Episcopal competence and silence

The National Dissenting Reporter‘s Mike Sweitzer-Beckman asks why the Catholic bishops have been silent on the Wisconsin recall election, even though they were actively engaged with the 2006 ballot on a constiutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Apart from the physical mechanics involved—in both situations, people will go to polling stations and tick one box or another—the two situations seem almost entirely unalike. For one thing, the 2006 ballot was not an election but a direct question on a particular issue about which the Catholic Church has a specific teaching. For another, even if the recall was actually a specific question about labor unions (what might that question be, one would wonder? It matters!), the Catholic Church doesn’t teach that labor unions are an unqualified good or an end unto themselves; rather, she teaches that labor unions are useful devices for achieving good ends based on certain presuppositions, 1 and whether those situations obtain involves a prudential judgment. In other words, the 2006 ballot directly implicated a magisterial issue, whereas the 2012 ballot, even if it was about unions, involves the secondary question of how to cast magisterial teaching into social policy, an issue on which the bishops are not priveleged and are not necessarily expert, and on which the bishops are therefore well-advised to steer clear. 2


  1. See, e.g., Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church paras. 323 et seq. (2004); Laborem exercens, no. 20 (John Paul II, 1981); Gaudium et spes, no. 68 (2d Vat. Co., 1965); Rerum novarum, no. 49 (Leo XIII, 1891; )
  2. See MP: Catholic social teaching and public policy: Presuppositions, institutional settlement, and the competency of bishops (May 4, 2012).