Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Catholic Action for Social Change

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 16, 2012

It is the proper right and duty of lay Catholics to take the lead in transforming the social order according to Christian values. As a general rule, it is the role of bishops to nourish and form the laity spiritually and to teach the moral principles which ought to guide the laity in their broader political, social and economic tasks. There are many different ways to orchestrate our temporal affairs, including many different ways to arrange them in keeping with Catholic principles such as solidarity, subsidiarity and the universal destination of goods.

This is why Phil Lawler and myself have repeatedly criticized bishops when they concentrate on developing, opposing, and supporting specific policies—about which good Catholics can easily disagree—instead of emphasizing the principles which must guide policy-making in general—which good Catholics are bound to acknowledge. As I pointed out recently (see Shooting the Messenger: What the Church teaches about her own authority), the Magisterium of the Church has repeatedly taught that the Church cannot provide specific, concrete solutions to social problems; therefore one wonders why episcopal conferences around the world spend so much time studying and issuing statements on precisely these sorts of problems and solutions.

Things are different, of course, when a particular course of action is intrinsically immoral (such as the facilitation of abortion, contraception, sterilization, embryonic research, in vitro fertilization, gay “marriage”, and so on). Here the condemnation of a particular policy is tantamount to restating the moral principle. Moreover, there are some political and economic policies which directly impact ecclesiastical institutions, and the Bishops obviously are well-qualified to protest or endorse specific proposals which have significant impact on the institutions and organizations they themselves control.

This is why there has been no reason to criticize the American bishops for taking the lead in opposing the Obama Administration’s HHS mandate. Nonetheless, an important opportunity will be missed if such leadership is exclusively ecclesiastical. Insofar as only bishops are seen to oppose the Mandate, on behalf of both the moral law and their own institutional interests, it becomes easier to dismiss episcopal concerns as irrelevant to the vast majority of Catholics, or indeed other citizens who care about the natural law, religious liberty or equitable public policy.

The truth is that the HHS mandate is an attack on the moral integrity of every employer who objects to any of the following: (a) Abortion, sterilization and contraception; (b) Government imposition of morality (which includes the attack on religious liberty and freedom of conscience); or (c) forcing everyone to pay for procedures which are neither necessary nor conducive to good health. Therefore, there ought to be scores—even hundreds—of companies led by owners who find the HHS mandate repugnant and are willing to protest or file suit against it.

This is why it is such good news that Frank O’Brien, a business owner in Missouri, is challenging the Mandate in court (see Catholic layman, business owner files suit against HHS mandate). O’Brien’s action ought to spark innumerable imitators, and not just among Catholics. Nothing would be more effective in fighting this battle than for the actions of the laity to dwarf those of the episcopate when it comes to strategic efforts to roll back this assault on authentic morality, liberty, health care, and religion.

Though this is not an area in which the bishops have encroached on the prerogatives of the laity in working out the details of social policy, it is still a social fight in which lay persons should, by virtue of their own special vocation, play a leading role. But while we are considering the possibility of episcopal encroachment, it may be worth noting that in some cases the encroachment can operate in the other direction. Thus the laity themselves can encroach on the prerogatives of the bishops when they advocate intrinsically evil policies which clearly violate the Church’s teachings. In doing so they undermine or deny the role of the episcopate in providing certain guidance on moral principles.

The laity could also encroach on the prerogatives of the episcopate, and of the institutional Church herself, by attempting to use the Church for political purposes, however noble those purposes might be. A recent case in Cuba serves as a demonstration of an abuse that we in the West seldom have the unhappy opportunity to witness. A group of protestors occupied a parish Church in Havana, intending to “force” Pope Benedict to present their grievances to the Cuban government when he visits Cuba later this month. (See Cuba: police remove protesters who occupied parish.)

It is difficult to conceive of a more noble political objective than for Catholic lay persons to present their grievances to a Cuban regime which is only slowly becoming less hateful than it was under Fidel. And yet it is clearly wrong for the laity to attempt to wrest control of ecclesiastical property for political purposes and, in fact, this is actually an attack on the integrity and mission of the Church herself—no matter how right the intended purpose is, or how otherwise compatible it may be with Catholic social principles.

Catholic lay persons occupy a special territory in human affairs. They are sons and daughters of the Church but also fully immersed in the temporal affairs of the regions in which they live. This provides the key to the correct way to effect an authentically Catholic social transformation: It is for bishops to teach as Churchmen and for the laity to act, not as Churchmen, but as Catholic members of the larger community, as the leaven which makes the whole loaf rise.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: impossible - Mar. 17, 2012 11:39 PM ET USA

    Thanks Jeff for your courageous efforts to publish truth. When it comes to commentaries on social justice teachings, the term, "cafeteria Catholic" seems applicable to many of our leaders and commentators. They pick and choose and emphasize those parts of encyclicals that advance their progressivist/liberal - dare I say Marxist - agendas.