“Look at that!” My wife was waving The Washington Post at me and pointing to the back page of the first news section.
“Look at what?”
“It’s a full-page ad mentioning the bishops’ conference and a lot of other groups. Something about energy.”
I took the paper and pondered the ad. Paid for by the Environmental Defense Action Fund, it was a slightly sneering message of support for the “American Clean Energy and Security Act” then up for a vote in the House of Representatives. (It passed narrowly in late June.)
The sneers were aimed at the American Petroleum Institute and Exxon, which were said to oppose the bill. Listed as “publically” (sic) backing it were the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other organizations.
“I have no strong opinion on this bill,” I told my wife. True enough. But I’d hazard the guess that this complex legislation is well-intentioned and, if enacted, will be an expensive expansion of the government’s power to use coercion on behalf of what it considers socially desirable purposes.
“But,” I went on, “I do know that this is a good example of something that drives lots of people crazy—the bishops’ conference taking stands on detailed policy questions that bishops, as bishops, don’t know anything special about. I imagine this is just something the staff wanted to do, and the staff got their way—so here it is.”
That’s hardly news. In the years I worked for the bishops’ conference (1969-1987), there was much more of it. Wiser heads among the bishops have toned things down since then, but the old instinct for the national organization to toss in its two cents dies hard.
Does that mean the bishops and their organization should keep mum on important matters like reducing pollution, promoting alternative energy sources, and hold down energy costs? No, it doesn’t.
I agree entirely with Pope Benedict XVI’s statement, in his new encyclical on economic justice, that “the Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere.” If the bishops wish to add their voices to the chorus of support for worthy environmental goals, that’s swell with me. I support them, too.
But I do draw the line at the endorsement of one specific legislative blueprint for the how of it. Not that how to protect the environment, promote alternative energy, and hold down costs aren’t important questions—they are. But I cannot bend my mind to accept the idea that churchmen, as churchmen, know any more than anybody else about the “how” of these things. Let the bishops endorse sound principles and leave writing the directions to those with expertise.
The Environmental Defense Action Fund’s ad itself contained an object lesson in the perils of ignoring that simple rule. Among groups listed as backing the environmental bill was the National Council of Churches. The NCC was an important presence in American life 50 years ago—people listened when it spoke. Not any more. And although there are a number of reasons, one is the NCC’s self-destructive practice of taking stands beyond its competence on policy matters. Let the bishops’ conference beware.
There will still be lots of thing on which the bishops and the rest of the religious community have a right and duty to speak—things like the sanctity of unborn life, the death penalty, marriage and the family, the duties of rich nations to poor ones, religious liberty and human rights. That’s a large enough agenda for anybody.
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