Faith in the Public Arena

Can Catholics disagree with the public policy positions of bishops?

By Jason Adkins / Minnesota Catholic Conference

This session, the Catholic bishops of Minnesota advocated in favor of a policy that would allow undocumented immigrants to drive legally in Minnesota. The bishops and Minnesota Catholic Conference staff have received plenty of feedback from Catholics throughout the state, and in many instances expressing their disagreement with that policy proposal.

This issue raises an occasion for asking what many of these Catholics are wondering: “Are we ‘bad Catholics’ for disagreeing with the bishops on this or other matters?” Or, perhaps, “Are the bishops overstepping their authority by taking such specific positions?” 

The key to answering these questions is to clarify the way in which the public policy positions of bishops are binding on the faithful. This is particularly vital at a time when society needs the perspective of the Church to bring the light of the Gospel to the polarized political debates of our day. The laity must consider carefully the policy positions proposed by bishops and work to make them their own insofar as they are built on the foundation of Gospel principles.

Bishops as teachers

A bishop, whose authority is by virtue of apostolic succession, is to be a herald of the Gospel in his diocese. He is the shepherd of all souls in his diocese, not just Catholics, and is entrusted with their pastoral care.

The most basic witness of the Gospel is to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor. One way we love our neighbors (that is, work for their authentic good) is advocating for laws and policies that promote their well-being. Bishops must defend the dignity of every human person, not because they are Catholic, but because we are.

A bishop who sees injustice being done to persons in his diocese, and does not speak out in their defense, is a weak herald of the Gospel. If a suffering person or group did not hear the voice of the Catholic bishop and Catholic community coming to their defense, is it likely that they will give the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel a real hearing? Maybe, maybe not.

The bishop, by virtue of his teaching office, has a responsibility to speak to the public about human dignity, as well as identify for the faithful specific local matters that affect the common good. Because important laws are made that affect his diocese at the state and federal level, he will join with other bishops in a “conference of bishops,” such as the Minnesota Catholic Conference, to engage public officials with one voice.

What is binding?

Not every policy proposal advocated by the Minnesota Catholic Conference is embraced by legislators. Neither are they embraced universally by every Catholic. The effect of such disagreement requires clarification and reflection. The Code of Canon Law (canons 750-53) spells out the duties of Catholics regarding their adherence to the Gospel and the teaching authority of the Church.

There are certain doctrines that one must believe “with the assent of faith” in order to be a Catholic. These include everything within “the one deposit of faith” and anything proposed by the Magisterium as divinely revealed – for example, the dogma of the Trinity, or the Virgin Birth. The assent of faith is also required for teachings that follow either logically or historically from divinely revealed truth, such as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species.

A second category of teachings is the “religious submission of the intellect and will” on the part of the faithful. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explains that religious submission is required “when the Magisterium, not intending to act ‘definitively,’ teaches a doctrine to aid a better understanding of Revelation and make explicit its contents, or to recall how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith, or finally to guard against ideas that are incompatible with these truths” (Doctrinal Commentary, 35). Many aspects of the social doctrine of the Church fall into this category.

Prudential judgment and obedience

Most of the policy positions taken by the bishops of Minnesota (unless they involve opposition to legislation sanctioning an intrinsic evil like same-sex marriage or assisted suicide) do not fall into these categories. They belong to what is called “ordinary prudential teaching on disciplinary matters,” which involve teachings that are contingent upon time and circumstance and which, unlike the first two categories, are subject to error insofar as they are decided upon by fallible human beings.

The USCCB has described how bishops “do not claim to make these prudential judgments with the same kind of authority that marks our declarations of principle. But we feel obliged to teach by example how Christians can undertake concrete analysis and make specific judgments on economic issues. The Church’s teaching cannot be left at the level of appealing generalities” (Economic Justice for All, 20).

This does not mean the policy positions proposed by the bishops should be treated as just another political opinion among many. Catholics should take their bishops’ political positions seriously, acknowledging that the Church’s guidance in these matters “is an essential resource for Catholics as they determine whether their own moral judgments are consistent with the Gospel and with Catholic teaching” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, 33).

Christ, source of teaching authority

One might disagree with a policy of the Minnesota Catholic Conference as a matter of prudence, as these proposals are less binding than other pronouncements of the teaching authority of the Church. But, depending on the issue, the moral principle on which it is based must be given at least the religious submission of intellect and will, and one’s discernment requires consideration of a reasonable policy alternative before concluding the bishops’ judgment is erroneous.

Bishops are not perfect, nor is every pastoral judgment they make always correct. Still, Jesus Christ has invested bishops with his teaching authority, a charism on which Catholics can rely in good conscience to shape their work in the public arena, even if they ultimately disagree on matters of prudential judgment.