Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Policing the Church



I sincerely thank Steve Shiffrin for his post on Cardinal George’s opening address delivered at the annual meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. I appreciate Steve’s comments, but I find it necessary to provide a complement to his thoughts.

First of all, I think most folks would agree that no one likes to be policed, especially by someone whose authority to do so is limited. Most should also agree that the media and the academic community have a pretty free reign in doing what they do: in the case of the media, it has two functions—to provide information in an objective fashion and to provide commentary offering its perspective on pressing issues. The first involves the search for truth and making it available objectively; the second may include this approach, but it need not. Universities are engaged in learning, and I am confident that this ultimately means a search for the truth about whatever is being studied. Yet experience with both institutions—the media and the academy—demonstrates that the search for the truth does not always prevail amongst all their elements. It is more than possible that components of the media and elements of the academy (which has the responsibility of the cause of truth if it claims to be Catholic) can and do offer opinions which are not necessarily the truth about the matter on which the opinion is offered. But this does not arrest the possibility that the opinion is presented as the truth when, in fact, it is not. And, when others attempt to offer helpful correction to those in the media or the academy who confuse opinion with truth by suggesting that the former is the latter, the correction is not always welcome—the rectification is often viewed as undue or as pressure.

Both of these groups as I have briefly defined them have made efforts in the past (and, I suspect will continue to do so in the future) to correct the Church, especially her teachers—the bishops—on issues with which elements of the media or the academy conclude that the bishops are in need of correction. When papers and electronic media issue opinions that disagree with or attack a bishop or several bishops or the bishops’ conference, they are putting pressure on these teachers whose responsibility it is to teach. Their teaching may not be welcome, but if must be clear that it is not their episcopal job to offer only those teachings which the media or members of the academy approve. In these two contexts involving the media and the academy, their efforts I have described can become a form of policing that is of questionable authority. Is it within the competence of the media or the academy to undermine those whom the Church—our Church—has designated as its principal teachers? No.  

This brings me to the second point I wish to make in response to Steve. The Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium) has given us relatively recent instruction on the roles and responsibilities of the Church’s members—the People of God, the Body of Christ—be they clerical, lay, or religious. Moreover, the principles and norms set forth by the Council have been further elaborated in more recent years, e.g., statements by the Pontifical Council for Social Communication or magisterial teachings such as John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor, Fides et Ratio and Ex Corde Ecclesiae. As a bishop and as the Vicar of Christ, John Paul’s views were not just one set of views among other sets of opinions (of the media or members of the academy) but authoritative positions that those who abide by the Council are obliged to follow. It would be imprudent to think that one could still be Catholic but not have to take to heart what the magisterium teaches. I must add here that bishops act in conjunction with the pope as the Council has instructed us. This brings me to a third point.

What could the Bishop of Rome as the Vicar of Christ, what could any bishop, what could a conference of bishops do about those who claim to be Catholic but do not follow the Church’s teachings? It remains within the competence of the Church, through her teachers, to remove the title “Catholic” from the institution that wrongfully claims it. This does not require stripping the name from the building, or the teaching post, or the periodical. It will suffice to declare clearly and authoritatively that something that or someone who employs the modifier “Catholic” does so erroneously and, in fact, is not. An example would be the declarations made by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that Frances Kissling’s Catholics for a Free Choice (now Catholics for Choice) was and is, in fact, not Catholic in spite of Ms. Kissling’s using the word “Catholic” to describe her organization. The organization persists in using the term “Catholic”; but those with the proper competence to declare so have stated emphatically that it is not.

Perhaps Steve or others would like to comment on this further, but let me conclude with this one thought from John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor to which I have already made reference:

Dissent, in the form of carefully orchestrated protests and polemics carried on in the media, is opposed to ecclesial communion and to a correct understanding of the hierarchical constitution of the People of God. Opposition to the teaching of the Church’s Pastors cannot be seen as a legitimate expression either of Christian freedom or of the diversity of the Spirit’s gifts. When this happens, the Church’s Pastors have the duty to act in conformity with their apostolic mission, insisting that the right of the faithful to receive Catholic doctrine in its purity and integrity must always be respected. “Never forgetting that he too is a member of the People of God, the theologian must be respectful of them, and be committed to offering them a teaching which in no way does harm to the doctrine of the faith”. (N 113)


I, for one, do not think that Cardinal George is going to take actions against elements of the media or the academy to make them “knuckle under.” However, I do think that there is evidence suggesting that elements of society that consider themselves Catholic have, on occasion, unduly and improperly attempted to put pressure on the Church’s teachers. To borrow from John Courtney Murray, S.J., the question is not whether the Church is safe for the media and the academy (she is); the question, rather, is whether the media and the academy are safe for the Church (and this sometimes is unclear).

RJA sj



Araujo, Robert | Permalink

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