The aftershocks of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ opposition to certain elements of recent health-care legislation are still being felt in the church months later. Religious communities that supported the legislation are being subjected to harsh and unwarranted punitive measures and the Catholic Health Association, whose support of the legislation was crucial to its passage, is being maligned by right-wing groups like the Catholic News Agency.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, current president of the USCCB, contends that the dispute is fundamentally a matter of ecclesiological principle. In a recent interview with John Allen, the cardinal said that the disagreement with the Catholic Health Association over health-care legislation was “about the nature of the church itself” and was therefore a disagreement “that has to concern the bishops.” This was a disagreement about the nature, limits, and proper exercise of episcopal authority. But there is a second, closely related matter at stake—namely, the character of Christian participation in public life. It may be helpful to begin there.

One of the most overlooked contributions of the Second Vatican Council was its theology of Christian mission. The council taught that the church was “missionary by her very nature” (Ad gentes, 2). The church realized its mission by being a “universal sacrament of salvation” (Lumen gentium, 48) and a “leaven in the world” (Gaudium et spes 40). No longer would the church be content to denounce the evils of the world from the lofty parapets of its ecclesial fortress. Now the church would fulfill its mission in a generous yet critical dialogue and constructive collaboration with all humanity. The council exemplified a genuine humility in asserting that even as it offered to the world the gift of Christ and the proclamation of the in-breaking of God’s reign, it did not possess clear answers to every pressing human question. 

The church guards the heritage of God’s word and draws from it moral and religious principles without always having at hand the solution to particular problems. As such she desires to add the light of revealed truth to mankind’s store of experience, so that the path which humanity has taken in recent times will not be a dark one. (Gaudium et spes, 33)

Here was a vision of the church cooperating with all humankind in confronting the most pressing challenges of the age. This cooperation was the responsibility of all Christians who, by virtue of their baptism, were charged with proclaiming the reign of God in word and deed. But it was the special responsibility of the laity, who are typically more immersed in worldly affairs:

Laymen should also know that it is generally the function of their well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city; from priests they may look for spiritual light and nourishment. Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission. (Gaudium et spes, 43)

The council called for the laity to be courageous in bringing their faith to bear on every aspect of their daily lives, including the public order. It follows that Christians should fulfill the responsibilities of their citizenship by drawing on the insights of their faith in their discernment about which candidates for public office to support and which public-policy initiatives to advocate. 

The council bishops were surprisingly realistic about the complexity of this task and recognized in the same article that “often enough the Christian view of things will itself suggest some specific solution in certain circumstances. Yet it happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that with equal sincerity some of the faithful will disagree with others on a given matter.” How is this disagreement to be adjudicated? Christians “should always try to enlighten one another through honest discussion, preserving mutual charity and caring above all for the common good.” These texts reflect a sophisticated grasp of both the necessity and the complexity of Christian participation in the public realm. 

Such participation is complex because it involves the church’s teachings at different levels. First, of a more general nature, are universal moral teachings regarding, for example, the law of love, the call to forgiveness, the prohibition of murder, the dignity of the human person, the preferential option for the poor, and the concern for the common good. Those teachings are firmly grounded in Scripture and appear prominently, as they ought to, in magisterial teaching. By themselves, however, such principles are too general to provide much concrete guidance.

At a second level, there are specific moral principles. These principles emerge out of ecclesial reflection on the specific implications of universal moral teachings in the light of theological inquiry, the modern sciences, and human experience. This complex ecclesial reflection has led the church to assert various political, civic, and economic rights (including a right to health care), specific criteria for engaging in a just war, and very restrictive conditions for the just use of capital punishment. 

Finally, there are prudential judgments about the concrete application of specific moral principles. This third level of moral teaching draws on a tradition that goes back at least as far as St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas emphasized the importance of the virtue of prudence in the moral life. Following Aristotle, he held that prudence was an exercise of practical reason and was oriented toward the search for the good to be found in any circumstance (Summa Theologiae II–II, Q. 47, a. 2). The exercise of prudence required that one have a solid knowledge of the pertinent moral principles, but it also required that one attend to the concrete particulars of each situation. These particulars, unlike the principles themselves, are fluid and changing, and one’s grasp of them is necessarily more tentative than one’s knowledge of a principle. This means that one’s certitude about the rightness or wrongness of one’s judgments diminishes the more the judgments depend on contingent empirical data. And to the degree that contingency limits our certitude, there should be a greater willingness to tolerate disagreement.

This reflection on the character of Christian participation in public life may shed some light on the recent conflict over the USCCB’s opposition to the abortion-funding restrictions in the new health-care law. First, we should welcome the fact that so many Catholics recognized the importance of health-care reform and became involved in the public debate. Second, we should be pleased that so many of these Catholics, including many Catholic politicians, were quite open and unapologetic about the influence of Catholic social teaching on their assessment of the merits of the legislation. Third, it is evident that virtually all the debate among various Catholic parties concerned neither universal moral principles nor specific moral principles (there was almost complete agreement at those levels); the debate was conducted almost entirely at the level of prudential judgments regarding very complex legislative language. In other words, the argument was not about whether abortion should be legal, nor was it about whether there should be federal funding of abortion. The argument was about whether specific legislative provisions did what most advocates of the legislation insisted they did—namely, prohibit federal funding of abortions in accord with the principles of the Hyde Amendment. Finally, virtually all Catholic parties welcomed the participation of the bishops in the debate and acknowledged their moral authority. What was ultimately at issue, as Cardinal George noted, was the nature, limits, and exercise of that authority.

In the NCR interview Cardinal George expressed his concern this way: “What worries me more than a difference over empirical content, however, is the claim that the bishops cannot speak to the moral content of the law.” But is that really what’s at issue? I cannot speak for the Catholic Health Association, but I am pretty confident that the CHA and, for that matter, the many other Catholic religious communities, politicians, and scholars who ultimately supported the health-care legislation do not wish to challenge the teaching authority of the bishops, or the right and obligation of the bishops to speak to “the moral content of the law.” No, the real principle at stake has to do with the character of that authority. 

The bishops’ teaching authority is not binary in character; it is simply not the case that they either teach with an authority that demands unconditional and unquestioning assent or they teach with no authority at all. According to Catholic teaching, bishops receive through episcopal ordination a special assistance of the Holy Spirit in their ministry to proclaim and safeguard the apostolic faith. This ministry certainly includes teaching in the moral realm. However, episcopal authority is graduated. It is greatest where it is exercised in preservation of revealed moral teaching. As their teaching moves toward concrete judgments about public policy their claim to authority, though legitimate, is diminished. To recognize this gradual attenuation of episcopal authority as it moves further and further away from revealed truth is not to disparage the episcopal office. But as bishops approach complicated practical questions that revelation cannot answer by itself, their reasoning will need to be more explicit and they’ll need to manifest cooperation with other, nonreligious authorities—for example, experts in public policy. The bishops’ influence in these areas will depend not only on their commitment to gospel values but also on careful study of the available facts and widespread consultation with people whose authority is based on expertise.

In the 1980s, critics of the activism of the bishops conference (including then-Cardinal Ratzinger) feared that if the U.S. bishops waded into complex public-policy disputes they would compromise their authority on more properly “doctrinal” concerns. In my view, that danger was exaggerated: as long as the bishops acknowledged that their authority with respect to public policy was not as great as their authority in matters more strictly pertaining to faith and morals, and that Catholics were allowed to disagree at the level of public policy, then those episcopal pronouncements could play a helpful role in the formation of consciences. 

In fact, in the '80s the bishops made this distinction explicit in two of their better-known pastoral letters, The Challenge of Peace [PDF] and Economic Justice for All [PDF]. Both documents asserted that the moral applications and prudential judgments offered by the bishops must be given “serious attention and consideration by Catholics as they determine whether their moral judgments are consistent with the Gospel” (The Challenge of Peace, 10). Nevertheless, they also admitted that Catholics might legitimately differ with the bishops regarding these moral applications and prudential judgments.

Practically speaking, how does that work? Imagine a situation in which the bishops feel compelled to offer a moral assessment of whether a particular military action fulfills the demands of the pertinent just-war criteria. The bishops’ concrete judgment would require assessing all sorts of technical and contingent data (whether there is a just cause for the engagement, the specific rules of engagement, weapons capabilities, the status of military targets), the proper interpretation of which might well be open to dispute. Catholics would be obligated to take the bishops’ assessments seriously, but they would not be compelled to agree with them.

It is difficult to see how the bishops’ assessment of health-care legislation was any different. The bishops had to make an extraordinarily complex assessment of labyrinthine legal provisions and federal statutes regarding the prohibition of the federal funding of abortion. This required a considerable dependence on the research of their staff. Of course the very complexity of such legislation makes policy assessments by church leadership helpful to the ordinary Catholic, who often has neither the time nor the expertise to explore these provisions with rigor. But the complexity diminishes the authority of such judgments. It is difficult to see the bishops conference’s judgment about the abortion-funding restrictions in the new health-care legislation as anything other than a concrete prudential judgment, to which Catholics must carefully attend but with which they need not agree. 

The bishops need to recognize that their failure to acknowledge that they speak with less authority when they speak about a highly complicated piece of public policy could lead to precisely what those earlier critics feared—namely, the discrediting of episcopal authority in general. The issue is not whether the bishops should get involved in evaluating the details of public policy; it is whether they will acknowledge that when they do so their conclusions do not carry as much weight as their statements about fundamental moral principles.

All Catholics are obliged to attend carefully and respectfully to their bishops’ judgments about public policy. Nevertheless, the guidance bishops offer in this domain does not trump the obligation of Catholics to exercise their own prudential judgments in the public realm. The main shortcoming of the bishops' assessment of the health-care legislation did not lie in their concrete judgment itself, but in their failure to acknowledge the more limited authority that such a specific judgment carried.

The complexity of the many moral issues that we now face in the modern world makes the exercise of an authoritative teaching office more important than ever. Catholics generally welcome this guidance, but they also recognize that every competency has its limits. The more an authority appears to overreach its competence, the more it undermines its own credibility. This too is a matter of ecclesiological principle. Those of us who believe in the necessary role of an episcopal teaching office have to hope that our bishops will recognize that their authority is enhanced rather than diminished when they acknowledge its proper limits.


Related: Catholic Unity and Crying Wolf, by the Editors
Uncertainty Principle, by Daniel Finn
Episcopal Oversight, by Timothy Stoltzfus Jost


Richard R. Gaillardetz is the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College and the author of An Unfinished Council: Vatican II, Pope Francis and the Renewal of Catholicism (Liturgical Press).

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