62 Responses to The Authoritative Character of Catholic Social Teaching

  1. Zach says:

    Absolutely right. The Church gives us authoritative teaching on faith and morals that are principles for right action. Part of the Church’s authoritative teaching is social teaching – teachings about social morality. It is our responsibility as lay people to apply those principles to political life. The Church does not tell us how to apply social principles to our lives, because the Church respects our intelligence and understands there are manifold ways to accomplish the same ends.

    Although I’d be curious what you think of hierarchy that is part of the form of Catholic teaching. There are certainly teachings that are binding on the faithful, and there are certainly teachings that are not binding but deserve our faithful ears. You seem to gloss over this distinction and treat all teachings as deserving our assent. I do not think this is true, and I’d be surprised to hear it from you for the first time…

    I recently purchased Avery Cardinal Dulles’s Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith, hoping to find an answer to this very question. Do you know any other good resources about the differences between Catholic teachings?

  2. T. Shaw says:

    If Popes teach that I must vote for liberals, socialists and others out to fundamentally change (for the worst) my country and way of life, I will need to go to Confession next Saturday.

    Tomorrow at 6AM NY time I will cast one vote to restore limited, constitutional government; to save our country from disasterous, ruinous policies like ObamaCare, cap and tax, TARP, bailouts of the auto worke unions and Wall Street. Plus I want to be allowed to buy any daddgum light bulb I want.

    BTW, them candidates will be on the RIGHT TO LIFE Party line.

    See. I ain’t real smart. So:

    Are you politicizing the Gospel to rationalize voting for millions more mass murders of unborn babies; for free abortions; for free artificial contraception; for hating rich Americans who are stealing the fruits of their (I mean the hated rich’s) labor from illegal immigrants, fornicators, felons; government rationing of health care; the destruction of our (obviously you think racist and unjust) way of life; etc.?

    If so, I don’t buy it.

  3. Joe Hargrave says:

    Yes. And the problem with all of this, to echo Zach, is that there are really some rather broad principles that do not easily lend themselves to specific applications.

    For instance, the “early” social encyclicals make clear that women ought to be in the home and that the just wage is really for the father, the breadwinner of the family.

    If we were to count that as a part of CST to which we are bound, women ought to strongly consider staying at home – and not bothering with college or career.

    “Women, again, are not suited for certain occupations; a woman is by nature fitted for home-work, and it is that which is best adapted at once to preserve her modesty and to promote the good bringing up of children and the well-being of the family.” (Rerum Novarum, 42)

    How far do you want to take that? Does it fall upon individual women to observe this teaching, or must the state craft a policy to forbid women from most occupations?

    Leo also makes fairly clear that the just wage is also for a man who is well-behaved, frugal, practices thrift, etc. So who will be the decided of what these things mean, and who is living up to them and who is falling short?

    And again – does it fall upon the employer to pay a just wage, or for the state to regulate wages?

    So you see, I certainly agree that we must always keep CST in mind, and that it may not be wantonly disregarded in favor of some other ideology.

    It’s a question of who is responsible for seeing that this social vision becomes a reality – the faithful, or the state? And I think the overall thrust of the teaching is clear – it is up to us. Private property is sacred and inviolable; charity is not a duty enforced by human law; the state can support private initiative but must not absorb it or control it or even regulate it too tightly; the demand for social justice is always balanced by the duty to behave and live in a responsible manner; all of this is present in Rerum Novarum and, as far as I can tell, many of the subsequent social encyclicals.

    On that note, I don’t see that it has any relevance for voting in the United States at all. We cannot vote for pro-abortion candidates no matter what they think about the economy, and its a rare day when both candidates are either pro-life or pro-choice, thus negating these life issues. It would be an even rarer day to find the pro-life Democrat who also fully supports, in the sense the Church understands it, parental educational rights (which means at the very least not opposing home schooling and private education).

    We usually in other words have a very clear choice at the polls. We have a candidate that respects the sanctity of human life and we have one who does not. End of debate. We have a candidate that defends traditional marriage, and one that supports the abomination of “gay marriage.” End of debate. Before the 1960s Catholics could swing either way. In the wake of the sexual revolution, this has become impossible. We all know this.

    Beyond these non-negotiables there is also the question of which party will more respect the rights of the Church. Which party advocates “hate speech” laws that will be used to silence priests who speak out against homosexuality? Which party thinks its a violation of the First Amendment to regulate pornography, but that they are upholding it when they silence public expressions of faith?

    Yes, there are many questions indeed.

  4. MarylandBill says:

    This is an excellent reminder that being a cafeteria catholic is not simply synonymous with with being a liberal catholic. There are are those who would pick and choose which teachings of the Church to obey on both the right and the left.

    Rightly so, many Catholics and other Christians tomorrow will put the most serious social issues of our times, namely the right to life for the unborn and the protection of marriage as the most important issues in deciding who to vote for. That does not mean they should not consider the important role that government can and should play in protecting the poor and the weak in our society. Unfortunately, the major parties rarely if ever offer a candidate who seriously embraces the whole of Catholic Social teaching.

    Whats worse, many “Pro-Life” candidates, while willing to vote the right way when the issue is presented to them, will rarely seriously work to really over turn abortion (when was the last time any major candidate seriously discussed a protection of life amendment to the Constitution?).

    As for T. Shaw’s comments, I think it shows a shocking lack of charity to assume that the article is meant to rationalize voting for pro-choice candidates. I would also point out that TARP was not an Obama program, but in fact was passed under the previous, Republican Administration (The very party T. Shaw implies he is voting for to save us from TARP!).

    The fact of the matter is that economic systems in and of themselves are neither pro-catholic or anti-catholic. However placing one’s faith in them while ignoring Catholic Social Teaching is clearly embracing Materialism.

  5. Joe Hargrave says:

    Socialism IS anti-Catholic. Read Quadragesimo Anno.

    Capitalism has never been condemned. Anti-social individualism has been condemned, and rightly so.

  6. Blackadder says:

    Put simply, if your political positions remain mostly intact after your conversion (or reversion) to Catholicism, then there may be something wrong!

    This certainly speaks to my experience. My own conversion spurred a political transformation in me, though some might question where I’ve ended up. In the short run this led to me being much more left-wing economically. I can remember watching George Bush’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention in 2004, for example, and realizing that I didn’t agree with a single item on his economic agenda. I didn’t support his health care plan (I was for single payer); I didn’t support his Social Security privatization plan (why gamble retirement savings in the stock market when you could just make up any shortfalls by taxing the rich?); I didn’t support his tax plan (taxes were a lot higher during the Eisenhower administration, and we did fine). I voted for Bush’s re-election because of abortion, but in the same election I also voted for a living wage referendum, etc.

    Some might see my current libertarianish views as an example of backsliding, but, as strange as it may sound to some, from my perspective they grew out of the same concern for social justice that animated my previous lurch left. If I reject the idea of a living wage law or single payer health care, it’s not because I believe it is somehow illegitimate for the government to help people, but because I’ve come to think that such policies are actually fairly bad ways of helping people.

  7. Joe Hargrave says:

    Well said BA. I underwent a similar evolution.

  8. ron chandonia says:

    Catholic social teaching is supposed to be put into practice in all aspects of everyday life in secular society–not simply in how we vote at election time. But the comments here make it clear how singularly focused American Catholics have become on voting, especially since we are repeatedly forced to choose between candidates who claim to support Catholic positions on life ethics and candidates who claim to support Catholic positions on social ethics. “The Church forcefully maintains this link between life ethics and social ethics,” insists Caritas in Veritate, but the link is hardly evident in contemporary American politics, nor is it evident in the minds of American Catholic voters.

    When it comes to electoral politics, therefore, I’m not sure how much it helps to insist that social ethics is no more optional for us than life ethics. Repeatedly we are forced to choose between them–or to sit out major electoral contests. However, it is essential that once Catholic voters make the choice, they do not then write off one or the other in the choices they make outside the voting booth. It is there, primarily, that we have the greatest opportunity to see that human life and dignity are respected from womb to tomb.

  9. Joe Hargrave says:

    Well in the minds of most voters, it does no good to think about things that one cannot change or effect in any way. American Catholic voters are not responsible for the entrenchment of a two-party system.

    But I reject the notion out of hand that we are always “forced to choose” between life and social ethics. I see very little wrong with the social ethic of most Republican candidates. CST does not mandate support for a statist agenda. If anything it calls for the opposite – for private citizens to make use of their resources, great and small, to address social problems in a voluntary and cooperative way.

    So I reject the notion, absolutely reject the notion, that the Democrat agenda minus abortion is the Catholic agenda. The Democrat agenda minus abortion is still an economy-killing, anti-subsidiarity, militantly secular agenda that no Catholic has an obligation to support, and in many cases probably has an obligation to oppose.

    Economic ruin caused by the strangulation of the private sector, accumulation of debt, reckless public spending, failed welfare policies and union thuggery does not help the poor. It helps privileged constituencies and voting blocs. That isn’t the common good.

  10. MJAndrew says:

    Are you politicizing the Gospel to rationalize voting for millions more mass murders of unborn babies; for free abortions; for free artificial contraception; for hating rich Americans who are stealing the fruits of their (I mean the hated rich’s) labor from illegal immigrants, fornicators, felons; government rationing of health care; the destruction of our (obviously you think racist and unjust) way of life; etc.?

    I don’t think so. Is there something in the post that suggests that I am?

    There are certainly teachings that are binding on the faithful, and there are certainly teachings that are not binding but deserve our faithful ears. You seem to gloss over this distinction and treat all teachings as deserving our assent. I do not think this is true, and I’d be surprised to hear it from you for the first time.

    Good point. I did not parse things out too much in the post in order to avoid tedium. I did make sure to state that I take as binding the fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching and their most immediate implications. Something like Leo XIII asserting that women are more suited for housework surely is neither a principle nor an immediate implication of CST principles.

    Further, I just intended to suggest that CST would make good meditation prior to voting tomorrow. A great deal of policy option is left underdetermined by the moral and social teachings of the Church, but I think CST still helps us to narrow the range of acceptable policy.

    On that note, I don’t see that it has any relevance for voting in the United States at all. We cannot vote for pro-abortion candidates no matter what they think about the economy, and its a rare day when both candidates are either pro-life or pro-choice, thus negating these life issues.

    I have found CST to be very relevant in nearly every election in which I’ve participated. I think your statement here is a bit exaggerated, and I imagine most U.S. bishops (our most proximate ecclesial authority) would agree. In my congressional district, we have two “pro-life” candidates. Same with our Senate election. I’ve drawn from CST in order to make my decision for whom to vote, finding a candidate in each race who, in my opinion, runs on a platform most congruent with the principles of CST and their immediate implications.

    I’ll leave my contribution to this comment thread at that. I am looking forward to sitting on the coach tomorrow night and watching the returns! My wife and I will be flipping back and forth among Comedy Central, MSNBC, and Fox News.

  11. MJAndrew says:

    Rather, on the “couch.”

  12. Paul Zummo says:

    My wife and I will be flipping back and forth among Comedy Central, MSNBC, and Fox News.

    And of course the live blog right here at the American Catholic!

  13. Joe Hargrave says:

    “In my congressional district, we have two “pro-life” candidates. Same with our Senate election.”

    I’ve never faced this. Forgive me for generalizing my personal experience, and that of most people I know.

  14. MJAndrew says:

    I’ve never faced this. Forgive me for generalizing my personal experience, and that of most people I know.

    No worries. It’s a rare thing, indeed. And it’s a great thing to have.

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  16. Art Deco says:

    Sorry to be rude, but you have penned 1,960 words irrelevant to our principal problem and to nearly any discussion of public policy this side of the Ayn Rand Institute: how precisely to operationalize the articulated principles (or even to make sense of them in some circumstances – just how can one make the notion of a ‘just wage’ a coherent concept?).

  17. T. Shaw says:

    I need to go to Confession.

    I voted for evil, GOP private-property-isn’t-theft candidates.

    Spirtual Works of Mercy. I’m certain Policraticus is trying to save my soul from voting for personal responsibility, prosperity, and limited government.

    The seven practices of Catholic charity toward our neighbor’s soul:

    » Admonish sinners

    » Instruct the ignorant

    » Counsel the doubtful


  18. Zach says:

    MJ: FWIW I think it is a nice reflection and I do think CST ought to animate, in some significant way, our political thinking. Our minds should be thoroughly Catholic.

  19. WJ says:

    Just a couple of minor points:

    Joe Hargrave is generally correct but also misleading in his statment that “Socialism IS anti-Catholic” and “Capitalism has never been condemned.” He also somewhere speaks of the “sacred” quality of private property, an idolatry that I will overlook for the present. (This is a joke, Joe, I know you are channeling RN, and this is a much longer argument, etc. 😉 )

    When the Church has condemned socialism, it has condemned two things: socialism in its *pure* form–i.e. the complete elimination of privately held property–and State Socialism–i.e. what we refer to as Communism. The Church has never condemned, and, in fact, has applauded, the public ownership of industries, etc. which better contribute to the common good when they are not held privately. Which industries and/or services fall under this description is a prudential question, of course.
    But Joe’s statement, combined with the contemporary tendency to describe countries like Sweden as “socialist”–even though Sweden is by no means a socialist country on the Church’s understanding noted above–has the effect of severely simplifying a rather complex issue.

    Likewise, it is not true that the Church has never condemned Capitalism. The Church has never condemned private property. The Church has never denied the efficiency of markets (circumscribed, as all markets have always been, by preexistent juridical norms). But the Church has condemned Capitalism in its pure form–i.e. the thesis that capital is prior to labor and the practices that follow therefrom. JP II’s CA clearly condemns this *pure* form of capitalism. The “other” kind of capitalism lauded by JPII bears little resemblance to what is actually practiced nearly anywhere, and is closer, in fact to distributism. But this is a far cry from Capitalism.

  20. WJ says:

    T. Shaw,

    I hope at least that you’re consistent in your desire for “limited government”–i.e. that you line up more or less with Ron Paul’s (and the Founders’)position on our needless wars and bloating national security state, both of which constitute the greatest threat to our prosperity and freedom.

  21. Elaine Krewer says:

    “In my congressional district, we have two pro-life candidates. Same with our Senate election”

    Boy are you ever lucky, or rather, blessed. Only once in my entire voting life (of more than 25 years) have I ever been able to choose between two pro-life congressional candidates. There was also one instance that I can recall in which both candidates for governor were pro-life.

    Other than that, it’s always been pro-life vs. pro-abort, or two pro-aborts, in which case I always attempt to choose the one NOT endorsed by Planned Parenthood, Personal PAC, or NARAL, taking that as an indication that said candidate will be less aggressively pro-abortion than the other.

  22. Brian English says:

    (1) Prudential judgment is necessary with regard to CST, because while the goals are clear, the proper method for achieving those goals is not. Too many Catholics regard creating government programs as the objective of CST, with the issue of whether those programs actually help the poor or less fortunate being secondary.

    (2) Read the 1998 statement by the bishops, Living the Gospel of Life. Even if you believe you are “right” on the CST issues, that does not excuse you being wrong on abortion and euthanasia. I know liberal Catholics hate to hear this, but there is a hierarchy of moral issues.

    (3) A race where both the Republican and Democrat are pro-life? Where is this wonderous place? Or is the Democrat of the Bart Stupak pro-life persuasion?

    (4) In any event, it is critical that as many Republicans as possible get elected to the Senate. It amazes me how many Catholics complain about the Republicans “not doing anything about abortion” when it is clear that we can only legislate at the edges (parental notification, waiting periods, etc.) while Roe and Doe are still good law. (And please spare me the Ron Paul Sanctity of Life Act silliness).

    (5) If, God forbid, Obama gets re-elected in 2012 and the Democrats still have a majority in the Senate, Obama is going to end up naming five or six members of the Supreme Court. If that happens, all restrictions on abortion, including partial-birth abortion, will eventually be overturned.

  23. Blackadder says:

    There are very few races where both candidates are pro-life (there are slightly more where both are “pro-life.”) For example, the USCCB strongly opposed the health care bill over concerns about funding and coverage of abortion. One could say that in the judgment of the USCCB, any beneficial aspects of the bill were more than outweighed by the abortion aspects, so that the bill was deemed inconsistent with CST. Yet most “pro-life” Democrats voted for the bill, some even trading on the issue to get more favorable pork for their state or district.

  24. T. Shaw says:

    WJ: Hope springs eternal . . .

    Yeah! I prefer the Swiss model. Arm and train every citizen in the useful arts of national defense and protection of their individual liberties. And, no foreign war. Yes, I am with that. I am a paid-up-for-life NRA member.

    I like this quote from St. Augustine, The City of God:

    “What is reprehensible is that, while leading good lives themselves and abhorring those of wicked men, some fearing to offend shut their eyes to evil deeds instead of condemning them and pointing out their malice. To be sure, the motive behind their tolerance is that they may suffer no hurt in the possession of those temporal goods which virtuous and blameless men may lawfully enjoy; still, there is more self-seeking here than becomes men who are mere sojourners in this world and who profess hope of a home in heaven.”

  25. Jay Anderson says:

    “Or is the Democrat of the Bart Stupak pro-life persuasion?”

    If by “Bart Stupak pro-life persuasion” you mean “Did he vote for the health care bill?”, then, yes, I suppose one could call Joe Donnelly a “Bart Stupak pro-lifer”.

    (I’m making a HUGE assumption here that this is the election in which MJ will be voting. MJ, please forgive me if my assumption is incorrect.)

    Reportedly, Speaker Pelosi called Fr. Hesburgh (of Notre Dame and Land o’ Lakes Statement fame) to get him to give Donnelly his “blessing” to vote for the health care bill.


  26. Tim Shipe says:

    WJ- I agree with your analysis- it is useless getting into an argument trying to defend pure-form Socialism or pure-form unregulated Capitalism- if one is actually basing their opinion on the treasure of Catholic social doctrine- we should be looking at every disputed issue from the standpoint of whether the CST principle would be better served by more or less political interference/activity. Father Corapi recently gave a talk on Catholic Social Doctrine- I’m trying to get hold of a copy of it to show in my classes- I saw the promo where he states emphatically that the Social Doctrine is Doctrine- not an optional thing for faithful Catholics- so at minimum all the Catholic chatterboxes should examine their own consciences to ask whether they are doing enough reading of authoritative source materials like the Compendium. If a political Catholic has a Compendium and it isn’t full of copious notes or underlinings ( or doesn’t even have a copy of the Compendium)- I wouldn’t really trust their views on anything to be honest. We would have no starting point for a holy argument- I have no truck with those enamored with ideology over Church- they are like spouses who stay married but moon over their lover- who is not their spouse.

  27. Phillip says:

    Of course CST calls on us to have a preferential option for the poor without creating dependency on the state or stifling personal inititive. To respect the universal destination of goods while respecting the right to private property. To respect the right to immigrate while respecting the right of the state to limit immigration. To tax to redistribute wealth without undermining productivity of those producing the wealth.

    Given the multitude of broad principles in CST, yes, there is a very broad range of possible applications that can be respected as consistent with CST. Even if the Bishops through the USCCB have a different, prudential judgment.

  28. Mike Petrik says:

    I agree Phillip. I would only add that it is imprudent IMO for the Bishops to share their prudential preferences via the USCCB. The Bishops have no special charism for applying such prudence (as opposed to teaching the principles), and such statements invariably confuse the faithful.

  29. Phillip says:

    Part of the richness of CST is that it is incredibly practical and not utopian. Thus it calls on us to move society forward, but with an understanding of fallen human nature. It is not ideological, but open to ideas based on social, historical, economic, knowledge that form the basis for forming decisions. As human nature is fallen, human knowledge will be imperfect. Since these fields are subjective and imperfect in their knowledge, they will change with time and study. As a result, the premises that form the application of CST will evolve.

    Since these fields are subjective to begin with, different individuals will have different premises as their starting point to CST. When those premises are a coherent whole, they will form an framework for approaching social problems – an ideology. This seems quite consistent with CST as one must approach social problems with a broad variety of human disciplines – disciplines which must have a coherent structure. I don’t think the Church will find this harmful as long as a Catholic is open to new knowledge that modifies or even changes the initial premises. It is when a system ceases to be open to the best knowledge that it becomes ideological and problematic for a true Catholic.

  30. Tom K. says:

    …such statements invariably confuse the faithful.

    Only the faithful who disagree with the statements. The faithful who agree accept the teaching with remarkable docility.

  31. WJ says:

    I have a serious question for Mike Petrik. Assuming that it is correct that the bishops have “no special charism for applying such prudence” in the case of policy formulations, does it not also follow that they have no special charism in the interpretation of complex legislative texts and their likely effects?

    It seems to me that right-liberal-leaning Catholics on the one hand argue that bishops restrain themselves to articulating the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, and should not give any guidance as to how those principles are to be achieved. This is largely because, I suspect, the majority of the bishops would offer concrete suggestions that run contrary to how right-leaning Catholics themselves believe the principles could be achieved.

    But, over on the left-liberal Catholic side of things, we find the same argument applied to the USCCB’s interpretation of the health care legislation passed under Obama. There, the left-liberal Catholics claim that they *agree* with the principles enunciated by the bishops, but that they *disagree* with the way these principles are applied to the legislative text in question; rather, the folks at Commonweal, et. al. claim that the bishops have no “special charism” of legislative interpretation, and they go too far in claiming that their interpretation of the text and its likely policy effects is binding.

    The problem, though, is that left-liberal Catholics accuse right-liberal Catholics of disavowing the competency of bishops to speak prudentially about, say, economic policies, while right-liberal Catholics accuse left-liberal Catholics of denying the competency of the bishops to offer authoritative interpretations of legislative texts.

    It seems to me that neither side is consistent, and that each is actually committed to the other’s position. Is there a difference here? Or are we (liberal Catholics of both stripes) selectively gauging the competency of bishops to offer more than the articulation of principles based upon our own antecedent preferences?

  32. Mike Petrik says:

    Utter nonsense, Tom K. There is no virtue in simply following the prudential preferences of others, including bishops. The difference between teaching principles that must be accepted versus enunciating one’s preferred prudential applications of such principles is real and important even if you apparently don’t appreciate it. A good example is ObamaCare. The USCCB was correct to oppose it to the extent it included funding for abortion. Absent such funding, the analysis is prudential only, and there is no virtue in the docility you describe. And the office of bishop does nothing to invest the holders with special knowledge re how best to provide health care to the poor or anyone else.

  33. Jay Anderson says:

    “The faithful who agree accept the teaching with remarkable docility.”

    Docile? About prudential statements from a given Bishop or the USCCB as a whole? Hardly. NO ONE is docile about ANYTHING the Bishops say regarding politics.

    On the one hand, you have those who disagree with a given judgment of a Bishop or the Bishops, who will vociferously protest and assert that the Bishops are out of touch and out of step with the average Catholic in the pews and/or that the Bishops don’t fully understand the issue on which they are speaking and/or that they are being misled by staffers in the chancery or the USCCB who are somehow simulataneously both partisan right-wing hacks and partisan left-wing hacks.

    On the other hand, you have those who accept a given prudential judgment of a Bishop or the Bishops, but who are anything but docile in their acceptance. Instead, they waste no opportunity in using the Bishops’ statements on political matters to berate their opponents as “bad Catholics” or ” Catholics in Name Only” or “Cafeteria Catholics” or “not truly pro-life” or insert your own epithet for Catholics who disagree with your own view of how Catholics should vote.

    For politically active Catholics in the U.S., the Church’s teachings have become merely another political tool for justifying people’s own pre-existing worldviews and political predilictions.

  34. WJ says:

    “The USCCB was correct to oppose it to the extent it included funding for abortion.”

    But this is precisely what those left-liberal Catholics deny. They *deny* that an impartial reading of the legislative text commits one to the view that the legislation funds abortion. They *agree* with the principle in question–in this case: abortion should not be federally funded–they disagree with the bishop’s claim that the current law does fund abortion, and they ask a question dear to Mike Petrik’s own heart: whence this special charism for offering authoritative interpretations of complex legislative texts?

  35. Mike Petrik says:

    Fair enough, WJ, but I think your comparison is a bit off. It is essentially a matter of prudence to determine the social and policy consequences of legislation. For instance, whether a tax bill accelerates depreciation deductions is a question, however technical, that can be resolved by the text; it has a confident answer. Whether such a provision would result in greater or lesser government revenues via economic expansion is a prudential question that depends on a how human beings might respond to the new provisions. Simialrly, whether expanded government health care will provide the social benefits intended depends on many variable having to do with how humans will respond to various new rules and incentives. Reasonable people can usually disagree and admit to uncertainty. Whether such expanded government health care includes abortion services or enhances the governments power to provide or fund such services may be tricky to figure out, but the answer lies in the text, not in the vagaries of human behavior.

  36. WJ says:

    “but the answer lies in the text, not in the vagaries of human behavior.”

    –Assuming this answer is correct, which I’ll do for the sake of the argument, the question still stands: do or do not the bishops have a special charism which enables them to offer authoritative interpretations of complex legislative texts, many thousands of pages long, about whose meaning many competent and trained professional readers of those texts disagree?

    What you say about human behavior, of course, applies equally to hermeneutics: “Reasonable people can usually disagree and admit to uncertainty.”

  37. Mike Petrik says:

    I do concede that in some technical cases a legal analysis can be a prudential one. If the legislation is not clear, then the question more or less becomes a combination of (i) how will its administrators interpret it and (ii) what will a court determine that it means. I further concede that it is possible that the ObamaCare legislation is such a case. If so, then I would think that the USCCB’s job would be initially to advocate for greater clarity in the legislation to ensure the reassuring interpretations it was hearing. If such advocacy proves futile, then the USCCB would be correct to oppose any legislation that moves the government funding of abortion from clearly impermissible to uncertain.

  38. WJ says:

    Mike Petrik,

    I’m happy with your concession, but our friends on the left-liberal spectrum wouldn’t be: they’d say that, on their own best analysis, the government funding of abortion under ObamaCare is not “uncertain” but is as clearly impermissible as it ever was. I’m not interested in taking up their argument, though, as I’m skeptical that a legislative text of the nature of ObamaCare *has* a definite meaning at all, prior to its implementation and adjudication through the courts.

    I am, though, still perplexed about the larger issue of the bishops’ competency. I mean this sincerely, since it appears to me that, while you can separate principle from practice/prudence in theory, were you to restrain yourself solely to principle in all cases you would essentially never have anything new to contribute. I think this kind of split between principle and prudential application of principle is always a difficult one, but that it is exacerbated, for various reasons, in liberal regimes. I’m not a liberal, but I live in such a regime, and so I wonder about it. Thanks for your response.

  39. MJAndrew says:

    @Brian English

    Responding to your points:

    1) Of course prudential judgment is needed in many concrete situations. I noted that when I stated that CST leaves many policy options underdetermined. However, prudential judgment does not come into play when it comes to holding to the fundamental principles of CST and their immediate implications. Rather, sound prudential judgment presupposes them.

    2) Am I wrong on abortion and euthanasia? I hold both to be intrinsically evil, and I support laws prohibiting and/or restricting them. What excuse are you referring to?

    3) Indiana

    4) I think it is critical to get as many politicians elected who uphold the sanctity of life, promote the dignity of the person, understand the importance of the common good, and embrace solidarity of peoples. Whether these politicians happen to be Republican or Democrat is not as interesting a question for me, and I do not share your unqualified view that we should elect as many Republicans to the Senate as possible. If, in this particular election, a Republican is closer to this description than a Democrat, I’ll go with the Republican.

    5) I’m not prescient enough to know that this is a certain outcome.

  40. Mike Petrik says:

    Thanks, WJ. I would only add that I think the teaching of principles is more than an important contribution, it is a vital one. The Bishops would do well to enhance those teaching efforts rather than indulge their understandable urges to dabble in policies regarding which they, like most Americans, possess more opinions than knowledge.
    For the record, with proper safeguards against abortion (or any other matters objectionable in principle) the Bishops would be wrong to continue to oppose ObamaCare just as they would be wrong to support it. They are entitled to their personal opinions just as any other American, but it is arrogant to use their office to confuse the faithful by conflating principle and prudence, and such arrogance is not saved by good intentions.

  41. Tim Shipe says:

    Great discussion- in my own conversations with my own Bishop in the past, it was indicated to me that while prudential judgments coming from the Bishop or Bishops’ Conference were not binding in the same way a clearly enunciated principle may be- these statements/documents offering prudential judgments/applications of principles need to be taken deeply into one’s conscience- as a faithful Catholic. This step – while impossible to know for certain since the conscience is a hidden place- seems to be one quickly overlooked as most minds/hearts seem already formed to counter the Bishop(s) without missing a beat.

    I am also curious as to the effects of public disavowel of Bishop(s) prudential judgments/suggested applications on the “little ones”, and the general public- is it a scandal for lay Catholics to publicly proclaim how the Bishop(s) are completely wrong in making suggested applications of CAtholic social doctrine in this way or on that issue? Where does the obedience of faith come into play- if we concede that one can disagree in their conscience with the Bishop(s)- but how far can that disagreement go in public/blogs etc..? Does the type and forum for disagreement have some bearing on whether one is undermining the hierarchical nature of the Church?

  42. Phillip says:

    I think where fundamental moral issues involving the person or society are concerned, bishops are obliged to make moral judgments on a given social policy.

    I think the issue with health care reform is that there was no clear provision for or against abortion. Those who support the legislation point to this as the source of their ability to stand behind it and ding the bishops. I think if there was clearly a provision for abortion in the bill then the bishops could pronounce a moral judgment that a Catholic could not support it and we would be obliged to follow. Just as if there was a bill to tax the poor while excluding the rich. That would clearly be a violation of the moral order.

    I think health care reform fails on other measures of social justice. But, and I don’t like it, its not completely clear at this time whether the bill will finance abortion or not. Once it does (as I believe it will) then the bishops can pronounce on its illicitness as formulated and the need for Catholics to reform or repeal the bill.

  43. Phillip says:

    I think how one approaches the statement of bishops on prudential matters, assuming there is uniformity of opinion which is only occasionally the case, is like that a mature adult has towards his parents’ opinions in matters. I might discuss with my mother or father about a new job or a move and take in their opinion, but I am under no obligation to obey as I did need to obey when they told me not to take the car when I was sixteen. I treat them with respect and consider their opinion. Then I form what I think is best for me and my family. This offers true respect towards my parents in appropriately exercising my freedom according to what they have taught me through the years.

    The same goes for bishops in prudential matters. We learn from them the principles that we, through the charism of the laity, apply to society – the ordering of which is the proper domain of the laity. Applying the principles, in true freedom informed by our knowledge and conscience, is the best way to show respect for the hierarchy.

  44. Phillip says:

    One way the bishops might help to avoid scandal is to note the prudential and not de fide nature of their political statements.

  45. Nate Wildermuth says:

    Great post.

  46. Tom K. says:

    NO ONE is docile about ANYTHING the Bishops say regarding politics.

    Well, yes, that was my point. We either agree or disagree with our bishops.

    To be taught by them would require us to accept them as our teachers, and no one does that any more.

  47. Phillip says:

    I would disagree. We can accept teaching on subsidiarity and solidarity etc. etc. We can accept teaching on the principles and still disagree on the practical application of the principles.

    In this way we accept them as teachers who then go out and apply our charism as laity to order the world according to those principles.

  48. Tom K. says:

    We can accept teaching on the principles and still disagree on the practical application of the principles.


    “I don’t care who does the teaching as long as I get to determine the practical application.”

    That’s us, the Catholic laity in America.

  49. Phillip says:

    Actually it also works for Pope Benedict:

    “First, the duty of direct action to ensure a just ordering of society falls to the lay faithful who, as free and responsible citizens, strive to contribute to the just configuration of social life, while respecting legitimate autonomy and natural moral law”, the Holy Father explained. “Your duty as bishops, together with your clergy, is indirect because you must contribute to the purification of reason, and to the moral awakening of the forces necessary to build a just and fraternal society. Nonetheless, when required by the fundamental rights of the person or the salvation of souls, pastors have the binding duty to emit moral judgments, even on political themes”.

  50. Phillip says:

    It also works for JP II who wrote in Centesimus Annus:

    “43. The Church has no models to present; models that are real and truly effective can only arise within the framework of different historical situations, through the efforts of all those who responsibly confront concrete problems in all their social, economic, political and cultural aspects, as these interact with one another.”

    Benedict XVI references this in his introduction to Caritas in Veritate where he notes:

    “The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim ‘to interfere in anyway in the politics of States'” (C in V 9)

  51. Tom K. says:

    Yeah, yeah.

    As long as you reserve to yourself the right to decide whether your bishop is emitting a moral judgment or offering a technical solution, he’s not your teacher.

  52. Phillip says:

    Perhaps you can help here then. What makes a judgment prudential vs. one of moral right and wrong?

    For example, what is the Catholic solution to providing health care to the poor? What amount of unemployment benefits are appropriate an for how long? When do benefits begin to create dependency on the state which is a violation of CST? What are the Catholic answers to these questions?

  53. Given that bishops do not code every word they say on these topics with little highlights indicating moral judgements versus technical solutions, it seems hard to assume that one could be guided by them on the topic rather than making some sort of judgement oneself.

    Your line of reasoning seems to suggest that one must choose between either accepting everything said by a bishop as an authoritative teaching, or else not accepting him as one’s teacher. Given that we don’t fall into that particular pit with regards papal infallibility, I’m unclear as to why we must do so in regards to episcopal teaching authority.

  54. Joe Hargrave says:


    I stand by my statement. Pius XI was clear to say “socialism, as long as it is truly socialism”, and defined it as a system that is premised on the idea that society exists for “material advantage alone.” That means a society that owes nothing to God.

    Most forms of socialism make very definite statements about secularism, religion, and the Church in general. They see religion and its teachings as an obstacle to the realization of an Earthly, material paradise.

    Most forms of capitalism are indifferent to religion.

    Of course there are always exceptions. This is about the overall tendency. And capitalism has never been condemned. Ever. Not by name, and not even by implication. Greed and individualism have been condemned, but those can exist in a command economy, in a feudal economy, in any kind of economy.

  55. Joe Hargrave says:

    And no, I would not follow my bishop if he were to leap off a cliff. If they want to provide us with an orientation and a broad set of guidelines, fine. If they want to tell me that 1+1 = 3 instead of 2, I’m going to oppose them. End of story.

  56. WJ says:


    Look, “socialism, as long as it is truly socialism”, i.e. exists “for material advantage alone” is condemned. I grant this. I’m just saying that nothing you say following this quote follows, logically, from the quote itself. And I’m not accusing you of claiming that Sweden, for example, is a socialist country on this definition. It clearly is not. But many people seem to think that all of Western European States are condemned as “socialist.” That’s just absurd.

    Also, JPII *does* condemn one form of capitalism in CA. Are you denying this?

  57. Joe Hargrave says:

    What have I said that doesn’t follow logically? I’m not sure what you’re referring to.

    Sweden is a “social democracy”, which is a lite form of socialism. It is also an incredibly secular state. I’d say it falls well within the definition in practice, even if perhaps its constitution isn’t explicitly anti-Christian.

    As for CA, I do deny it. He does not condemn a “form of capitalism.” He lists some rather bad things and says, “IF this is capitalism, then we reject this.” Well, what he was talking about was not capitalism.

    There are hardly any socialists who would deny Pius XI’s definition of socialism as a secularist materialist enterprise that is at best indifferent and at worst hostile to religion (and we see this all over Europe). Perhaps there are some “Christian socialists” who would, but they are an insignificant minority.

    Almost all capitalists would deny that the negative aspects of a laissez-faire society condemned by JP II are necessarily or even likely parts of capitalism. Yes, there are anarcho-capitalists out there, but again, they are an insignificant minority. The vast majority of capitalists accept the rule of law, a juridical framework, etc.

    So I see no point in constantly making this footnote that extreme, anti-social versions of ideologies are rejected by the Church. Of course they are. And I see no point in pointing out that there may be a version of a condemned ideology that turns out being kosher after all – certainly this may be possible. We’re talking about the majority, the average and the norm. And when we’re talking about that, socialism is condemned, and capitalism is not.

  58. Tom K. says:


    If you want to know whether something your bishop says is intended as authoritative teaching, ask him.

    Doing the best you can in figuring it all out is the best you can do. But the Catholic Internet is lousy with declarations of independence from anything disagreeable a bishop might say.

    Perhaps even more common is the attempt to code what a bishop says with little highlights distinguishing moral principles from applications of them, then ignore (if not ridicule) the applications — as though the applications themselves didn’t teach Catholics how to apply the principles.

  59. WJ says:

    “Sweden is a “social democracy”, which is a lite form of socialism”

    So I guess that Reinhardt Cardinal Marx of Bavaria is in violation of Catholic Social Teaching, since he is a propoent of “social democracy”?!

    Really, Joe, your statements are sometimes reductios of themselves.

  60. MJ,

    A good post, with this exception: I don’t think many serious Catholics assert that we can prudentially judge whether or not to accept CST principles, but rather *how* to apply them. In your reply to Brian it still appears that you believe there is a serious segment of thoughtful Catholics who reject CST principles.

    That doesn’t seem to be the case, at least among our fellow contributors and commentators here; yes, there is vigorous disagreement about how to implement those principles, and yes, we need to ensure that those principles animate our political views, but neither indicates a rejection — partial or complete — of those teachings.

  61. Phillip says:


    Thank-you. You have effectively made the point I’ve been trying to make here for months.

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