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The word competence has several meanings, most of which congregate around ability and authority . It is not clear which meaning is pertinent to the announcement that the national bishops’ conference will be meeting with congressional Democrats who are Catholics in order to devise a way to withdraw troops from Iraq in what is described as a "responsible transition." A week later, presumably in order to underscore their bipartisanship, it was announced that the bishops would be meeting also with Catholic Republicans. Bishop Thomas Wenski is chairman of the conference’s committee on international policy. He said, "The current situation in Iraq is unacceptable and unsustainable, as is the policy and political stalemate among decision makers in Washington." So it would seem that the premise of this episcopal intervention is that the administration is wrong and its critics are right about American policy in Iraq. But maybe not. Perhaps the bishops are just saying the obvious: that nobody likes the current situation in Iraq. They are obviously competent to say the obvious, although it’s not clear why bishops are needed for that. Yet more puzzling is the assertion that "the policy and political stalemate among decision makers in Washington" is unacceptable and unsustainable. Which "policy" might that be? The Iraq policy of the administration? The policy of political stalemate in Congress? If the latter, stalemate is more practice than policy and is eminently sustainable, as is evident throughout most of congressional history. Bishop Wenski continues: "Our conference hopes to 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." Here is where the question of competence gets more interesting. What gives the bishops’ conference either the ability or the authority to be forging policies for the conduct of foreign affairs by the U.S. government? And, allowing for the moment that they do have that competence, why are they meeting only with Catholics in Congress? Is the result of this intervention to be a Catholic foreign policy? Paul ( American Freedom and Catholic Power ) Blanshard, call your office. Bishops are ordained "to teach, sanctify, and govern." Govern is usually understood to mean governing the Church, not the country. In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est , Pope Benedict insists that the Church concentrate on its proper work ( opus proprium ) of evangelization, teaching, and the works of charity: "Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. It is not a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs." One is inclined to the view that the bishops’ conference does not have the competence, in the meaning of both ability and authority, to forge, or serve as broker in the efforts of others to forge, worldly stratagems for the Middle East. It is not evident that the nation lacks legitimate political authorities whose task it is to deal with such matters. Nor is it evident that there is a bipartisan call for the bishops to help them do their job. Kindly note that I have refrained from mentioning that the recent record of the bishops in governing the Church¯where they do have competence (at least in the sense of authority)¯is not so stellar as to warrant great confidence in their ability to conduct American foreign policy. Nor, be it noted, have I mentioned that no comparable initiative has been announced by the bishops’ conference to constructively engage the many Catholic members of Congress who reject and persistently work against the Church’s teaching regarding the protection of unborn children, a matter indisputably within episcopal competence and on which the conference has spoken words of admirable clarity. 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." They would not. 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 and its incompatibility with the ambition to be a player in the contriving of worldly stratagems.

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