Bishops view Catholic teaching with suspicion? Oh really?

Bishops view Catholic teaching with suspicion? Oh really? November 15, 2012

A journalism fellowship program I’m involved with recently heard from one Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington, D.C., bureau chief. He told us that many moons ago, he’d written some copy for the on-air talent to read for that night’s show. The line was something like “Clinton believes that the tax bill will pass.” The guy who was supposed to read the line — he happened to be an old-school journalist of some renown — excoriated him. He told Feist that a reporter can never know what a politician thinks, believes or feels. The reporter can only know what the politician says.

Politicians might be telling you something for any number of reasons. Sure, it might be because they believe it. It might be because they want to send a particular message to the opposition or to the ground troops. It might be because they are straight up lying. It might be for any number of reasons. But a reporter can never know what someone believes. He can only know what the source says and does.

I don’t care who you are, or how well you think you know your source (cough, David Petraeus, cough), you can never know what someone believes. Ever.

I thought of that when reading a portion of this RNS report on how the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops debated a document titled “The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times,” and then failed to secure a two-thirds majority for passage.

The article provides some details about the discussion. Nobody got the draft prior to the meeting and many folks had a beef with the 14-page document. Not having followed this debate particularly closely, I wasn’t entirely sure what the problem was. But I bring this all up because of this paragraph:

Yet in a sign of the growing generational and ideological split among the bishops, some of the younger and more conservative bishops wanted to kill the statement because they believe the hierarchy should largely restrict their statements to matters of faith. They also view traditional Catholic social teaching with suspicion, and say the church should emphasize private charity rather than government action to cure social ills.

“I think the best thing we can do is to scrap the document and go home and find some tangible and practical ways to help the poor,” said Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., who dismissed the document as irrelevant.

Savvy readers will note that the quote doesn’t substantiate the claims made in the preceding paragraph. In fact, there is no substantiation provided for that rather dramatic paragraph. My first problem is that we’re told what these unnamed “younger and more conservative bishops” believe. We can’t know what they believe. The quote provided talks not about restricting statements to matters of faith but about tangible and practical ways to help the poor.

And do these unnamed folks “view traditional Catholic social teaching with suspicion”? Really? Would a single one of them say that? (And who are these people who’ve been characterized in such a way?) Why not quote what they actually say? I mean, you may find them saying that the claim made by RNS is not true. You may find them saying that they think what passes for social justice in the modern media-political complex bears no resemblance to actual Catholic social teaching. You may find them saying any number of things. But are we really supposed to buy this assertion — made without any supporting evidence — that they view Catholic social teaching with suspicion.

This is a crowd that loves to talk and is easy to quote. Quote ’em!

The rest of the article talks about how Dolan and other bishops (who I guess are neither  younger nor on the conservative side of the bishops conference?) tried to get the bishops to say something about the economy. It failed.

As an outsider interested in the topic, I’d like to hear more about the specific proposals of the document, how they were developed, whether any economists were involved, what type of economists they were (if so), what are the major contours of the debate on how best to help the poor, and even more on whether the Catholic Church has anything to say about the benefits or costs of voluntary charity vs. government programs in theory and in practice.

The bottom line: Has anything in recent years made the bishops more leery of taking funding from state and federal governments for health care, adoption, aid to the poor?

In general, I’d like to see more facts and less unsubstantiated speculation on motives.

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  • “Has anything in recent years made the bishops more leery of taking funding from state and federal governments for health care, adoption, aid to the poor?” Government money always comes with strings, and those strings have become increasingly numerous and entangled…

    I think the reporter may have meant to say “modern [or contemporary] Catholic social teaching” rather than “traditional.” But it is an interesting phenomenon, that today’s progressives are actually traditionalists insofar as they are resistant to changing what they believe they have achieved, while the hitherto traditionalists are now progressives insofar as they want to change what has been in force the last generation or so. We are on the cusp of a confusion between goals of traditionalism vs progressivism and the processes that originally gave rise to the terms. “Progressives” still want to achieve a liberal agenda (and “traditionalists” the opposite) in terms of goal, but progressives are now in a position not of changing things but of keeping them from changing (and traditionalists the opposite), so in terms of process the labels are ironic. Yet we may be seeing evidence of this phenomenon in the use of “traditional” by the reporter.

    But as you say, without more about the document’s contents, the debate, and the reasons for voting it down, it’s difficult to know exactly what’s going on here.

  • Dan Crawford

    I would have appreciated some comparison of the document with the Bishops’ previous statement on the economy: the richly resourced and thoughtful document produced nearly 20 years ago.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I would challenge the reporter with the question of how much he knows about traditional Catholic social teaching. Has he read Rerum Novarum? Quadragesimo Anno? Mater et Magistra (to which William F. Buckley infamously said, “Mater si, magistra no.”) Pacem in Terris? Laborem Exercens or Centesimus Annus? If he knows those documents and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, then he can be qualified to talk about “traditional Catholic social teaching.” Until then, he should not make any ignorant statements about what Catholic teaching is and is not.

  • Becky

    Moreover, there was criticism that the document repeatedly highlighted the church’s opposition to gay marriage and abortion and its support for school vouchers in ways that distracted from the economic issues that were supposed to be at the heart of the message.

    The bishops also complained that the document overlooked issues of tax fairness, budget cuts to the safety net, the economic plight of the middle class, regulation of the financial sector, and greed and criminality in the lending industry.

    To me, it sounds like opposition came from the old left, not the new right.

    It sounds like they wanted the document to say, as usual, “government should take from the rich to give to the poor.”

    Tax fairness? Does that mean a flat tax, say 10% from everybody, or does that mean a more steeply progressive tax code? More progressive than when 1% are paying 40% of federal taxes and 50% pay nothing?

    I hope that younger bishops are onto the fact that the first defense against poverty is a family, a mother and a father caring for a child, and it is the point of the church to keep families together in Christ, so that government is NOT the only thing we all belong to.

    Obama’s Post-Family America

  • I listened to the bishops debate live thanks to Catholic TV, and the reporter’s take was a total travesty. The majority of the bishops who spoke against the statement thought that it “lacked bite” or that it was some months behind in chronicling the actual state of the economy, or that it failed to adequately address the structural causes of the economic downturn, etc. Some simply said it was too long to be an effective statement of hope to offer to people, but thought it could be reworked into a great pastoral letter.

    Many of the bishops spoke warmly of that classic statement on the economy from 20 years ago. So no, this was not a body of men who thought the Church should deal with matters of faith only! Did the reporter even notice that the bishops voted unanimously in support of pursuing a canonization process for Dorothy Day?

  • Opposition to the document was a mixed bag. There were some more conservative bishops who opposed drafting anything back in June because they argued that the topic was beyond the competence of the bishops. Here’s my story on that meeting: They clearly stated a fear that such a document would be seen as an endorsement for Obama.
    The resulting document was, by all accounts, a rush job that skipped many of the usual steps in the drafting process. So there were some ideologically neutral comments to the effect that it simply didn’t reflect the bishops at their most thoughtful and informed best. (I would interpret Bishop Tobin’s comment as falling into that camp).
    But there was clearly a group of bishops, led by retired Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, a former president of the conference, that believed the document dragged in hot button issues such as gay marriage while failing to address obvious poverty-related issues, including the current gridlock in Congress over the budget.
    The first draft did not include any reference to the bishops 1986 pastoral letter on the economy. However, Archbishop Vigeron, head of the drafting committee, was very responsive to criticism from the floor the day before the vote. His committee did a major rewrite overnight, including putting the economy pastoral in and taking the gay marriage reference out. However people who opposed it from all angles still felt it still wasn’t good enough to represent the bishops, and it went down to defeat.
    Here’s my story:
    Sorry for the late post on this. I ‘ve been traveling ever since the meeting and never even had a chance to do a blog post with any of the inside baseball. Alas, there is simply no room today in standard print stories for the kind of nuance and detail that people are asking for on this. My own editors cut Bishop Tobin out of my story, and he’s a Pittsburgher who still has a following in his hometown.