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Stay in your Lane? Public Policy Confusion and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB): Part 2

The Good News | March 23, 2023 | by Catholics for Catholics

In 2021, San Francisco’s Archbishop Cordileone sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, instructing her to stop pushing the Democrat party’s official and aggressively pro-abortion positions or to stop presenting herself for communion. The left media immediately responded with an outraged call for the Archbishop to “stay in. his lane.” The San Francisco Chronicle called it “weaponized communion.” And yet, what is a Bishop’s lane if not to address grave sin and the reception of the Sacraments?

Meanwhile, as we have previously noted, Republicans who visit the home website of the United States Conference for Catholic Bishops will find endorsements for a myriad of fly-by-night policy proposals organized around leftist (often Marxist) frameworks such as “Environmental Justice” and “Criminal and Restorative Justice.” Vatican II described this as the legitimate autonomy of temporal matters: “For by the very circumstance of their having been created, all things are endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws, and order. Man must respect these as he isolates them by the appropriate methods of the individual sciences or arts. (Gaudium Et Spes 37) In other words, the Catholic Church acknowledges the expertise inherent in different fields of action, including politics. Politics, as an eminently practical field, has a particular application for the lay vocation. Again quoting from Vatican II regarding the lay vocations: “It belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will.” (Lumen Gentium 31). The laity involved in politics is responsible for engaging in the field with wisdom and prudence, but this doesn’t mean they do not also need the hierarchy to engage in the public sphere. We need clear guidance from the Church in four areas:

Goals of Civic Participation. As Plato said, “We always act with a view to some good. The good is the object which all pursue, and for the sake of which they always act” (Republic, I, vi). Catholicism teaches that the highest good for man is knowledge of and relationship with God. We have many secondary goals in politics that we must constantly keep in mind. For example, human beings have a God-given dignity, specific duties, and resulting rights. Properly speaking, justice, solidarity, and order are examples of such goods. This means that we must always keep human nature, dignity, duties, and rights in front of policymakers. As a result, the Catholic Church in general, and the hierarchy in particular, has a duty and a right to proclaim these aims in the public square. The laity has a concomitant responsibility to hold the hierarchy to this duty.

Rules of Civic Participation. When Catholics set out to vote and seek moral guidance, starting with the principles at play is helpful. The philosopher Joseph Pieper called these the “Rules of the Game in Social Relationships.” Examples of such rules are “There are concrete acts that it is always wrong to choose because their choice entails a disorder of the will, i.e., a moral evil. One may not do evil so that good may result from it. (CCC 1761). Or another rule is that it IS permissible to vote for the “lesser of two evils” under certain circumstances. There are many such principles, but we can see some of the complexity involved with these first two alone.

Intrinsic Goods/Evils. Once we understand both the goals (where we are going) and rules (how we should get there), we look at policy issues. When we examine such matters, we see that some policies or laws are intrinsically good or bad. For example, abortion is a moral evil. And if a politician promotes abortion, this act is intrinsically evil. In these cases, there is no other way of looking at it. For example, when a heartbeat bill is a clear example of such a choice. All Catholics must point out these acts of intrinsic evil whenever they arise in policy debates. Examples of these laws relate to the right to life, freedom to worship God, the right of parents to educate their children, etc. The USCCB, in particular, should organize its promotional, lobbying, and voter awareness materials to distinguish these intrinsically good/evil laws.

Prudential Judgements. The final category of knowledge is that of prudential judgment. This is the range of the vast majority of laws. These are cases where the law’s or policy’s aim is not in question, only the law’s practical effect. For example, the Church may point out that educating children is essential for the common good, but politicians and voters might disagree about what that means in practice. In another example, Republicans and Democrats agree that there is an evident crisis at the border and that immigrants must be treated with dignity as human beings, no matter their legal status. This agreement, however, does not lead to an intrinsic policy. For some, the ‘open border’ is the means to honor immigrants’ human dignity, while to others, the open border is one of the exacerbating problems. In these issues, it is prudential for the hierarchy to tread lightly. They do not have any particular expertise in judging the prudential connection between the law and the effect. Properly speaking, this type of public policy is as much of a natural expertise as the natural sciences.

The problem is simple. The USCCB, as a body, does not have a handle on these four categories. As such, it fundamentally fails as a deliberative or teaching body regarding politics in the United States of America. As a body with many committees, subcommittees, study groups, and administrative employees, they have the potential to add a great deal of moral authority to debate. On some issues, they have done this (primarily pro-life matters). Still, at this moment, the Conference is operating in a bureaucratic haze with no ability to distinguish, prioritize, or evangelize American civil society. Until this happens, and it will take clear and brave leadership, frustrated American Catholics are probably justified in wondering when it is time for USCCB to “stay in its’ lane.”

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