We interrupt the presidential campaign to raise this pressing question. Back in 1969, Bill Buckley sent my parents a hilarious book—not his, but his sister’s. Aloïse Buckley Heath was mother of ten rambunctious and inquisitive children, one of whom asked her, some 48 Octobers ago, if Tommy Major’s mother, who lived next door, would go to Hell because she planned to vote for Lyndon Johnson.
The outcome of that saga will have to wait—but a similar rumination comes to mind today. The Chairman of the House Budget Committee, vice-presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), insists that he respects and embraces Catholic social teaching when drafting legislation. Yet, for over a year, Mr. Ryan’s budget proposal has been roundly condemned by a prominent successor to the Apostles. Since the “Ryan Budget” slows the rate of growth in taxpayer-funded social programs, Rep. Ryan has been repeatedly attacked by Bishop Steven Blaire of Stockton, California, brandishing the widely-respected brand name of the USCCB, where he chairs a committee. Bishop Blaire calls Mr. Ryan’s budget cuts (sic) “unjust and wrong” and asserts that they fail to meet “moral criteria.” His condemnation has been gleefully trumpeted by the religious left, with Georgetown University faculty members, Maureen Dowd, and Al Sharpton in the lead.
Recently, several bishops have come to the defense of Mr. Ryan—not endorsing his budget, but affirming his right as a layman to exercise the laity’s specific “charism of political leadership and decision,” as Timothy Cardinal Dolan, citing Lumen Gentium, wrote to the congressman in May 2011. Since then, Catholics both lay and clerical have fruitfully unearthed and explored the distinction between issues involving moral absolutes which bind the informed Catholic conscience, on the one hand, and the freedom of the faithful to differ on approaches to prudential issues, on the other. For Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison, Rep. Ryan’s ordinary, the first category addresses “intrinsic evils,” while the second comprises issues “where intrinsic evil is not involved. How best to care for the poor,” Bishop Morlino continues, “is probably the finest current example of this.”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
In recent months, this vibrant discussion has focused on the rights of the laity. But what about those of the hierarchy? Our shepherds often criticize particular instances of the laity’s right to prudential judgment, often insisting that their political opinions are magisterial because they are episcopal. But that door swings both ways. Can the layman disagree with his bishop’s prudential judgments, on the one hand, while honoring the bishop’s binding authority—indeed, his duty—to teach the authentic truths of the Magisterium, on the other? Should he? A brief consideration of that distinction, focusing on some prudential episcopal decisions, might be timely.
Since Bishop Blaire’s salvos began in early 2011, I have repeatedly called and written him to ask if Catholics could disagree with his prudential political views. For instance, on August 31, 2011, he wrote to members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction on Capitol Hill a letter containing this passage:
However, it would be wrong to balance future budgets by hurting those who already hurt the most by cutting programs such as foreign aid, affordable housing programs, child nutrition, or health care.
Three weeks later I wrote Bishop Blaire, asking:
Does your public advocacy of this specific legislation constitute a teaching of the “authentic magisterium of their bishops,” like Humanae Vitae, to which the “faithful are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind?” (Canon 753; Lumen Gentium 25). Is a Catholic of good will bound by Canon Law “to adhere with religious submission of mind” to your prudential political views?
Bishop Blaire never responded. After my repeated follow-ups, his spokeswoman finally told me that the bishop was “swamped,” and could not answer my simple question.
Bishop Blaire has good reason to be swamped. The city of Stockton, the seat of his diocese, has declared bankruptcy, the largest U.S. jurisdiction to do so. His sincerity and his concern for the plight of the poor—he knows them well—cannot be doubted, pace his attacks on Rep. Ryan’s budget. But like every other bishop—and like Rep. Ryan—Bishop Blaire makes prudential decisions all the time in the official conduct of his office. And laymen have long acknowledged our bishops’ right to do so, even when they disagree.
Some of those decisions are telling. Bishop Blaire was quick to condemn Rep. Ryan, two time zones away, but he has been strangely silent about two of Ryan’s congressional colleagues, a pair of adamantly pro-abortion Catholics who represent the Stockton diocese in Congress. The offices of these officials, Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA-11) and Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-CA-18), could not refer me to any occasion on which Bishop Blaire had publicly condemned their pro-abortion position as “unjust,” “wrong,” or “immoral.” And neither could Bishop Blaire’s spokeswoman. On June 12, 2011, Bishop Blaire did advise me through his spokeswoman that “I have spoken several times with each of them [Reps. McNerney and Cardoza] about the Church’s teaching.” But I can find no record of a single public admonition by the bishop, let alone any of the magnitude of those leveled at Rep. Ryan.
Of course, Bishop Blaire isn’t bound to make such a public statement. He has exercised his prudential judgment in (apparently) not doing so.
Bishop Blaire made another critical prudential decision regarding a case of abuse alleged to have occurred under Bishop (now Cardinal) Roger Mahony when he was bishop of Stockton. On April 20, 2012, just before the lawsuit against the diocese was to go to trial, Bishop Blaire settled the case, even though he was convinced that the accused priest was innocent. “The Diocese agreed to pay the plaintiff and his attorneys $3.75 million,” his statement read, “with $2 million of this amount being paid by the Diocese’s insurance carriers. In response, the plaintiff will dismiss his lawsuit and seek no further action against the Diocese or Fr. Kelly.”
Some might consider a $3.75 million payout to a single plaintiff to be a staggering sum. It is certainly far higher, per capita, than the hundreds of settlements paid by Cardinal Mahony when he was Archbishop of Los Angeles. But the Diocese of Stockton had already been plagued by successful abuse verdicts; moreover, the plaintiff’s attorney, John Manly, had subpoenaed Cardinal Mahony to appear. Had the case proceeded to trial, Cardinal Mahony would have been required to testify under oath about the abuse scandals in public court for the first time since they erupted ten years ago. Bishop Blaire’s settlement had the (perhaps unintended) consequence of obviating the necessity of Cardinal Mahony’s testimony at trial—and in any case Cardinal Mahony quietly left the state for Rome. (Mr. Manly did not return calls requesting comment).
Clearly, this case literally “swamped” Bishop Blaire with a raft of prudential decisions. His statement observed that the case had “occupied a great deal of time and focus,” and the settlement did indeed put the case behind him. Many, in his diocese and beyond, disagreed with the settlement and its terms, but no one alleged that Bishop Blaire lacked the prudential authority to agree to it.
Even his fellow bishops have publicly aired their prudential differences with Bishop Blaire. Before the bishops’ meeting last June, Bishop Blaire was celebrated by several liberal (I’m sorry, progressive) Catholics for his criticism of the lawsuits against the Obamacare contraceptive mandate. On May 22, he told America Magazine that “he worried that ‘some groups very far to the right’ are trying to use the conflict as ‘an anti-Obama campaign.’” Two days later, Donald Cardinal Wuerl and Archbishop William Lori eloquently dismissed that allegation on EWTN, politely referring to Bishop Blaire merely as “the bishop that you mention” as they calmly offered him some firm fraternal correction.
At their June meeting several bishops again disagreed—prudentially, of course—with Bishop Blaire. According to Catholic World News, “Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing criticized [Bishop Blaire’s] committee’s opposition to the budget plan put forward by Congressman Paul Ryan. ‘There have been some concerns raised by lay Catholics, especially some Catholic economists, about what was perceived as a partisan action against Congressman Ryan and the budget he had proposed,’ Bishop Boyea said. ‘We need to be articulate only in principles, and let the laity make these applications … It was perceived as partisan, and thus didn’t really further dialogue in our deeply divided country.’” And in August, Bishop Morlino wrote rather emphatically that “You can be assured that no priest who promotes a partisan agenda is acting in union with me or with the Universal Church.”
All of these decisions and differences reside in the prudential realm, of course. Even bishops who disagree with Bishop Blaire’s views do not condemn them as “unjust and wrong.” Like laymen, bishops are not guaranteed the gift of perfect judgment when they are not teaching fundamental truths regarding faith and morals. Like Congressman Ryan, Bishop Blaire has undoubtedly done the best he can to reach prudential decisions informed by the social teaching of the Church. I raise the particulars cited above, in charity and in truth, only to indicate the delicate nature of prudential judgment, and to affirm the ability of good men and women, bishops and laity alike, to disagree on questions that do not involve intrinsic evils.
Some might ask, what’s the big deal? Laymen disagree prudentially with their bishops all the time. Which parishes should be closed? Which schools should be consolidated? To which groups should the Campaign For Human Development grants go? Should the Campaign For Human Development exist at all? And why did the pope transfer our beloved bishop? And why didn’t he fire that bad one? Even popes have to make prudential decisions. Good Catholics can disagree, but none can insist that the Successor of Peter doesn’t have the authority to make them. And the same goes for the Successors of the Apostles.
In these troubled times, Catholics of good will in the public square will continue to make tough decisions regarding political issues that do not involve intrinsic evils. The laity respects the right of our shepherds to use their best judgment when addressing such questions. Let us pray that our shepherds will continue to respect the laity’s right to do so as well.
So will Mrs. Major go to Hell? Will Congressman Ryan? Well, those aren’t prudential questions. But they will indeed be answered—not by us, but in good time … actually, beyond it. Adveniat regnum tuum.