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How Not to Discuss Catholic Social Teaching with the Bishops

I know that a current popular notion is that the bishops have no special or particular authority to say anything about economic policy or justice because they’re not economists.  Only economists apparently have the right to say anything about budgets and societal economic issues.  (Of course, by this specious line of reasoning, I can wonder, too, why the bishops have any right to say anything about abortion or euthanasia, since they’re not medical doctors or professional biologists, either, and therefore not qualified to make any kind of statement about the beginning or end of life….  Why, for example, would a Catholic bishop be able to say something about there being a difference between giving palliative care and carrying out euthanasia?)

Even if I were to go along with that reasoning, apparently now the bishops aren’t even qualified to make statements regarding Catholic social teaching.  The Wall Street Journal recently published an op-ed in which its authors (an economist and his wife) suggest:

 Someone is twisting the Catholic Church’s teachings on caring for the poor, but it isn’t Paul Ryan. His controversial budgetary ideas demonstrate that he has a better grasp of Catholic social thought than do many of the American Catholic bishops.

What I find curious about this op-ed piece is that for all their attempt to argue that Paul Ryan has a better grasp of Catholic social thought, they don’t themselves actually cite anything directly from Catholic social teaching, nor do they themselves exhibit awareness about CST or suggest any specific ways in which Paul Ryan best supports CST.

Indeed, I suspect the reason they think the bishops are twisting the church’s teachings on caring for the poor is that they themselves seem to be unaware of what the church does teach.

Instead, they go on to suggest:

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has long supported government interference in the economy as a means to help the poor. But we suspect the bishops haven’t fully thought this through: If God really did favor a top-down approach to poverty reduction, why wouldn’t He establish a government with the power to wipe away poverty on demand instead of leaving things to chance and the possibility that someone like Mr. Ryan would come along and mess up His plans?

Of course.  No one has ever had that kind of question in 2000 years until Mr. Davies and Ms Antolin wrote this essay.  “If God really did desire peace on earth, why wouldn’t he create puppets instead of leaving things to chance and the possibility that someone like Franco would come along and mess up His plans?”  “If God really did want for us not to have abortions, why wouldn’t he establish a health care system with the automatic knowledge that abortions are evil, rather than leaving things to chance and the possibility that someone like  SCOTUS would come along and mess up His plans?”

But aside from this sort of thinking that is insulting to the bishops and which smacks of  arrogance about their own apparently superior knowledge about God and God’s purposes, it is not the case that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has “long supported government interference in the economy.”

What the bishops support is the authority of the church and its magisterium, past and present, which has time and time again stated the importance of the role of the nation state in advocating for the dignity of humans, especially the poor, weak and vulnerable, in our economic and political life.  That necessarily means observing economic and political life and making exhortations toward those ends in line with seeking the truth and love of God.  It is this kind of authority that the bishops exercise when they offer cautions about economic and political situations.  Thus, Pope Paul VI wrote in Populorum Progressio:

No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for his own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life. In short, “as the Fathers of the Church and other eminent theologians tell us, the right of private property may never be exercised to the detriment of the common good.” When “private gain and basic community needs conflict with one another,” it is for the public authorities “to seek a solution to these questions, with the active involvement of individual citizens and social groups.” (23)

But Pope Paul VI represents a long line of bishops, popes, clergy and other theologians observing and offering concerns about political and economic life – which is simply to say, they’re concerned about human life in general, of which government and economic systems are a part.

The Compendium states:

389. The political community pursues the common good when it seeks to create a human environment that offers citizens the possibility of truly exercising their human rights and of fulfilling completely their corresponding duties.

Economic conservatives will likely emphasize the focus in this passage on respecting the individual and his or her ability to love freely.  For example, the op-ed authors argue (though again, without the benefit of a church document):

Government is not community. Government is one of community’s tools, a coercive one we use when it is necessary to force people to behave in ways they would not otherwise behave voluntarily.  But that word—voluntarily—is key, and it’s where Mr. Ryan’s religious detractors go awry: Charity can only be charity when it is voluntary. Coerced acts, no matter how beneficial or well-intentioned, cannot be moral. If we force people to give to the poor, we have stripped away the moral component, reducing charity to mere income redistribution.

The authors here equate  individual charity with the distinctive functions of government, and they seem to conclude that therefore via the principle of subsidiarity, the individual takes precedence over the state.  Individual charity is to be preferred over the supposed coercion of government.

Never mind that in his latest social encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI writes:

To take a stand for the common good is on the one hand to be solicitous for, and on the other hand to avail oneself of, that complex of institutions that give structure to the life of society, juridically, civilly, politically and culturally, making it the pólis, or “city”. The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbours, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practise this charity, in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields in the pólis. This is the institutional path — we might also call it the political path — of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbour directly, outside the institutional mediation of the pólis.  (emphasis mine)

The pope means a variety of institutions there, and one of them is clearly government, which is also an “excellent and effective” kind of charity.  While Pope Benedict does write: “Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone [93], and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State”, it is also clear that for him the role of government is integral. He suggests:

The integrated economy of the present day does not make the role of States redundant, but rather it commits governments to greater collaboration with one another. Both wisdom and prudence suggest not being too precipitous in declaring the demise of the State. In terms of the resolution of the current crisis, the State’s role seems destined to grow, as it regains many of its competences.  Globalization certainly requires authority, insofar as it poses the problem of a global common good that needs to be pursued. (emphasis mine)

But perhaps the authors think that the pope, too, along with the US Conference of Bishops, ought to take some lessons from Paul Ryan in Catholic social teaching.

Against what the authors have written, individual charity cannot and should not, in fact, be equated with government taxation structures or other government programs, nor should one come at the expense of the other.  Individual charity is essential, and Pope Benedict clearly acknowledges and supports that.  But when governments are acting on behalf of the poor in society, they are not doing so out of a notion of the virtue of charity primarily, but rather the virtue of justice.  Justice is a social virtue, one that focuses on the community and the collective, common good of the people. (Meghan Clark has carefully discussed that point further in this post on subsidiarity.)

That is to say, in Catholic social teaching it is recognized that quite simply there are some things we can do better together than we can separately.  Individual charity is great – like donating the $5 to the mother next door who needs some Tylenol for her crying baby.  But an individual can’t offer something even close to approximating SNAP or the VA hospital system, even if you think those programs are run poorly.

So, the Compendium reminds us:

391. A community has solid foundations when it tends toward the integral promotion of the person and of the common good. In such cases, law is defined, respected and lived according to the manner of solidarity and dedication towards one’s neighbour. Justice requires that everyone should be able to enjoy their own goods and rights; this can be considered the minimum measure of love.[794] Social life becomes more human the more it is characterized by efforts to bring about a more mature awareness of the ideal towards which it should be oriented, which is the “civilization of love”.[795]

There is an integral relationship between the individual and the common good, in part because the individual needs the common good in order to thrive, and in part because society needs its individuals in order to thrive.

I wish that the Wall Street Journal had been more careful before it came out with an op-ed piece that is insulting to church authorities (as well as other Catholics of good will), that never deigns to use the very Catholic social teaching it purports to uphold, and  that misunderstands and conflates the notion of individual charity and the role of government.

Indeed, it seems that just as often happens on the left, the authority of the Catholic bishops is used on the right only when it serves convenience and furthers a particular ideological position.  Paul Ryan’s ideas about how to carry out Catholic social teaching can and should be taken seriously, and debated (for all the reasons Julie Rubio mentions here) – but NOT at the expense of pretending that Paul Ryan can stand in for the bishops and the magisterial authority of the church.  We Catholics – all of us – ought instead be allowing the teachings to challenge us, whether right or left.



  1. This is a very well done piece. Thanks!

  2. Interesting piece. I think you miss the point, however, and so does the WSJ (what do you expect?).

    The point is simple, and explained by the bishops in 2008 and again in 2012, in Faithful Citizenship:

    “The judgments and recommendations that we make as bishops on specific issues do not carry the same moral authority as statements of universal moral teachings.” [No. 33]

    One does not have to agree with Paul Ryan to recognize and to affirm his ability to hold prudential views different from those of the bishops. And that goes for any layman (see Lumen Gentium 37 et seq.). Bishops Morlino and Aquila have made this point — far too late, in my view, since Bishop Blaire condemned Ryan as “immoral” almost a year ago. Admittedly, in May 2011 Archbishop Dolan also affirmed Ryan’s freedom of prudential vision, but this was widely ignored by the critics of Ryan’s budget and the Catholic Left generally.

    Bishop Blaire, by the way, in the name of the USCCB, supports full funding of foreign aid. “It would be wrong,” he says, to oppose it. Yet there is half a billion dollars worth of “family planning” in that bill — abortifacients, Depo-Provera, condoms — as well as $60 million for abortions.

    Would “it be wrong” to disagree with His Excellency on that score?

    As for the “magisterial authority of the Church” — Bishop Blaire pretends to assert it, while Ryan does not. As I have explained in Crisis Magazine, Bp. Blaire has not publicly remonstrated the two pro-abortion “Catholics” who represent his diocese in Congress the way he has Rep. Ryan. That’s his prudential choice, of course. But when asked whether he is speaking with magisterial authority, his spokesperson replies that he is “swamped.”

    Prudential or Magisterial? Draw your own conclusions.

    Thanks for your piece and the opportunity to reply.

  3. CManion: The universal moral teachings referred to are the universal moral teachings of the papal encyclicals and the pronouncements of ecumenical councils – which were almost solely the documents I quoted in this post. I had two main points in this post, one of which was that if you want to make a claim about someone understanding Catholic social teaching better, it is wise to refer to that teaching directly and suggest how your own thoughts relate.

    I think that would be a far better way to make an argument in relation to how a person is making claims about prudential judgement vis a vis the bishops, especially when the op-ed BEGINS with a statement suggesting that Ryan is a better teacher of Catholic social teaching. But that’s the bishops’ role specifically, so if you’re going to make a case of “better” I want to see some evidence, so to speak.

    So, this isn’t really a post against or for Ryan, nor with the bishops’ statements about Ryan, but for rightful and respectful engagement with the bishops in relation to the points they themselves made in a somewhat collective fashion against Ryan’s budget.

    The second (and secondary point) I had was to take what I saw as the authors’ main point in the op-ed and suggest why, given social teaching, I am perplexed by their position. And again – would like to see some of those universal moral documents in play if they were to more clearly articulate their own position.

    So to your point about Bishop Blaire – his words have more weight because he is a bishop. To say that doesn’t preclude that his regional pronouncements, or the ones made by the USCCB have less moral authority than universal documents – but it still means that if we were to have arguments about what he says and how he sees fit to carry out, prudentially, what he takes to be the regional application of universal documents – we’d want to be referencing those in discussing prudential claims.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond!

  4. Jana: Regarding the issue of bishops speaking out on prudential topics, it is not a question of whether they have that right – as individuals we all have that right – but how that right should be exercised and how the laity should respond when the bishops do speak.

    It seems fairly straightforward to me: when the bishops speak on prudential topics they speak, well, prudentially and while their opinions deserve serious consideration we have no obligation to assent to them. When they speak on moral issues, however, their words are those of the Church and in those cases we are required to accept them.

    The fact that Catholic Social Teaching and all the documents you cited outline our moral obligations does not confer a moral obligation regarding any specific solution. The natures of economics and sociology will determine how well any proposal will work and to suggest that one way will work and another will fail is not to make a moral choice.

    The plan Ryan has submitted is based on his understanding of how things work. Bishop Blair’s condemnation is based on a different understanding but in both cases the positions are determined by an economic evaluation, not a moral one. I suspect the bishop opposes Ryan’s plan because he believes the poor will be hurt – which is an economic assessment, not a moral one. If he believed Ryan was indifferent to the poor that would be a moral evaluation, but that isn’t what he said.

    The difference between budget questions and the issue of abortion is that the Church isn’t specific about budget priorities. There is no moral position on whether foreign aid should be increased or decreased like there is on whether abortion laws should be restricted or permissive. The opinion that Ryan’s plan violates CST was vigorously rejected by Ryan’s own bishop, Bishop Morlino. I would say this: if the bishops all agree on something it is almost surely a moral issue; if they don’t all agree it is almost surely prudential. There is no such agreement on budgetary issues.

  5. Ender:

    What I’d say first is: a prudential judgement IS a matter of morality. I know you and I have discussed this on the blog before, so I won’t belabor that point. But I’ll just say, for the sake of other readers here: prudential judgement is a virtue that must be rightly exercised. So splitting the category into “moral” and “prudential” just doesn’t make sense to me.

    But further that kind of split is certainly NOT what the bishops do in Faithful Citizenship – they discuss the need to use prudential judgement to apply “moral principles to specific policy choices in areas such as the war in Iraq, housing, health care, immigration, and others. This does not mean that all choices are equally valid, or that our guidance and that of other Church leaders is just another political opinion or policy preference among many others.” (also from 33)

    In that same paragraph they also delineate the need to clearly engage the universal documents that DO have authority – that is, the papal encyclicals, the conciliar documents etc. And there ARE moral positions that are named there. As the bishops say in 33, not all choices are equally valid – and part of making prudential judgements there is in discerning, using the bishops’ council as well as the authoritative teaching documents of the church. That would be part of developing a well-formed conscience.

    When it comes to assent, I don’t think you and I are in serious disagreement. But I do think there’s a need – for both left and right – to be challenged by our bishops, and especially to be challenged by our church’s magisterial and authoritative teaching. And I’m not seeing much of that in evidence in the conversation as it’s currently happening.

    So I would just reiterate that I think anytime someone wants to discuss prudential judgement in relation to bishops, and also wants to make a claim that the bishops’ (all or several or just a few) view of Catholic social teaching is not very good, I want to see something to back that up.

  6. Jana: We surely make prudential judgments about moral questions; I did not mean to suggest otherwise. The distinction I’m trying to make is simply this: we are not obligated to assent to prudential opinion while we are obligated to assent to doctrine. When bishops propose specific policies on immigration or the budget they are making prudential judgments, and while there may be space for prudential judgment involved in choosing tactics to combat abortion, on that topic doctrine is quite specific. We are not obligated to oppose the Ryan budget, opposition is prudential. We are obligated to oppose partial birth abortions because opposition there is doctrinally required.

    Nor is there any question about whether the bishops have a full and accurate understanding of Catholic social teaching. The issue is not whether they understand it but whether they know how to achieve its goals. Knowing that we have an obligation to help the poor tells us nothing about what specific approaches will work best and when bishops propose their own solutions we are justified in questioning them. Were a bishop to speak out one of that small handful of issues (abortion, euthanasia, ESCR, gay marriage, human cloning) which the Church opposes and admits no exceptions, his position would be doctrinal and there is no room for disagreement. When Cardinal Dolan spoke against the Arizona immigration law and Bishop Blair opposed Ryan’s budget, however, they were making prudential judgments and we are free to form – and follow – our own opinions on those subjects.

    Perhaps this will make the point: can you suggest a single specific proposal in any area whatever (other the one of the five I listed above) that you feel we have a moral obligation to support or oppose? The only restriction is that the proposal must be specific (repeal the Arizona law) and not generic (treat immigrants fairly).

  7. Ender:

    I take your point and I get it – it’s related to the question of intrinsically evil acts (that Dave Cloutier has further discussed here) and grave moral concerns.

    But my point is just simply to suggest how we ought to be having these kinds of arguments: in matters of prudential judgement, my opinion is NOT just the same as the bishop’s, even though I am called upon to exercise that prudential judgement and may legitimately disagree with them. The bishops do have a kind of authority I don’t, even on matters where we might legitimately disagree. So when I want to make an argument in relation to Catholic social teaching – on whether the Ryan budget conforms to CST, or whether the Arizona law is illegal and so on – I need to be able to show how my conscience has been well-formed (to reference Faithful Citizenship again) – and I need to reference how I see it linked to Catholic social teaching by referencing exactly those universal moral documents where the magisterium has made its pronouncements.

    If I’m not doing that, then I am in danger of just simply doing what seems right to me – and that smacks of, well, relativism.

    And that is patently not what we are called to do when we’re trying to be prudent. This isn’t about specifical proposals so much as it’s about taking seriously bishops’ statements and not simply dismissing them because they don’t fit my preconceived prudential judgement. That’s as much the case, by the way, for thinking through Bishop Morlino’s and Cardinal Dolan’s statements about Congressman Ryan as it is for thinking through Bishop Blaire’s statements.

  8. I think this is where we disagree: “in matters of prudential judgement, my opinion is NOT just the same as the bishop’s”. There are surely some areas where judgments of the bishops are more significant than mine but I also believe that the bishops in general and the USCCB in particular all too often stray well outside the areas of their competence and into areas that are the rightful province of the laity – budgetary issues being a prime example.

    I am disinclined to accept any bishop’s political opinion. They are no more significant than the political opinions of anyone else and I find it unfortunate that the bishops are so inclined to offer them. I can’t remember if I posted this comment by Cardinal Dulles before but it accurately reflects my opinion.

    “By issuing policy statements on matters that lie beyond their specific competence, and that pertain rather to experts in secular disciplines, the bishops diminish their own credibility in speaking about matters with which they are specially charged as spiritual leaders of the church.”

    • So we would disagree there, yes. I just want to clarify that in saying the bishops’ opinion have a different kind of authority than mine. (Edited to add: exactly what that might mean is something that would require several more posts – but I think it suffices to say that part of that magisterial authority makes it incumbent on us to learn, study and regard the church’s social teachings….)

      One question I have, then, is: do you think Catholics are obligated to engage Catholic social teaching in any way when it comes to thinking about economic policy and so on? Is it incumbent on Catholics to read and respond to papal encyclicals when it comes to thinking about areas that go beyond those five that you mentioned? I ask in part because I think David Cloutier’s post from today mentions, for example, connections between Populorum Progressio and Humanae Vitae – that they share a world view and both are supported by that world view.

      The second question I have is (because I am curious): why are the five issues you mention the only five that are incontrovertible on your view? The bishops clearly mention racism as an intrinsically evil act in Faithful Citizenship; the Church also names adultery and torture, among others, in its documents. (All of the candidates in the Republican and Democratic parties this year seem to support the intrinsically evil act of torture, one of the many reasons I am highly concerned about voting for any of them.) So I am curious about the substance to why those five specifically?


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