Dolan to Lay Catholics: Be Our “Attractive, Articulate” (and Unpaid) Flacks
Following up on Lisa’s post below, I think Dolan’s call for Catholics to get more involved in politics is very interesting for what it suggests about how the bishops view the role of laypeople and about their conception of the role of the Catholic Church (understood in the broadest sense) in American public life. First off, kudos to Lisa for pointing out Dolan’s error on the right to marry. As I understand it, and contrary to the Cardinal’s assertion, the right to marry was one of the earliest examples of a subjective right in the Catholic moral discussions. Brian Tierney has written about this. In Dolan’s favor, Tierney’s discussion of the contours of that right points towards an understanding that is significantly narrower than contemporary discussions. Still, the long history of recognizing an affirmative right to chose one’s spouse greatly complicates the rhetorical force of the zinger Dolan was trying to land.
More important, in my opinion, is the substance of Dolan’s understanding of what it means for Catholics to become more involved in politics. Based on the report in the Times, it sounds like what Dolan has in mind is for Catholic laypeople to go out and sell to the public the political determinations reached exclusively by the Bishops. (I will complicate this a bit at the end of this post, but this seems to be his ultimate vision.) He says that the reason he wants laypeople out front is not because they might have insights to offer in prudential decision making that the Bishops lack, but simply because they are more palatable messengers than the Bishops themselves.
He says: “In the public square, I hate to tell you, the days of fat, balding Irish bishops are over.” He apparently said this without any sense of irony. Unfortunately, he seems to have meant it only in the narrowest and most literal terms. We can get a sense of his meaning from the example he offered. The Times tells us: ”He told a story about bishops hiring an “attractive, articulate, intelligent” laywoman to speak against abortion and said it was “the best thing we ever did. . . .” He makes clear, however, that he views the role of Catholic laypeople in politics in largely the same terms: to uncritically take the conclusions fed to them by the bishops and then sell them to the public more effectively than the bishops can themselves. The role of lay Catholics in the public sphere, however, is not to think for themselves about the implications of Catholic teachings for specific political determinations. Talking about the contraception rule controversy, he says: “We kind of got our Irish up when leaders in government seemed to be assigning an authoritative voice to Catholic groups that are not the bishops.” He added: “If you want an authoritative voice, go to the bishops. They’re the ones that speak for the truths of the faith.” In other words, Catholic laypeople who reach any conclusion contrary to the bishops have no standing to speak as Catholics. This understanding of the role of Catholic politicians laypeople in public life would leave ample room for independent thought if Dolan’s conception of “the truths of the faith” were sufficiently general. But he seems to view “the truths of the faith” as an extremely capacious category.
It includes not only determinations of high-level principles, but also the bishops’ views on very specific and fact-intensive moral conclusions, like the determination that Ella is an abortifacent or the conclusion that (under traditional Catholic views about cooperation with evil) Catholic institutions not only cannot provide health insurance that covers contraception that an employee is free to choose not to use but that those institutions must be empowered to preclude their own insurance carriers from separately contracting with employees to provide contraception coverage for no extra cost (or even, presumably, for some nominal extra cost). Although the Bishops have been loathe to actually justify this conclusion in detailed terms, others have argued that it rests on (1) the possibility that observers may view the provision of such insurance to employees of Catholic institutions as suggesting that the Catholic Church is not really serious about its opposition to contraception; and (2) the possibility that employees of these institutions will in fact consume more contraception by virtue of their newly mandated employment-related benefits and because of their misapprehension (due to the mandated coverage) of the depth of the Church’s opposition to contraception. My point in this post is not so much to challenge these claims (though they strike me as highly contestable) but to observe just how fine-grained and contingent a moral conclusion this is. And yet it is one that Dolan seems to understand in terms of the kinds of first principles over which the Bishops have an exclusive say. If no one but the bishops can speak out about the correct Catholic view of an issue such as this, there is precious little left to do for these lay Catholics in politics other than act as unpaid PR flacks for the political conclusions reached behind closed doors at the USCCB.
Dolan did offer one comment that suggests that there might be something for Catholic laypeople to add to the mix. ”While priests and bishops ‘stick to principles,’ he said, ‘we leave a lot of the messiness of politics up to you.’” It’s not clear what he means by the “messiness of politics.” I would have thought that he meant the kind of prudential considerations that lie at the heart of the application of Catholic moral principles to specific policy questions. But if “the principles” includes the ultimate issue of, for instance, precisely how proximately a Catholic institution can contribute to the ability of its employees to make an independent choice to procure and use contraception, then I’m not quite sure what is left.
UPDATE: Here is Andrew Sullivan’s take.