Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California has written several letters criticizing aspects of the budget of Rep. Paul Ryan due to its spending cuts on programs such as food stamps. Bishop Blaire has said the cuts are “unjustified and wrong,” they “fail to meet these moral criteria” required by Catholic Social teaching, and they “fail this basic moral test.”
Bishop Blaire’s statements were made in his capacity as Chairman of the Committee on Justice, Peace, and Human Development of the USCCB.
Rep. Ryan, meanwhile, is a Catholic from the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin. It would seem from the face of Bishop Blaire’s statements that Rep. Ryan, and any Catholic voting for these budget proposals, would need to go to confession. “Bless me Father, for I have sinned, I have proposed to slow the increase in federal spending on food stamps.” That seems to follow from saying the budget proposal is a wrong, an injustice, and a basic moral failure.
But hold on just one moment. Rep. Ryan’s own bishop, the Most Rev. Robert Morlino, said in an interview on The World Over last week that he is in frequent conversation with Rep. Ryan. Asked about Bishop Blaire’s letters criticizing Rep. Ryan’s budget, Bishop Morlino declared that Rep. Ryan is a “very responsible lay Catholic . . . who makes his judgment very much in accord with all the teachings of the Church.” (skip to about 4 minutes into the clip)
I’m no canon lawyer, but I think Bishop Morlino’s judgment trumps here. It seems Rep. Ryan does not need to confess injustice, wrongness or moral failure due to his presenting a budget with certain spending limits on food stamps. Bishop Morlino said Paul Ryan is acting in accord with Church teaching.
This raises two larger problems that face the U.S. Bishops. First, in what circumstances should a statement by a USCCB Committee chair be represented as the voice of the U.S. Bishops, when in fact it can be and is contradicted by the jurisdiction of a specific local ordinary? Bishop Vasa of Oregon, quoting then-Cardinal Ratzinger, has pointed out that each bishop has apostolic authority, but a bishops’ conference has “no theological basis,” and “its documents have no weight of their own save that of the consent given to them by the individual bishops.”
The second and related point is that this trumping of a bishops’ conference committee-statement by a local ordinary seems to have been caused in significant part by another important distinction, often glossed over. Again, then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a 2004 letter distinguishing between two kinds of public policies: those involving “intrinsically unjust” practices such as abortion, versus those that do not, such as war.
Where a policy promotes intrinsic evil, there is a “grave and clear obligation” for Catholics to oppose it. But on other issues “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics” about what to do. Notably, even capital punishment, which Church teaching now seems to exclude in 99.5 percent of cases, is listed by Cardinal Ratzinger as one where legitimate disagreement can exist among Catholics.
So if a policy, for example, facilitates abortion, attacks religious freedom, or redefines marriage beyond one man and one woman, these are clear “moral failures.” But as Bishop Morlino just demonstrated, Paul Ryan and Stephen Blaire have a legitimate diversity of opinion on the funding level for the food stamp program. I don’t think even Bishop Blaire would say the issues raised in his letters involve intrinsic evil.
It seems to me that a bishops’ conference can safely describe policies advancing abortion, same-sex marriage or attacks on religious freedom as moral failures. But there is a limit to the kinds of issues these judgments can be applied to.
H/t to my friend and our long discussion over the weekend.