Limits to Speaking on Public Policy

“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.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Warren Jewell

    First, Mr. and Mrs. Shaw make the daily mistake of reading(?) WaPo. Our so-called ‘news’papers increasingly seem to have value only in leaving pictures to color, or give us comics that don’t seem to try to prove that some of those everything-experts who used to drive N.Y. taxis now do comic strips.

    Mr. Shaw is not only accurate, but telling. Why is it the bishops cover in some plainly inexpert detail of civil issues when they just don’t spend enough time (such as, catechetical and guiding) on spiritual issues that 1) are what they are supposedly trained in and 2) what they’re supposed to do? Get busy on the spiritual, gentle shepherds, and the civil will take care of themselves. Oh, and fire most of your staffs; you’d be better served by novice Dominicans.

    As well and indeed, I have read over and over how our pastors are just too beleaguered with parish busy-ness (and, apparently, with little talent at recruiting for delegation). So, the bishops can help by writing incisive, teaching homilies for their pastors to simply read on Sundays. Keep in mind: ‘It’s all about Jesus’ and little at all about any of you. Hint: This is one factor by which Pope Benedict XVI confounds the merely worldly: he focuses on Jesus Christ; simply eternal elegance, eh?

    And, developing seminary seminars in ‘recruiting in your parish for delegating’?

    I have pleaded the case that priests, one end to the Papacy, are just men, in reminding that they are not any more perfect than any of us lay folk. But, then, as my thought goes, so does the tip of my boot. If ‘they’re just men’, and surely not perfect, why would they not need prodding at times to be doing their job instead of, e.g., anyone else’s? Not to mention that it gets more and more difficult to know just what to obey among all the vagaries delivered? Might I add that ‘keeping it simple’ is helped by ‘keeping it to Jesus’?

  • fatherjo

    There should be some way of distinguishing between what the Bishops are really saying and what their chancery hacks in D.C. are basically blogging about.

  • bythesea

    I guess I think of the bishops primarily as teachers. To an extent, they must deal with some political issues, but I wish they would do more towards instructing the faithful. For example, what if their conference were to set about publishing a small book on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, perhaps with well-illustrated pictures from the Bible depicting these gifts, something that could be used in our Catholic grade schools? I think our Catholic schools are really lacking in good quality educational literature. Perhaps the bishops could take a leading roll in remedying this. There are some good Catholic publishers in our country that might be able to assist with such a project.

  • terrygeorge

    reminds me of how pro abort john kerry was touted as ‘the most catholic senator’ when he ran for president, because he lined up with usccb on the most issues, no consideration given to weighting the issues. one of the issues had to do with opposing mercury use in manufacturing, in which the bishops soon contradicted themselves by commending electricity saving cfl (compact florescent light) bulbs (which contain mercury). because of the influence it could have on electing a pro-abort president, i am inclined to believe that it went beyond merely chancery staff pet issues, it just seemed to ridiculously outlandish to be coincidental. bishops please notice that this foolishness is very harmful to the flock.

  • Warren Jewell

    I didn’t know that the bishops had come up with the sort of modern but yet renewed liberal chestnut that “health care is not a privilege but a right and a requirement to protect the life and dignity of each person.”

    With all due respect, they haven’t a revelatory nor traditional leg to stand on. The blessing of health (or the blessing of palliation following on the paradoxical blessing of that of suffering!) from God comes through charitable hands of fellow children of God, but it is not a right any more than it is mere privilege.

    Yet, too, the actual blessing of suffering may be more actually the ‘right’, and within a responsibility within Christian maturity. The witness of the New Testament surely finds suffering of a righteousness, even as it has no words on just ‘health’. Christ’s healings were evidence of His high office of Emmanuel coupled to deep faith in the perosn healed. A ‘right’ would not so require faith.

    One Rev. Micahel Orsi agrees in his way.

    I do really and frankly wish the bishops would dissolve their ever-more-cumbersome USCCB until they agree to get their acts together to save souls instead of the use of their offices and voices for seemingly everything but.