Letter from Europe: Are the Bishops Squandering their Authority?

When I was a boy, pastoral letters were read from the pulpit on a Sunday in all our churches. They replaced the usual sermon and took a bit longer to read, though not much longer. Only the pastoral letter read on the first Sunday of Lent took longer. It was a subtle reminder of the beginning of a season of penance, in which we were supposed to go to church more often. Those episcopal letters were pastoral ones indeed. They gave spiritual guidance or clarified certain moral issues. Occasionally, they dealt with a domestic political matter urging us, e.g., to vote for the Catholic’s Peoples’ Party in the coming election. This latter practice, however, ceased several years before the Second Vatican Council. It was normally left to the Pope himself to pronounce on broad social or political issues in his encyclicals.

Following the Vatican Council, this practice began to change. Pastoral letters appeared less frequently, they became longer and took more time to write. Bishops began to entrust experts with their preparation. They were no longer read from the pulpit. The emphasis shifted from spiritual guidance to a discussion of relevant social or political issues. In our Western democracies in particular, bishops began to give in to pressure from their staffs to speak out on politically controversial matters. The result was a greater variety of opinions from bishops of different countries; the best example to date are the episcopal letters on war, peace and nuclear weapons.

The coming letter of the U.S. bishops on the U.S. economy, as far as one can say on the basis of its first draft, seems to confirm this new pattern of episcopal letter writing. In the two stated purposes — “to provide guidance for members of our own Church” and “to add our voice to the public debate about U.S. economic policies” — the second appears to predominate over the first. In the concluding part, the questions addressed in the letter are deemed to be “secular matters.” The draft then contains the following intriguing phrase: “The fact that our discussion of these topics has drawn heavily on the experience and knowledge of persons engaged in the daily affairs of economic life and on the writings of a variety of economists and social scientists bears witness to our conviction that earthly affairs have a rightful independence which the Church and we as bishops must respect” (para. 320, italics added). If this is the case, why do the bishops feel compelled to give the blessing of their moral authority to the opinion of certain experts on earthly affairs? Is an episcopal “discussion of these topics” the way to provide guidance for members of their own Church?

When bishops speak or write, they do so by virtue of their ecclesiastical authority and their teaching ministry. Heavy reliance on the opinions of experts entails two serious risks: (1) Bishops may be drawn into a frame of reference that is not necessarily their own; and (2) the elevation of the fruits of economic analysis to the level of application of moral principles may breed intolerance and hamper rational, democratic discussion.

The frame of reference underlying the policy recommendations in the second part of the draft consists in traditional Catholic thinking on the pre-eminence of the State entrusted with the realization of the “common good,” and nineteenth-century thinking on the role of state power. The nineteenth-century philosophies of progress, writes Robert Nisbet in History of the Idea of Progress, introduced new definitions of state power and freedom: “It is power of a type rarely if ever before seen in history; power less concerned with the limitation or constraint of human action than with the bending and shaping of human consciousness.”

Among Marxist and socialist thinkers in particular, this utopian vision gave a new definition to the role of the state and to the need of abolishing — through revolution or gradual change — pre-existing institutions or structures deemed sinful. Traditional Catholic thinking on the role of the state derived from the unitary social system of the ancien regime. Insufficient understanding of the limited role of the state in a pluralist democracy and market economy, entails the risk of a one-sided emphasis on socialist categories of thought. The first part of the draft abounds with examples of this line of argument. I would like to draw attention to three such examples in particular.

(1) According to para. 38, Christian social ethics “involves a diagnosis of those sinful structures that continue to alienate the world from God’s creative design…” To this line of argument, para. 100 adds: “This concentration of economic privilege derives in large part from institutional relationships which enable certain persons and groups to participate more actively and powerfully in economic life…. These institutional patterns and power relationships must be examined and revised if we are to achieve greater justice in society.” The notion that revision of institutional patterns and power relationships is the answer, derives from the belief that sinful structures that continue to alienate are the problem. In the biblical and Christian perspective, however, sinful men are the problem. Man’s inherent propensity to abuse power and to misuse his God-given freedom will not be eliminated by new public policies.

(2) In para.83 the draft tells us that, in contrast to the priority given to civil and political rights, “Economic rights… do not hold this privileged position in the cultural and legal tradition of our nation.” (In a more extreme form, this argument is continually advanced by the communist states against the Western democracies.) But a democratic society, a clear distinction must be drawn between civil and political rights on the one hand and economic and social rights on the other. Civil and political rights aim at limiting state power, at protecting the citizen against the abuse of power by the institutions of the state. They must find their place in constitutional law (or the European Convention for the protection of human rights).

Economic and social rights are of a different nature. They are rights to be promoted by government through specific legislation and public policy rather than rights to be protected against abuse of power by the state. In the new Dutch Constitution (1983), for example, such rights are not defined, as are civil and political rights. They are mentioned as areas of “governmental concern.” The reasons are obvious: in each instance the government must make choices and establish priorities; it must make political decisions on whether to intervene directly or formulate minimum standards. In the U.S. there is an additional complication which the draft seems to ignore: the federal character of the U.S. A federal formulation of economic and social rights — i.e. of areas of federal government concern — would upset the constitutional balance between federation and states.

(3)          In para.88 the draft writes of “a struggle to develop institutions that support active participation in economic life for all.” In the context in which it stands, the phrase reminds me of the nineteenth-century Catholic concept of the corporate state, an insidious concept indeed, as we know from European states where it has been practiced. Active participation in economic life for all is best assured in a market-economy system. Government must limit itself to correct abuses and protect the weaker participants, rather than replace the market economy by “institutions that support active participation.” Such an effort would merely replace the abuses of many economic actors by the far worse abuses of the one powerful state, as history tells us over and over. As the draft correctly points out, there is much in the economic situation in the U.S. that needs to be redressed. With their idea of “sinful structures” the drafters, however, seem to forget that the abuse of power by those who hold political power rather than by those who have only economic power, is the greater scourge of the twentieth century.

One of the more irksome tendencies of the draft is the elevation of the fruits of economic analysis to the level of application of moral principles. Although men of good will are permitted to disagree with the application of the moral principles discussed in the draft, the moralizing tone of the letter makes it difficult to do so. We read, e.g., in para.39 that the biblical motives of creation, covenant and community (as selected and interpreted by the experts, I presume) provide “obligatory ideals.” In para.97 we read about the “basic moral equality” of all human beings; in para.125 about the “moral obligation to pay… taxes”; in para.126 about the “moral function of government.” There are many more examples of this misuse of the loaded term “moral.” Consequently, the arguments and proposals in the draft risk encroaching upon the political and economic systems rather than invigorating and/or restraining them.

Government has a political and not a moral function. Having the power to coerce, the exercise of this power is to be defined and restrained by law. As a consequence citizens have a legal, but not a moral, duty to pay taxes. If they disagree with the taxes levied, they are entitled through the democratic process to seek changes in the law. We are all equal before God, but economic equality is a legal and not a moral concept.

The draft suggests — and this is where the risk of intolerance comes in — that there is a rather straight, short and obvious line from the obligatory biblical ideals to its moral claims concerning U.S. economic policies. There isn’t. The Bible provides many ideals to Christians by which they can be inspired in dealing with their “earthly affairs.” Only in exceptional circumstances — such as the bishops of Poland encounter — should bishops address themselves to governments with policy recommendations. Even then, the bishops’ teaching ministry obliges them to add wisdom to the knowledge of their experts and to exercise prudence in order to avoid the contemporary fashion in our churches to seek to influence the public policies of their nation.

I am now coming to the second question I raised in the beginning of my letter: Is an episcopal discussion of these topics the way for bishops to provide guidance for members of their Church? I fear that a discussion resulting in recommendations to the government in a democracy — where opinions on what the government should do are necessarily and healthily divided — does not. Bishops who want to provide guidance to their own flock must speak to them personally and not to the U.S. Government. To tell the government what it should do enables the members of,’ the Church to sit back and wait for the outcome, and/or to react the way a democratic citizen is bound to react: to discuss and disagree or to shrug his shoulders. Whatever he’ does as a citizen, the spiritual authority of his bishops will have lost much of its strength.

In the U.S. as a democracy, the domain of the bishops is the vitality of the moral and cultural system, and not the U.S. economy or the policies of the government (to use the distinction made in the Lay Letter). The draft tends to move them outside their domain at the expense of sound philosophical reflection, at the expense of their own teaching authority and at the expense of their own church. The proposals the draft contains may be controversial in the U.S. Most of them have been already discussed and tried in Western Europe. All of them can be made much more effectively by experts or concerned citizens, without prefacing them with a long expose of biblical and theological foundations.

Let the bishops limit themselves to do what is their mission: to provide guidance for members of their own church. Poverty in the U.S. and the world, and the decline of the family (about which the draft barely speaks) as the basic social and economic unit, are two challenges to every Christian conscience. Pastoral guidance in responding to them is surely needed.


  • Frans Alting von Geusau

    Frans Alting von Geusau (born in 1933 in Bilthoven) is a Dutch legal scholar and diplomat. When he wrote this article he was affiliated with the John F. Kennedy Institute in Tilburg, the Netherlands, and was also professor of international and European organizations at the Catholic University of Tilburg.

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

With so much happening in the Church right now, we are hard at work drawing out the battle plans so we can keep the faithful informed—but we need to know who we have on our side. Do you stand with Crisis Magazine?

Support the Spring Crisis Campaign today to help us meet our crucial $100,000 goal. All monthly gifts count x 12!

Share to...