Docility to the Bishop’s Authority and American Politics

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about politics.  The Republican Party is currently in the middle of one of the more difficult primary seasons in recent decades.  The current administration is promoting an insurance regulation that directly impinges on the religious freedom of Catholics causing them to either violate their consciences or pay exorbitant fines.  No political party truly respects the dignity of the human person from conception through natural death.

Many Catholics (for the sake of easy stereotyping and contrasting we’ll call them ‘Social Justice Catholics’ or SJC’s for short) engage in the American political arena as Democrats, focusing on using the power and use of government to care for the poor, provide healthcare and restrain the tendency of the rich to use their wealth to accumulate more wealth at the expense of the poor.  Many other Catholics (these we’ll call Faithful Conservative Catholics™ or FCC’s for  short), concerned about the government’s seeming inability to do anything efficiently or well, focused on the key issue of abortion, engage with any candidate that promises to fight abortion and limit government, usually Republicans.

Both SJC’s and FCC’s claim that their respective positions are the true living out of the Church’s teachings in the reality of American politics.  Furthermore, many in both camps claim that the other camp is not following the Church’s teaching on particular issues (often this attack has an element of truth to it) and therefore are not ‘Real Catholics’.  The problem is that by making those two claims, both camps conflate Church teaching on issues and doctrines with the implementation of solutions.  The problem is compounded by each camps tendency to identify individual bishops and the USCCB in general with either their own camp (good bishops) or the other camp (bad bishops), forgetting that the duty of a Catholic is docility towards the bishops as the successors to the apostles.  Mark Shea has an excellent piece on the matter here.

Docility to the bishops has to do with faith and morals and more broadly speaking as examples of how to live a Christian life.  For example, out of docility to the bishops, I’m happy to look at the issue of climate change and the environment (even though I am extremely skeptical of the ‘science’, mainly because climate ‘scientists’ aren’t nearly skeptical enough of their own discipline).

However, I think faithful Catholics can (and probably should) disagree with each other over the best solutions. I come down firmly in the ‘government meddling will inevitably make any bad situation/issue worse’ camp. And in the ‘any regulation will likely have awful unintended consequences’ camp. SO, I am extremely skeptical of government schemes to regulate CO2. However, I do believe that we ought to conserve energy, recycle and otherwise care for our environment and I do support straightforward regulation to compel major corporations to do those things with the caveat that there needs to be careful consideration of any unintended consequences as well as a clear view for the economic harm likely to be caused by any regulation (whether or not that regulation is a ‘good’ regulation).

Likewise on healthcare and immigration. The focus needs to stay on caring for ‘the least of these’ but I think that we should be extremely skeptical of government aggregating power to itself to control decisions that ought to be made at a level much closer to those affected. Obamacare, in my view, is a law that increases the government’s power over the lives of individual citizens (see HHS Mandate) in ways that are improper for the Federal government. I think the whole law needs to be scrapped and something started from scratch that will address the same needs. Support for local solutions, catastrophic care insurance (as opposed to ‘everything and the kitchen sink insurance), the ability to purchase insurance across state lines (instantly makes insurance affordable and available to a majority of the currently uninsured), availability to purchase any health insurance plan with pre-tax dollars as well as make any health care spending with pre-tax dollars. Elimination of employer-provided health insurance (making the policy portable). All of these things I think would drastically reduce the 47 million that are uninsured currently. Then I think some reasonable effort, through the tax code to fund an ‘emergency’ fund as well as a ‘pre-existing condition’ fund at the local level to help those who still wouldn’t be able afford insurance and/or funding for free (to the uninsured) community health centers to provide that care.

However, there are there are those who think that a federal solution to those issues is best.  While we disagree on implementation we do agree about the fundamentals of the issues (human dignity, right to healthcare, right to a just wage, etc.).

In arguing about these issues we need to pay careful attention to those things that our bishops and Church require of us, what things they strongly teach as being (nearly) universally normative, and what things the Bishops speak about but deliberately leave the particulars up to lay Catholics to figure out.  For things that fall into the first two categories (required or dogmatic and taught as normative even though not dogmatic) it’s important to be docile to the teaching of the Church and the Bishops.  A good example of something taught dogmatically is opposition to abortion and contraception.  A good example of something taught as normative even though not dogmatic is opposition to the death penalty.

In all things, respect for the wisdom and authority of the Bishops is important for they are the heirs of the apostles and ought to be treated that way (even the ones who don’t act like it).

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15 Responses to Docility to the Bishop’s Authority and American Politics

  1. Pingback: New York Times ESPN Porn Gene Wojciechowski Maureen Dowd | The Pulpit

  2. DB says:


    Isn’t this well beyond prudent and proper obedience in those areas where the Bishops have rightful authority, like when they properly set forth Church teaching?

    Moreover, when it comes to economics, many Bishops do not reflect very much wisdom or common sense, so I believe they can be rightly challenged in some of their non-infallible pronouncements.

    I also believe that many Bishops go beyond their own jurisdictional authority when they limit some of their “economic analysis” to “the government must do X, Y, or Z” when such a prescription may not be necessary. I’m also not sure that the US Bishops en masse have the authority to declare that certain cuts in various programs are “immoral” unless they can demonstrate that:

    1. Such programs are absolutely necessary and cannot be replaced by private actions.
    2. The government and not the people per se have the obligation to help the poor, etc.

    For more things to consider in this regard, please feel free to check out my recent blog post at

    All the Best and God Bless!

    Omnia Vincit Veritas

    • dtfinn says:

      DB – I agree actually. My point wasn’t that we must obey the bishops in all prescriptions for public policy but rather that we ought to give their opinions and instruction serious weight even in matters of prudential judgement.

      Also, I think the dichotomy you are drawing between ‘government’ and ‘private action’ is a false one, particularly if you replace ‘government’ with ‘community’. The principle of subsidiarity doesn’t mean no government action but only necessary common actions that can’t be undertaken at a lower level of government or community action. National defense is a good example for the federal government, I think the interstate system would be another. At the more local level, high risk pools for people who would otherwise be unable to afford healthcare or health insurance would probably be best at the state or county level and education ought to be at the town level.

      • DB says:

        Thanks for your reply, dtfinn.

        Actually, I’m not drawing the false dichotomay you suppose because I’m simply advocating more private action before any government action whatsoever at any level. I am also not addressing the overall basic concept of subsidiarity that permits government action on an ascending scale of ever greater involvement should more local efforts or smaller government involvement Prove to be inadequate.

        Lastly, there are many forms of community action with some being private and some involving the government, so I cannot replace ‘community’ with ‘government’ as you recommend, and I recommend not blurring necessary distinctions as can happen if you substitute ‘community’ for ‘government.’

        All the Best and God Bless!


      • dtfinn says:

        I think that ‘private action’ in regards to any of the concerns I raised in my original point necessarily requires some form of community or group which to have any sort of direction to their efforts will necessarily have some form of government. I do think that you can make a distinction between ‘public government’ based primarily on place and ‘private government’ based primarily on association (which would perhaps equate to your ‘private action’) but both are necessary.

  3. I am not sure when it happened, but I beleive the Bishops got off track when they began asking government to do the things that Jesus had asked us to do. While taking care of those who are sick is why we have Catholic hospitals, I believe we could do a much better job with those services and not compromise our faith by taking care of the indigent ourselves, rather than accepting medicaid and medicare. The numbers that can be thrown out are daunting, but in reality the number of uninsured at any one time is not the same as the number without healthcare. There are large sectors of the population who choose to go uninsured during different points in their lives.
    Beyond that is those Catholic Universities that submit to the teachings of the Magistrarium (sp) are not as likely to be bogged down with tax funding, which again corrupts our message.
    Several years again a wise Cardinal, in discussing the priest scandal said, “there is not right and left theology, only right and wrong theology”. Better teaching of what we are as Catholic would do one of two things, thin the ranks of those who simply cannot accept these teachings, (John 6:65-66) the other is that we would be better informed and make our decisions based on the true teachings of the Holy Mother, Church.
    I believe that when Jesus said, “feed the hungry, cloth the naked, etc…” he was speaking directly to me, not telling me to elect someone who will hire someone to do it for me.
    Some of us do this with our time and talent, some do it with their treasure. Do we really believe that the government is any less corrupt/corrupting than the wealthy?
    Let us be Catholic, not ask government to do it for us. Governments roll should be narrow and defined, our roll should be to do as Jesus instructed AND listen to the Bishops.

    • dtfinn says:

      Hi Kathleen,

      Thanks for commenting. I agree with the substance of your points but it’s the practicality that I think is the concern. Right now in the US there is so much government ‘help’ for the poor which has elbowed out other programs that suddenly removing that ‘help’ would I think lead to considerable hardship in the short term for many people. I agree that we need to do this work as Catholics but we need to be aware of what will happen to many people if they stop receiving government ‘assistance’.

      As an aside, all of the ‘ ‘ around help and assistance is because I see much of what the government does as corrupting to the morals of people who are getting help who could, with the right training/assistance/etc., support themselves.

      I think that the bishops look at our current situation see Ryan’s budget (as an example) as doing immediate harm to the poor (even if long-term it may open up space again for the Church and others to help) and condemn it. I’d like to take the long term view but we need to be aware of what the bishops concerns are and substantively try to address them or concede to them. I’m concerned that there is a knee-jerk reaction of dissent based on political tribal loyalties (if not Republican/Democrat than Concervative/Liberal) from any statement by the bishops with which we disagree because of those political tribal loyalties and not thoughtfully.

    • DB says:

      Very fine insights, Kathleen. There is a mindset that proclaims “only the government can solve certain problems,” but this is an assumption without evidence. Moreover, as I point out in my post at, the more government is involved, the less people will be willing or able to do some Christ-like duties, which ties in with what you have set forth.

      God Bless!

      Omnia Vincit Veritas

  4. DB says:

    Hi, dtfinn:

    We will have to agree to disagree regarding your claim that some government action is required. This may be true in many or even most cases, but not necessarily in all. Moreover, I believe that more private actions can be substituted for government actions, and the private sphere is much better organized and gives better direction to most things than the government does.

    By the bye, one of the critical eras in history that led to more government involvement in the US economy was the late 19th/early 20th century when the Progressive/Socialist Movement began to exercise more influence. A primary promotion was the unsubstantiated claim that there were some problems that were so big that the government was the only solution. Sound familiar? 🙂

    Such a mindset still permeates the US today so that the thought of giving more control to the private sphere is almost seen as heretical or “immoral,” and it is proclaimed without any real evidence that the “private sphere” cannot do such things.

    God Bless!


    • Dan F. says:

      I think it’s not so much that the ‘private sphere’ isn’t capable of doing such things but that it isn’t capable ‘yet’. In other words, for all the reasons you listed, government has already crowded out private charity to the point where there would be a significant gap if the government were to step out of that sphere of activities before private charity would be able to pick up the slack. I would suggest some coordinated action between the government and major charitable organizations (at the federal level) and smaller charitable organizations at the state level prior to making that sort of change (which I think is necessary for our nation’s fiscal health as well as for my children’s sake).

      • DB says:

        Greetings, Dan:

        We’ll still have to agree to disagree. There are numerous examples of the private sector taking over for the government where people did not believe the private sector “was ready.” Research “privatization” for such examples.

        I remember one telling example of privatization (not involving charity) from New Jersey in the late 1990s/early 2000s, where the mayor of Jersey City turned over control of the water supply to a private company. The complaint/protest was that a private company was not capable, etc., but as it turned out, not only was it capable, the water quality was improved at lower cost.

        Coordinated actions are oftentimes like “getting a little bit pregnant,” so the sooner more things are turned over to the private sector, the better.

        God Bless!


  5. Pingback: Creative Fidelity Labors to Defend One of the Dirtiest Words in the American Catholic Vocabulary

  6. Hezekiah Garrett says:

    I’ll just say for a government by, of and for the people, nobody seems to want to take credit for it.

    Just stop using the very word and things become clearer. We do a bad job of helping people right now. As a society. We need to find better ways. I don’t see how a government/private dichotomy feeds the hungry.

  7. Adrian says:

    The sensibilities of the Catholic Hierarchy are largely informed by the political conservatism of continental Europe, which (while hostile to socialism and class-based politics) has never supported the laissez faire economics associated with classical liberalism or the modern American G.O.P.. The capitalism we know today is not an ancient system based on God-given freedoms, it is a relatively new social and economic arrangement with a markedly Protestant ideological foundation. This was obvious to the most orthodox Catholic thinkers 100 years ago, but it simply does not compute for your typical suburban (White) American Catholic Republican.

    Indeed, apart from a few bizarre blogs and websites — often run by American converts to Catholicism — the classical liberal school of “small government conservatism” has no place whatsoever in the Catholic intellectual tradition. Feudalism has such a place, as does early modern absolutism, integralism, distributism, and even anarchism. But not Paul Ryan-ism. Sorry.

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