Catholic social teaching and public policy: Presuppositions, institutional settlement, and the competency of bishops

Father Thomas Reese, SJ, appeared on The Colbert Report this week to discuss the budget offered by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and Catholic social teaching:

[Jesus said] that we’d be judged by whether we fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, and this budget doesn’t do it. We believe that a budget is a moral document; it represents the values of a country, of a nation, and the values in [Ryan’s] budget are that we would rather cut taxes for the rich than help the poor, and that’s just simply unacceptable.”
. . . .
I think that in the gospel it’s very clear that Jesus reached out and helped the poor, helped the sick, and this is what he calls us to do as his disciples. I mean, we’re to show one another that we love one another and follow Christ in caring for the sick, caring for the poor, giving people a hand up so that they can do these things.

It is true, is it not, that Jesus said “whatsover you enact statutes forcing others to do for the least of these, you do for me”? Is it not clear in the gospel, as Fr. Reese says, that Jesus “reached out” and demanded that the Roman government help the poor, help the sick, etc. And who can argue with Reese when he tacitly asserts that the Church and her action is and should be equated coextensively and inseparablly from the actions of the civil government? Nope, no unexamined presuppositions here! 1

The fundamental problem with Reese’s remarks is his presupposition that the individual commission of Christians (or the Church’s collective commission if you prefer) vis-à-vis the poor can be conflated with the action of government. Acknowledging this is not not necessarily to say he’s wrong, but it is an unexamined and arguable presupposition that one (only one?) ecclesial duty should be assumed by the secular state and implemented with the force of law. Despite his authoritative air, and despite the prevalence of the view in the last century, Reese is merely reciting the liberal vision of social justice catholicism, which is to say “how liberal Catholics think.”   It is not the only lens through which to view the question.

All of us who think about the intersection of religion and politics want to think that our own substantive political views take a back seat to the Church’s doctrine, but we inescapably come to the question of whether and how to import the Church’s doctrine into policy through the lens of our political philosophy and presuppositions. 2 That is to say, a conservative and a liberal who convert to Catholicism will have to rethink their substantive views on the death penalty and abortion respectively, for example, but they will still be a conservative and a liberal respectively, and so they will think about how and whether doctrine should influence policy through the lenses of what conservatives and liberals think about government and policy. 3 One lens, through which Reese peers, is that the government is simply the juridical representative of society, and in a Christian society (which for these limited purposes I’m sure he would stipulate that we are, pluralism be darned), the most efficient way for the members of that society to fulfill their ecclesial obligations is to organize the carrying out of those functions through government. 4 The conservative view, which I’m sure is Rep. Ryan’s, hesitates to uncritically equate the government with the society, is more anxious about the scope of governmental authority and the danger inherent in it, is more attuned to the structural limits of governmental authority, and recognizes that (among other things) the more of people’s money government takes, the less able individuals are to fulfill their ecclesial obligations. 5

When I presented these concerns in another place, Ed Cummings asked me:

Simon, do you support vigorous and clear enforcement of a complete division between Church teaching and government action, or do you support a direct alignment between Church teaching and government policy? Because under the former, Ryan and [former Senator Rick] Santorum should shut up about their religion, and under the latter, they should apologize to us all for lying about their policy advocacy and lying about the Church’s teaching. Which is it?

That’s an important question, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to speak to it.  The short answer is no. While I’m opposed to theocracy, I don’t have any problem with the state implementing policies urged by religious teaching, so long as it’s filtered through the constitutional organs of civil society. For example, I don’t think that the Catholic Church should be able to order Indiana to abolish the death penalty; I do think that Catholic hoosiers should work with folks who oppose the death penalty for other reasons to lobby the General Assembly to abolish the death penalty in this state. (The President has made similar if stronger comments about casting religiously-motivated policy concerns in broader terms.) I doubt that many progressives are dim enough to say that a vigorous and clear enforcement of a complete division between Church teaching and government action precludes the direct alignment of Indiana’s death penalty policy with the Church’s teaching on capital punishment! 6

Here’s a somewhat longer answer. As a Catholic, I obviously believe what the Church teaches, and that she has authority to teach it. And I think that a state, to the extent it takes actions that implicate the wellbeing of individuals, should act consistently with what the Catholic Church teaches is good for the wellbeing individuals. As a conservative, I think that the extent to which the state acts in ways that implicate the wellbeing of individuals should be confined within traditional bounds, and as an American conservative (for want of a better description), I think that we should be skeptical of the propriety and efficiency of assigning power to governmental entities. Nevertheless, a traditional function of the state is to go further, to enforce certain rules, many of which are moral questions—rules such as “thou shalt not kill.” When the state acts to enjoin conduct that Anglo-American civilization has always enjoined, 7, I have no problem with it doing so, provided that the policy decision is first filtered through the constitutional organs of civil society, as I said in the short answer, above.

The caveat is important. In a liberal, pluralistic society, there has to be a circuit breaker! There has to be an opportunity for the governed to say “wait a second, we didn’t sign up for this.” On the other hand, when Catholics and non-Catholics alike agree that a teaching of the Church is correct, when that coalition thinks the teaching is good for society and is consonant with the traditional scope of government, certainly that group should push for that outcome, and if a majority of the polity agrees, for whatever reasons, whether secular, Catholic, or motivated by any other religious views, that doctrine can be implemented as public policy.

There’s another reason why you need a circuit breaker. Liberal Catholics used to understand that there isn’t always a straight line between the doctrinal teaching of the Church and the formulation of public policy. 8 (They still do say that when the subject is abortion, of course.) Take contraception, for example. It does not follow from the Church’s teaching that contraception is sinful that contraception must be illegal. No one seriously infers from Humanæ vitæ that USCCB wants to make birth control illegal, and no one seriously infers from USCCB’s failure to advocate criminalization of condoms that the Church is taking a more diffident stance on the morality of birth control. Everyone intuitively understands that the two issues are entirely separate. Boost the level of generality a little and it becomes apparent that the same principle applies to the issue before us today: It does not follow that those things that the Church requires of her members, whether doctrinally or canonically, must or should be made into obligations of the civil law.

And there may be trade-offs to consider. Even if there is agreement that a given doctrine should be adopted as public policy, at least in principle, there may be good reasons to hesitate, because policy is never perfect and the costs of the policy may outweigh the gains. Importing doctrine into policy may have huge direct and indirect consequences, foreseen and unforeseen, which may or may not counsel against doing so. Suppose that A is an unqualified good, and we all agree that A ought to be policy, but the Church teaches that B and C are bad things, and the political science buffs warn that if we enact A as policy, B will follow and C might also. Do we still impose A as public policy, or do we leave A as an ecclesiastical question? Judging whether a given line is longer than a given rock is heavy is no more properly ecclesiastical than it is judicial; 9 it is a quintessentially legislative judgment, which again calls for such decisions to be filtered through the civil constitutional organs such as Congress.

What is the role of the bishops in all this? As a general rule, I think that the bishops should present and press for the full breadth of Catholic teaching in the public square—what Joseph Card. Bernardin called the “seamless garment,” which I support on the understanding that it does not preclude recognition that some teachings are more urgent than others. At the same time, however, for reasons of institutional settlement if nothing else, bishops do best to stick with articulating the Magisterium (in which they are presumptively experts, and on which their comments are privileged) rather than proposing specific policy (in which they do not necessarily have any expertise and on which they enjoy no privilege). Episcopal ordination does not make clerics expert on subjects like economics, politics, or law, even when those issues are relevant to their pastoral mission. (Consider, for example, the responses of Roger Card. Mahony and Archbp. Jose Gomez to the Supreme Court’s SB1070 hearing last week.) Unfortunately, a number of bishops don’t understand the limits of episcopal competence (outside of the triple munera, bishops are just pundits), which you’ll see in the fact that a number of them still support state involvement in healthcare, believing that what is happening with the DHHS mandate is an abberation rather than the logical consequence of increasing government involvement in healthcare. (Contrast the rhetoric about the mandate with their ongoing support for healthcare reform.)  They just don’t see the connection.

The Magisterium, in other words, is an entirely permissible input in the legislative process, and it’s one that as a rule, I obviously think ought to have great weight. But teaching is not policy, even when it is correctly represented, which I think Fr. Reese has not done in this case.


  1. Fr. Reese should be commended for having found a way to get a room full of progressives cheering for the implementation of Church doctrine into positive civil law, and I look forward to the support of the same people if we should implement other pieces of Church doctrine directly into positive civil law, notwithstanding that those folks have previously cried “theocracy” when law tries to so much as discourage murder!
  2. This includes, to the extent they are applicable, analytical tools and approaches such as (in my own case) legal process theory, public choice theory, economic analysis of law, and so forth.
  3. See generally MP: Philosophy of Philosophies (May 2, 2012); cf. SF: Care and feeding of your conservative, Jun. 6, 2011).
  4. Cf. Ross Douthat, Government and Its Rivals in The New York Times, Jan. 8, 2012 (“In th[e liberal] worldview, the government is just the natural expression of our national community, and the place where we all join hands to pursue the common good. Or to borrow a line attributed to Representative Barney Frank, ‘Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.'”)
  5. Cf. Stephen White, Catholic Conservatives and the Common Good, May 26, 2011.
  6. I have encountered one who was willing to take his fairly extreme formulation of the separation of religion and policy to its (il)logical conclusion. I asked him: “So you’re saying that if a legislator votes to abolish the death penalty because they’re a liberal, that’s fine, but if I cast the same vote because I’m a Catholic, my vote is unconstitutional?” You’d think that this was reductio ad absurdum, but to his credit (or otherwise) he conceded that that followed from his premise and didn’t shrink from it.
  7. I.e. when it acts within the traditional ambit of the state’s power to regulate, see SF: Regulation (Apr. 6, 2009).
  8. See, e.g. Richard McBrien, The Church 259 (2008); but cf. Pacem in Terris no. 160 (John XXIII, 1963); MP: Is it time for a Catholic political party (Sept. 22, 2011) (discussing the problems of founding a Catholic political party).
  9. See Bendix Autolite v. Midwesco Enterprises, 486 U.S. 888, 897 (1988) (Scalia, J., concurring).

Comments (2)