On July 31, I posted here " A Respectful Word on Episcopal Competence ." Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Florida, who is head of the bishops’ Committee on International Policy, then offered an equally respectful response on August 7. In his response, he underscored what he described as "factual errors and mistaken assumptions" in my commentary. I was out of the country when we posted his response. Perhaps a further clarification is in order.

In his response Bishop Wenski said that, contrary to my suggestion, the plan of the bishops to meet with representatives of Congress is thoroughly bipartisan and has as its purpose the discussion of "the moral questions of a ‘responsible transition’" with respect to U.S. policy in Iraq. Such moral questions are surely within the competence of bishops, and he invoked statements by Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Benedict XV on the Church’s responsibility to seek peace. The bishop also refers to the strong statements against U.S. intervention in Iraq made by Pio Cardinal Laghi after a meeting with President Bush in March 2003. He also noted the earlier and express sympathy of the bishops’ conference with the report this past year of the Iraq Study Group. The conference said that in "its broad outlines [the report’s proposals] mirror the benchmarks and new approaches that our conference has advocated in promoting a ‘responsible transition.’"

In raising a question about the competence of the bishops to, in the words of Bishop Wenski, "work with the Congress and the administration to forge bipartisan policies on ways to bring about a responsible transition and an end to the war," I gently suggested that those familiar with the track record of the bishops in governing the Church, which is the sphere in which they unquestionably do have competence (at least in the sense of authority), might be forgiven for a measure of skepticism about episcopal competence in forging foreign policy. I had in mind particularly, although not only, the continuing scandal over clerical sex abuse for which the Church has, to date, made payouts of more than $2 billion. It is perhaps understandable that Bishop Wenski did not respond to that part of my little essay.

He did respond to my observation that, on the "life questions," beginning with the protection of unborn children, the bishops have not launched a project comparable to that launched to change Iraq policy. Bishop Wenski wrote, "The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is perhaps the most visible and effective advocate for unborn children, and virtually everyone in Congress is well aware of this fact." That is no doubt right. The emphasis, however, is on a comparable project. I am not aware of any announcement by the bishops of a comparable project to "work with the Congress and the administration to forge bipartisan policies on ways to bring about" the legal protection of the unborn.

Of course, it may be objected that such a project would be futile, since the abortion question is so charged with political partisanship. Fair enough, but that raises the question of the bipartisan or nonpartisan nature of the bishops’ Iraq initiative. That initiative was undertaken in response to a letter from fourteen Democratic members of Congress who¯although some are prominent opponents of the Church’s teaching on the protection of human life¯identify themselves as Catholics. In their letter, the Democrats described themselves as "increasingly disheartened with our country’s presence in Iraq." The letter did not ask the bishops for moral guidance on the Church’s teaching with respect to war and peace, a subject on which, one would like to think, the bishops possess a degree of competence. Rather, the letter asked the bishops "to help mobilize Catholic opinion . . . in pursuit of our shared goal of ending the war in Iraq as soon as possible." Explicitly criticizing President Bush and the policies of this administration, the letter concludes, "We respectfully urge the USCCB to join with us in mobilizing support for Congress’ efforts to end the war."

The letter to which Bishop Wenski, on behalf of the USCCB, responded positively was, to put it delicately, hardly nonpartisan. His response on this website repeatedly referred to what he described as the bishops’ interest in a "responsible transition." His letter to congressional Democrats is more explicit. It expresses unhappiness with current policies and says that the bishops "share your deep concern for the dangerous and deteriorating situation in Iraq." He told the Democrats that "our nation must have the moral courage to change course in Iraq and to break the policy and political stalemate in Washington." He did not, as in his posting here, speak merely of a "responsible transition" but stated that the goal is "to bring an end to the war in Iraq" and, at another point, "to end U.S. military engagement in Iraq."

As evidence of nonpartisanship, the bishop notes that he later sent the same letter to the Republican leadership of the House, inviting them to join in this project. It is, I respectfully suggest, a new definition of nonpartisanship when Catholic bishops declare their agreement with Democrats and then invite Republicans to join their Democratic opponents in contending against a Republican administration and its policies.

Faithful Catholics listen attentively when bishops speak on faith and morals. My original point about competence is that Bishop Wenski and his committee are overreaching. Episcopal competence is related to faith and morals, not to faith, morals, and public policy¯except when, as, for example, in the instance of abortion, specific public policies are entailed in the solemn magisterial teaching of the Church on faith and morals. That is decidedly not the case in this instance.

I wrote that "competence" has different meanings, usually congregating around ideas of authority and ability . Differences over American policy in Iraq are in the realm of prudential judgment. There are indeed moral questions involved in any policy of consequence. But when the bishops speak of "the dangerous and deteriorating situation in Iraq" and declare that the answer is to "end U.S. military engagement in Iraq," they are making prudential judgments about eminently debatable circumstances. These are matters of fact and speculation about which people of equal or greater competence (meaning ability ) disagree. I am not aware of any evidence that the bishops possess a knowledge of what is happening in Iraq superior to that possessed by well-informed citizens or by the public officials most directly responsible for the nation’s foreign policy.

Much more important, when the bishops present their prudential judgments as the teaching of the Catholic Church, they are exceeding their competence (meaning authority ). This is a matter of much greater gravity. The bishops can likely have slight influence one way or another in "forging," to use Bishop Wenski’s term, U.S. policy in Iraq. The congressional Democrats delude themselves in thinking that the bishops can "mobilize Catholic opinion [for] ending the war in Iraq as soon as possible." What the abuse of episcopal authority can do is to further undermine the integrity and credibility of the bishops in the exercise of a task for which they are ordained, the teaching of Catholic faith and morals.

The conclusion of my original reflection bears repeating:

Please do not think that the questions raised here would be any different if the bishops’ conference had announced its intention to "forge bipartisan policies for prevailing in Iraq and winning the war on terror." The questions would be the same. And please do not blame Bishop Wenski. After all, there is that committee on international policy, he is the chairman, and committees have an irrepressible itch to do something. Perhaps, when its members can take time from the onerous episcopal responsibilities that are properly theirs, the committee might work for the next few years on a thoughtful statement addressing the Church’s opus proprium [meaning "proper work," as explained by Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est ] and the incompatibility of that opus proprium with the ambition to be a player in the contriving of what the pope calls worldly stratagems.

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

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