Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

The limits of episcopal expertise

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 03, 2014

It’s official: the bishops of the Philippines are not taking any official position on their country’s new military agreement with the US.

Although the statement issued by the bishops’ conference is odd—the bishops are officially taking the position that they will not take a position—there is a refreshing humility to it. The bishops explain that they are “fully cognizant of the complexity of the issues involved, including as they do issues of international law and relations, regional politics as well as the morality of the use of force and the threat of the use of force.” Among those issues, Catholic bishops can claim no expertise on international law, international relations, or regional politics. They can speak with some authority only on the questions of morality, and even there, the practical application of moral principles is often best left to the lay experts who understand all the details of various policy options. So the Filipino bishops, recognizing that they could contribute only amateurish suggestions, thought it best to remain silent. Good for them.

Contrast their statement with the latest statement from the US bishops’ conference, on carbon emissions. Do you think of bishops as experts on power plants, air pollution, carbon levels, or climate change? Neither do I.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein ends his magisterial Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by saying: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Good advice.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jun. 04, 2017 9:16 AM ET USA

    I don't want to see Francis resign. I want him to be Catholic first and Jesuit a distant last. Pray that the Holy Spirit will guide him so he can represent Christ to us correctly.

  • Posted by: JDeFauw - Jun. 03, 2017 2:40 PM ET USA

    Directing his homily at Pope Emeritus Benedict? An interesting hypothesis, but just be aware that this is highly speculative.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Jun. 03, 2017 5:59 AM ET USA

    Pope Francis always has ulterior motives, and they are never good for the faithful. It is heartbreaking.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Jun. 03, 2017 1:01 AM ET USA

    Tell ya what, Pope Francis. Since ambiguity is what it is, that is, leaving something open to interpretation, I will consider your comments in the light of the darker side of your personality and interpret them as a veiled threat to Pope Benedict; there is little other reason given to do so NOT. Of course I will also take the potential bright side of your remark and eagerly look forward to your resignation.

  • Posted by: rickt26170 - Jun. 03, 2017 12:52 AM ET USA

    Take Benedict and you'd be right - a no brainer. Benedict has refused to endorse AL and has said good things about Cardinal Sara. Bergoglio is going to think that Benedict isn't feeling "safe" anymore with his successor, and it looks like he's right. And Muller is getting backbone. Is it possible that the JPII-Benedict "empire" is striking back at a Pope that admires atheists and Euro bishops? Hope so.

  • Posted by: grateful1 - Jun. 02, 2017 8:48 PM ET USA

    An "oblique" message to BXVI? It sounded awfully direct to me.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Jun. 02, 2017 5:20 PM ET USA

    Key words: not still hanging on. Francis often speaks obliquely to the pt of incoherence, yet never w/o purpose. Since the Church doesn't have a problem of bishops hanging onto positions, it's reasonable to posit that Francis is expressing a personal fear veiled in a pseudo-rational light as "hanging on". Benedict hasn't hung on. But he has enormous authority that's totally out of this controlling pope's hands. That's the fear. If Benedict says something, Francis can't do anything & he knows it.

  • Posted by: jackbene3651 - Jun. 01, 2017 10:12 PM ET USA

    I see it as a cowardly jab and Pope Benedict. This pope is extremely thin-skinned. Remember the near panic after those posters appeared in Rome? We need more of those posters.

  • Posted by: feedback - May. 31, 2017 8:19 PM ET USA

    My bet would be on message to Benedict XVI who just expressed his support for Cardinal Sarah. And if the message was indeed addressed to Benedict, it would only mean that Card. Sarah's position was near, or on, the chopping block.

  • Posted by: DrJazz - May. 31, 2017 5:59 PM ET USA

    St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians about five years after his farewell to them. Was that a "link with his sheep that [was] not good?"

  • Posted by: shrink - May. 31, 2017 1:41 PM ET USA

    Isn't he referring to Walter Cdl Kasper? On second thought, I forget to take my medications this morning.

  • Posted by: Thomas429 - Jun. 13, 2014 1:13 AM ET USA

    Amen and Amen.