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the bishops as policy analysts

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 18, 2009

What makes Catholic bishops think that they are experts on health care?

That question has been asked frequently in recent weeks, mostly by critics of the bishops' efforts to ensure that the health-care reform legislation will not include subsidies for abortion. That portion of the bishops' effort, at least-- the effort to protect innocent lives from destruction, and to protect the conscience rights of people who do not want to subsidize the killing of the innocent-- is clearly within the purview of the bishops as teachers and moral leaders.

But apart from the abortion issue-- and despite legitimate moral concerns about the legislation's approach to sterilization, contraception, embryo research, in vitro fertilization, and other issues-- the US bishops have been enthusiastic in their support for the drive toward health-care reform. It is understandable that the Catholic hierarchy would endorse, as a general principle, the goal of providing adequate health care for all citizens. But the question remains: What makes the bishops think that they have the expertise necessary to judge the proposals for reform?

Cardinal Francis George addressed that question in his presidential address to the USCCB meeting this week.

“In the national discussion on how to provide the best kind of health care, we bishops do not claim or present ourselves as experts on health care policy,” Cardinal George added. “We are not prepared to assess every provision of legislation as complex as this proposal."

Good. Realistic. The cardinal recognizes that bishops are not qualified to analyze the myriad implications-- medical, economic, social, bureaucratic-- of this sweeping legislation. But wait. The cardinal is still talking. He goes on:

"However, health care legislation, with all of its political, technical and economic aspects, is about human beings and hence has serious moral dimensions.”

Notice what has happened here. Cardinal George acknowledged that bishops have the authority to speak on moral issues, not on political, economic, and other technical issues. Where does one draw the line? His text indicates that a public issue is a moral issue, and therefore fair game for the bishops' involvement, if it is "about human beings." Since it is difficult to imagine any political issue that would not be "about human beings," the test offered by Cardinal George would justify episcopal involvement in every political debate.

That won't do. The bishops' authority extends to matters of faith and morals. They are qualified to speak-- indeed obligated to speak-- on matters of clear moral principle. Having set down those principles, the bishops should leave the practical application to those who have a special competence in that realm. The Catholic laity, not the hierarchy, is charged with the responsibility of applying Christian principle to the practical arrangements of social and political life. 

There are times when the moral principle is so clear, and the intermediate steps from principle to legislative application are so short, that the bishops cannot help but be involved. For example, to say that the deliberate killing of the innocent is always gravely wrong is to say that abortion should be illegal, and all honest Christians should join in the effort to make it so. The bishops are well within their own proper sphere when they speak out against any effort to promote abortion.

There are other issues, however, on which it is not so easy to define the proper application of moral principle to concrete practice. Should all citizens have access to adequate health care? Yes. On that much we all agree. But how can that best be arranged? To that question, a thousand faithful Catholics might offer a thousand different answers. Some answers may be better than others, and certainly there are moral issues involved. But Catholic bishops, qua bishops, have no special authority or expertise in this field. 

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