Episcopal competence and the public policy nexus, redux

I first addressed the conversion of doctrine into policy in Is it time for a Catholic political party?, 1 MPA 43 (2012), observing that there is not always a simple vector from the former to the latter. I then treated the scope of episcopal competence quoad public policy in some detail in Catholic social teaching and public policy: Presuppositions, institutional settlement, and the competency of bishops, 1 MPA 151, and took another look in MP: Episcopal competence and silence (June 2, 2012). Inter alia, I fretted that many bishops do not seem to realize the limits of their ex officio competence in applying particular teachings to policy questions, and thus blunder in where angels should fear to tread. See 1 MPA, at 157.

Now, via Father Z, we hear from a bishop who does get it: His excellency Robert +Morlino (D. Madison-Wisconsin). Discussing the budget offered by Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)—also the subject that prompted the remarks from Father Thomas Reese to which I responded in Catholic social teaching—Bp. Morlino says:

Congressman Ryan has made his prudential judgment about how best to serve the long term needs of the poor. He has done that in accord with Catholic principles. I don’t have to approve his decision, or his budget or anything else. What I do approve of is that he is a responsible Catholic layman who understands his mission and carries it out very responsibly. I feel very strongly about that. The details of his solution are not mine to approve or disapprove. That’s not my field.

Indeed. I do not say, of course, that bishops may not speak about policy. When I wrote that “bishops do best to stick to articulating the Magisterium … rather than proposing specific policy…,” 1 MPA, at 157 (emphasis added), I meant to encourage circumspection and modesty, not silence. Consider an analogy: Can laymen contribute meaningfully to legal discussions? Yes. But when they enter into such discussions, they must realize that it would be terribly risky to make big, sweeping statements, as your correspondent fears that he may have done in years past, and they cannot speak authoritatively. Likewise bishops: The point is that when bishops go beyond magisterial teaching, they step outside of their authority. Lacking authority and expertise does not prevent one from speaking, but it should influence one’s tone.