Let the Bishops Interpret Their Document

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The dotCommonweal blog links to a Vox Nova post by Mornings Minion reacting to the clarifications which various bishops have issued to their dioceses on the USCCB document Faithful Citizenship and its application in the coming election. However, there are clearly some serious problems with MM’s analysis, and I think it’s worth looking at them in order to try to understand what our bishops are saying during this election season. MM opens provocatively:

In recent weeks, we are seeing something of a backlash against the USCCB’s Faithful Citizenship document– the most articulate and theologically sophisticated treatise of these issues by the US bishops ever– mainly by the usual suspects, but also by a small but vocal minority of bishops.

More than sixty bishops have thus far issued letters or statements in which they have provided further guidance on how Catholics should apply their judgement to the principles articulated in Faithful Citizenship — mostly with a mind to emphasizing the important of “life issues”. The Faithful Citizenship document was approved by 250 of the bishops in session, so clearly, the document as it stands represents a wide consensus of the Catholic bishops in the United States. And yet, with more than sixty bishops issuing their own explanatory documents, there is clearly some sort of disagreement going on.

MM believes that he has it pinned:

For the first time, the bishops deliberated in open forum, and amendments and alterations could be proposed. After debate, the document was approved by all but four bishops. Pretty unanimous.

The advantages of such a process are obvious. With sufficient ownership over the document, the bishops can speak with one voice and resist sending misleading and contradictory advice to the faithful that would only serve to underline their collective authority. And yet, this seems to be happening. The fact that more than four bishops have issued their own interpretations suggests that some are not fully atuned to the responsibilities of collective ownership. For sure, every bishop has the right to to instruct his own diocese on all matters of faith and morals. But surely, on a key national question as this, they should endeavor to speak with a single credible voice? What I find particularly strange is the tendency for small groups of bishops to issue joint statements– as happened in Kansas and Texas, for example. How can we say that a document endorsed by 250 or so bishops has no weight and one endorsed by only 2 does?

MM then goes on to emphasize that the bishops are merely exercising their prudential judgement on election issues (defining prudential judgement correctly as “an application of a principle to particular facts and circumstances”) and then provides his own detailed criticisms of the guidance provided by the bishops of Dallas and Ft. Worth.

Really, though, I think MM is very much missing the boat by classifying all this activity as a “backlash” against Faithful Citizenship. Nor does it seem appropriate to classify nearly 25% of the bishops as “a small but vocal minority”. Rather than accusing the bishops of not being “fully atuned to the responsibilities of collective ownership” I think it would behoove American Catholics to ask themselves: are the bishops trying to tell us something about the document they themselves wrote?

The bishops gave us a document in which they discussed at length the way in which a Catholic with a well formed conscience should weigh all of the different concerns which we are faced with as US citizens during this election. As is appropriate for such a document (and as you can expect given that the 250 bishops involved obviously had varying judgements on the relative weight of various issues in the current political landscape) it very much focused upon the principles of how Catholics should weigh the different types of issues, and provided no judgements as to how one ought to use this intellectual framework to reach a decision. This is, I would say, just as it should be. And while the document is frankly rather longer and more involved than the average lay Catholic will have patience to read and digest, it is I think a very good document.

However, as soon as the document came out, a number of highly partisan Catholic writers (Mornings Minion very much among them) immediately set to work to make the case that the document should be taken to mean that one not only could vote for a pro-abortion politician (which given sufficient proportional reasons, one certainly may in certain circumstances) but that the document practically could have been titled, “Faithful Citizens Should Vote For Obama.”

This is not surprising, in a sense. There is a long history of Catholic membership in the Democratic Party, and despite the near complete dominance in the party of pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, pro-euthanasia and generally secularist ideologies in the last thirty years, many Catholics continue to have a great deal of affection for that party and some of its policies.

Clearly a number of the bishops believe that issues such as abortion should weigh very heavily in people’s thoughts as they consider the political landscape this year, and given that the bishops are intended to be our shepherds in faith and morals it certainly doesn’t seem appropriate to me that lay bloggers should be blasting back, “You gave us a document we can conveniently twist to mean whatever we want, now shut up and let us tell you what you meant.” Since the bishops are our pastors, the very least that we can do as laity is listen respectfully to what they say.

Those, like MM, who don’t like the political implications of what the bishops have been saying should consider that perhaps much of this outspokenness is of their own making. I know that I’ve been receiving 2-3 emails a week at my DarwinCatholic blog email address from groups such as Catholic Democrats, Catholics United and Matthew 25 Network — each email repeating claims that the moral and intellectual structure laid out in Faithful Citizenship means that I must vote for Obama. Over at Vox Nova, MM has been cranking out posts of a similar tenor.

Now it’s one thing to argue that Democratic objectives such as single payer health care and an increased minimum wage will do huge amounts to help the poorest among us, while simultaneously arguing that a McCain administration would do little to help the unborn. I disagree that such measures will actually help the poorest among us very much — I think there are much better policies that one could follow — and I think that there would actually be a huge difference in abortion policy between McCain and Obama administrations, but I can at least respect such an argument as being honestly made. However, when politically left leaning groups have cited Faithful Citizenship again and again as explicitly supporting their cause, they can hardly be surprised if many of the bishops — many of whom it seems do think that pro-abortion views should be seen as disqualifying in all but the most extreme circumstances — it should hardly surprise people if a number of bishops choose to come out and make their own judgements as to how to weight issues more explicit.

If one does not want to be chastised by the bishops, one should endeavour not to use their collective authority to support a view which many of them do not in fact hold.

UPDATE: Loyal reader Michael Iafrate points out in a somewhat bombastic post linking to this one that many of the Bishops in Deal Hudson’s list of 61 do not say “that a vote for Barack Obama is unacceptable”. I can’t make out where in his article Hudson claims that the bishops say this, and it’s certainly not what I claimed they said, but clicking through to a number of the articles I find that many of them are making the simple and obvious point that a Catholic may not be “pro-choice” nor may a Catholic support legislation which acknowledges the legality of abortion. I don’t think that changes the point of my article at all — since I was writing in response to MM delivering a tongue lashing to the bishops of Dallas and Fr. Worth — but it should be noted that a number of Hudson’s 61 bishops do not specifically mention Faithful Citizenship in their linked letters, and so can not be considered to be directly addressing the interpretation of the document itself. My apologies for any confusion caused by that.

Update2: Sed contra, Rocco Palmo (not a conservative partisan by any stretch, and generally someone who does his research) gives a figure of fifty US bishops who have “said that the most important issue for voters in the forthcoming presidential election is abortion”. He doesn’t cite his source, but given that he’s picked a more conservative number that Hudson I’ll assume that he’s done his own research, and he certainly follows episcopal politics more closely than I.

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  1. I believe the Bishop of Scranton is correct. It is my understanding that the USCCB as an entity, while a “fraternal” organization, has no teaching authority within the hierarchy of the Church and its statements, while certainly something to be looked to for guidance, are not official doctrinal statements of the Church.

  2. Spot on, as always. Their is clearly a backlash going on, but it’s not against Faithful Citizenship. The backlash we’re seeing is against Doug Kmiec, Nicolas Cafardi, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, and yes, Morning’s Minion and all their ilk.

    What a shame that they so refuse to be taught by our bishops.

  3. It is my understanding that the USCCB as an entity, while a “fraternal” organization, has no teaching authority within the hierarchy of the Church and its statements, while certainly something to be looked to for guidance, are not official doctrinal statements of the Church.

    You are wrong. The USCCB is part of the authentic magisterium but it has limited teaching authority:

    “22. In dealing with new questions and in acting so that the message of Christ enlightens and guides people’s consciences in resolving new problems arising from changes in society, the Bishops assembled in the Episcopal Conference and jointly exercizing their teaching office are well aware of the limits of their pronouncements. While being official and authentic and in communion with the Apostolic See, these pronouncements do not have the characteristics of a universal magisterium. For this reason the Bishops are to be careful to avoid interfering with the doctrinal work of the Bishops of other territories, bearing in mind the wider, even world-wide, resonance which the means of social communication give to the events of a particular region.

    Taking into account that the authentic magisterium of the Bishops, namely what they teach insofar as they are invested with the authority of Christ, must always be in communion with the Head of the College and its members,(83) when the doctrinal declarations of Episcopal Conferences are approved unanimously, they may certainly be issued in the name of the Conferences themselves, and the faithful are obliged to adhere with a sense of religious respect to that authentic magisterium of their own Bishops.”


  4. I agree with you, Michael, that people should not minimize the importance of the national bishops’ conferences.

    I do find myself a bit curious, though, from the Apostolos Suos quote, whether a document released by the USCCB as a whole is necessarily more authoritative than one issued by a single bishop or by a smaller group of bishops — assuming, of course, that both are fully in communion with pope and the wider Church.


    Ironically, not five minutes after posting this I received in my inbox yet another email from Catholic Democrats, in which they cited the USCCB letter which I posted about yesterday and then claimed that this made Obama a perfect fit for Catholics since he advocated both restricting abortion and services for mothers in crisis pregnancies. This is darkly ironic, as Obama has yet to explicitly endorse anywhere in his policy positions on his website any restrictions on abortion — and indeed oversaw a revision of the Democratic Party Platform which removed any language suggesting that abortion was something which should be avoided. Nor has he presented many concrete proposals to help women in crisis pregnancies.

    The bishops in their letter rightly called for a both and approach — which is something which those who truly value life on all sides of the political spectrum should be able to cooperate on. But using this both/and approach to advocate for a candidate who takes a neither/nor position is not only dishonest, but morally revolting.

    It is this kind of blatant mis-use of the bishops’ statements which is, quite frankly, getting rather hard to take this year.

  5. Thank you Darwin. I have been appalled by how eager some Vn contributors, Morning Minion especially, have been to attack the bishops. I read Faithful Citizenship and the position that abortion is the dominant issue is consistent with the document. It would have gone a long way to establish their credibility if more VN people had held true to the integrity of the bishops that they have so long used as a bludgeon against their opponents.

    P.S. You’ve gone a great job on here, Darwin. Keep it up!

  6. Denton,

    Who are “the” bishops that MM are “attacking”? He has criticized the handful — literally a handful! — of bishops who are interpreting FS in a narrow way. The vast majority of “the” bishops are not making these outrageous claims and do not fall under MM’s criticisms.

  7. Michael I. and Darwin,

    Bishops Conferences are certainly useful, in numerous ways. But Darwin, you are correct: a theological document issued by the bishops has no more authority in any particular diocese than does a statement from that diocese’s bishop.

    In fact, as history shows, numerous local gatherings of bishops have taught error on occasion; I don’t think we should take that fact *too* far (i.e. to constantly employ a hermeneutic of suspicion with regard to the USCCB), but it does mean that we do not give the kind of assent to conference documents that we do to something from the papal or universal magisterium.

  8. Michael,

    Chris, you don’t know what you’re talking about. There are so many problems with the assertions in your last comment, I don’t know where to start.

    Though I’m sure that Chris is quite capable of defending himself on the merits (which I shall leave him to do) I will point out as a bystander that which it might sound a bit prideful of Christ to point out himself: That he already possesses a PhD in theology.

    Degrees most certainly are not everything, but if you do not see fit to say anything other than “you don’t know what you’re talking about” to him, I am more likely to take that as a proof or your ignorance than his.

  9. Michael & DC,

    First, I have to confess… I don’t have a PhD in theology; no, I’m one of those lucky guys who gets to say that he had to go to Rome, and it took him five years, but by golly, he got his STD! 😉 (That’s Sacred Theology Doctorate… pontifical degrees have “canonical” status.)

    *Anyway*, as DC rightly notes, degrees are not everything, and I’m not going to pontificate (pun intended) from on high. But I would request, Michael, that you show me something from Lumen Gentium, Apostolos Suos or some other relevant text which indicates that episcopal conferences have more Magisterial authority in Diocese X than does Bishop N of Diocese X. Although it has been a few years since I looked into this in great depth, my recollection of the relevant texts indicates otherwise.

  10. “Chris, you don’t know what you’re talking about. There are so many problems with the assertions in your last comment, I don’t know where to start.”

    It would be nice to hear some specifics, rather than bald assertions. But since you “don’t know where to begin”, I don’t suppose any specific refutations of Chris (with his Sacred Theology Doctorate) will be forthcoming.

    My own Bishop (who also is something of an expert in theology) has offered his own clarifications of Faithful Citizenship on at least 2 occasions. In both instances, it was to provide more specificity on the Bishops’ teaching regarding the primacy of life issues, especially abortion. I value his authoritative teaching on the matter, especially considering his role as chief catechist for his diocese.

  11. To side briefly with Michael (in reparation for being pedantically rude — though if one is going to be rude I always advise that people do so pedantically since it’s more fun that way): I wouldn’t argue that any of these bishops are issuing theological statements which are in contradiction to Faithful Citizenship. Rather, they are clearly issuing their own judgments as to the gravity of the abortion issue in considering this election, and sharing those judgments with their flocks.

    Now, I think that’s entirely appropriate. Goodness knows, the bishops are in a good position to understand the gravity of the abortion issue. (And given that nearly all modern dioceses are non profits with operating budgets in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars — they’re probably also in a good position to understand how much proposed government programs will realistically change the plight of the most vulnerable.) But what they’re doing is sharing their judgments, not overturning the theology of Faithful Citizenship.

    So in that sense, it isn’t an issue of which statement is more authoritative — though so far as I know Chris is fully correct that were they both theological statements, USCCB statements would not hold any more magisterial gravity than that of an individual bishop.

  12. “But what they’re doing is sharing their judgments, not overturning the theology of Faithful Citizenship.”

    Good point, Darwin. In fact, my Bishop specifically relies on Faithful Citizenship in the (at least) two clarification statements he has issued. He is a HUGE proponent of the document (as am I).

    Nevertheless, he obviously felt the need to clarify the document’s contents for some reason. In one case, it was because a prominent “Catholic Studies” scholar at the University of Toledo had misrepresented the Church’s teaching on abortion in the pages of The Toledo Blade.

  13. I wonder what the Holy Father told Cld. George that was not appropriate to state publicly? I guess we’ll find out in November.

  14. I agree with Darwin, and that’s why, frankly, I’m somewhat hesitate to point out the *lack* of additional magisterial authority due a conference document, i.e. precisely because some people (like myself, c. 1995 or so) will be inclined to dismiss conferences completely, something which is not merited in our case. FC 2008 is a solid document, perhaps the best version of FC we’ve ever seen, and as DC notes, these bishops aren’t expressing *disagreement* with FC, but are rendering their own judgments on one particular set of issues.

  15. It’s amazing how the usual suspects cling onto a clearly fringe interpretation of the document in question.

    BTW, an individual bishop’s teaching charism does not guarantee that his own pronouncements are without error.

  16. Especially when the USCCB is NOT the magisterium.

    How can you continue to say this when I quoted a JPII document which explicitly says that episcopal conferences are PART OF THE MAGISTERIUM? Their authority does not extend to the entire Church, thus we say that it their statements are not part of the universal magisterium. This is quite obvious. A USCCB statement has no authority in France because of differing contexts. A CELAM document is not for Catholics in Australia. That doesn’t mean that insights and principles are not translatable, but that specifics cannot be translated. The USCCB’s teaching on voting in the US is meaningless in Cuba. This is what it means to say that the USCCB’s teachings are not part of the universal magisterium. But the USCCB is indeed part of the magisterium.

    It would be nice to hear some specifics, rather than bald assertions.

    Well, to get specific, Chris is throwing around very general terms like “document” and “statement,” both on the conference level and the level of Rome, carelessly when these terms can refer to all sorts of documents and various magisterial teaching with differing levels of authority. A USCCB “statement” on Iraq, for example, would have a different sort of authority than, say, a more significant pastoral letter like The Challenge of Peace. He generalizes about the relative authority of episcopal conference documents vs. documents from Rome, when the latter includes all sorts of documents, from CDF statements, minor notifications, all the way up to encyclicals, council documents, infallible formulas regarding dogma, etc. On the level of episcopal documents, he says that USCCB documents have no more authority than “statements” from the local bishop, which is nonsense because bishops can issue “statements” of all kinds, both individually and collectively, at various levels of teaching authority. It is even conceivable that a national bishop’s conference document (such as the silencing of a theologian on a national level) could have more authority than a minor notification or opinion from Rome on this or that topic, for example.

    My point is that Chris is being careless in throwing terms around, and thinking in very binary categories of local vs. Rome when discussing levels of authority, when this is simply not the case. At each level of the Magisterium, whether local or universal, there are many many levels of authority. We can’t just say that USCCB statements have no more weight than statements from individual bishops, because often they do, not because of where they come from but because of the type of documents that they are. Same goes when comparing “statements” from the universal magisterium vs. documents from more specific church bodies. It’s important to consider the type of document in question, not just where it comes from.

  17. Chris B,

    You probably know many of my ex-classmates-friends who were in training for diocesan priesthood in the erly to mid 90s, in the Pittsburgh diocese, as many of them went on to NAC, (after I left seminary).

  18. But since you “don’t know where to begin”, I don’t suppose any specific refutations of Chris (with his Sacred Theology Doctorate) will be forthcoming.

    Nice! Bludgeoning me with someone else’s degree! Thankfully Chris is a bit more modest about his own (well deserved) accomplishments than Jay is of Chris’s accomplishments!

  19. Michael,

    The heart of my comment which sparked this is:

    a theological document issued by the bishops has no more authority in any particular diocese than does a statement from that diocese’s bishop.

    If you insert “-n equivalent theological” right before statement, I think your concern about a lack of precision will be met. I certainly agree that not *every* document issued by ecclesiastical authority is equivalent, but this is a conversation about one *particular* sort of document (FC), and I was writing with that in context, not in an absolute sense.

    So, to be concrete: if Bishop N. issued a statement of the same type and level of teaching as FC, FC itself would bear no greater authority in his diocese than does his own statement.


  20. Mark,

    It’s possible… I was in Rome from ’97-’00, and got to know quite a few guys at the NAC, even though most of them went to the dreaded Greg for their theology.

  21. Michael,

    Clarification: Unless I totally missed it (and so did my browser’s find function just now) I don’t think that Chris said anything about the relative authority of “documents” or “statements” from Rome or from a national conference. The question was more about the relative authority of individual bishops’ documents vs. national conference documents — and whether it was thus inappropriate at some level for individual bishops to be issuing interpretations of Faithful Citizenship which contradict what some people want it to say.

    In contradiction to what someone said above (and in affirmation of what Michael said) the USCCB does participate in the magisterium when it teaches faith and morals in union with the universal Church. But then, so do individual bishops.

    Now, to echo Chris — I think one of the reasons it’s not a great idea to go into the relative authority question in some circles it that it tempts some people to simply ignore everything the USCCB says which would not be a good idea.

    Subject to the correction of theologians on the thread: It strikes me that the importance of national bishops conferences is not that they provide a more authoritative voice than individual bishops, but that they serve to provide guidance on issues (especially issues relating to local conditions within the Church) which for whatever reason one might not get from one’s local bishop. Thus, if one’s own bishop was not inclined or able to speak on a particular topic, one would know it was appropriate to consult any guidance put out by the national bishops conference on the issue — rather than getting into picking and choosing between other individual bishops within the region.

  22. Fortunately, some of us are blessed to live in a diocese where the Bishop is truly Catholic – I’m in the Harrisburg Diocese, where Bishop Rhoades is a stalwart defender of LIFE.

    The PA Bishops state thusly:

    “We wish to reiterate that the intentional destruction of innocent human life, as in abortion and euthanasia, is not just one issue among many.”

    I’m sure there are some bishops out there who wouldn’t be caught dead issuing such a statement. They, and their supporters like MM and VN and Catholic Democrats would rather we just looked at LIFE as another “issue”.
    This is why people groan sometimes at what emanates from the USCCB, because so often what they issue just seems to fog up the mirror.

  23. First off, the numbers are even starker than my “guesstimate”: 291 bishops voted for the document, and 4 voted against. That seems to be a pretty firm indication that the vast majority of the American episcopate support the document. And you are not paying due heed to Michael Iafrate’s debunking of Deal Hudson’s claim (by the way, if you think I am partisan, and so not to be trusted, then how do you categorize Hudson?)

    Second, yes I support Obama, just like most of the “usual suspects” at this site seem to support McCain, some eagerly, some reluctantly. I think you are profoundly wrong, and you return the feelings. And that’s fine. The Faithful Citizenship document, with is emphasis on prudence, can accomodate both sets of arguments. It was issued precisely because arguments in previous years had failed to make the necessary distinctions between formal and material cooperation in evil. It is not stricly a “voting guide” but a framework for making moral judgments pertaining to peforming one’s duties in the public sphere.

    Third, my particular problem with the Farrell-Vann letter was that they appealed to Faithful Citizenship, but then distorted some of its analysis.

  24. Two more points: the Faithful Citizenship document is not new. It is a summary of orthodox moral theology on this subject. It is a description of the underlying principles involved. As such, it is faithful to the magisterium and thus owed religious submission.

    “What a shame that they so refuse to be taught by our bishops.” How ironic coming from a guy who has a habit of denouncing bishops for being pro-abortion.

  25. MM,

    Thanks for dropping by. A couple things:

    -You’ll get no argument from me that Faithful Citizenship is a valid document, widely supported by the bishops, which is worthy of respect. Indeed, not only did I not dispute that — but contrary to your reading Deal Hudson didn’t either. To my knowledge, no one involved in this post or the ones linked to by it is claiming that Faithful Citizenship is a bad document that bishops are or should be repudiating. But I do think that some groups are attempting (inaccurately) to claim that Faithful Citizenship conclusively backs up their own political judgment. And I think a number of the bishops are rightly frustrated by this.

    -I don’t think that you shouldn’t be trusted because you’re partisan. Not really sure where you got that impression. But I do think that nearly all of your political opinions are wrong (some of them dangerously so) and since you mostly write about politics that’s why we don’t see eye to eye very often. However, there’s certainly nothing inherently untrustworthy about being politically opinionated.

    -If you think you showed that Bishop Farrell and Bishop Vann distorted Faithful Citizenship’s analysis — it seems to me that can only because your understanding of Faithful Citizenship is too tinged by your opinions.

    -I have never heard Paul denounce a bishop as being pro-abortion.

  26. So, to be concrete: if Bishop N. issued a statement of the same type and level of teaching as FC, FC itself would bear no greater authority in his diocese than does his own statement.


    Yes, of course. The important question here, though, is whether that is taking place with regard to FC and its “clarifications.”

  27. On Paul’s inflammatary rhetoric:

    “You know, as nice as it is to see Cardinal Egan’s comments, I wonder if it doesn’t just cause more harm in the long run if the effect will be to show in even sharper the relief the acquiescence to abortion of prelates like Archbishop Wuerl.”

    You know, it’s one thing to respectfully disagree with a certain bishop’s reasoning, but to accuse him of acquiescing or cooperating with evil is beyond the pale.

  28. MM,

    There is a big difference between criticizing a bishop for not denouncing pro-abortion politicians clearly enough — which is what Paul clearly says in that quote — and “denouncing bishops for being pro-abortion”. If Paul has ever accused a bishop of being “pro-abortion” that quote is certainly not an example of it.

    I can understand that you disagree with Paul, but you should not lie about him. I would hope that as Catholics and writers we could all hold ourselves to a higher standard than that. Words have meanings.

  29. The link that MM provides is from April of this year.

    The post discusses when Cardinal Egan rebuked Giuliani for receiving communion at the papal mass despite Egan having directed him not to receive until he regularized both his marriage and his stance on life. And it asks whether Wuerl will follow suit in regards to various DC pro-abortion Catholic politicians.

  30. Thanks to all for the discussion on the role of the USCCB. I am now more informed and will go look at the documents everyone mentioned.

  31. MM:

    ‘You know, it’s one thing to respectfully disagree with a certain bishop’s reasoning, but to accuse him of acquiescing or cooperating with evil is beyond the pale.’

    That’s funny; I seem to remember you accusing Archbishop Chaput of doing just that in respect to letting abortion go to the states.

  32. “exposed?” You said “that’s not what I said.” Hardly an “exposure.”

    Furthermore, you objected to me saying that you thought Chaput wasn’t really pro-life. What you cannot deny is that you said this:

    “At worst, he’s simply parroting the Republican platform. Either way, his “leave it up to the states” approach undermines authentic Catholic teaching on killing innocent life.”

    Sounds like you accused a bishop of cooperating with evil. Any more exposing you’d like to do?

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