A final note on the controversy surrounding the fabrication of quotes, or the failure to check a quote with the person to whom it was attributed, in any event, the shoddy and irresponsible journalism exhibited by the Catholic News Agency. As important as the issue of journalistic integrity is, it is also necessary to look to the bigger issue that CNA and/or the bishops who leaked to them were trying to affect.
In his interview with John Allen, Cardinal Francis George made two observations that are critical to understanding this central issue of the Church’s role in political life. First, Cardinal George said, "Where someone draws the line on what the bishops ought to say, I think, often depends on where they’re coming from politically," and, later, he said, "What worries me more than a difference over empirical content, however, is the claim that the bishops cannot speak to the moral content of the law." The first claim needs an additional qualification: Where one draws the line on what the bishops ought to say also depends on the issue involved. Some Conservatives like to say the bishops should confine their authoritative pronouncements to the five "non-negotiables," but that idea of five non-negotiables is the creation of GOP strategists, and it is unknown in the Catholic moral tradition. Some Liberals wish the bishops would keep quiet about abortion, or at least not talk about it as much as they do, so that they can focus on other social justice issues. Everybody wants the bishops speaking out on their own issues, so the Cardinal is half right.
His second observation is more problematic. I do not know anyone, at least no serious leftie Catholic writer or thinker, who has voiced the "claim that the bishops cannot speak to the moral content of the law." I am sure you can find a press release from Catholics for Choice, a group that does not really qualify as "serious" and, to the point, is hardly the voice of the Catholic Left. The point that has been made, and well made, is this: Bishops are the authoritative teachers of the principles of the Catholic moral tradition but, "[w]hen making applications of these principles, we realize - and we wish readers to recognize - that prudential judgments are involved based on specific circumstances which can change or which can be interpreted differently by people of good will (e.g., the treatment of "no first use"). However, the moral judgments that we make in specific cases, while not binding in conscience, are to be given serious attention and consideration by Catholics as they determine whether their moral judgments are consistent with the Gospel." Those words are taken from the opening paragraphs of the Bishops’ document "The Challenge of Peace," issued in 1983 and they seem as apt today as they did then.
I have made this point. I believe that Sr. Carol has made this point. The degree of authority the bishops enjoy, and therefore the degree of acceptance of that authority rightly expected from the laity, is definitive at the level of principle but it diminishes as the principle gets applied as a particular policy. No Catholic can, in good conscience, disagree with a moral principle of the Church such as "abortion is wrong," but trying to decide how, politically and legally, we enflesh that moral principle is an area where the bishops deserve "attention and consideration" but where, as they say, the prudential judgments involved allow for the possibility that they can be "interpreted differently by people of good will." Cardinal George’s concern about the "claims" being made that the bishops have no authority to speak to the moral content of a civil law is, I think, a bit of a red herring. We here at America are not questioning the bishops authority to teach the moral law, nor their competence to address the moral content of civil law, but as Bishop Lynch also told NCR, "I have never before this year heard the theory that we enjoy the same primacy of respect for legislative interpretation as we do for interpretation of the moral law."
Let us consider what Catholic political involvement would look like if there was no possibility of individual Catholics disagreeing with the bishops about how our moral tradition should be applied to civil legislation. Would there, of necessity, be a "Catholic Party" that would tell us how to vote. After all, if we cannot disagree about an empirical issue regarding health care legislation, what can we disagree about? Nothing. Well, then, this would make it easy to be a Catholic citizen. We would just have to wait for the bishops to pronounce on any and all issues, and that would be that. The idea that it is the right and the responsibility of the laity to carry the Christian Gospels into the secular world would become meaningless. This scenario is, of course, a red herring too.
There is one last part of this saga that I should like to mention. The history of individual bishops, such as those who leaked their comments to CNA, trying to undermine the Conference is a long history. Indeed, Cardinal O’Connell tried to kill the newborn bishops’ conference in the crib, seeing it as a threat to his authority as senior churchman after the death of Cardinal Gibbons who had been in fact, though not in title, Primate of the U.S. Church for forty years. Gibbons, unlike O’Connell, was devoted to episcopal collegiality. He once famously sided with his ideological opponents in order to keep peace at one of the annual meetings of the nation’s archbishops that served as a precursor to the USCCB. He was what is known as "a conference man" before there was a bishops’ conference.
Being "a conference man" means that you do not undermine decisions reached by the whole, even if you disagree with a given decision, because you believe that the importance of unity among the bishops trumps all but the most vital claims of conscience. And, if you do need to "send a signal" to your brother bishops, you do so gently, thoughtfully, not in an antagonistic way, not by running to a right-wing media outfit and giving a tendentious leak. Yesterday, we saw an example of "a conference man" subtly, but effectively, letting his thoughts be known to his brother bishops. At a special Mass to commemorate his eightieth birthday, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick asked Sister Carol Keehan to proclaim the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. It was a small thing really, the invitation of an old friend to participate in a special celebration. But, Cardinal McCarrick made his point: The hysterical attacks on Sr. Carol for supporting the health care law cannot be allowed to obscure the fact of her years of devoted service to the Church.
Michael Sean Winters