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Religion & Liberty: Volume 35, Number 1 & 2

The U.S. Bishops and the Tweet Heard ’Round the World

    Like many other Catholics living in the United States, I was alternatively bemused by and dismayed at a particular tweet issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on January 10, 2022. For a moment, I thought we were reliving the 1970s.

    In the context of encouraging ordinary Catholics to involve themselves in the synodal process launched by Pope Francis to engage in reflection on the challenges facing the Catholic Church today, someone with access to the USCCB Twitter feed tweeted: “Here are seven attitudes we can all adopt as we continue our synodal journey together. Which one inspires you the most? Let us know in the comments below.” The attitudes listed were: innovative outlook, inclusivity, open-mindedness, listening, accompaniment, co-responsibility, and dialogue.

    A recent tweet from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is a reminder of a time when many Catholic bishops strayed outside their area of expertise.

    To say that Catholic Twitter-World was unhappy at this strange mixture of managerial-corporate speak and sentimental-humanitarian babble was an understatement. It erupted with replies like “Who wrote this spiritual guidance, Nabisco Corp?” and “We’re not a Fortune 500 company, we are literally the body of Christ.” “Is this entire synod,” one tweeter wrote, “being run by human resources interns?”

    Why, others pointed out, did the attitudes say nothing about faithfulness to and proclamation of the Christian faith, or commitment to the teachings of the Church? Actress Patricia Heaton tweeted the following: “How about you adopt this attitude: ‘Christ shed his blood on the cross to save you, so attend with an attitude of repentance, humility, gratitude, joy and worship. Let your lips be full of praise for your savior Jesus.’ Or ‘innovative outlook’ I guess…” In a similar manner, the former atheist, Christian convert, and now Catholic author Leah Libresco, tweeted: “If you need 7 . . . The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations.”

    Truth be told, I wasn’t especially surprised that the USSCB would tweet such a statement, but then I have never had high expectations of bishops’ conferences.

    Certainly, bishops’ conferences have their significance in the Church’s life. I would add that many of those who work for them are truly selfless individuals who live holy lives and have given themselves to the Church. Many could be working in very different jobs and earning much more money. They also put up with a great deal, including from those bishops who, judging from their Twitter feeds, seem indistinguishable from your average NGO activist.

    It’s also true, however, that some people who work for bishops’ conferences are susceptible—especially in hyper-political cities like Washington, D.C.— to whatever happens to be the latest secular trend in language, culture, or politics. They simply don’t grasp that the more “with-the-moment” they try to be, the more feeble and occasionally ridiculous they make the Church look.

    If there is a place where we should be able to find some respite from the woke discourse and endless “diversity-equity-inclusion” rhetoric that now permeates so much of America, one would like to think that the Church, with its deep theological and philosophical resources, 2,000 years of reflection on the human condition, and understanding that there are truths about God and humanity that never change, would be such a place. To put it in economic terms: This is Catholicism’s comparative advantage. Why pretend that it is not?

    The truth, however, is that some Catholics who work directly for the Church are like many other Catholics: extremely subservient to the secular zeitgeist. Many Catholic bishops in Germany, for example, and some of the thousands of people who work for church-tax-funded German Catholic organizations, have shown (especially since 2013) that their lodestones are (bad) psychology, (bad) sociology, and (heretical) theologians who long ago gave up any pretense of believing in many of Christianity’s central dogmas and doctrines.

    This isn’t a uniquely Catholic problem. My Orthodox Jewish friends, for example, regularly lament to me that many progressive Jews have effectively reduced their religion to highly secularist conceptions of social justice. Likewise, evangelical Christian colleagues have stressed to me that liberal Protestantism went down that road a long time ago. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that liberal forms of religion seem to be collapsing everywhere. What do they have to offer that can’t be provided by progressive politics and social movements?

    This in turn points to a broader issue: When should the Catholic Church—and, more specifically, Catholic bishops’ conferences—speak publicly and about what subjects?

    The issue of the Catholic Church’s involvement in public policy debates has always been contentious. If Catholics focus exclusively on the hope of life after death, they are inevitably accused of abdicating responsibility for life here on earth. Yet if the Church becomes too focused upon temporal affairs, it risks forgetting that its fundamental mission is the salvation of souls. Where, some ask, do the boundaries lie? To what extent should the Church involve itself in public debates?

    The Swiss Catholic intellectual Cardinal Charles Journet once noted that Catholics have always struggled to avoid two temptations in regard to public life. The first is the tendency to view the political world as something cut off from the claims of God’s Kingdom—in short, to believe that a person’s Catholic faith is irrelevant when it comes to public life. The second temptation, he said, is to allow the Church to mutate gradually into a type of ideological force that is primarily if not exclusively concerned with the here-and-now.

    Then there are the issues surrounding the more specific details of that involvement. In short, who in the Church can say what about public policy issues? What degree of authoritativeness should be attached to the statements of bishops’ conferences about such issues by the faithful?

    (Image Credit: Shutterstock)

    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.

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    Dr. Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute. He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. He has an MA from the University of Melbourne, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in moral philosophy and political economy from the University of Oxford.

    Gregg oversees Acton’s research program and team of scholars and is responsible for oversight of research international programing, including budgeting, management, personnel, publishing, and program development and