The bishops and prudential judgment

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In June, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to issue a paper giving the bishops’ opinion on the nation’s economic and budgetary woes (a document expected to be critical of Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposals). Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Michigan opposed it, saying, “We need to be articulate only in principles, and let the laity make these applications. … I’m not sure that we [the bishops] have the humility yet not to stray into areas where we lack competence, and where we need to let the laity lead.”

This statement by Bishop Boyea articulates a major, infrequently employed distinction in the social teaching of the Catholic Church between questions of prudential judgment and political issues that involve foundational moral principles. The American bishops have rarely distinguished between these two kinds of questions, and it has led to regrettable confusion.

Catholics believe that the Church was founded by Christ and continues to be guided by God in passing on divine truths of faith and morality. Thus, when the Church (through the Pope or through the worldwide episcopate united with the Pope) has spoken consistently and authoritatively on some question of faith or morality, it speaks infallibly, in a fashion that should bind the conscience of every Catholic. Legalized abortion and gay marriage are not “up for debate” for Catholics; they are areas where the Church has taught clearly and precisely, and where the Church’s teaching is immediately dispositive.

However, when the Church says that immigrants should be treated with dignity, does this require passage of the DREAM Act, or any particular piece of legislation?

Not necessarily. The Church’s official teaching (e.g., the writings of the Popes) doesn’t get involved in the minutiae of policy. That task belongs to the Catholic laity, who should be guided by the broad principles of justice the Church lays out. Because the proper application of these broad principles is often not immediately obvious, there is room for legitimate disagreement between faithful Catholics — they are questions of prudential judgment. One Catholic may favor broad amnesty for illegal immigrants while another favors more extensive deportations. Neither is a heretic.

Since the early 20th century, the American bishops have made their prudential opinions known on any number of policy questions wherein Catholic teaching is not immediately binding, like immigration, environmental protection, and social welfare spending of all kinds. While the bishops hold orthodox positions on questions like abortion, they do not tend to distinguish such matters clearly from areas of prudential judgment; with furrowed brow, they insist that these are all deeply important questions.

The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago was a pioneer of this mindset. His “Seamless Garment Theory” blurred the distinction between settled moral questions and matters of prudential judgment, giving all political issues essentially equal weight. For Bernardin, a candidate’s admittedly bad support of abortion (which has claimed 50 million lives since 1973) would not necessarily outweigh his liberal positions on social welfare spending and immigration. This ideology, sadly, did not die with Cardinal Bernardin, and it continues today among many of his more liberal successors in the American episcopate.

Why this blurring of distinctions? First, many bishops are afraid of offending Catholic Democrats. If Church teaching on abortion is authoritative, the magnitude of abortion in America would necessarily require Catholics to vote pro-life whenever possible. If a bishop taught that all Catholics had to vote for pro-life candidates, he’d face intense public criticism. Few bishops want to admit the sad reality: believing Catholics have almost no home in the national Democratic Party.

Secondly, many of these older bishops in their 60s and 70s are still tied to the pro-Democrat Catholicism of the early-to-mid 20th century. They grew up in blue-collar, immigrant, Democratic homes that supported unions, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the New Deal and the Great Society. They hated Bush and his warmongering, and were terrified of Reagan. The last thing they want is to seem supportive of the GOP. Thus, by bringing up questions of prudential judgment wherein Republicans are — in their opinion — “less Catholic,” they accomplish the “important goal” of not appearing to be apologists for the right.

The bishops need to get over their age-old Republican-phobia and realize that their constant preaching on issues of prudential judgment is not helpful. The fact is that many Catholics equate the American bishops’ opinions on prudential questions with “Catholic teaching,” and this understandable confusion provides cover for pro-choice, pro-gay marriage Catholics to continue flaunting the Church’s actual teaching. The Nancy Pelosis of the world can simply say, “Well, I don’t agree with the Church on abortion, but Paul Ryan doesn’t agree with the Church on the budget! No Catholic can agree with the Church on everything — I’m no worse than he is!”

The fact is that there is a huge difference between Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi. Ryan, a Catholic, respects the Church’s teaching authority, but simply differs with some of the American bishops on how those general principles of Catholic teaching should be applied to our current budget woes. Nancy Pelosi completely thumbs her nose at the Church’s perennial teachings on the sanctity of all human life.

Bishop Boyea seems to be in the minority among the American bishops. One can only hope that more and more of his confreres will heed his calls for restraint, and for greater humility and focus in the bishops’ teaching.

John Gerardi is a student at Notre Dame Law School. He writes on topics relating to religion and society. He blogs at Christifidelis Laicus.