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Katie van Schaijik

Ecclesiastical dysfunction

Dec. 4, 2009, at 2:22pm

An excellent, thought-provoking address on the respective responsibilities of bishops and laity in society (delivered in May at a symposium on faith and freedom) by Robert George is now available online. (I found it by way of the Witherspoon Institute.)
Professor George argues convincingly that Catholic witness in our society has been hindered by bishops’ taking positions on questions that do not fall within the proper limits of their authority; that they are, in fact, usurping a function that belongs to the laity.

...individual Catholic bishops, and the USCC, had unwittingly diluted the impact of their own pro-life witness by speaking too much about too many issues in the properly secular order on which they had no particular authority as bishops to intervene, or, at least, no authority as bishops on which to declare one proposed policy superior to competing proposals as a matter of Christian faith. People were left with a false impression (one that the Cuomo’s and the Kennedy’s were all-too-happy to encourage) that the bishops’ advocacy of legal protection for the unborn was on a par with their advocacy of minimum-wage increases or farm subsidies—issues on which faithful Catholics could legitimately disagree with their shepherds. Worse yet, policymakers came to perceive and to treat the Catholic Church as simply another advocacy group on the order of, say, the Sierra Club or the Chamber of Commerce.

He cites a case of bishops issue economic analysis and policy proposals that go far beyond their true competence. George asks in reply:

Why, if their prudential judgments are no more authoritative than anyone else’s, do the bishops ‘feel obliged’ to offer them? Is prudential political judgment of this sort not precisely the business of the laity? Is the failure to leave that judgment to the laity not confusing and ultimately undermining of the bishops’ proclamations of principle and their public witness on specific moral evils such as legal abortion?

This touches on the question of communion and self-possession we are discussing below. Authentic communion entails authentic self-possession. Dysfunctional relationships typically are relationships where the right boundaries between persons are not recognized and observed. We confuse ourselves with others. We interfere in a zone that belongs exclusively to them. Or, in weakness and insecurity, we invite others into a zone that belongs to us, and suffer them to make the decisions that are really our own responsibility. Then resent them for it.

A great deal of progress could be made in overcoming what ails the world if we all learned to delineate better what our range of competence is and isn’t. If we learned to take up the responsibilities that belong to us, and leave aside those that don’t.


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