Are They Bishops or Pawns?

A favorite theme of the media is that the Catholic hierarchy is out of touch with lay people. It's an easy story. The Vatican objects to birth control; many Catholics use it. Catholics want women priests and a married clergy; Rome stands in the way.

This analysis apparently goes only so far. An overwhelming majority of Catholics now disagree with the current liberal political agenda. Yet the Administrative Board of the U.S. Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the American bishops, in a statement entitled “Political Responsibility” issued in October, has taken an aggressive stand in favor of the welfare state just in time for the presidential race. It condemns much of the Republican agenda in startlingly strong, indeed partisan terms.

On most issues, the statement sharply contradicts the voting choices of growing numbers of Catholics. In 1994, a majority of Catholics (over 54 percent, according to Times-Mirror polls) supported Republicans and their promise of lower taxes, smaller government, and curbs on welfare. A plurality of white, non-Hispanic Catholics now call themselves Republican.

In a recent poll conducted by the Catholic Campaign for America, 76 percent of Catholic lay people agreed that welfare makes recipients “become more dependent on such programs”; 89 percent favored merit over race- and sex- based government programs. Small wonder: Catholics see, in the transformation of poverty from an economic problem to a cultural and moral problem, the abject failure of welfare.

Is a chasm developing between US Catholic laity and the US Catholic Conference's policy bureaucrats, who would like public policy makers to believe that they represent the Catholic community? Certainly. But instead of pointing out the irony, the media used the recent statement to fuel the ideological wars. Opportunistic secular liberals were delighted to invoke the moral voice of the Catholic Church on behalf of Great Society programs the Clinton administration is trying to preserve.

“Political Responsibility” just suits their purposes. The product of a left-wing lay bureaucracy-merely a set of policy suggestions, not binding on any individual Catholic conscience---the statement displays an obvious political bias. It starts by setting up a straw man. There is, says the conference, a “growing temptation” to blame “economic insecurity and moral decline” on “too much compassion.” (Really? What proposed reform has been based on the proposition that the American people are too compassionate?) But, we are admonished, “our problems ... cannot be blamed only on people who are poor and powerless. The 'rich and famous' and the rest of us have at least as much responsibility as the 'least among us.'” That will shake up the reprobates who have been running around saying our nation's troubles are the fault of the “powerless,” if such people exist. The statement proffers sentimentality about the poor as a substitute for sound policy.

The text reflects no serious awareness of the critics of modern liberal policies, though these include growing numbers of Catholic scholars and laity. Instead it assumes that all desire for policy change springs from mean- spiritedness. There is a disclaimer of partisan preference: “Our moral framework does not easily fit the categories of right or left, Republican or Democrat,” the statement says; while Catholics should “protect the unborn and defend the family,” they must “also insist that a test of public advocacy is how public policies touch the poor and weak.” But it is hard to miss the intended political impact. The staff who wrote this statement want Catholics to vote for Democrats and support their policies-abortion excepted.

“The most urgent priority for domestic economic policy is to create jobs with adequate pay and decent working conditions,” says the statement, with no mention of any broader need for economic growth. “Underemployment” is “morally unacceptable,” but the term is not defined. “The minimum wage should be raised to help workers and their families live decent lives”; the evidence that doing so will increase unemployment apparently has been rejected. “Salaries and benefits of teachers” should “reflect the principles of economic justice,” which, we can suppose, means salaries should be raised. Can one really believe that support for “food stamps, WIC, school lunches and other federal programs” is nonpartisan or that it is the only way to fulfill the moral obligation to the poor?

Health care reform, we are told, should mean “priority concern for the poor, universal coverage, pluralism, cost containment and controls, and equitable financing.” Hillary Clinton couldn't have put it any better. Nor would Al Gore quarrel with the environmental agenda, which should not “place a disproportionate burden on poor people and communities of color” and takes a bold stand against “environmental racism.” Indeed, the government “has a moral responsibility to take the lead in helping to alleviate poverty through sustainable development,” a term synonymous with the green politics of the left.

The strongest words of the document come in the declaration that racism is “not merely one sin among many” but “a radical evil.” The authors therefore “support judiciously administered affirmative-action programs as tools to overcome discrimination and its continuing effects.” There is no mention of merit or the social divisions created by race-based quotas, much less any hint that such policies themselves might be racist.

Contrast this statement's commendable indignation about racism with its thoughts on violent crime: The word sin is not used, nor are murder and rape described as radical evils. Instead, the statement urges attention to the “root causes of violence, including poverty, substance abuse, lack of opportunity, racism and family disintegration.” The liberal litany continues: We must help refugees, increase humanitarian aid to foreign countries, institute global environmental planning-and ward off welfare reform.

What is omitted from the Catholic Conference statement is any discussion of subsidiarity, a core principle of Catholic social thought. The idea of subsidiarity (which parallels the American concept of federalism) is that higher orders of society can intervene in the affairs of lower orders only in the case of obvious failure. Intervention must be limited in extent and duration, must prove to be of overall benefit, and must not permanently replace mediating institutions. Pope John Paul II writes at length about subsidiarity In his ground-breaking 1991 social encyclical, “Centesimus Annus.”

In the encyclical, the pope decries the “malfunctions and defects” of the welfare state. These lead to “a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase in public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients.” They also engender “an enormous increase in spending.” Social needs, he writes, “are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need.”

How sad it is that the major statement to come from the US Catholic Conference in the electoral season should be so ill-considered and politically biased. It is doubly sad that the institution operating the nation' 's largest network of private social-service agencies cannot see the evangelistic potential of the present challenge and welcome the opportunity to undertake what the welfare state has failed to accomplish-the care and comfort of America's authentically needy.

The trouble is that some in the American Catholic bureaucracy haven't realized that the plunder of American wealth in support of a system that has failed by every conceivable measure (including the abortions it has encouraged) is itself immoral. Millions of Catholic laity and the clergy who back them understand that sincerity does not equal rationality in politics. It is time for the American Catholic bureaucracy to catch up.