Back in May, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski wrote an article on immigration policy. He proclaimed that “…for Catholic lawmakers in particular there is no longer any moral ambiguity to this question.” Lest you wonder what he commands Catholic lawmakers to do with no question or debate, try open borders and blanket amnesty. Oddly, the Archbishop did not announce that Catholic hospitals in his diocese would immediately begin offering all services free of charge and that Catholic schools would begin accepting all applicants free of charge. After all, health care and education are moral imperatives. Apparently where the Archbishop actually has accountability, there is some moral ambiguity tempering juvenile idealism.
Simply put, Catholic authorities actually take responsibility for the hospitals and schools they run. They know that offering all services for free would NOT mean everyone would get those services, but that soon no one would. The internal pressures of demanding that all personnel work for free and inability to purchase supplies and equipment would soon collapse the systems entirely. Catholics have done a noble job of raising money through donations to help pay for health care for those who cannot and to offer an abundance of scholarships, but they do not make high-minded moral pronouncements that would implode their care networks on those things they are responsible for.
I am a Catholic who is very proud of the noble things my Church has accomplished in its history. The hospital, the modern university, libraries…these are all Catholic innovations. But the Christian heroes who got them started did not do so by telling Caesars and kings that that is what they should do. No, they did the hard work of getting people who were already poor to pitch in, to act as community and to do these things for each other. In short, they DID, rather than merely scolded others to do. These and other innovations slowly changed the world, made it a little more noble and kind, because some shepherds and workers sacrificed and committed themselves to them. It is the difference between moral stature and vacuous preening.
Catholic theology and practice recognizes the concept of prudential judgment, which is the application of moral principles to specific situations. It further recognizes that different sets of people have primary responsibility for different types of prudential judgment. Thus, on matters of faith and morals the Church, through the Popes and Bishops, have primary responsibility. On other matters, provided it does not involve intrinsic evil, those most directly temporally responsible have primary responsibility. All have the freedom, the right and perhaps even the obligation to offer counsel on matters for which others bear prudential responsibility. But none have the right to make binding judgments on what is not their prudential responsibility. Thus, I do not have the right to command the Church on matters of faith and morals, no matter how passionately I feel about it.
Pope St. John Paul the Great, one of the most consequential statesmen of the last century – and certainly the most consequential churchman – lived this admirably. He opposed the war in Iraq and he said so, but he would not go so far as to declare it an unjust war. He vigorously opposed the death penalty and publicly lobbied against it with passion, but did not go so far as to declare it intrinsically evil in all circumstances. To do so would have been to recklessly impugn the motives of those charged with difficult responsibilities – and to intrude on areas that were not his prudential responsibility. Because of the moral authority he amassed from the fidelity with which he carried out his actual prudential responsibility, St. John Paul’s counsel carried great weight even in areas that were not within its scope. He never settled for cheap glibness. When he spoke or wrote on any subject, he wrestled with the real difficulties inherent to it rather than merely knocking down straw men to draw cheers from the ignorant. Read sometime his magnificent encyclical, Centesimus Annus. It is as fine a guide as I have ever read on how to order a functioning, just society with respect for liberty and on how to build a functioning economy that honors property rights while caring for the poor. Those are just by-products of the sophisticated, deeply insightful theology that inspired it.
In contrast, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has been a wastrel organization for several generations now, eager to make pompous pronouncements on mere matters of public policy it has no authority over, no responsibility for and even less knowledge of while studiously avoiding matters that actually are in its orbit of responsibility. Even on the matters on which it proclaims, it does not actually take any responsibility; just tells others what THEY must do to meet the USCCB’s standard of public morality. Like the dissolute heir of a great fortune, it draws down on the moral capital amassed by the saints and martyrs. A dissolute heir can opine on whatever he wants, usually to the eye-rolling amusement of listeners he thinks are dazzled by him. But sometimes even the dissolute heir has a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment. Should he learn to shut up and just get to work, taking up the mantle of responsibility for things that actually are his, he will eventually discover the satisfaction of being taken seriously.
While the USCCB is slow to offer useful instructions on the fundamentals of the faith, it has rarely missed an opportunity to preen impotently over political issues the last few generations. The recent crowing about how to handle illegal immigration offers one example. A healthy, responsible Catholic leadership would have recognized that open borders, blanket amnesty and welfare for all would have the same effect as eliminating all charges at Catholic hospitals and tuition at Catholic schools – simply collapse the system. A healthy, responsible Catholic leadership would have lobbied for streamlining red tape for non-criminal applicants for immigration while taking the financial responsibility of raising the money to sponsor immigrants who had no other sponsor. That would have been a useful addition to the issue while actually doing what the Gospels call for, but it would have required real sacrifice, commitment. and far more than a vacuously pious pose. Instead of offering something useful the USCCB just said, “Caesar, hear our prayer.” It has been the all-too-common petition of the bishops for the last half-century, asking government to take responsibility for and do what God calls the faithful to do.
The bishops were surprised that, after helping nationalize health care, Caesar turned on them, using it as a blunt object with which to bludgeon those who actually try to live their Catholic faith. Alas, the bishops never bothered to seriously examine what effect nationalizing would have on health care. They were too excited at the idea of the moral posture of being for health care for all with someone else being responsible to make it work. In 2006, while working two Congressional campaigns, I did in-depth research on nationalized health plans. In EVERY case, quality plummets, innovation dies, access is worse rather than better and people have to face both the hard death panels of denial of care and the soft death panels of delay. Once again, the USCCB did not bother to deal with the real problems inherent in such a system and just said, “Caesar, hear our prayer.”
I understand the temptation to recruit an agent to take responsibility for doing the good God commands you to do, but it is a vanity and an evasion. When faith recruits Caesar to be its agent it empowers a rapacious beast that regards faith as its rival. Why would anyone be surprised that, when you petition Caesar long enough as if he were God, he begins to act as God, commanding you rather than acting as your moral agent? St. John Paul the Great decisively answered Josef Stalin’s contemptuous question, “How many divisions does the pope have?” and communism fell. The lesson was not lost on the advocates of the primacy of Caesar, even if the universal lesson of history was lost on the USCCB. Churchmen will always be a rival to Caesar, for faith claims an authority greater than the temporal authority of Caesar. No matter how you pander, once the beast breaks its fetters, it will come for men of faith. It knows that the threat faith poses to its pretensions of primacy can only be eliminated by force.
The Catholic Church in America was rocked in the early part of the last decade by revelations of a pattern of sexual abuse of minors in many dioceses across the country. In June of 2002 American Bishops gathered in Dallas to grapple with the horrible scandal. I was heartened by that approaching conference, thinking this would be the moment when the leaders of the Church in America would begin to set all things right. About a week before the conference I had one of the most startling visitations of my life. Our Lady appeared to me, deeply sorrowful and gently weeping. She said, “Dallas will show you how bad things really are. They will scarcely even acknowledge my Holy Son.” At the time, I was still looking for an honorable way out from my promise to God. I thought this was it, for if it was proven in a fundamental way that my visions were delusions, than I would be released from any deluded promises. In all of history there had been many difficult times, times when the bishops gathered at a meeting had become degenerate and their faith grown cold. But even in these gatherings, lip service was paid to Christ. Never had there been a gathering of Bishops where Christ was largely ignored. I called one of my priests and told him of the visitation, sure this was my ticket back to normalcy.
Then the Dallas Conference came. I watched all week. The Bishops talked of all matter of things. I only heard Christ mentioned once – and it was in passing, at that. The Bishops acted as if they were the secular board of directors of some secular corporation, trusting to their own strategic brilliance to manage their way out of this crisis. I didn’t have to call my priest. He called me late in the week and, in stunned wonder, told me he had only heard Christ mentioned twice. I told him that was twice as much as I had heard the Lord mentioned. I was outraged to my core. I wrote a blistering letter to one of the key participants (and I had means to make sure he got it). I told him that ‘zero-tolerance policies’ were not the solution and that all the clever legal maneuvering was an impotent vanity. The problem was that the fundamentals of the faith had not been proclaimed boldly from our pulpits for decades – the sanctity of life, the sanctity of the covenant of marriage, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I told him that had these been consistently and clearly proclaimed instead of vain nattering about such things as ‘nuclear-free zones’ they would not have a crisis to deal with at all. I told him that, contrary to what he might think, Bishops are NOT primarily administrators, fund-raisers, or even theologians. They most certainly are not politicians. No, they are the Apostles of the Living Christ. The problem arose because the bishops allowed Christ to be banished from the parishes to make room for politics. When Christ was invited back in and the fundamentals of the faith proclaimed, there would be no need for mindless ‘zero-tolerance policies’ and other secular regulations, for Christ will be back in charge and holiness will reign. I told him angrily to can the posturing and take up the mantle of Apostolic responsibility. Then – and only then – would all things be set right. Several years later on a different matter, I was in a meeting with that fellow and an official I worked for. God bless him, the fellow spoke of what would resolve the problems in our parishes – and he maintained that it was a return to teaching the fundamentals of the faith, that an opportunity for real renewal had been missed in Dallas.
I do not know if the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is as boldly and unambiguously proclaimed in the Archdiocese of Miami as is the Bishop’s mere political position on immigration. Experience leads me to doubt it. My message to Bishops across America is the same as my message was to the correspondent I describe above. When you play at politics, the best you can aspire to is impotent hack. You are the Apostles of the Living Christ. Take up your cross, mitre, crozier, pallium and live it – and all will be well. You are the crew of the ship that will carry us all through the Storm. There is no other. If you lead, we will follow. If you merely play at politics, we are scattered.
Pray for our Bishops, Priests, Religious and the Pastors and Rabbis of all assemblies in the Judeo-Christian heritage.