Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

A Public Strategy for Bishops

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 10, 2011

The primary responsibilities of a bishop are, of course, to teach, rule and sanctify in his diocese. Part of the teaching office, however, is to guide Catholics in their public responsibilities, to articulate the principles the laity are to keep in mind as they seek to promote the common good in the civil order. Then too, as the heads of local churches, many press the bishops to throw a certain Catholic corporate weight behind this or that public proposal, and many bishops wish to send signals to the laity when they believe certain proposed laws or policies are good or bad from the Catholic point of view.

None of this needs to be attributed to this or that bishop’s desire to be a public “player”, a man of influence and stature in the larger public order—a desire which is always a temptation. But this temptation inevitably increases the tendency of bishops to speak out on public issues, and to seek to influence legislation and public policy directly, rather than leaving the public order to well-formed laity, as (in general) they are supposed to do.

In the Western world over the past fifty or so years, most of the bishops of the Catholic Church in the West have rightly discerned the massive shift of power to the highest possible level of government (national, or in some cases international). This shift has depended in no little part on a broad cultural desire to solve problems without significant personal responsibility, a desire which many bishops (who are after all drawn from the larger culture) apparently share. When you add the temptations of “playerism” to the mix, then, we ought not to be surprised that a great many bishops have become consistent advocates for solving problems by the increasing application of national or international regulation, power and control.

But in today’s rapidly secularizing culture, almost nothing could be more inimical to the Catholic interest—or indeed to the entire common good—than a default position in favor of solving problems by increasing the responsibility and power of the highest levels of government.

There is increasing evidence that Western bishops are slowly beginning to understand this; they are even beginning to feel, perhaps, like they are slowly being hung with their own rope. In the United States, for example, the bishops reluctantly drew back from supporting the federal government’s takeover of health care because of its anti-life components. Except for a few bishops, however, their concerns left untouched the question of subsidiarity, suggesting there is still a very long way to go.

The history of the 20th century, particularly in light of Nazism and Communism, ought to have alerted everyone to the dangerous and totalitarian tendencies of States that operate in either a religious vacuum or a vacuum of strong intermediary institutions capable of standing between the individual and state power. The more recent trajectories of federal power in the United States and elsewhere, especially in the European Union, only corroborate a lesson that should have been long since learned. The point is simply this: Speaking broadly, the greatest threat to both the common good and to the Catholic Church in the decadent and declining West is the concentration of power at the highest levels of government.

For this reason, the default public posture of bishops ought not to be support of increased responsibility of national and international governments to solve problems, but support for increasing decentralization, intermediary institutions and subsidiarity.

Paradoxically, the much-maligned Catholic Campaign for Human Development in the United States actually emphasized the strengthening of local initiatives which could contribute to internal community development. But the Campaign often indiscriminately supported ideologically inimical efforts because they promised some material advantage to the community, and the Campaign coexisted uneasily with constant episcopal calls for the Federal government to undertake this or that social solution. Even in the United States, which is the least centralized of all Western nations, there has been nothing like a consistent effort in the right direction.

Nor can one fail to note the strong connections between the failure of bishops to fulfill their primary Catholic responsibilities and their frequent advocacy of increased State power. There is a danger here of politics trumping pastoral responsibility. The sex abuse scandal has brought the Church herself under the authority of government more than she had been in the past. Moreover, when one considers that over a billion dollars has gone to settle abuse claims in the United States alone, one can only wonder how well that money could have been spent in promoting and developing subsidiary solutions to social needs.

In any case, the default public position of bishops ought to be that national and international control seldom works well as the primary means of addressing social problems, and that local governments, churches and other intermediary organizations ought instead to be strengthened to address social needs—and not by receiving national grants, which simply lets the highest level of government call the tune. Then the bishops should ensure that their local churches roll up their sleeves and do what they can to interact with and assist real people with real problems, and to help put in place and strengthen the local organizations necessary to get each job done.

Local initiative and intermediary institutions are key components of a vibrant culture and essential to the common good. They also protect and enhance the role of churches, and therefore of religion and Catholicism itself. To forge an effective public strategy, the default position of bishops must be to favor subsidiarity.

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.

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: impossible - Mar. 13, 2011 10:44 PM ET USA

    Excellent article. Thank you very much.

  • Posted by: jimtotter - Mar. 11, 2011 1:14 PM ET USA

    " Even in the United States, which is the least centralized of all Western nations, there has been nothing like a consistent effort in the right direction." Was the pun intended? If so, BRILLANT!

  • Posted by: - Mar. 11, 2011 6:38 AM ET USA

    Adding a little specificity to this: I am a 3rd degree Knight and I know for a fact that there're numerous other vibrant Catholic organizations about the US. If the bishops want to have an impact, why not ask us to jump in? John Paul II recognized the energy and passion that we all have some 20 years ago. Why not use it?

  • Posted by: - Mar. 10, 2011 6:03 PM ET USA

    Well put!