Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Bishops Take Small Steps Toward Restoring Political Credibility

Memorial of St. Cecilia

Catholic Culture's Jeff Mirus recently blasted the USCCB:

Three controversial issues surfaced at the U.S. bishops' November meeting in Washington: the death penalty, the rejection of Church teaching by Catholic politicians, and liturgical translations. All three are important; one would also think they are fairly straightforward. Yet the bishops clearly have no clue how to handle any of them, apparently because they don't understand their own identity.
Perhaps. Consider that possibility, as Acton's Kevin Schmiesing assesses rightly their death penalty statement:

I’m sympathetic to the thrust of the statement and to many of its claims. The statement makes its case firmly, yet invites dialogue and debate. It adverts to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, accurately reflecting the Church’s teaching on the matter. It makes compelling arguments against the death penalty on theological and pragmatic grounds, stopping short of claiming that Catholic theology absolutely forbids it.

Still, some of the statement’s language is problematic, reflecting, at the least, carelessness, and possibly, bad reasoning. I’d guess that the root of the problem is a willingness to take up the slogans of secular politics rather than to draw more rigorously on the sources of Christian theology. It reminds me of the USCCB’s old statements on the economy, when terms such as “social justice” were used without clear reference to the Church’s social teaching as opposed to the parlance of American politics.

Here’s one example from the death penalty statement:

It is time for our nation to abandon the illusion that we can protect life by taking life.

I mean no disrespect to the authors of the statement, but that sentence does not qualify as sound theological reflection on political matters. To accept its claim is to undermine any possible justification for self-defense, just warfare, etc. It is perfectly consistent with Christian moral theology to assert the contrary: Sometimes the protection of life requires the taking of life.

Karl Keating also noted in the Nov. 22 issue of his weekly e-letter that the American bishops have had a tendency to step on the toes of the laity, despite talk about "empowerment" of the latter. A prime example is the 1986 pastoral letter on the economy, "which went beyond a restatement of the Church's social teachings as given in papal encyclicals. That document plumped for particular economic policies about which Catholics were free to disagree and about which the bishops had no particular expertise."

He goes on to write:

The more often our bishops issue statements that reflect their private preferences but not the binding teaching of the Church, the more they will be ignored. The more they are ignored, the less attention will be paid to them when they do issue statements about non-negotiable issues.
But I think all is not lost. I have generally welcomed an episcopal presence in political debate, not for what it is (as evidenced by my response to Archbishop Flynn's dabbling in state tax policy), but rather what it could be. NC Reporter's Joe Feuerherd captured what may be the most remarkable result of the conference:

Of the 10 items up for debate and vote at the truncated public sessions of the Nov. 14-17 annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, eight dealt with intrachurch issues. Among the topics: the $131 million budget for the bishops’ national conference, a new lectionary for children’s Masses, the role of lay ecclesial ministers, and guidelines for the treatment of retired bishops.

Just two items addressed broader concerns: a statement reiterating the bishops’ opposition to the death penalty and a resolution of support for a day of “remembrance and prayer for mariners and people of the sea.” Both won hearty endorsement.

The low-key approach to the bishops’ gatherings -- limiting their collective statements on hot-button issues with political overtones and restricting public access to their deliberations -- is part of an evolving strategy likely to be even more pronounced in years to come. Numerous bishops have indicated a desire to hold more meetings outside public view. And a strategic planning document drafted by a committee chaired by Pittsburg Bishop Donald Wuerl called for the body to “focus on a more limited range of responsibilities and activities in the future.”

“A lot of the bishops are tired of statements and they question their utility and therefore we’re going to have fewer statements and probably have shorter meetings,” Cincinnati Bishop Daniel Pilarczyk, a former president of the conference, told NCR. ...

Under the broad outlines of the strategic plan, more of the work currently conducted by the bishops collectively and by their Washington-based staff will take place at regional and diocesan levels. ...
While only time will tell whether this strategy will bear fruit, a more judicious use of conference statements provides an opportunity to bring more clarity and more force to our informed political debates.

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