Interview with Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, Chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Policy
November 12, 2007
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn serves as chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Policy, and in that capacity he presented the draft document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States for initial discussion on Monday morning. The document lays out basic principles to guide the political engagement of American Catholics, arguing that while the church is concerned with a range of issues, from abortion to poverty relief and war, pride of place must go to the defense of human life. It also states that while the role of the church is to form consciences, specific voting decisions must be made by individual Catholics. This is the first time that the document has been produced by a cross-section of committees of the bishops’ conference, and that the document has been presented to the full body of bishops for a vote. The document is a joint proposal from the committees on Domestic Policy, International Policy, Pro-Life Activities, Communications, Doctrine, Education and Migration.
Did you hear anything in the discussion of “Faithful Citizenship” that was new to you?
tActually, there wasn’t too much discussion. I was rather surprised that nobody brought very much up, but maybe we did hit it on the head and got a statement that was comprehensive enough and solved most people’s problems with the former statements. I think the criticism of the former statement is that it was too open-ended, it wasn’t clear about what out real initiatives were, what our real important issues were. I think this maybe did a better job.
In some ways, this document is less remarkable for the substance, which to some extent repeats what earlier documents have said, than for the process.
tI didn’t say it from the floor, but Pope John Paul II's document Pastor Bonus, which reorganized the Roman Curia, referred to what are called “inter-dicasterial” committees. [Note: The term refers to joint projects involving more than one Vatican office.] That’s what we had. Actually, our bylaws don’t allow for it … they’re not against it, but they don’t say a word about it. We put it together, and it really was the first time that we had the committee chairs as the committee itself. That’s what was innovative. Everybody had equal input into the thing, and that’s why we were able to do it.
That’s talking about it from within the dynamics of the conference. Out in the trenches in the church, quite often you have the pro-life constituency and the peace and justice constituency who aren’t always on speaking terms. You managed to bring everyone together.
tI think everybody had good will. They knew we wanted to do this together, and we did it.
Could this be a model for how dioceses and state conferences could go about things?
tSure. Dialogue is the key thing. The way to peace is dialogue, and the way to progress is dialogue. You really have to make sure everybody is heard. We don’t want to put anybody at a disadvantage to communicate their ideas. It was a consensus-building process, but it wasn’t a process in which anybody had to compromise what they believe is true. You have to find a way. It takes time. We’ve been working on this statement for a year. The bishops worked on the whole statement themselves twice. People really had a chance to see it, so it wasn’t something they were surprised about. Don’t forget, the prior statement was done by the Administrative Committee, so you only had 35 bishops who had a chance to look at it. This time, you had everybody, so there was more buy-in from everybody. Group dynamics helped the thing work.
Could this have a trickle-down effect on this phenomenon of pro-life Catholics working on one set of issues and peace-and-justice Catholics working on another, without much cooperation?
tI wouldn’t over-emphasize the difficulties that are there, but I would say that it’s just common sense that you want to put everybody on the same plane and give everybody an opportunity to work together in a collaborative way. Sometimes in the church we’re not great at collaboration. One parish is over there, another is over here, and it starts at that level. They’re competing against one another. We have to model dialogue, and maybe this is a good model at a higher level.
We’re going into an election season. Are you satisfied that the document has been carefully calibrated enough that it’s not open to being instrumentalized to score points for one faction or another?
tI think it’s pretty even. I think you’d have a hard time trying to misuse this document. Hopefully, it will be helpful for people making decisions. We’re into a situation, the way it looks right now a year away, in which you’re not going to have any candidate who is outstanding on all of our issues. Such a person just isn’t there. We’re going to have to look very carefully and use some moral principles to come to difficult decisions about these options. It comes down to this: Are you not going to vote? Or are you going to vote for somebody who doesn’t completely hold our positions? That’s the difficulty we face. It’s a very difficult situation for a voter today.
You said today that this document is not intended to deal with the question of communion for pro-choice politicians, because it’s directed at voters and not politicians. Also, the bishops have already spoken on that question. Nevertheless, there’s still conversation on that issue, and various bishops hold different opinions. In 2008, will this be something each bishop decides for himself, or will you be able to come to some kind of consensus?
tEach bishop has to decide it for himself. You take canon 915, which is one little canon with three lines, it doesn’t speak to any kind of operation on the level of the bishops’ conference. It’s speaking to people who are excommunicated. That is only a local issue – when will the bishop excommunicate somebody? The circumstances today are rather rare, which is why it’s maybe not the best canon to quote to guide our way of how to interact with politicians. If we’re going to excommunicate people, that’s a different case. Denying someone communion is subsequent either to somebody being excommunicated, because they’re in an invalid marriage or some other reason, or because of persistence in serious sin. For that to be the case, there has to be some action. First of all, there has to be a warning, and then action afterwards. It’s not the best canon, I would think, to serve as the model of what we should be doing. But as a bishops’ conference, it doesn’t apply. It’s an individual case, for the minister of communion – it doesn’t even say the bishop.
But when you’re talking about a national candidate, this at least creates a communications problem, doesn’t it? How a candidate could get one reception in one diocese and another someplace else?
tWell, I don’t see that happening. I think we’re very careful with how we deal with political candidates. We’ve dealt with this in the last two years. Even for giving honors at Catholic universities and other Catholic institutions, we said that if the person is really not following Catholic moral principles, they shouldn’t be honored publicly. We’ve dealt with some of this already.
So you’ve achieved as much consensus as it’s reasonable to expect?
tWell, as much as you can do as a conference. Again, you can’t obligate any particular bishops, but we have guidelines that are there to help people make decisions and to see how to evaluate things.
Given that the discussion on this does not yet appear to be settled, is there a need for some further clarification from the Vatican?
tI don’t think the Holy See will enter into this, and I don’t think they should, perhaps. You can’t make more of the canon than it is. Some are trying to make more of it than is there.
You mean over-interpreting it?
tOver-interpreting it, right. From outside the church, that’s being done by certain groups. [Canon 915] just doesn’t hold the weight, or the ability, to do what some would like it to do. We need to work individually with people. These are matters of conscience, it’s a matter of somebody’s spiritual welfare. It’s not a political tool or weapon. We have to be much more careful about how that’s applied.
Your draft encourages Catholics to rely on voting statements produced by the bishops’ conference and by state Catholic conferences. Will you be discouraging the production of rival Catholic ‘voters guides’ and similar material?
tWe can’t discourage that, but what we can discourage is their distribution through the church. Something handed out by parishes should be approved by the diocese or the state Catholic conference. Anybody can produce whatever they want, but that doesn’t mean they have the right to give it out within church premises and so on. It gives the appearance that it has an official status. We've produced a two-page bulletin announcement [summarizing Faithful Citizenship. It’s difficult to summarize all that tight reasoning in two pages, but I think we did a fairly decent job with it. That would be the official thing that we would ask bishops to authorize and distribute.