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 30, 2010

"Political" as a pejorative

In the new Commonweal, I weigh in on the controversy surrounding Archbishop Nienstedt's DVDs opposing same-sex marriage, using the episode to draw some tentative lessons about what critics might mean when they accuse the bishops of being "too political."  After exploring three other possible meanings of "political" in this context, I address the partisanship charge:

“[P]olitical” as a pejorative may suggest that the bishops have become partisan—that they are not just overreaching, but doing so in a way that reflects their capture by a particular ideological camp or political party. Now, a single DVD does not necessarily constitute evidence of partisanship, and so such a criticism would need to assess the entirety of the bishops’ (or a particular bishop’s) political advocacy. The accusation of partisanship cannot justly be based on a single issue to which the church has given its voice unless that voice is accompanied by a noticeable silence on other issues encompassed by church teaching. Of course, if the bishops believe that we are at a crucial point of social change on same-sex marriage, they may consider their advocacy on this issue particularly urgent.

Yet while one policy issue might be more pressing than others in a given election cycle, keeping the entirety of church social teaching before the public is always a pressing need. The danger exists that the power of advocacy will be weakened by perceptions of partisanship—by the sense, that is, that the underlying goal is to influence a particular election in favor of a particular candidate, rather than to bear witness to the full weight of the church’s social teaching, which defies simplistic political categories. When an election rolls around, we know where labor unions will line up, and we know where the Chamber of Commerce will line up; if voters begin to tune out the bishops’ statements for the same reasons, we have a problem.

I welcome feedback, but it would be most helpful if you read the whole thing before you give me your reaction.


Vischer, Rob | Permalink

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I'm not sure if this is a temptest in a teapot or not. The Archbishop is a citizen who therefore has the complete right to speak out on issues and to encourage political action to resolve them.

There is no issue of his "leadership" on behalf of the Catholic Church. The State of Missesota doesn't care what the Catholic Church thinks or says. That's separation of Church and State. Therefore, there really can't be any such thing as "speaking for the Church." The Church has no standing. What an Archbishop speaks, under the civil law he is speaking only for himself.

Is the problem that when he speaks, many other citizens are inclined to listen? Is it forbidden for any mere citizen to be popular or influential? Does one have to write under a pseudonym? The Archbishop is perfectly free to include in his message information about who he is. It is up to the audience to decide, individually, what that means to them, if anything.

As for who covers the cost of the medium, we do not suppose that any medium of communication is free. If some friends are so inclined, they have every right to chip in on the expense.

The point is this: under the law, the Archbishoip didn't do anything that you or I might be both tempted and entitled to do if we lived in Minnesota. There is no allegation of fraud or of an intent to defraud. This is unquestionably a case of freedom of speech in its purest form. Because of the separation of Church and State, moreover, the fact that he is an Archbishop is completely irrelevant. The Church is just another voluntary association which in permitted to operate in the State of Minnesota. The state cannpt permit itself to suppose that the Archbishp's position signifies anything different from that unless they deem the Church to be a dangerous or subversive organization. Certainly, his position does not signify any endorsement of his ideas by the State of Minnesota.

Any attempt to regulate what the Church says in Minnesota -- and that is the only possible way to interpret criticism of the Archbishop's decision to make and distribute the DVD -- is an attempt to subordinate the Church to the State. That would be the clear implication of a power to censor public statements by Archbishops. This is why I assert that it would be a violation of separation of Church and State.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbonsj | Nov 30, 2010 2:11:56 PM

I think your point in the first paragraph is absolutely excellent. So much so, that I wonder what the Catholic Bishops would be like if you were advising them. When one hears the breadth of the Catholic position, which has always been one of its strong points, one is struck by the general sense of inclusion which that very breadth would suggest. Where I quibble with you is that "silence" on competing matters is not the appropriate way to judge the breadth of it all, or lack of it. It is by "emphasis". Yes, when we consider the entirety of the articulated position it may seem better than what ends up in newspapers. but why is that?? It is not because they are silent on other things, but that they relentlessly emphasize two: abortion and same- sex marriage. This is their apparent choice, which one can see by watching their meetings on TV. To me one of the valuable parts of the Catholic moral theology tradition still is the Just War theory. Would that these Bishops would have spent one one-hundredth of the time, effort , vim and vigor that they spend on abortion and gay marriage, on the false wars our country has been embroiled in!! They would have been heroes, even for some who don't agree on other issues. But they didn't.

They have allowed in tandem both a tactical and philosophical haziness to lead them down extremist paths. The tactical haziness is the delusion that it ever works to focus just on one issue. And the philosophical is related to the tactical. They have convinced themselves that a matter of medical ethical deliberation is the same as a theological definition. In other words, one does not have to question their right to construe abortion as a moral evil to question their attempt to broaden that view as the foundation for all others. Thus, you might have already have guessed how I see their opposition to gay marriage. Many object not to the fact that they personally feel that way, but rather to the quite unconnected collateral view that such objection is definitive for a huge variety of other issues under consideration by society. And the proof of what I have said about collateral ambitions for what ought to be discrete objections is that they wish, at least some, to deny Catholics themselves who disagree, of the very very essence of their Catholic belief, reception of the Eucharist.

Posted by: Peter Paul Fuchs | Nov 30, 2010 3:26:10 PM

Because my problem with Archbishop Nienstedt's DVD was *not* its rearticulation of the Catholic view of marriage but its alignment of that rearticulation with a specific policy proposal, I agree especially with the following point you make:

"If he did intend this specific policy recommendation as authoritative (for Catholics), he would need to provide a fuller explanation of how the church’s non-negotiable teaching on the sanctity of marriage between a husband and wife gives rise to a similarly non-negotiable policy position in favor of amending the state constitution."

It was decidedly imprudent for the Archbishop to present this non-negotiable teaching *as though it were* synonomous with a policy position. I hope it was *merely* imprudent, and that Arch. Nienstedt doesn't *really* believe that holding to the sanctity of marriage compels one in the direction of his policy proposal.

Posted by: WJ | Nov 30, 2010 3:36:16 PM

WJ, are you suggesting that the Archbishop was somehow going out on a doctrinal limb to propose that the people of a democracy be permitted to cast their votes on a matter of vital interest to them? The only doctrinal issue here has to do with whether or not the government in some form is entitled to decide matters that clearly lie within the competence of the people. The people are sovereign in all matters within their competence. That is undoubtedly the doctrinal position of the Catholic Church.

Since however the matter at issue is the appropriateness of the Archbishop holding forth on the matter of same sex unions, the question of what is and what is not Catholic doctrine is irrelevant. The state of Minnesota cannot judge the doctrinal orthodoxy of anyone. It's not their business and it is not their competence. It's called separation of Church and State.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbonsj | Nov 30, 2010 4:48:29 PM

No, I am not suggesting that the policy proposal which the Archbishop prefers is incompatible with Catholic doctrine. I am merely reiterating and agreeing with Rob's point that the DVD in question, and the Archbishop's subsequent comments about the DVD, conflates a doctrinal point with a policy suggestion that is misleading and unhelpful. The Archbishop, in my opinion, is either imprudent or incorrect, or both.

Posted by: WJ | Nov 30, 2010 5:59:13 PM

Needless to say, "imprudent or incorrect, or both, on this single issue."

Posted by: WJ | Nov 30, 2010 5:59:48 PM

No, I am not suggesting that the policy proposal which the Archbishop prefers is incompatible with Catholic doctrine. I am merely reiterating and agreeing with Rob's point that the DVD in question, and the Archbishop's subsequent comments about the DVD, conflates a doctrinal point with a policy suggestion that is misleading and unhelpful. The Archbishop, in my opinion, is either imprudent or incorrect, or both.

Posted by: WJ | Nov 30, 2010 6:02:29 PM

I cannot for the life of me understand why the bishop could not have said, "Well, of course having a referendum and voting in it would be a part of the political process. Is there any reason why Catholic citizens and all others should not be able to use the political process to decide such a question?"

It troubled me (and apparently nobody else) that someone donated a million dollars to promote an anti-gay-marriage referendum so close to a gubernatorial election where (a) there was only one candidate who opposed same-sex marriage and (b) there was no referendum on the ballot! It would have been quite different if there had been a referendum to vote on. It the million dollars came from Tom Emmer's campaign, or supporters of Tom Emmer, then it was political even if the bishop didn't know it.

What is so frustrating to me is that while the Church has many positions in its social teachings that are very attractive, the argument is that NONE OF THEM COUNT if abortion or same-sex marriage (or a handful of other issues) are involved as well. If by some miracle abortion ceased to become an issue tomorrow, I have a very strong feeling that there would be another issue so important that it trumped all others, and it would be a Republican issue. It seems to me CST are basically meaningless when the "conservative" response is that "the Church tells us what must be done, but it is up to us to decide how to do it." That applies to poverty, and medical care, and just wages, and education. But when it comes to the "nonnegotiable" issues, the argument sounds very much like the Church not only tells Catholics what must be done, but pretty much exactly how they should do it.

Posted by: David Nickol | Nov 30, 2010 7:20:18 PM

"If by some miracle abortion ceased to become an issue tomorrow, I have a very strong feeling that there would be another issue so important that it trumped all others, and it would be a Republican issue."

Because one party happens to have adopted pro-death, anti-family views as their own core, sacred and inviolate principles. So Catholics are criticized as partisan for not supporting that party anyway. Which is just another way of critizing the Church for making its own internal prioritization of issues, which it clearly has done, but which prioritization frustrates to no end the people who want to claim every issue is as important as every other issue so as to mean that abortion and marriage are never important.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Nov 30, 2010 11:36:58 PM

David, is your problem that some politicians that you like disagree with the teachings of the Church? Or that there are any politicians who do, whether or not you happen to favor those politicians. In other words, is it a problem that the Church has teachings on matters that overlap with the goals or opinions of persons who from time to time run for public office?

The fact that any particular position happens to follow from Christian Doctrine is totally irrelevant in the political sphere. That is separation of Church and State. The state is not permitted to publicly recognize the doctrines and teachings of the Church in any way, so long as those doctrines do not violate the law. Leaving aside illegal doctrines -- severing the hands of thieves for instance -- and fully recognizing everyone's right to speak freely, one could even propose that the expression "Catholic Church" should be proscribed in the context of any political discussion involving the law or candidates for public office, with the obvious exception of a discussion of the tax exempt status of the Church.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbonsj | Dec 1, 2010 8:31:30 AM


My problem is that the teachings of the Church seem to have no effect on either politically conservative or politically liberal Catholics. Politics seems to influence religion rather than the other way around. Awhile back, I asked if anyone could fill in the blank here: "I am politically (liberal/conservative), and on the issue of ________, my strong inclination is to take position X. However, because of the teachings of the Church, I feel obliged to go along with Church teaching and take position Y."

As I have said, there are a few people who say they are conservative and would support the death penalty if it were not for Church teaching. But aside from that, nobody has said to me, "You know, I'm very liberal (or very conservative), but I just can't go along with my fellow liberals (or conservatives) on this particular issue. I have to go with what the Church teaches."

The standard answer is that the Church tells us what to do, not how to do it. So the Church says governments should see to it that everyone gets health care regardless of their ability to pay. Liberals and conservatives don't agree on how this should be done, so it doesn't get done. Nobody agrees on how it should be done, so it simply doesn't get done.

Posted by: David Nickol | Dec 1, 2010 2:08:33 PM