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Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Challenging the Limitations of Church Authority over Politics

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

My In Depth Analysis (Banning Contraceptives? The Art of the Possible) occasioned two Sound Off! comments which merit further discussion. One criticizes the limitations I set on the “vocational competence” of the Pope; the other questions limitations I set on the authority of the Church to specify public policy.

1. The Pope’s Competence

TheeCassandra wrote:

You go too far here. There is no sacramental grace specific to the laity that is not available to the Pope other than marriage which has no bearing on policy making unless you also exclude single laymen. Even to suggest a “lay charism” is to say that ordination somehow sacramentally impairs the Pope's intellectual faculties. Rubbish.

This comment significantly misconstrues the point I was making, but if I confused one person, I may have confused others. I was not suggesting that Pope Benedict XIV, as the man Joseph Ratzinger, could not make a good analysis of a public policy issue, perhaps even a better analysis than some public policy experts, should he turn his attention to that task. I was simply stating the Church’s own teaching that it is not the vocation of the Pope to do this and, in fact, he would be misusing his vocation should he attempt to do so in any sort of authoritative way.

In other words: (1) God has not called popes and bishops to formulate public policy; (2) Popes and bishops have no grace of office to assist them in formulating public policy well; (3) Popes and bishops have no guarantee of being correct when they propose public policy solutions; and (4) Popes and bishops err in the exercise of their office when they propose specific public policy solutions as if they carry particular weight in the name of the Church.

The laity, on the other hand, are gifted with precisely this call from God in connection with their state in life. In the foundational document of the Second Vatican Council, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, after describing the hierarchical structure of the Church and defining the role of the clergy, the Council Fathers go on to describe the vocation of the laity:

But there are certain things which pertain in a special way to the laity, both men and women, by reason of their condition and mission…. What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature…. [T]he laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God…. The laity have the principal role in the overall fulfillment of this duty…. For it must be admitted that the temporal sphere is governed by its own principles, since it is rightly concerned with the interests of this world. [##30-36]

All of this explains why I qualified the question of clerical and lay competence with the word “vocational”. And so I wrote: “To teach infallibly that contraception is a grave evil is within the Pope’s vocational competence and not Phil’s; to formulate the best public policy for dealing with that evil is within Phil’s vocational competence, and not the Pope’s.”

This is basic Catholic doctrine. It I failed to make it clear the first time, I hope it is clear now.

2. Prescribing Government Opposition to a Moral Evil

Jmusa posted a somewhat more challenging comment:

In paragraph 2354, the CCC states “Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials.” Why are you saying that the Church would be unwise to say the same thing about contraceptives?

Here we have to be cautious in our handling of the source. Not every sentence in the Catechism is settled Catholic doctrine. In the course of attempting to summarize a large portion of Catholic teaching, the Catechism inevitably includes less certain theological explanations, pastoral advice and, sometimes, human opinions. It is a handy reference, but it cannot be used authoritatively to settle a theological dispute or to find the perfect expression of a dogma. It does not carry the authority of an encyclical or a conciliar text. It is intended as a summary and general guide. So we must allow for the possibility of occasional imprecision in the Catechism.

Still, jmusa’s citation is quite correct. At the very end of number 2354, after it has already defined pornography and stated clearly that it is a morally “grave offense”, the Catechism says: “Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials.” It would be interesting to know what prior documents this is drawn from, and exactly what is intended by this statement. For clearly it cannot be meant to prescribe a particular means of suppressing pornography in a particular culture at a particular time by a particular government, for the Church has taught repeatedly that she does not and cannot offer particular policy solutions. (See my article on this precise point, which includes citations, Shooting the Messenger: What the Church teaches about her own authority.)

On the other hand, the Church is quite capable of teaching authoritatively about the proper ends of government, for these are embodied in the natural moral law, to which the Church’s Magisterium clearly extends. Thus the Church can teach that pornography is a grave evil and that, since this evil is known from the natural law and thus a matter of natural justice, it falls within the legitimate scope of human government. The Church can also teach that this is so because government has an obligation to protect the common good, and pornography is a grave evil which harms the common good. It is clear, therefore, that pornography is an evil against which government can legitimately act.

That in itself is a huge gain in our understanding, especially in this age of dubious “rights”. We should recall again that I am parsing a text of uncertain authority from the Catechism. I have not found other specific teachings on this subject, and so I am relying on Catholic social teaching in general to parse the uncertain text. In this light, we should be able to push the Catechism’s intention just a bit further and say that every government ought to take whatever reasonable steps it can to act against this evil. We could even grant that questions of both production (which is immoral) and distribution (which is immoral) ought to be reasonably considered. Finally, I think we could grant that the Church can rightly teach that a government is remiss in its responsibility if it fails to seriously consider what it might do to mitigate the moral harm of pornography, or if it fails to take action when some prudent political remedy can be found.

But beyond that we enter into the question of what a particular government can reasonably and prudently accomplish under particular circumstances in a particular place and time. The Church cannot prescribe that government X is morally obliged to take step Y against evil Z, because the Church has no way of knowing what is possible or what will work in any specific temporal situation. Must a government completely eradicate the production and distribution of pornography no matter how much it costs? No matter how many agents must be deployed? No matter how far the freedom of the citizens must be broadly reduced to have a chance at success? No matter how debased the culture? No matter how impossible the task?

Taking this Catechism statement as a moral requirement for government to eradicate pornography in our own age might require Internet controls similar to those the Chinese government attempts to impose, which in fact are impossible to maintain, and can be enforced ultimately only through a huge network of spies and informers, and probably not even then. I am not saying nothing can or should be done, but it is clear that complete eradication might cause far more harm than it prevents. The Church cannot intend, through the text we have found in the Catechism, to prescribe this as a moral obligation.

In other words, the same series of “should” questions arises here as in the case my earlier article addressed, namely that of contraception. In discussing governmental responsibility to mitigate any moral evil, we need to keep the whole string of questions in mind—as well as the understanding that, while government might at times be the only tool we have for protecting the common good, it must never become the only tool we have for promoting the common good. At the same time, the complexity of human affairs must never become, for a Catholic layman, an excuse to do nothing.

My point is that we must be careful how we read the Church’s moral teaching on this matter. Again, we look to the Church to establish the principle, and even to hold the layman’s feet to the fire (hellfire) if he does not develop an ardent desire to live his own life and shape his culture according to the principle. But the advisability of a particular public policy in particular circumstances is another matter entirely. This advisability is something which—by the Church’s own constant and certain teaching—must be decided precisely through the “vocational competence” of the laity.

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: John J Plick - Jan. 17, 2012 10:28 PM ET USA

    Scripture supports Dr Mirus with an unlikely scenario, that is, the cruxifiction, with the "two theives..." Only they were "more" than theives, they were lestes, that is militants, insurrectionists or zealots, willing to compromise principles to acheive their ends. No doubt they knew Jesus and despised Him as a failure, hence the blasphemy and mocking...; Until the Holy Spirit got a hold of one of them and He knew then that "The Kingdom" was more than just what met the fleshly eye.