Prudence, Prelates, and Politics

“If I attacked the Pope, I’d be on the front page of the New York Times Tomorrow”
–Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, in Gary, Indiana, 1973

When does a prudential perversion become a calumny?

Last week the Rubble reported how Bishop Steven Blaire of Stockton, chairman of a USCCB committee, has over the course of the last year repeatedly evaded answering a simple and seminal question: “Your Excellency, is a Catholic of good will bound by Canon Law ‘to adhere with religious submission of mind’ to your prudential political views?”

Now comes Sister Simone Campbell, perpetuating the evasion. She is executive director of NETWORK, a left-wing outfit which billionaire atheist George Soros funds because he hates the Church’s magisterial moral teaching. Campbell has her doubts on abortion (“that’s above my pay grade,” she told a reporter at the convention), but she got a standing ovation for bludgeoning Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget, invoking Bishop Blaire as her authority.

““Paul Ryan claims his budget reflects the principles of our shared Catholic faith,” she said. “But the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated that the Ryan budget failed a basic moral test, because it would harm families living in poverty.” Sister Simone thus joins Al Sharpton and other leftist luminaries who apparently live to mislead. To the party that is leading the attack on the Church she cooed, “We agree with our bishops” — a paltry bit of palaver that would undoubtedly startle many an orthodox ordinary – especially Rep. Ryan’s hometown shepherd, Bishop Robert C. Morlino, who not only defends Rep. Ryan’s rights as a Catholic layman but also emphatically condemns those who hijack the Church’s authority for political gain. “You can be assured that no priest who promotes a partisan agenda is acting in union with me or with the Universal Church,” he said. Your Excellency, does that welcome assurance also apply to nuns?

Authority and Responsibility

“That Door Swings Both Ways”
–Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, 1982

Even though Bishop Blaire is silent, Lumen Gentium makes clear the rights of the laity with regard to prudential questions in practical politics. But Bishop Blaire is not alone: for decades, many priests and bishops have become crusaders for what Bishop Morlino calls “partisan agendas.” While that unhappy tendency bears with it a whiff of clericalism – a noxious temptation which Lumen Gentium attempts to eliminate – bishops do have a very broad realm of prudential action which they exercise every day. While many of them have been quick to condemn the laity for exercising their rights, bishops have gotten a relatively free ride from the laity when exercising the legitimate prudential powers that are proper to their episcopal office.

Those powers are extensive. “The diocesan Bishop governs the particular Church entrusted to him with legislative, executive and judicial power, in accordance with the law.” [Canon 391 §1] Moreover, apart from his teaching of the truths of the Faith [Canon 386] — where the faithful shepherd cannot err — the bishop must make prudential decisions of great import in the realm of his responsibility, in the same way that politicians must make prudential decisions in theirs. Yet the views of bishops with partisan agendas who condemn prudential decisions made by the laity receive standing ovations at conventions; meanwhile, the prudential decisions of bishops, with consequences often more profound than those made in the political arena, seldom merit more than a public shrug.

For instance, Cardinal Dolan has observed that the bishops have not taught the moral truths of the Faith “since the mid-1960s.” In fact, among those teachings, Humanae Vitae has gotten especially short shrift. The fundamental moral truths of married life and sexuality, Cardinal Dolan said, are “too hot to handle.” But before we shrug – after all, this lapse is no secret – we must point out that, once upon a time, each of the bishops in question made a prudential decision not to teach Humanae Vitae, even though it was his job [Canon 386]. So too, many bishops made the prudential decision to allow the liturgy to descend into chaos and worse – once again, for decades – a grave lapse in the exercise of their legitimate authority [Canon 392 §2], exercising the authority of their office instead in the prudential political realm by advocating endless political particulars, and thus turning Lumen Gentium on its head.

In the most grave instance of administrative malfeasance, countless bishops used to their legitimate authority to protect, enable, transfer, and otherwise cover-up for notorious sexual abusers for years. Those actions were in fact prudential decisions that most bishops later regretted – witness the recent and historic criminal convictions in Philadelphia and Kansas City. Had the same standards been applied across the country in 2002, dozens of bishops, archbishops, and cardinals would have been liable for criminal prosecution. Since they were not, they made the prudential decision (Cardinal Law being the only exception) to stay in office. And Pope Benedict made the prudential decision not to remove them.

In addition, the majority of criminal abuse was committed by homosexuals who had been ordained as the result of prudential decisions made long ago by bishops, many of them already long gone by the time the abuse occurred or was brought to light. As late as the early twenty-first century, the president of the USCCB repeatedly condemned lay critics of this practice for their “witch hunt,” even though the Vatican had ordered American bishops to stop ordaining homosexuals years before.

While some bishops condemn as “immoral” a modest reduction in the rate of increase of certain social programs in the federal budget, I have never heard a prelate condemn any of his brother bishops who spent hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to pay off their accusers and stay out of court. Just last April, Bishop Blaire, in a prudential decision, chose to pay $3.75 million to a single accuser who was abused when Bishop Blaire’s predecessor, now Roger Cardinal Mahony, was Bishop of Stockton. Of course, this decision was well within Bishop Blaire’s legitimate powers, although it should be noted that the settlement occurred a week before the trial, at which Cardinal Mahony had been subpoenaed to testify. I can find no public assertion anywhere that Bishop Blaire’s decision (as he put it regarding Rep. Ryan’s budget) “fails a basic moral test.”

Decisions Have Consequences

However well-intentioned, prudential decisions like these have wrought havoc in the Church and severely damaged her moral authority. This is finally become evident even to bishops: in a recent address to diocesan “safe environment” coordinators, Joliet Bishop R. Daniel Conlon, Chairman of the USCCB’s Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, said: “For the last few years I operated with the conviction that consistent implementation of the ‘Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,’ coupled with some decent publicity, would turn public opinion around. I now know this was an illusion.”
Ironically, Bishop Conlon puts the burden on the backs of the laity. “Earlier, I invited you to consider yourselves as partners with us bishops in the work of healing the Church. Our credibility on the subject of child abuse is shredded. You may have a better chance.”

Yes, instead of making the hard choice directly to address substance during the abuse scandals, bishops made the prudential choice to embrace process. As a direct result, as Bishop Conlon puts it, their credibility is “shredded” – and restoring it is now up to the laity. The first thing the laity needs to do is to pray: pray for prudence, and pray for our bishops. And second, respectfully and prayerfully urge our bishops to teach the moral truths of the Faith that will redeem our culture and save our souls.

Christopher Manion is the director of the Campaign For Humanae Vitae™. Write him at    Column courtesy of The Bellarmine Forum, ©2012, All Rights Reserved.

This article, Prudence, Prelates, and Politics is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

Christopher Manion

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