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, July 20, 2010

Helen Alvare vs. Commonweal


It's not clear from your recent post whether you yourself read the article by Helen Alvare to which the editors of Commonweal responded.  You quoted the editors' characterization of her argument, not her argument itself.  If you haven't read Professor Alvare's article, I strongly urge you to do so.  I believe you will see that in the passage you quoted, the Commonweal editors mischaracterized Alvare's argument by suggesting that her claim was that to disagree with bishops on policy matters (such as health care legislation) is ipso facto unacceptable.

This suggestion is reinforced by the insinuation that Alvare disagrees with the following claim:  "neither the bishops nor their lay advisers have an exclusive claim to competence when it comes to the technical evaluation of public policy. Nor can the bishops conference, despite its consistent and often heroic efforts on behalf of the unborn, fairly claim ownership of prolife principles."

You yourself say, in speaking of that claim:  "I would have thought this a relatively uncontroversial position among Catholic conservatives."  And you are absolutely right about that.  I agree with that position, and Professor Alvare agrees with it, too.  Commonweal's suggestion that Alvare denies it is way out of line.

In truth, Alvare made a specific claim against the argument and position of Commonweal on abortion and the health care bill.  She claimed that that position (which is a position rejected by the bishops, who believe, rightly in my view, that the bill will result in an expansion of abortion) is arrogant and naive.  She did not make the general claim that to disagree with the bishops on policy matters is ipso facto wrong. To defend themselves from Alvare's criticisms of their position, they suggest that she is making a broad claim to episcopal authority that, to my knowledge, no Catholic conservative (and no Catholic liberal) makes.  Alvare herself certainly does not make it.

And while we are speaking of claims Alvare did not make, she also did not claim that Timothy Jost has less credibility as a pro-lifer because he is not a Catholic, or that it is impossible "for Mennonites — or Mormons or Zoroastrians — to construe a piece of legislation correctly and for Catholic bishops to misconstrue it."  For the Commonweal editors to suggest that Alvare made such claims is outrageous.

Let me add one more fact.  Alvare's criticisms of Commonweal were a response to Commonweal's criticisms of the U.S. Catholic Bishops and the nation's major pro-life groups.  Alvare did not start this.  Nor were her criticisms of Commonweal harsher or even as harsh as Commonweal's criticisms of the bishops and the pro-life groups.  When Commonweal launched its assault on the bishops and groups, it scarcely treated the matter as one on which reasonable people of goodwill could reasonably disagree. Its editorial plainly questioned the motives of people who disagreed with Commonweal's view that the health care legislation was "abortion neutral."  It strikes me as unseemly now for the editors to cry foul when Alvare characterizes their position as arrogant and naive.

I recognize that the point of your post was not to defend Commonweal or criticize Professor Alvare, but to make a general point about the scope of episcopal authority.  For what it's worth, I don't find much to disagree with in your general point.  I've set forth my own views here:  http://www.winst.org/fellows/george/Moral_Witness_of_the_Catholic_Church.pdf.  The point of this post is to defend Professor Alvare against a mischaracterization of her views by the Commonweal editors.  It is not directed against anything you yourself have asserted.


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