his students, whatever their political persuasions, to master the principles. For example, when I teach the principles of economics, I urge the students to concentrate on mastering the principles, whatever their political commitments. Of course I show the class principle-based arguments in favor of this or that political position, but I am reluctant to take too firm a stand, lest a student reject the whole framework as a mere apology for one political position over another. I do this because the principles are important, and everyone will benefit from adopting and using them. Students who enter the class as progressives should master and be challenged by the concepts of economics; students who enter the class as conservatives will find a different set of challenges to their political commitments. Both should be more thoughtful and better equipped to think about politics and society as a result.

When I teach the principles of CSD (without the authority, but I hope with the blessing of Bishops), I am similarly discrete about my political commitments, because I want everyone in the room to take the principles seriously. Fr. Rodger Charles, SJ, in the preface to his magisterial two-volume Christian Social Doctrine, urges just this sort of discretion:

Since they are citizens of a free society, those who teach Catholic Social Doctrine will, as responsible citizens, have their own political opinions and they will range across the whole right, left, and centre perspectives within the limits of that doctrine, but they must avoid the temptation to let their own opinions color the way in which they approach the subject. They must make clear that they respect all the political options a Christian in good conscience can take, not only that which they have espoused.

C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, suggests another reason why those who teach CSD ought to be careful to avoid specific political programs. He begins his treatment of "Christian social morality" with a warning:

Most of us are not really approaching the subject [Christian social morality] in order to find out what Christianity says: we are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party. We are looking for an ally where we are offered either a Master or – a Judge. I am just the same.

I am just the same. You are just the same. Bishops are just the same. We should all be suspicious of ourselves when we approach the Tradition of the Catholic Church on these matters (or the Christian tradition more generally). The temptation to recruit the Church to our side in secular conflicts is powerful. If we succumb, we put things in the wrong order: Christianity becomes useful only insofar as it bolsters the case for immigration reform or minimum wages, or the case against Obamacare or the death penalty, not because it is the work of the Holy Spirit, giving form to our love of God and neighbor.

I accept the authority of Bishops when teaching the doctrine of CSD, and trust in the Holy Spirit to guard their ability to teach those principles clearly across time. Nevertheless, I have no reason to think that the Bishops' charism to teach principles fully extends to their teaching about specific political programs. They are just as subject to political passion and party spirit as the rest of us.


I argue here that a clearer distinction between the principles of CSD and their application in specific political programs, and a measured discretion about the specific applications of CSD, can help Bishops avoid the trap Lewis warns about. This does not mean that Bishops should be silent, but they must place a greater burden on the laity to carry out the work of social reform. The laity are leaven in society; they must be made aware of how much depends on them in the workplace and in the public square.

This is not an argument for a sort of quietism among Bishops. I am aware that Bishops must often do more than teach the principles of CSD – that they must at times act and advocate for specific actions in the face of serious threats to human dignity. I am not arguing against any and all direct action, but in favor of more discretion. The current danger is that Bishops are too directly involved, not too little involved, in practical politics. For example, must the Bishops advocate in favor of "an extension of extended unemployment insurance and COBRA subsidies through the end of the year, including reforms to improve COBRA subsidies," as they currently do on their website (in their call to support the "Tax Extenders Act of 2013")? What if a legislator happens to be on the other side of this issue? I can understand why the Bishops might take a stand against abortion or the death penalty even in the face of divisions on these issues among their flocks (although both issues allow some freedom of political action), but why take a stand on "unemployment insurance extension and COBRA subsidies" when surely Catholics might disagree on principled or strategic grounds?

I hope that the answer to my colleague's challenge, "what if they are all Republicans?" will someday be "so what if they are all Republicans (or Democrats)?" At present, I do not think that answer is convincing. For the sake of the Church's social witness and apostolate, I hope that one day the political commitments of the Bishops are much less relevant in the evaluation and application of CSD.

Andrew Yuengert is the Blanche E. Seaver Chair in Social Science at Pepperdine University.