Exclusive: Should U.S. bishops speak out on politics—or stick to religion?

Editor's Note: Catholic Bishops in the United States: Church Leadership in the Third Millennium, to be published by Oxford University Press in January 2019, is the first major research-based book to study the bishops of the United States since 1989. It reveals the bishops’ individual experiences, their day-to-day activities, their challenges as church leaders and their strategies for managing their dioceses. The following is an excerpt from the book on how U.S. bishops approach the task of publicly commenting on political and social issues.

Catholic leaders, from parish priests to the pope, are bombarded with opinions on whether they should or should not speak out on issues of the day—and if so, on which particular issues. When the U.S. bishops published “Economic Justice for All” in 1986, some thinkers on the political right urged them to leave economics to the economists and focus on the purely “religious” realm. The political left has been perhaps equally vociferous in its critiques of the bishops, except the problem in this case is that the church’s leaders have remained too silent. In advance of a 2013 assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, two politically liberal groups, Catholic Democrats and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, called on the assembly attendees to speak out more on issues of poverty. Whether one believes religious leaders should speak out on politics seems to depend less on one’s philosophy regarding church and state than on the particular issue at hand.

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Bishops in so-called red states have most frequently asked Catholics to consider Catholic teaching when voting for candidates.

In conducting our survey of U.S. bishops in 2016, we were interested in the extent to which individual bishops step across the invisible line some people perceive (when it suits them, perhaps) as separating the spiritual and temporal realms. How often do the bishops call for reflection or action regarding politics or vital issues of the day? We asked survey respondents four questions on this topic. (The table at left summarizes the results.)

We were particularly interested in how bishops speak out in the context of elections. The criticism they receive for lack of balance or overstepping their bounds often arises as elections approach. Many bishops reported that they have asked Catholics to consider Catholic teaching when voting for candidates, with 38 percent saying they have done so “on a regular basis” during the past five years and 37 percent that they have done so “often.” One bishop said:

I do not tell Catholics [in my diocese] to vote for a specific candidate. What I do tell them is not to vote for someone who opposes our values. I tell them to make sure that the candidate they choose conforms to Catholic teaching. I make every effort not to be seen as “pro” any party, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t teach clearly about the issues.

A majority of bishops have lobbied political leaders at least “often,” and a majority also made statements to the general public about current social or political issues. The frequency with which bishops have spoken out varies little by self-described theological orientation. It seems clear that most bishops see an important role for the church and its teachings in guiding political thought and action.

Bishops in red states have most frequently asked Catholics to consider Catholic teaching when voting for candidates. 

We did uncover an interesting difference among bishops based on whether their dioceses are located in red (mostly Republican) or blue (mostly Democratic) states. Bishops in red states have most frequently asked Catholics to consider Catholic teaching when voting for candidates. Almost half (48 percent) reported having done so “on a regular basis” during the last five years. This compares to 36 percent of bishops in “purple” states and 26 percent in blue states. Perhaps bishops are more likely to perceive the laity as receptive to messages about Catholic teaching and voting where Catholics (and the electorate generally) are relatively more conservative. However, this does not seem to extend to other ways of speaking out, such as lobbying lawmakers or making statements to the general public.

The Clergy Sexual Abuse Scandal and the Church’s Perceived Credibility

There were many aspects to the shock, dismay and anger lay Catholics experienced in 2002 during the large-scale national revelations of clergy sexual abuse within the church. Foremost among them were sympathy for the victims, disbelief about the magnitude of the problem and outrage about cases where superiors were inadequate in addressing the problem. We wanted to examine another concern that has arisen in the wake of these revelations—that the scandal has hampered church leaders in other ways, particularly their ability to speak with credibility and authority. In the wake of the scandals in 2002, Francis Fiorenza, a Catholic studies professor at Harvard Divinity School, told a reporter, “One of the major tragedies of the recent scandals has been precisely the loss of moral authority at a time when such moral authority is most needed.”

There was a correlation between difficulty defending church teaching and the amount of media coverage bishops said has been directed at the scandal in their dioceses.

Are people now disregarding what the bishops have to say on issues of the day? In the survey we asked bishops to agree or disagree with the following statement: “Media coverage of clergy sexual abuse has made it challenging to present or defend church teachings in my diocese.” A majority agreed, with 43 percent agreeing “somewhat” and 20 percent agreeing “strongly.” Thirty percent disagreed “somewhat,” and just 8 percent disagreed “strongly.” The table above shows the relationship between these responses and several other factors. There is no significant difference between archbishops and other ordinaries. And somewhat surprisingly, those who were already bishops in their current dioceses in 2002 do not significantly differ from those who were bishops in other dioceses or who were still priests in other dioceses. We had expected that those who were already bishops at the time of the scandal, especially if they were then in their current diocese, would be fighting a stronger headwind in this regard.

On the sexual abuse crisis: “Sometimes people use it as a club to beat you over the head about any issue you talk about.”

Instead, what seems most important is the region of the country where a bishop’s current diocese is located. Bishops in the Northeast were significantly more likely than those in other regions to agree “strongly” that it is challenging to present or defend church teaching due to the scandal. This finding seems consistent with CARA polls of lay Catholics taken during 2002. Catholics in the Northeast region expressed considerably more awareness and anger regarding the scandal than Catholics elsewhere. Some of this may be proximity to Boston (where the scandal received major news coverage in 2002) and greater exposure to news from that archdiocese. Further, we suspect that secular news media in other Northeastern cities were particularly aggressive in their reporting of the scandal so as not to be shown up by The Boston Globe. Indeed, the table above shows a correlation between difficulty defending church teaching and the amount of media coverage bishops said has been directed at the scandal in their diocese. We asked a bishop in the Northeast if he still heard negative comments from the laity in his diocese about the 2002 scandal:

We do get comments, and sometimes people use it as a club to beat you over the head about any issue you talk about. Whether it’s care for the poor, immigration, or whatever the issue, there will be some people who will throw that back at you and say, “You know what? You should take care of your own [abusive] priests.”

Criticism and Pushback From Laity and the Media

Of course, criticism from lay Catholics is not uncommon in the life of a bishop. One told us that preaching at Mass is the only thing he is not criticized for. However, when controversial issues are at play, tempers can run particularly high. In personal interviews, we asked bishops if they ever experienced negativity from laity due to stances taken by themselves as individuals or by the bishops collectively. Most could readily recall being on the receiving end of anger. A bishop described such an instance to us:

Just prior to the invasion of Iraq, I issued a pastoral letter saying that as far as I could judge, the war was going to be unjust and therefore participation in it was going to be immoral.... My letter was pretty positively received by priests of the diocese. But there was one parish with a lot of police and ex-military parishioners. The pastor there instructed everyone to read the letter without comment [during a Mass], and it was a fairly lengthy letter. He said it turned into a reaction like the prime minister in Parliament: boos and heckling. [After that] I got a few irate letters.

Another bishop talked with us about reactions to the church’s opposition toward efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in his state:

Same-sex marriage has been quite the hot button issue [in my diocese]. Most people know where the church stands. Of course, I have gotten some negative correspondence from people who disagree with our stance. Where I get the most questions about this is from kids at schools, usually from non-Catholic kids who attend our Catholic grammar schools. I do my best to articulate our teaching in a way that they can understand.... Most of the drama around this issue occurred here before I was named as bishop here. My predecessor had to deal with the state [debate] on same-sex marriage. He took the brunt of the heat that the media and the general public directed towards the church. It was truly sad and actually frightening to learn of the vehemence directed towards him; he even received death threats. Some horrible graffiti was scrawled on the walls of the cathedral and the chancery office.
The average U.S. bishop serves a diocese of about 250,000 Catholics.

One bishop we interviewed told us he tries to avoid speaking about politics or political issues because of the conflict it can cause with laity. Most bishops, however, are more apt to speak their minds and then take a respectful and pastoral approach with those who disagree. One says:

There is some negativity with [the church’s stand on] cultural issues. If you are not with the crowd [on these issues], you are accused of being “judgmental” with folks. That’s a reason for what Pope Francis is trying to model for bishops and priests. If you are accompanying your people, then difficult situations are not as negative because the people understand the teachings of the church in the light of the Gospel.

Another bishop also emphasizes the importance of respectful engagement with those who take exception to the church’s positions:

I just had a letter from somebody that didn’t like our, the bishops’, statement on immigration. This is the second time somebody wrote me a letter about that. I wrote back and said, “Number one, I’m thrilled you read the statement.” [Laughs]. I said my grandma’s name was Loretta Catherine _____ [an obviously Irish surname]. She used to work for German Protestants, and they wouldn’t hire the Irish. This was in the days before Social Security.... I’m talking about 1910: “Irish need not apply.” She changed her name to Gertrude because it was more conducive [to being hired]. Loretta Catherine was too Irish, too Catholic. I said, “What would this policy have done to her?” And plus, you have to wrestle with: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” So, anyway, negative things do come across my desk.... But I try to put a positive spin on it, and I try not to take it as a personal attack on me. I try not to get flustered.

“If you are not with the crowd, you are accused of being ‘judgmental’ with folks.”

One factor raised by several bishops we spoke with is whether a diocese is located in an area where people are relatively religious or relatively secular. Bishops tend to perceive the press as being more hostile to Catholicism in secularized areas. For example, we asked a bishop in a Southern and very religious state whether criticism in the secular media has been a problem for him. He replied:

Nationally, yes [media negativity is a problem]. Locally, no, because I try to foster relationships with the local media. I’ve taken the editor-in chief of the local newspaper out to lunch.... And I try as much as possible to be very upfront with the press. When we do anything, we issue a press release. For example, a few years ago the economy here was really struggling. Over a million dollars of our operating budget dried up. So that necessitated layoffs in our pastoral staff.... Companies in the area were laying off too, but we knew that ours would be of particular interest [to the media]. We created a press release for the local newspaper, and I was available for questions, as was our chancellor. They got the press release, and they called the chancellor and got all their questions answered. There was a front-page story in the local newspaper, but at least it was our story. We sent them all the information.

We spoke with a bishop in a relatively secularized and urban area. He has often spoken publicly with compassion about immigrants and the poor in our society, in addition to advocating a pro-life position on abortion and the traditional model of marriage. Local newspapers frequently label him a “conservative” or even “ultraconservative” bishop. If not unfair, this designation certainly lacks nuance. He described to us the hostility toward Catholicism in the local press, especially toward its traditional moral teachings:

I did have one particular instance of a direct attack against me when I had to intervene in an issue concerning the contracts of teachers in our Catholic schools. We were trying to make sure that they upheld Catholic morality not just in the classroom but also in their personal lives. Given the very secular nature of our area, this was a big news item for a while.... I was told that I was interfering in other people’s private lives and that that was wrong. The way I saw it was that, just like people getting fired from their jobs for their personal positions on social issues, like the case of the owner of a professional basketball team who was fired for the racist comments he made.... He got fired for the awful comments he made using his own private phone and doing so on his own time, not company time. If a basketball team can have a moral philosophy, a moral position, why can’t the church, which represents the teaching of Jesus Christ, have one?

We turned to the survey data to test whether or not media criticism is indeed a systematically greater problem for bishops in more secular areas. As we have seen, 44 percent of all the bishops said criticism in the secular press or media is “somewhat” of a problem for them, and another 18 percent said it is “a great” problem. The table below shows how these responses vary by several factors. Under the heading “Religiosity of State,” we created three categories based on the religious commitment of people in the states where dioceses are located, as measured by the Pew Research Center. Our survey results show little difference between relatively religious and relatively secular states in the likelihood that bishops said criticism is a “great” problem. However, there is a statistically significant difference in whether or not they said it is at least “somewhat” of a problem (50 percent of bishops in religious states, compared to 81 percent in secular states). Thus, it seems plausible that the media is indeed more hostile toward bishops in more secularized dioceses.

It seems plausible that the media is indeed more hostile toward bishops in more secularized dioceses.

Among other notable findings, self-described traditional bishops are significantly more likely than progressive bishops to describe criticism in the press as “a great problem” (29 percent compared with 5 percent). Is this an issue of perception by the bishops themselves? It seems possible that traditional bishops genuinely receive more criticism to the extent that they become identified with the church’s teachings on cultural issues such as abortion, homosexuality and contraception. Not surprisingly, bishops were also significantly more likely to say that criticism in the secular press or media is a great problem for them if the sexual abuse issue received relatively more media coverage in their dioceses.

To summarize, when the bishops speak out on issues of the day, they do so in their capacity as teachers of the faith. This is one of the central roles identified for bishops in the Catechism; survey responses suggest the role is important to them and that they take it seriously.

From Catholic Bishops in the United States: Church Leadership in the Third Millennium

Rev. Stephen J. Fichter is the pastor of St. Elizabeth Church in Wyckoff, N.J., a research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and a professor at the Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

Thomas P. Gaunt, S.J., is the executive director of CARA; he has also served at the Jesuit Conference and the Maryland and New York Jesuit Provinces, and as a pastor and director of planning in the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C.

Catherine Hoegeman, of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, is an assistant professor of sociology at Missouri State University and researches nonprofit organizations and leadership, focusing on religious organizations.

Paul M. Perl is a researcher for CARA, where he has worked on national surveys of lay Catholics and diocesan surveys of priests; much of his academic research examines how religiosity varies in different areas of the country.

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rose-ellen caminer
1 year ago

It's the most difficult needle to thread; when is the Church speaking out politically a moral imperative and when is it just being political! The Church welcomes all comers and to get on a high horse over some issue that may alienate some, requires real discernment. I'm grateful I don't have such power and authority. The most I encountered this dilemma was as a lector during the first years of the Iraq war. During the prayer of the faithful I actually had the nerve to stand up there and pray against the war and on behalf of' the Iraqi victims of the US military[as well as for the insurgents , terrorists and for the US military]. Boy did I get in trouble. People came up to me afterwards and railed against me and what I said. The pastor later called me in and said he had gotten many complaints and that if I ever said anything like that again, I would be let go as a lector. I relented but not quite totally! When the prayer of the faithful referred to the war in Iraq as a "peacekeeping" mission, at the word "peacekeeping," I turned it into a question; Peacekeeping?[ The look on my face and sound of my voice said; this is absurd]! I got backlash for that. I am no longer a lector.

I do not know how you draw a balance ; I would say that whatever ones view of any particular war , whether just or unjust, that the enemy not be dehumanized, that the US military not be a stand in for God .Nor should the Church should be a smug self righteous political activist institution, yet neither can it remain silent on what on clearly defined Christian/humanistic moral issues; against abortion, against torture, against preemptive wars, against wars that target civilians or are indifferent to mass civilian casualties, against racism and bigotry , against turning our backs on war refugees, or any refugees escaping horrible situations., against exploitation of workers.Can I even include unbridled capitalism?
Though I have no problem if a particular parish chooses to never talks about any of this either. Different charisms for different particular parishes. But it is right and imperative that the Pope [and bishops via writings] should and do speak about [political] morality .

Randal Agostini
12 months ago

I am not surprised you were let go as a Lector. It is a privilege to be a Lector to read the Word of God, but the podium is definitely not a political platform during Mass.

JR Cosgrove
1 year ago

Stick to religion. First, some Catholic teaching varies over time and is often not really religion. For example, nothing called Catholic Social Teaching was ever taught during my 16 years of Catholic education. Second, how to apply a specific teaching to a political policy is often not clear. Especially, economic policy. This causes problems here as others constantly assert that others are not good Catholics when they don't agree on a political position. The bishops are invariably wrong on poverty and race and probably on most other things.

Fred Keyes
12 months ago

So Cosgrove, you never heard, inter alia, of Leo XIII's "Rerum Novarum" or Pius XI's "Quadragesimo Anno?" Never mind the writings on the subject of Distributism? You can't get any more social teaching than that, all of which were around before you and I were born. You're not hung up on the words used to describe the subject are you?

JR Cosgrove
12 months ago

None of these encyclicals were part of any religion course I had. Nor should they be because while containing some good ideas are mostly fallible and naive. They are political statements not religion. The Church for most of history supported ideas that allowed the appropriation of land by the few and laws that denied freedom to the masses. These policies allowed the masses to live near starvation for most of their short lives. The modern world is a fortuitous happenstance that arose out of British political wars that allowed freedom to the masses. The result is the modern world. Nothing the Church ever said or did contributed to it. So I would not look to the Church as guidance for material concerns.

JR Cosgrove
12 months ago

If people want to know what created the modern world, read "The Suicide of the West" by Jonah Goldberg; "Civilization" by Niall Ferguson; Bourgeois Equality by Deirdre McCloskey. Ask why Philadelphia in 1750 was the most vibrant city in the New World and how the Pennsylvania colony absorbed 80 thousand poor Germans and thrived. Ask how the cost of cotton, the most desired fabric for clothing, went from 11 shilling per pound (a week's wages of a British worker) to less than one shilling per pound in less than 50 years.

Jim Lein
12 months ago

So the church, certainly after it was an accepted religion by the Roman empire in like 380 AD, no longer followed Jesus' and the apostles' way of meeting needs before satisfying wants. And those practices were probably no longer practiced way before the 300s. The desert mothers and fathers probably kept Jesus' way alive for some time but they were small scattered groups I think.

JR Cosgrove
12 months ago

The Church was set up for salvation not material prosperity on earth. Remember "Give unto Caesar etc.". It is still the perfect way that Christ gave us to attain salvation. The Jesuits and many others have seemed to have forgotten this. But at the same time, God built into mankind the formula for material success which the Jesuits and many others refuse to recognize. It is based on freedom.

JR Cosgrove
12 months ago

The Church bought into something called the "great chain of being," a political philosophy based on strict classes based on birth. It was for the most part destroyed in the British political/civil wars in Britain and Holland. This let loose the energy of individuals no matter who they were. The result was one invention/innovation after the other and eventually the modern world. Such a system does not preclude Catholic morality. In fact the two together are a formula for a much better world but salvation is still the goal not heaven on earth.

minls suka
1 year ago

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the impossible quiz

Tom Tomaszewski
1 year ago

I think it is essential that they comment; even more important is they not be an arm of one party or another. The moral compass of this nation can best be reset by a Church that is an equal opportunity offender when it comes to correcting the political goals of all parties when those goals run afoul of Christ's teachings. If both Democrats and Republicans are upset with the Church's positions then the Church has done it's job. If one party believes it has the Church in it's pocket then the Church has made a huge mistake because neither party has acted in accordance with Church teachings.

Bill Mazzella
1 year ago

Never should be aligned with either party. In that sense neither should any Catholic as far as voting because the issue should matter not the party. Sadly, most of us are tribal rather than issue oriented.
Jesus came to "free the captives" which means the downtrodden and disadvantaged. So the bishops should be adamant about the treatment of immigrants while supporting just laws about entry. A person can be a "captive" even if they have wealth as poverty of spirit is the worse condition. Only a bishop who will be crucified with Jesus will do the right thing. Yet bishops are too much into lawn parties dinners than present at poor and struggling middle class households.

Geral John Pinault
1 year ago

It is vitally important for our U.S. Bishops to comment on today's politics, especially in light of the fact that so many Protestants have a do-nothing attitude about today's most vital issues! We face a great opposition today to our Christian way of life here in the mid-west! I am the author of more than 100 books, and many of the thousands of FB Friends I have all around the world are asking me for advice on life, love and Christian spirituality. They are looking to the Church and it's educated members such as myself for guidance on their most important life issues today, and U.S. politics is high on their lists!!

Robin Smith
1 year ago

That your opinion and advice is laudable...on Facebook. If anyone is preaching politics on the pulpit then local, state and federal taxes are due. The church, any church, can't play it both ways. Talk about the deals, reat, Not about candidates or party's. Or, give up the tax exemption that comes to some $80 BILLION per year, just in the USA.

Fred Keyes
12 months ago

Robin, you understand fully the meaning of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, right?

Fred Keyes
12 months ago

Please delete

Mary Gillespie
1 year ago

I certainly think that they should be front and center in the immigration discussion. Where would Jesus be right now? I kind of think he'd be in the middle of refugees and immigrants preaching love, support and peace.

Randal Agostini
12 months ago

Wrong - There was enormous political discontent in Palestine during the time of Jesus and it is notable that he stayed clear of the argument, even stating "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and Give to God what is God's." If the Bishops spent more time dealing with the spiritual matters of the Laity they would not be in this predicament. There are many good role models in the church such as St. John Vianney, St. Vincent de Paul, and our own Fr. McGivney, who saw practical non political methods of mixing social justice with our faith.

Fred Keyes
12 months ago

Randal, on one level you are correct, but what Jesus did was far more subversive than getting into political squabbles. His teachings ultimately upended a powerful empire.

Joseph Corrado
1 year ago

It may not be helpful to frame the issue as "Should U.S. bishops speak out on politics—or stick to religion?" It is not, at face value, an exclusive disjunction. Almost all political issues intersect with questions of ethics. If the Church seeks to speak with a semblance of moral authority, it must "bite the bullet" of coherence in its public communications. It all makes for a lot of pious hot air to talk about the rights of unborn humans without speaking clearly about the rights of the humans already on the planet.

Derrick Kourie
1 year ago

I agree with you. Bishops have to bite the bullet. For most people, both Catholics and non-Catholics, Catholic teachings relating to human sexuality are the most distinctive: gay marriage, contraception, abortion. Catholic social teaching takes a back seat. The bishop who said "I tell them [Catholics] to make sure that the candidate they choose conforms to Catholic teaching. " will be heard by most Catholics as "Vote against pro-choice candidates".

Jim Lein
12 months ago

Within the church the focus on the rights of unborn humans has stolen the focus from the rights and needs of born humans, which is what Jesus and the apostles stressed over and over. Jesus did not focus on civil law changes. He focused on his followers change of heart, urging them to pool their resources so that the needs of the poor and vulnerable were met before his followers' wants were met. He even called for the selling of ones home to meet the needs of the less fortunate. I don't see him today picketing clinics and pressing for law change. I see him focusing on meeting needs through private welfare programs and, in a large society such as ours, through government programs which provide 95% of food for the poor, including for the unborn. Law change is impersonal. His way was and is personal.

Cutting food programs starves the unborn. And it does seem that many Catholics on the right are for cutting such programs because the are government programs. Yet they are for the government to change a law.

arthur mccaffrey
1 year ago

and do the authors of this "groundbreaking new book" discuss how RCC crosses the line between politics and religion all the time---as, for example, when Pennsylvania Bishops fund and promote the work of their political lobbying group= Pennsylvania Catholic Conference= in working hard to persuade PA legislators not to change the Statute of Limitations laws so more victims can't sue the Church?

Eugene Devany
12 months ago

The bible provides a good rule of thumb for political policy> ""Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil." 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22
Most of us understand what is good but evil, particularly "every kind of evil", lives little room for compromise. Some bishops have not been role models with their sweeping so much evil under the carpet. Others may highlight one aspect leaving a distorted impression as if evil and sin are identical. Pope Francis seems to strive for a great balance with his understanding of our humanity with all of our rough edges.

Neil Purcell
12 months ago

The bishops ought to speak to the morality of public policy choices and actions of our government, and yet when they do, they tend to get it all so wrong. More often than not, I wish they stayed out of politics because their influence has more often than not been detrimental to good governance and moral policy-making. They have failed so completely in this mission that it is very hard to want them to continue. The war in Iraq; torture of prisoners; Muslim ban; tax cuts for the rich and budget cuts for the poor; the gutting of ACA; cuts to refugee resettlement; resurgent white nationalism, nativism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism; and the success of extremist rhetoric, fearmongering, and conspiracy theories among Catholics in the heartland of this country -- all of this has occurred while the bishops have given tacit approval to the candidates of the political party that sponsors and has sponsored all of this ugliness and evil. Compared with their complicity in the sexual abuse of children, their failure in the political aspects of their preaching will have a longer-lasting and broader impact on the lives of Americans of all faiths and none. The bishops have failed; maybe they should shut up till they figure it out.

Jim Lein
12 months ago

And maybe men, us guys, should shut up about restricting women's choice when it comes to giving birth, especially in cases of problem or unwanted or crisis pregnancies. Because, of course, we are responsible for these pregnancies, leaving the woman on her own, with insufficient support or love on our part. And in too many cases, we have been among those who forced or coerced or persuaded women to terminate the pregnancy, And, of course, the bishops are all men; this doesn't help them see matters from a woman's perspective.

Charles Erlinger
12 months ago

I can sympathize with a homilist trying to decide how to fulfill the obligation of communicating the good news and shedding light on the relevance of that news. Its relevance is the only reason for communicating it. But to explain relevance leads inevitably to a discussion of behavior, that is, which act to choose under expected circumstances, when to act, and how to act. Before any of these choices are made, the end or objective of the act must firmly be grasped intellectually. This is the subject matter of the moral virtue of Prudence.

It turns out that St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, in a section awkwardly called “The Second part of the Second Part,”
Has a few choice words on this matter:

“I answer that, Prudence is "right reason applied to action," as stated above (A. 2). Hence that which is the chief act of reason in regard to action must needs be the chief act of prudence. Now there are three such acts. The first is to take counsel, which belongs to discovery, for counsel is an act of inquiry, as stated above (I-II, Q. 14, A. 1). The second act is to judge of what one has discovered, and this is an act of the speculative reason. But the practical reason, which is directed to action, goes further, and its third act is to command, which act consists in applying to action the things counseled and judged. And since this act approaches nearer to the end of the practical reason, it follows that it is the chief act of the practical reason, and consequently of prudence.....”

He adds, a little later,

“Accordingly, since it belongs to prudence rightly to counsel, judge, and command concerning the means of obtaining a due end, it is evident that prudence regards not only the private good of the individual, but also the common good of the multitude....

“...Now just as every moral virtue that is directed to the common good is called "legal" justice, so the prudence that is directed to the common good is called "political" prudence, for the latter stands in the same relation to legal justice, as prudence simply so called to moral virtue....

“...He that seeks the good of the many, seeks in consequence his own good, for two reasons. First, because the individual good is impossible without the common good of the family, state, or kingdom. Hence Valerius Maximus says [*Fact. et Dict. Memor. iv, 6] of the ancient Romans that "they would rather be poor in a rich empire than rich in a poor empire." Secondly, because, since man is a part of the home and state, he must needs consider what is good for him by being prudent about the good of the many. For the good disposition of parts depends on their relation to the whole; thus Augustine says (Confess. iii, 8) that "any part which does not harmonize with its whole, is offensive....”

My takeaway is that we, both homilist and congregation, have a difficult challenge to make this interchange work.

The quoted passages, by the way are from

Summa Theologica, Part II-II (Secunda Secundae)
Aquinas Thomas
https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/summa-theologica-part-ii-ii-secunda-secundae/id510956923?mt=11
This material may be protected by copyright.

Mike Macrie
12 months ago

Stay out of Politics ! They are splitting their Congregation by taking sides. I personally came close to leaving the Catholic Faith over the ACA act with Bishops and Priests demonizing the President and Democrats and advising people how to vote. If it wasn’t for those Catholic Nuns who went against the American Conference of Bishops on the issue of Health Care, I would have left the Church. For 2 years I did not contribute a dime to the Bishops Annual Appeal fund and instead sent my donation to the charities of those Nuns. I saw a very close friendship within our parish break up because a person found out her close friend voted for Obama. Our Parish now has a large number of Latino Parishioners, and Politics have carried over into the church as us and them. All that Bishops and Priests need to say to their Parishioners is that both Abortion and Racism are equally wrong and stress to Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.

Fred Keyes
12 months ago

Are you able to quote any bishop that has advised his flock how to vote? I know a few priests have done this (or come as close as you can get without being explicit about who to vote for) but they've been silenced by their bishops. So—I have an open mind—tell us specifically which bishops have advised what you charge?

Mike Macrie
11 months 3 weeks ago

A number of Roman Catholic bishops are making forceful last-minute appeals to their flock to vote on Election Day, and their exhortations are increasingly sounding like calls to support Republican challenger Mitt Romney over President Obama.

The most recent example: a letter from Illinois Bishop Daniel Jenky accusing the administration of an unprecedented “assault upon our religious freedom” and implying that Catholics who pull the lever for Democrats who support abortion rights are like those who condemned Jesus to death.

Vincent Gaglione
12 months ago

I premise what I write on the fact that I live in a nation that has no religious preferences at all and my firm belief that there should and must be a strict separation of Church and state. I might be persuaded otherwise by some cogent replies but this is how I feel now.

I know what I want to know and what I want to hear from Bishops when I think it's appropriate and timely. The following two examples provide some of my personal logic.

If same-sex marriage is the political question of the day, I want to hear the Catholic moral teaching and perspective on it from my Bishop. I am even willing to accept hearing an outright condemnation of the practice. I do not want to hear him tell me that I must support legislation prohibiting it and that I may not support a politician - Catholic or otherwise - politically for endorsing and voting on a position contrary to Catholic teaching.

If the separation of children from mothers is the issue of the day, I want to hear the Catholic moral teaching and perspective on it from my Bishop. I am even willing to accept hearing an outright condemnation of the practice. I do not want to hear him tell me that I must support legislation prohibiting it and that I may not support a politician - Catholic or otherwise - politically for endorsing and voting on a position contrary to Catholic teaching.

What I want any Bishop to do is teach, instruct, help form my conscience. And then I want him to say that I am responsible before God and man for the decisions that I make in light of the teaching of the church and my conscience. And I don’t want excommunications or other religious strictures hurled at me just because I differ with him on the political ends to be accomplished.

Is there ever an exception to what I have written? Obviously and absolutely. If the Catholic Bishops agree that a government of the USA is compelling its citizens into abiding and condoning absolutely immoral behaviors that the government performs, then I would expect them to provide an outright condemnation of the government, its leaders and the citizens who promote those behaviors. They have done such on abortion. While they have the right and obligation to present their moral viewpoints to our legislators, I do object to their public politicking with marches and lobbying. Their citizen congregants in the body politic have that responsibility.

I find the quality and extent of moral teaching on current behaviors provided by Bishops and clergy in the USA to be either weak or non-existent. They are good at accusing and condemning. They are not so good at encouraging and supporting the sinners among us. They could but apparently don’t take a lesson from Pope Francis!

Bill Mazzella
12 months ago

They are monarchs not servants. Their problem in a nutshell. They love honor, power an glory over crucifixion.

Christopher Lowery
12 months ago

Moral authority doesn't come from a fancy ring, vestments or a title. The bishops' referring to critical media coverage of the Church as "a problem" is very revealing of their attitude that the coverage is the problem, rather than the corruption that has been revealed. The sad fact is that the hierarchy of the Church has squandered its moral authority by not living up to its own teachings. The multiple scandals (involving more sins/crimes than that of the sexual abuse of children) have revealed a closed institution, run by an insular hierarchy that has proven incapable of governing both itself and the institution.

Many years ago, my father and mother (both committed Catholics) warned me against putting
too much faith in human institutions (including the Church), as humans are inherently fallible, and so by definition are their institutions. They also said the more closed an institution is, the more vulnerable it is to a perversion of its mission, as its leadership becomes increasingly focused on maintaining and expanding its authority than in pursuing its ostensible institutional purpose. As in most of what they taught me, they could not have been more right.

Until the hierarchy truly admits and atones for its own failures, acknowledges that the Church is and must be the entire People of God, and not just the clergy or hierarchy, and meaningfully involves the laity (and most particularly, women) in its governance, bishops may speak on whatever they like, but the reaction of the broader public will be "physician, heal thyself!"

Lastly, the more the clergy and bishops stray from the direct teachings of Jesus, the greater the opportunity for fallibility, and this is revealed most clearly in matters of human sexuality. Ostensibly celibate clergy lack the experience and background to speak authoritatively on those most personal, nuanced and complicated of issues. Of course, there are threshold principles of respect for human life and the dignity of the person that must be professed and accepted; but their application to specific situations is beyond any simple reduction to black and white rules, whether religious or legal. Avoiding absolutist edicts on such matters, and meaningfully involving the laity in the formulation of teaching on the principles involved would go a long way to helping the Church regain its moral authority.

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
12 months ago

In any well-meaning democracy, citizens irrespective of their uniforms need to lend their voice in support of holistic well-being of their community, society, nation and the Planet.

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