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Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

USCCB Political Action Alerts: Questionable

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 09, 2013

Periodically the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development issues “action alerts” urging American Catholics to contact their senators and representatives to urge them to take one position or another on various legislative deadlocks and initiatives. The latest was today’s alert to urge people to advocate programs to address poverty, replace sequestration with a “balanced” plan, raise the debt ceiling, and pass the Health Care Conscience Rights Act.

Pope Francis recently stated in his interview with Eugenio Scalfari:

I say that politics is the most important of the civil activities and has its own field of action, which is not that of religion. Political institutions are secular by definition and operate in independent spheres. All my predecessors have said the same thing, for many years at least, albeit with different accents. I believe that Catholics involved in politics carry the values of their religion within them, but have the mature awareness and expertise to implement them. The Church will never go beyond its task of expressing and disseminating its values, at least as long as I’m here.

DJPHD, call your office.

Of course, I recognize the complexity of this issue. There are very fine lines between three categories of espiscopal comment on public policy or legislation: (1) Moral teaching and advocacy of virtue triggered by particular contemporary issues; (2) The declaration that a particular policy or law is intrinsically immoral; and (3) Promotion of particular measures that those who track political affairs for the bishops deem advantageous to the common good. It is inevitable that the discourse of bishops and their staff on political matters should touch on all three areas, even when properly trying to emphasize the first and the second.

I also recognize that the Pope’s comments were made in an interview; they were not issued as a disciplinary instruction to the various episcopal conferences. On the other hand, the Pope is right when he points out that all of his recent predecessors have maintained the same position. So why do some episcopal conferences still spend so much time and energy directing the laity to pursue those particular political policies determined to be “best” by the conference? I am raising this question about the many aspects of the common good for which primarily prudential judgments are required, to determine the fairest and most effective way to reach a desired goal.

This is not the province of bishops, nor even of lay persons hired by bishops to speak in their name. Painting with broad strokes, it is far more accurate to state that the bishops are better served by ensuring that lay persons are given every opportunity to grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ—in their grasp of and adherence to Catholic faith and morals, in their participation in the sacraments, and overall in an ever-deepening spirituality. The laity, for their part, should be left free to transform the secular order as they judge best. This, after all, is fundamental to the lay vocation.

Sometimes it seems the American Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development almost gets this. But insofar as they almost get it, their statements become increasingly vague. Consider their instructions on these four issues:

  1. Poverty: “adequately fund programs that address hunger and joblessness, and help people to rise above poverty in the United States and around the world.”
  2. Sequestration: “replace sequestration with a balanced plan that includes revenues as well as responsible spending cuts.”
  3. Debt: “raise the debt ceiling in a responsible manner so as not to harm struggling families and poor and vulnerable people in our country and around the world.”
  4. Conscience: “work for the inclusion of the Health Care Conscience Rights Act (H.R. 940, S. 1204). Government must not force Americans to violate their religious and moral beliefs on respect for life when they provide health care or purchase health coverage.”

The fourth item is very specific political advice to oppose the coercion of citizens into moral evil, a violation of the natural law. It is well within the bishops’ competence to speak on this question. But the other three items are either so vague or so broad of purpose as to be almost mystifying politically. Is there a moral obligation to fund government programs to address hunger, joblessness and help people to rise above poverty throughout the entire world? Is it possible to raise the debt ceiling responsibly? And if so, refer again to the previous question. And who could possibly be opposed to a balanced approach to the budget which takes into account both revenue and expenditures?

There is an overarching confidence here that government is the proper vehicle to solve all ills, a confidence that is extremely dubious in the context of Catholic social teaching. But beyond that, three of these four points are either pious hopes or platitudes.

I hope that is because the USCCB is gradually learning—in effect if not in spirit—to keep out of prudential politics. But in any case, such “action alerts” serve no useful purpose beyond perpetuating a bad habit of many episcopal conferences, a habit which it would be better to break completely.

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: Bernadette - Oct. 13, 2013 1:08 PM ET USA

    AMEN! I have thought for years that our episcopal conference is in over their heads in politics and the bishops would serve the world better if they stayed at home and tended to their particular sheep. Teaching is one of their charisms as bishops, teaching the faith in all its fullness, the Gospel of Life as well as Catholic Social teaching. A properly informed Catholic laity should take care of the concerns of poverty and govt. overreach. Bishops, go home and tend your flock!

  • Posted by: [email protected] - Oct. 11, 2013 6:37 PM ET USA

    One of your best responses to the typical broad brush edicts from the Bishops. It is such broad brush platitudes that makes most clear thinking Catholics to come to the conclusion that the USCCB is hand and glove with the liberals and big government. Want to reduce poverty encourage good jobs. Encourage companies to stay here in the United States. Encourage politicians to curb their excessive spending and scheming for more.

  • Posted by: impossible - Oct. 11, 2013 12:19 AM ET USA

    Thank you Jeff; well said. Carl E. Olson said, “... And the ultimate goal of the Church’s social doctrine is not the elimination of poverty, or the destruction of evil social institutions, or the building of a perfect utopian society.” Bishops must read and heed #69 of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, “With her social doctrine, the Church aims at helping man on the path of salvation. This is her primary and sole purpose.” The USCCB must stop its partisan politicking.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 10, 2013 7:51 PM ET USA

    The title is quite temperate. Res ipse loquitur. The Catholic must have confidence. The gift of baptism allows a Catholic to cooperate with the transcendent. If a cleric or even a conference of bishops promotes something like the above we have not only the right but the duty to do what Dr. Mirus is doing here. Yes, the thing speaks for itself. There is a tranquility, a homogeneity, and a confidence to the life of the Catholic. Epheta. Live this gifted life with all your heart and soul.

  • Posted by: Defender - Oct. 10, 2013 11:54 AM ET USA

    The question should also be asked, "What has the USCCB done about joblessness and hunger?" We see the bishops travel around promoting their favorite "problem" and going to Rome, but wouldn't the money they spend be better spent in another way? Many bishops say they think Dorothy Day should be a saint, but was she so frivolous with money as they seem to be?

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Oct. 10, 2013 7:14 AM ET USA

    And, of course, there is the practical political observation that no one ever pays an ounce of attention to these 'alerts'. I've never heard any Catholic even mention these things. Seems like a waste of paper and time.