Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Lay Catholic social action: The bishops must have our backs.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 26, 2020

A family member texted me on Wednesday to suggest that Bishop Robert Barron’s response to an important question had been inadequate. As Catholics decried the toppling of the statues of St. Junipero Serra in several California locations, Bishop Barron noticed that many wanted to know what the bishops were going to do about it. He responded that this is the wrong question because (citing Vatican II) it is the province of the laity to engage directly with the larger secular world.

Therefore, Bishop Barron argued, lay people should be asking what they themselves are going to do about it. This is certainly true, but my texter interpreted it as a typical episcopal evasion of yet another culturally-sensitive question. It is fine to tell the laity they need to take greater responsibility for engagement with the world; that position is unarguable. The problem is the pervasive sense among the laity that the bishops will seldom support and encourage them when they do this—unless, of course, they take a position that the Conference of Catholic Bishops has already specifically endorsed.

The laity frequently sense that they are far more likely to be rebuked by their bishops if they defend Catholic faith, morals, ideas and action in ways that generate controversy. In other words, the laity run the perpetual risk of being considered “uncharitable” if they do not strike the typically extremely cautious episcopal tone of voice, which so often seeks above all (a) to adopt positions that will be seen as reasonable by the dominant culture; (b) to express them with numerous caveats to lessen the impact; and (c) to leave out anything foreseen to be controversial with Those Who Matter.


There are two ways to illustrate this problem. I could talk about all the fixed moral issues that most bishops fail to address vigorously or frequently at all, especially the sexual issues on which the world is directly and irrevocably at odds with the Church, to the point of condemning and shutting out anyone who disagrees with the dominant culture. In most places, you will not even hear the moral and spiritual aspects of these issues addressed from the pulpit.

Alternatively, I could talk about prudential issues on which the bishops often stake out arguable but one-sided positions that align nicely with the attitudes of the dominant culture, leaving only “the deplorables” behind—an issue like the best way to deal with immigration, for example, or the best way to combat racism. Here, for example, the bishops typically endorse as good policy anything that purports to help the disadvantaged (after all, the default Catholic position ought to be to help somehow—the question is “how?”). Since we are talking about bishops here, the result is that Catholics who regard any such proposal as harmful to the common good are often perceived as morally suspect.

I am over-simplifying somewhat, but I suspect most readers will see what I am getting at. I am not even saying that the bishops consistently or usually endorse foolish and damaging policies. What I am saying here is that, at least in the West and certainly in the United States, the most seriously committed Catholic laity—those who accept everything the Church teaches and are willing to sacrifice considerably to maintain and promote it—sense very clearly that they are not really encouraged by their bishops to engage the social order according to their own application of Catholic principles. In fact, they expect to be rebuked or undermined just as soon as they give any offense at all to the dominant culture, even inadvertently.

The bishops must take responsibility for a two-part solution to this problem:

Solution 1: DO NOT fall into the category mistake which afflicts social action today.

There is a gigantic category mistake which plagues contemporary thought when it comes to social commentary and social judgment. That category mistake is to act as if questions of faith and morals are merely prudential and relative, whereas questions of social policy are absolute and binding in conscience. Even bishops seem to fall into this error with some frequency, in that they so often insist on the categorical rightness or wrongness of various economic, social, political or legal policies, while at the same time temporizing or maintaining silence on matters of faith and morals, and on the intrinsically evil policies which directly violate the natural moral law.

In addition to insisting that the reality is quite the opposite—that faith and morals are always absolute and social policies are more generally prudential and relative—the first part of the solution is that Catholic bishops must recognize it is rarely their business to take prudential positions on complex public issues. As evidence, let us read the same passage in Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution of the Church cited by Bishop Barron:

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. [#31]

Is it not very odd indeed that, following the promulgation of this document in 1964, bishops around the world rapidly moved to establish national committees and offices, controlled by themselves, with the task of proposing policies to address social issues? Nothing is more foreign to what the Second Vatican Council prescribed in its central dogmatic constitution, for it is precisely this larger socio-political action which is the province of the laity. The bishops at once deflect their own responsibility and incorrectly restrict the sphere of lay responsibility by making this mistake over and over and over again.

Solution 2: DO teach the moral principles within which authentic prudence must function.

In contrast to the laity, bishops are to teach, rule and sanctify in the Church. (You can read about their role in the same document.) With respect to the social order, their job is to make men holy while teaching all the members of the Church the spiritual and moral principles within the bounds of which prudential policies must be formed. Bishops will generally be completely unsuited by training and experience to make social policy, and their efforts to do so will in any case only be interpreted as partisan. Since there is no official Catholic position on prudential arrangements, bishops squander both their authority and their credibility—and with it the trust of the laity—when they fail to confine themselves to their God-given role in the constitution of the Church.

In the social order, these moral principles which the bishops must teach are all practically applied in accordance with the demands of the common good. For example, human persons have a general right to migrate from one place to another but such movement is always subject to the demands of the common good of the community of reference. Catholics, therefore, are to be as generous as possible in “welcoming the stranger” without significantly damaging the common good. The laity must look long and hard at what really threatens the common good, in order to devise practical yet creative policies that work toward good ends without collateral damage to the community as a whole.

Part of this process involves raising tough questions “outside the box”, so to speak. In this case, is it the acceptance of more immigrants in itself that damages the common good, or is it the tremendous expense of social policies which encourage dependence on the State—policies which may not only reduce our ability to welcome immigrants but also undermine the common good by fostering a totalitarian vision, and diminishing freedom, self-reliance and personal initiative? There are no perfect solutions but, for example, might we not by now rethink the immense costs and the results of public education? These are difficult questions, to be sure, but they cannot be settled by clerics. They are the province of the laity.

Nearly all social policy questions fall into this range of prudence operating with a compass set in accordance with the moral laws revealed by God through nature and Revelation, for both of which the Church serves as custodian. Religious liberty? All have a right to freedom in seeking God within the limits set by the common good. Environmentalism? We are bound by natural and Divine Law to be good stewards of God’s gifts in accordance with the common good. Personal immorality of various kinds? The Church can teach us the difference between right and wrong and the law of charity, but what behaviors are to be guaranteed, or allowed, or punished in law must be prudentially determined through a practical assessment of the common good.


Bishop Barron has done more than many to acquaint Catholics and others with the beauty and attractiveness of Christ and the Church. He is also right to emphasize lay responsibility for addressing social issues. Surely, we are not to wait for bishop X or Y to recommend a solution to social problems; we are to address them with vigorous prudence within the parameters set by the absolute truths we know from God and nature, most reliably through the Church herself. But the family member who texted me raised an important point.

Our bishops need not only to cease staking out prudential positions on one social issue after another. Merely stepping away is not quite enough. They must also exercise vigorously two of their central responsibilities. First, they must teach Christ’s truth to the laity without shaving it to fit the perceptions of the dominant culture. Second, when we as lay faithful engage the issues according to the best prudential decisions we can make, the bishops must encourage us in Christ. Given positions within the just parameters of Catholic truth, they must not decry our decisions and actions as soon as we contradict their personal preferences or ruffle the feathers of the dominant culture.

The bishops must follow here, not lead. As my texter put it, “The bishops must have our backs.”

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: winnie - Jul. 02, 2020 11:07 AM ET USA

    Auguste Meyrat at Crisis has another great analysis/response to Bishop Barron telling us what we have already known for years. We are on our own!

  • Posted by: steve.grist2587 - Jun. 30, 2020 11:26 AM ET USA

    "The bishops must follow here, not lead." All they do is follow - follow the culture (see sexual/financial scandals), follow civil authorities (see Covid church closings). Although they know how to lead (see Bishop's Lenten Appeal). Sadly, the Bishops have authority but they are terrified to use it. "Exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you." Titus 2:1-15. Instead, they leisurely watch while the casualties in the culture war continue to mount. May God Help Them.

  • Posted by: Montserrat - Jun. 29, 2020 2:14 PM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus, You may not like it, but you are, to a large extent, in agreement with Dr. Taylor Marshall on this issue. He's direct, up-front, and to the point. You take a kinder, gentler approach. But it seems you're both on the same page. I hope this leads to an amelioration in your relationship, considering your review of Dr. Marshall's book Infiltration.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jun. 29, 2020 3:00 AM ET USA

    During the last few decades there seems to have developed a conflict between the individual and the collective. For example, individual morality in the area of sexual conduct, priority given to the sin of abortion, and strict obedience to every one of Christ's perfections (i.e., "fulfillments") of the revealed law of God; these personal standards of conduct have been de-emphasized, while collective responses by "the people of God" to societal ills are promoted as the new "true religion".

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jun. 28, 2020 12:52 PM ET USA

    Two clarifications:

    wacondaseets4507 My point was that bishops should not be recommending particular policies or approaches to social issues; they should be teaching faith and morals and encouraging the laity in advocating prudential solutions. Instead, they typically disavow lay action as soon as it ruffles feathers or disagrees with their own prudential positions.

    bkmajer3729: Please reread paragraphs 2 and 3, where I make the issue I am addressing very clear. No ghosts, I assure you.

  • Posted by: wacondaseeds4507 - Jun. 27, 2020 11:23 PM ET USA

    It is not clear to me how you expect the bishops to act in regard to lay initiatives involving prudential decisions. Maybe they, as individuals, don't agree with the tactics employed. One cannot speak for all, so they may disagree in how to respond. In this regard, Bishop Barron sometimes (e.g., in the case of his open letter on sexual abuse initiatives) emphasizes that he speaks for himself, not the NCCB. He should be commended for speaking so eloquently, and often forcefully, on social issues.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Jun. 27, 2020 9:03 AM ET USA

    Jeff, started off asking what the Bishops were going to DO about it. You argued they need to encourage laity in taking action to sustain & promote Catholic Faith. But answer given by Bishop B responds to the DO. Seems like he’s putting this back in the Laity’s lap where it belongs. How does this decry our action or contradict their personal preference? Seems he’s doing what you argue: promote self reliance and personal initiative. Find a better example for this point. Seeing ghosts here.

  • Posted by: fatheratchley - Jun. 26, 2020 8:03 PM ET USA

    The points Dr. Mirus makes here ring true like crystal.

  • Posted by: grateful1 - Jun. 26, 2020 7:48 PM ET USA

    Bishop Barron's response was worse than inadequate--it was disingenuous. He was asked what bishops planned to do in response to the desecration of religious statues. He didn't like that question, so he chose one he was more comfortable answering. That's nothing less than insulting, and--unfortunately--it's increasingly typical of him and his hierarchical colleagues. While there's much to admire about this gifted communicator, in recent years he's become as much a pol as he is a priest.

  • Posted by: fatheratchley - Jun. 26, 2020 7:29 PM ET USA

    Publication of this thought is long overdue.