These are very important questions, not least because failure to grasp the subtlety of the answers can lead to much confusion between, for example, what is binding for all Catholics and what is simply a prudential judgement with which individual Catholics are entitled to agree or disagree. Unfortunately, there have been occasions when statements issued by bishop conferences have contributed to such confusion. In many respects, the story of the American Catholic bishops and their statements on public policy issues in the 1970s through to the mid-1990s exemplifies how not to engage such matters.
In 1986, the U.S. Catholic bishops issued one of their better-known pastoral letters, Economic Justice for All. Its release occurred after an extensive consultation process. Although the bishops included a disclaimer in the document that it somehow constituted “a blueprint for the American economy,” the Princeton legal philosopher and Catholic intellectual Robert P. George pointed out that the bishops effectively compromised this claim by offering very specific prescriptions on just about every economic issue imaginable. By any standard, these recommendations essentially reflected a “left-liberal” economic agenda of more government regulation and intervention that was, at the time, indistinguishable from the Democratic Party’s economic platform.
In itself, the precise political character of the bishops’ prescriptions was not the issue. To my mind, the problem would not have been any different if the policy preferences of Economic Justice for All had closely resembled a Republican “right-liberal” economic program. The difficulty was that while the bishops insisted that “we do not claim to make these prudential judgments with the same kind of authority that marks our declarations of principle,” they also stated that they felt “obliged to teach by example how Christians can undertake concrete analysis and make specific judgments on moral issues.” Again, Robert George posed this vital question: “Why . . . if their prudential judgments are no more binding on the faithful than yours or mine, do the bishops ‘feel obliged’ to offer them?”
Throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops persisted in offering prudential judgments on subjects about which, collectively speaking, neither they nor their advisers had any more expertise (let alone authority to speak) than many lay Catholics, other Christians, and those of all faiths and none. But by becoming so involved in offering detailed commentaries on subjects including “war in the Middle East,” “U.S. domestic food policy,” “Panama-U.S. relations,” “farm Labour,” “Lebanon and the Peace Process,” “Acceptance through Citizenship,” and “Permanent Normal Trade Relations to China,” the USCCB facilitated confusion among lay Catholics concerning the difference between principles authoritatively enunciated by magisterial teaching (and, hence, binding on Catholics) and prudential judgements (which are not binding).
Even more seriously, there is little question that some Catholics were encouraged by such statements into thinking that they could legitimately regard certain issues on which the Church has authoritatively pronounced (like, for instance, euthanasia) as requiring only the same—or even less—commitment to achieving very specific policy outcomes as they do on issues such as the appropriate degree of government intervention in the economy. In 1996, Bishop James McHugh of Camden warned that future bishops’ statements on public policy “must note the moral difference of the issues involved. Some positions are fundamental and non-negotiable.”
On many economic issues, choice is between not only bad and good options but also several good options, some of which, to cite one Catholic natural law philosopher, the late Germain Grisez, are “incompatible with one another but compatible with the Church’s teaching.” Working out how a modern society attains an end like universal healthcare may depend upon empirical and prudential judgements reasonably in dispute among people equally well informed by principles of Catholic teaching.
Having surveyed the available evidence and informed themselves of the principles of Catholic teaching, one group of Catholics may conclude that it is best realized by a predominantly state-funded system. Other Catholics, having examined the available evidence and informed themselves of the same principles, may conclude that private insurance, with a state-provided minimum safety net, is the most prudential approach. In any event, one would expect any Catholic examining such questions to acknowledge that there are many policies that people can advocate to realize such a goal while remaining in good standing with the Church. In these cases, Grisez is surely correct to say that people should not propose their opinion as the Church’s teaching.
The point is that while there is normally a reasonably strict translation of Catholic teaching about an issue like euthanasia—the intentional ending of an innocent human life, which the Church has always regarded as a grave moral evil—into a particular policy position, it is hardly the case that, for example, the objective of universal healthcare (adequate medical care for the poorest) can be similarly translated into anything like so strict a policy.
What does this mean for bishops’ statements on public policy matters? It depends on the subject. On a topic like euthanasia, where the Church has authoritatively pronounced and that translates reasonably strictly into a consistent “pro-life” position, a bishop—indeed, bishops’ conferences—may (and should) pronounce that Catholics cannot support policies that have a different object as their end.
In cases where the principles of the Church’s teaching are not strictly translatable into detailed policies owing to differences in cultures, economies, resources, etc., it is conceivable that bishops as citizens may express a preference for one policy position over another—though I think this should be done rarely, with great caution, and with plenty of formal caveats. And even if a bishops’ conference decides to address such an issue, it should always stress that any disparity between the bishops’ policy view and that of a Catholic with a different opinion on the topic does not make such a Catholic “bad” or even wrong.
Generally speaking, I think that most bishops and many of those who work for bishops conferences these days (contra the 1970s and ’80s) tend to be far more circumspect about inserting themselves into those public policy discussions where faithful Catholics are free to disagree. What’s important, however, is that, when they do, they should be doing so in a way that reflects the distinct integration of reason and faith—or natural law and revelation—that gives Catholic and other Christian reflections on the public square a distinct and powerful character.
No tweet, however artfully worded, can substitute for that.