Action Alert!

The noise-to-signal ratio at the USCCB

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 07, 2012

During the past several weeks the US bishops have been engaged in a critical political battle over the HHS contraceptive mandate, and the USCCB has issued a series of strong statements on that subject. Good.

During those same weeks, however, the USCCB has also issued statements on tax cuts and unemployment benefits, the consumer bill of rights, US policy in the Middle East, nuclear weapons, and now agricultural policy. Here I am including only statements released by the episcopal conference. Individual bishops have added their own opinions on public-policy matters ranging from immigration to climate change.

It is not obvious why the bishops feel obliged to speak on all those subjects. Is there a clear “Catholic” position on agricultural policy? No. Are American Catholics united in their views on agricultural policy? No. Do bishops have any special teaching authority regarding agricultural policy? Again, no.

But because the USCCB keeps cranking out policy recommendations, politicians can tune in and tune out, listening to the bishops whenever it suits their own partisan interests. A legislator can tell his bishop: “I might have disappointed you on the contraception mandate, but remember, I was with you on unemployment benefits and on the consumer’s bill of rights. So I was with you more often than I was against you.”

The bishops’ Faithful Citizenship guidelines compound the problem by encouraging both politicians and voters to consider a broad range of issues—some absolutely critical, others relatively minor; some clear moral imperatives, others questions of prudential judgment. Someone who reads the bishops’ statements carefully, honestly looking for guidance, will recognize that some questions take precedence. But someone who has already made up his mind, and combs through Faithful Citizenship looking for ways to justify his decisions, can easily pluck out quotations to cite in defense of his choices.

By speaking so often, on such a wide variety of public issues, the American bishops are watering down their own teaching authority. If they issued public statements less frequently, and confined themselves to important issues on which they could speak with clarity and authority, they would have far more impact. Toward that end, I have two suggestions:

  1. On important moral questions, when the teaching of the Catholic Church is clear, a statement prepared by the USCCB should be stamped with a message that reads:
    On this issue, Catholic bishops speak with authority, and the faithful are bound in conscience to follow the guidance that follows.
  2. If a statement prepared by the USCCB staff does not qualify for that authoritative stamp, it should not be released.

Update: It seems that I wrote too quickly. As soon as I pointed out that the USCCB issues opinions on too many debatable political issues, a new USCCB statement appeared to give us the bishops’ perspectives on the federal budget, taxation, deficits, welfare, defense spending, housing assistance, foreign aid, job training, tax credits, Pell grants, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Oh, yes, and school choice, which is an issue on which the Church has a clear and distinctive teaching. But most lawmakers probably won't even notice the bishops' comments on the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, because they'll be too busy plowing through the rest of the rhetoric. So another opportunity to make a precise point, on an issue the USCCB could possibly affect, was sacrificed for the sake of a prolix catch-all approach.



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.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: rickt26170 - Mar. 11, 2017 8:11 PM ET USA

    Wuerl of all the American cardinals has become the master at what is now the new definition of casuistry - what we used to call sophistry or double speak.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Mar. 09, 2017 5:10 AM ET USA

    The eloquent Cardinal need only concern himself with one "medieval ornament". "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a GREAT MILLSTONE fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea...woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!" (Mt 18:6-7)

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Mar. 08, 2017 2:36 PM ET USA

    The lack of courage and the fear that they are not seen as PC among many in the hierarchy is very troubling. I have to say that I began to dislike Cardinal Wuerl when he made a statement praising Nancy Pelosi for her great work in favor of the poor and the disadvantaged. I could not believe that he could have this praise for a Catholic who is also an abortion supporter, as if the unborn are not among the poorest of the poor.

  • Posted by: iprayiam5731 - Mar. 08, 2017 1:25 PM ET USA

    I'd be far more willing to listen to those who claim that AL isn't a change in teaching, if they admitted there were people on their side of the divide who were clearly treating it as such at leat in praxis. When they deny the existence of abuses, it is an endorsement of that praxis, and evidence that they clearly do endorse a change in teaching, and empty rhetoric to the contrary is just that: empty rhetoric

  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 08, 2017 1:10 PM ET USA

    "A very small number of people have challenged the integrity of Pope Francis' AL." My three-point reply: 1. Numbers never decide about the Faith, 2. Sinceall Popes are expected to "confirm their brethren in Faith," and not to undermine it, Catholics are not used to "challenge" their teachings, 3. The weakness of Amoris Laetitia is in its lack of clarity. Once the document is clarified, we can proceed on to estimate its integrity: whether it breaks away from the Magisterium of the Church or not.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Mar. 08, 2017 11:20 AM ET USA

    "Very small number of people." This is obviously a question of scale. In physics, for example, we deal with the "very small" in quantum mechanics, the "common dimension" in Newtonian mechanics, and the "very large" in relativistic mechanics. For comparison, the number of cardinals in the Church is "very small" compared with the total number of Catholics. So too for the number of bishops, priests, et al. If only a "very small" number are equipped to deal with the issue, then these are significant

  • Posted by: - Mar. 10, 2012 9:09 AM ET USA

    Phil, so glad you wrote on this. I'm so angry with that group for what I see as their "meddling" in these matters, trying to tell me what's what. I don't even read them; really, how dare they think they can issue a directive on every issue and be taken seriously by us Catholics. Go pray the Rosary and read the Bible, you guys, and most of all: Be silent.

  • Posted by: owlreal - Mar. 09, 2012 10:12 PM ET USA

    We should all worry when all the comments are in agreement with Phil. Not because he is necessarily wrong but because without some push back there is not exploration. Seriously, are we all so clear on what Bishops can or can not do? Are we that much smarter than all the Bishops? Or is it simply that when we agree with the Bishops they were right and when we disagree....

  • Posted by: Bellarminite1 - Mar. 08, 2012 3:34 PM ET USA

    Perhaps the various committees, commissions, staffers and so on at the USCCB are much like those in Congress who issue statements and/or sponsor and pass laws just to make it look like they're doing something, justifying their existence.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Mar. 08, 2012 3:11 PM ET USA

    "Is there any mechanism to move the ball forward and change this?" T be quite blunt, we need a formal effective mechanism for the recall of Bishops. Sr Paul provided for this when he spoke to Timothy regarding "entertaining a complaint against an elder." In the past ages of the Church the laity collectively had much more influence in the making and unmaking of a Bishop. They (the bishops) are SUPPOSED TO BE "our servants." And out of the Book of Malachi "If I am 'Master,' where is the fear?"

  • Posted by: mdepietro - Mar. 08, 2012 12:33 PM ET USA

    Mr. Lawler's thoughts would probably be unanimously endorsed by Catholic Culture.Org supporters. I certainly agree with everything said. The real question is how to effect some real change. The problem described has been an issue for decades. Is there any mechanism to move the ball forward and change this? Are there any Bishops who would be supportive? Which ones? IS there anything the concerned layman can do, or do we merely have to tolerate this? What is the solution?

  • Posted by: the.dymeks9646 - Mar. 08, 2012 9:15 AM ET USA

    My feelings and thoughts exactly! George Weigel wrote a good article at NRO today that proves this point. For the first time in 28 years at his parish, a homily was applauded - why?, because it touched on core principles that are harmonious with our nature. These "teachings" are weights around our spirits.

  • Posted by: filioque - Mar. 07, 2012 10:23 PM ET USA

    The USCCB has NO teaching authority. Only individual bishops have teaching authority. They can issue a joint statement, but the authority of the statement derives only from the authority of the individual bishops. I completely agree with Phil Lawler. The bishops should either speak with authority or keep quiet. De-staff the USCCB.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Mar. 07, 2012 1:22 PM ET USA

    Someone, please explain to me exactly what ecclesiastical authority the USCCB possesses that the individual bishops do not.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 07, 2012 12:41 PM ET USA

    The USCCB like a person who yells at the top of their lungs all hours of the day about all sorts of business only to be indignant when their warnings about the house being on fire go unnoticed or ignorned.

  • Posted by: miked.doc6394 - Mar. 07, 2012 12:16 PM ET USA

    This is an excellent suggestion. Does anyone know if any bishop has commented on this or a simular suggestion?

  • Posted by: - Mar. 07, 2012 11:01 AM ET USA

    Reduce the bloated USCCB staff. Too many folks with time on their hands generate the distracting fodder.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 07, 2012 10:33 AM ET USA

    Absolutely correct, the bishops would be wise to focus on the major issues of their competence rather than have a pick and choose position on every subject for the politicians to work around. The first thought I had when they wrote about nuclear weapons was more along the lines of is this appeasing the Obama administration in a deal of sorts? I hope not.