Reassessing Recent USCCB Statements on Public Policy

Many faithful Catholics know that for decades the U.S. bishops conference and its bureaucratic arm have often been criticized for their statements about public questions and issues. The statements have at times seemed to line up too readily with politically liberal positions, been overly specific, too focused on public policy solutions, and unduly restrictive of lay options. The problem was documented thirty years ago by J. Brian Benestad’s Pursuit of a Just Social Order: Policy Statements of the U.S. Catholic Bishops, 1966-80. To be sure, the bishops have taken a much more restrained stance since the 1980s, when the whole matter came to a head with the controversial statements on war and peace (The Challenge of Peace) and the economy (Economic Justice for All). It had been argued that the conference was too much influenced and deferential to its left-leaning staffers. There have in the last few years been encouraging changes in the USCCB’s staff, however.

Still, the positions taken by the USCCB on some leading current public questions show a need to examine more the complexity of some issues and to give sufficient emphasis to all the leading principles of Catholic social teaching and not over-embellish just certain ones.

For example, during the health care debate of 2009-10, the conference seemed to focus most of its attention on the abortion coverage issue. On one hand, this is understandable since the human life issues remain the crucial moral question of our time and the bishops no doubt remembered the strong Clinton push to include abortion in his 1993 national health insurance proposal. In a statement early in 2011 after the passage of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), the USCCB clearly indicated that it supported the law in general but opposed its final passage because of its failure to prohibit the use of public funds for abortion and its providing of subsidies for health care plans that cover elective abortion. It also lamented the lack of conscience protections and the fact that immigrant families would not be able to purchase plans in the new health care exchanges. The bishops’ support for access to decent health care for everyone in the U.S. was commendable—after all, Pope John XXIII had listed medical care as one of the components of the right to life in his encyclical Pacem in Terris (#11)—but their readiness to embrace a federal government solution was problematical.

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Their moral analysis needed to go further. What about subsidiarity, one of the central principles of Catholic social teaching? In his classic formulation of that principle in Quadragesimo Anno (#79), Pope Pius XI stated that, “to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by lesser and subordinate bodies” is “a grave evil and a disturbance of right order.” Adherence to subsidiarity, then, is a moral question. While there are certainly serious problems with American health care, especially concerning costs, it can hardly be said that our relatively decentralized health care arrangements have been a failure and vast numbers are denied needed medical care. John J. Schrems of Villanova University, a leading scholarly authority on subsidiarity, says that before taking on a task, the higher or more distant unit—in health care it’s the federal government—must prove that the lower levels cannot perform it satisfactorily and that it can do better. Clearly, such a showing has not been made, and absent that the morality of the entire matter of a larger federal health care role must be called into question. It would also have been helpful to emphasize the proper relationship between subsidiarity and the principle of solidarity. Left-of-center Catholics frequently mention solidarity to defend big welfare-statist initiatives. Solidarity involves brotherhood and insuring justice for all. It does not justify the subversion of subsidiarity; these principles must both be upheld and work together. Pope John Paul II specifically criticized the welfare state in Centesimus Annus (#48-49); the principle of solidarity cannot be used to justify it.

The mention of immigrants gets us to another major public issue that requires better analysis by the bishops and their staff. If the bishops’ health care statement meant just legal immigrants, there really is no issue: they are eligible to shop for insurance on the new exchanges. Why should illegal immigrants be given this same prerogative, however? Nothing in Catholic social teaching requires that special government benefits be provided to persons who are not even citizens, much less those who have broken the law. Moreover, the statement perhaps wrongly identifies access to health care with health insurance. In fact, the ACA provides additional federal funding for community health centers that HHS concedes will now primarily serve illegal immigrants.

The USCCB’s major recent statement on immigration, Strangers No Longer, makes a number of sensible policy recommendations, such as promoting family reunification and a foreign-born worker program. However, its readiness to propose or embrace specific policy proposals at all—as opposed to focusing on opposing the ones which collide with Catholic teaching—may be problematical, since there can be a large range of morally acceptable policy approaches. These are mostly matters of prudential judgment. As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states, it is not the Church’s prerogative “to enter into questions of the merit of political programmes, except as concerns their religious or moral implications” (#424).

The statement echoes well what Pope Benedict said in 2008 about the need to address economic problems within countries in order to eliminate the need of their people to migrate. However, at its website the USCCB’s Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs, incredibly, laid the responsibility for accomplishing this squarely on the U.S.:Congress should examine the root causes of migration, such as under-development and poverty in sending countries, and seek long-term solutions.” What authority, obligation, right, or even capability does the U.S. Congress have to try to solve what may be deep-seated or even intractable problems in other countries? Don’t these countries’ own political and economic leaders bear the basic responsibility for that? It is also troubling that neither Strangers No Longer nor the website hold illegal immigrants blameworthy for violating the immigration laws which, while in need of improvement, cannot be called simply unjust. Even though the Church consistently emphasizes the importance of the rule of law, there is no concern expressed that the massive influx of illegal immigrants and a lax response damages the rule of law.

Another subject is minimum wage laws. The bishops’ support for minimum wage increases is decades old, but support for a federal minimum wage specifically may be problematical in light, again, of subsidiarity. Some argue that economic conditions vary considerably around the country and so, if legislating a minimum wage is indicated, it is perhaps best handled at the state level or it should be allowed to vary according to local conditions. The website of the USCCB’s Justice, Peace, and Economic Development Department at least mentions one of the usual criticisms of raising the minimum wage that it results in jobs being eliminated by employers, but then quickly dismisses it. It also doesn’t address the important issue of the effect of minimum wage hikes on youth unemployment levels. While I’ve never been an anti-minimum wage advocate, it is reasonable to ask if a particular policy approach, even if long-standing, may be the best one.

This suggests an even more basic question that Benestad wondered about: Does the conference still look too automatically for legislative solutions? There is no question that providing a just wage—or what since John Paul II has been called a “family wage”—is a moral imperative of Catholic social teaching. Does looking so readily to government cause other solutions to be ignored? Should the Church preach more about the obligations of businessmen and corporate leaders to provide a just wage? Should the notion of economic restructuring which captivated Catholic social thinkers of an earlier era—occupational groups and the like, which would enable government to step back but in no way promoted laissez faire—be given renewed consideration? Should there be more stress on the need to shape entrepreneurial attitudes and the virtues connected with them—which were specifically commended by Centesimus Annus—to help people build themselves up economically? Should more basic economic and financial reforms be considered that would promote a truly just wage, which the website acknowledges is not at all synonymous with a minimum wage? Looking at a bigger picture, more analysis, and “thinking outside of the box” seems to be called for.

Finally, for all the USCCB’s attention to current social, economic, and political issues and concern about public policy, it seems unaware of certain serious problems. The Church is always concerned about the family, but I can recall no mention in any statement and there is nothing on the websites of any USCCB department about one of the gravest threats to the family today: the victimization of massive numbers of innocent American parents by the vague and dangerous child abuse and neglect laws and the intrusive child protective system. Normal parental behaviors are often treated as child “maltreatment,” so that family privacy is trodden upon and the law provides the basis in theory for a universal regimentation of the American family. If public policy is such a concern, the USCCB should consider calling for a re-examination of the federal Mondale Act that set this entire anti-family regime in operation. Even if this is not paid attention to by the media, commentators, and most policymakers, shouldn’t the conference be concerned about a major family issue?

Perhaps what is needed by the USCCB and its bureaucracy is more—and more far-reaching—analysis of the public questions addressed, more attention to crucial public matters that are not on the radar screen, a greater awareness of the dangers of centralized governmental power and of the need to keep subsidiarity always intact, a willingness to go outside the standard current ways of viewing socio-politico-economic questions, and more sensitivity to the fact that Catholic social teaching permits a broad range for prudential judgment and that there are many acceptable policy and other approaches to insuring that its principles are realized.


  • Stephen M. Krason

    Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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