Action Alert!

A statement the Tennessee bishops shouldn’t have made

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 06, 2019

The Catholic bishops of Tennessee have recommended against support for a “Heartbeat Bill,” on prudential grounds. The bishops may be right in their political judgment. But even if they are, they had no business issuing their statement.

In that statement, the bishops make it quite clear that they are in sympathy with the sponsors of the legislation: that they “wholeheartedly support” the intention of the “Heartbeat Bill.” Their concern is based purely on political tactics. In other states, the bishops note, “Heartbeat” legislation has been passed, enacted, and then overturned by the courts, leaving the pro-life cause worse off than before the bill was introduced. Therfore, they reason:

Given the field of legal realities that we must consider, we believe it would not be prudent to support the “Heartbeat Bill” knowing the certainty of its overturning when challenged, in addition to the court ordered fees that would be paid to the pro-abortion plaintiffs. Instances like these remind us that we must be prudent and support other pro-life pieces of pro-life legislation that stand a better chance of being upheld in the courts and, possibly, become the vehicle that forces the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe once and for all.

In putting forward this argument, the Tennessee bishops are obviously not making a point based on fundamental Catholic doctrine or Church moral teaching. They are making a purely political argument. And bishops—how many times do we have to remind them?—have no special authority to make prudential political judgements.

Again, the bishops’ political judgment might be right. Then again, your political judgment might be right, or my political judgment might be right. Or maybe all of us—you and I and the bishops—will be proven wrong. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion. In Tennessee and every other American state, there are lay Catholics will both experience and expertise in politics. It would behoove pro-life activists—and Catholic bishops—to listen to their advice. But no one has the right to claim—or even to imply—that his political prognostications carry the weight of Church authority.

Bishops speak with authority when they speak on matters of faith and morals. Questions of political tactics fall within the proper sphere of the laity. When bishops trespass in that territory, they generally make mistakes—as the Tennessee bishops have done in this case.

It may be true that the Tennessee “Heartbeat Bill” would be overturned in court. But isn’t it possible that this bill would be better crafted, that it could survive a constitutional challenge, that it might even furnish the case that finally undermines the disastrous legal precedents set in the Roe and Doe decisions? We cannot be certain. Neither can the bishops.

But we can be certain that as the debate continues in Tennessee, supporters of legal abortion will draw comfort from the bishops’ public statement, using it to suggest that that legislation is “so extreme that even the bishops oppose it.” We can be equally certain that Catholics involved in the pro-life movement feel betrayed by the bishops’ public recommendation against their favored bill, and non-Catholics in the pro-life movement will question whether they can count on Catholics as reliable allies. The bishops fear that the passage of the “Heartbeat Bill” could ultimately harm the pro-life movement. Maybe so. But the bishops’ opposition has already caused some serious harm.

Please, bishops, do the work that is set out for you: ensuring that the faithful have access to the sacraments and to sound Catholic teaching. Don’t try to set yourselves up as political analysts. It’s not your role; it’s not your charism; it’s not your strong suit. We need your pastoral leadership. We don’t need your political 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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: [email protected] - Mar. 10, 2019 12:55 AM ET USA

    These bishops are but a small example of preaching political statements with the hat of the Church instead of opinion. We see this with the nonsense ongoing about climate change and how we must redistribute our resources to globalist agendas. We also see them saying we must support open borders. The agenda out of the USCCB is primarily political and not religious. We see this with Cupich, Tobin, McElroy, Farrell. When will they learn their credibility has been stretched to breaking.

  • Posted by: pvanderl7463 - Mar. 09, 2019 9:38 AM ET USA

    Thank you, Phil. The Tennessee Bishops statement broke my heart, prompted a silent scream and an incredulous banner in my brain, "What????!!!" Their moral gyro compass has failed, Another invitation to jump ship. But where would we go, Jesus?? The Bishops need a report card to register their "F".

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Mar. 08, 2019 4:44 PM ET USA

    Amen. Our church is in need of many prayers. The Bishops would serve us more faithfully if they led us in prayer and avoided the temptation of being political.

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Mar. 06, 2019 5:29 PM ET USA

    We only reached this predicament because the bishops abandoned the pro-life movement even before Roe (with only a few exceptions). These are losers advising people engaged in the struggle to give up. No thanks. Don't worry, you're still invited to the victory celebration when Roe is overturned.