By JOHN L. ALLEN JR
Though bishops must wade into political debates by virtue of the church’s commitment to justice and the common good, a prominent Catholic journalist said today, they would be well advised to draw upon the ancient virtue of prudence.
“Bishops should speak out only after serious consideration, ensuring that unnecessary haste has been resisted, and after an optimum effort to speak in unison with others,” said Patrick Jordan.
Jordan, from Commonweal magazine, spoke this morning at the Catholic Theological Society of America conference in Los Angeles.
Though Jordan never specifically referenced threats issued by a few American bishops to deny communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians, those debates seemed to hover in the background of his remarks. In general, Jordan argued that while bishops must defend Catholic teaching, they also have to do so in ways that respect the pluralistic nature of a secular democracy.
Jordan noted that given the nature of the media, bishops are inevitably drawn into public policy debates.
“Nothing draws the media like a Roman collar, except a Roman collar with purple lining,” he joked.
Given that reality, Jordan cited four principles from the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray about how to conduct policy debates in a pluralistic culture:
•tEach group in society has the right to expect conformity from its members
•tNo group should expect government to outlaw an act if there is little public support for such a move
•tAll groups have the right to try to persuade others
•tNo group has the right to force others to accept its moral views
Jordan also quoted the Vatican II document Christus dominus to the effect that when bishops speak in public, they should “seek to foster dialogue, so that truth may always be joined with charity.”
“One must honestly ask,” Jordan said, “if this is how most people perceive the bishops, and if not, to figure out why.”
Jordan cited a recent letter from Bishop Blase Cupich of Rapid City, South Dakota, to state legislators urging them to ban capital punishment. Cupich, Jordan said, began by drawing attention to various ways human life is threatened in modern culture – a black market in organs, human trafficking, the way life at its earliest stages is subordinated to the interests of scientific research, and the fact that terrorists assert the legitimacy of targeting non-combatants. Only then, Jordan said, did Cupich issue his specific plea on the death penalty.
Cupich failed to persuade the legislators, Jordan said, but he offered a model of a public intervention based on “clarity, reasonableness, and a respectful tone.”
In an aside, Jordan said that when bishops speak publicly, they may do so in one of three capacities: as individuals and representatives of their local churches, as members of state Catholic conferences, and as members of the national conference. Jordan said that state conferences often are effective instruments for public advocacy, and are one of the church’s “best kept secrets.”
Tobias Winright of St. Louis University, a former police officer, addressed the U.S. bishops’ statements on the Iraq war, concluding that five years after the conflict began, their negative judgment based on “just war criteria of proportionality and prospects for success" were "spot-on.”
Nevertheless, Winright said he is “not sure how much impact or influence” those statements had, noting that many Catholics believe that since opinions about the war were a matter of “prudential judgment” rather than moral absolutes, they lack the force of the bishops’ interventions on other issues.
For example, Winright said, the bishops’ statements on Iraq did not appear “as clear and public and forthright as how Cardinal Justin Rigali earlier this week urged members of Congress to reject embryonic stem cell research.”
Even five years later, Winright claimed, only a handful of American bishops have stated unambiguously that the war was unjustified.
In fact, however, Winright argued that particularly with respect to Just War judgments in bello, referring to the means with which a war is waged, there do appear to be some concrete applications of norms with which Catholics are not free to disagree.
He cited bans on targeting non-combatants, the use of torture, arbitrary imprisonment, and “indiscriminate” bombings of whole cities or widely dispersed areas, noting that various official Catholic documents which treat those issues use language that does not appear to acknowledge the possibility of dissent.