Father Hehir joins panel on bishops’ role in social policy

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A discussion of the U.S. bishops' 1986 economic pastoral at The Catholic University of America Feb. 9 led to a debate over the role of the bishops in addressing U.S. social policy.

Father J. Bryan Hehir, who headed the bishops' Office of International Justice and Peace when the bishops adopted the economic pastoral and, three years earlier, their landmark peace pastoral, defended both documents as legitimate efforts to bring the principles of Catholic social teaching to bear on important public policy issues.

He noted that the bishops themselves acknowledged in both letters that the moral authority of what they said was weaker and less binding as they got further into specifics about economic or defense policy.

Joseph Capizzi, a theology professor at Catholic University, said that when he introduces the economic pastoral in moral theology classes, it is the one document seminarians uniformly dislike. He said the pastoral's biblical perspectives are its strength, but it is "enervated" by its focus on concrete proposals, which work to the detriment of the moral framework the bishops set out.

"There's always a place to teach just the principles," Father Hehir said, but the economic pastoral "is a policy document."

"Part of moral theology is about casuistry," or a discussion of how the moral principles should be applied in particular cases, he added. "There's a place for policy documents and a place for principles. This is a policy document. Don't confuse the genre of the document."

"In Washington, if you stick to metaphysics, they'll wipe you off the map," he said.

Capizzi and Father Hehir, who currently teaches at Harvard University and heads Catholic Charities of the Boston Archdiocese, were among speakers at two 90-minute sessions on the pastoral, titled "Economic Justice for All," and its impact 20 years later.

Joining Father Hehir in the first session, devoted mainly to outlining how the document developed, how it is structured and what it sought to do, was David O'Brien, a history professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

O'Brien said that the economic and peace pastorals, at the time they appeared, "seemed to mark the emergence of American Catholicism as a public church."

"They now appear in retrospect to have marked the end, not the start, of an era," he said.

"The publicly responsible American church they signaled gave way instead to subcultural resurgence across the board. Support for the national episcopal conference has weakened, pastoral statements are rare, the public policy agenda has narrowed and Catholic social ministry is near crisis," he said.

O'Brien said there is a tension between speaking in religious terms that reinforce the distinctiveness of Catholic identity and negotiating public policy in all its complexity with arguments that seek to draw wider consensus. The process of engaging in public policy in a pluralistic environment risks weakening that sense of Catholic distinctiveness, he said.

He said resorting to more specifically religious language "is appropriate for the church as it tries to restore a sense of itself as a distinct institution. But I think it has to be challenged everywhere, because it actually brings about the very secularization it's designed to avoid."

When asked about the recent decision by the U.S. bishops to reduce significantly the committees and staff of their national conference, Father Hehir said that question has "multiple dimensions."

"First of all, when you read those two pastoral letters, it is hard to think of the bishops having the kind of confidence today that they had in those letters, in light of the last five years," he said. "Moral authority is harder to come by today, and you just have to acknowledge that fact."

"Secondly," he continued, "I think that plus the questions of finance and vocations have turned the bishops directly internally as their primary concern. ... Thirdly, the finances combined with that internal aspect have yielded cuts. And it is hard to have a national voice if you are not sufficiently staffed and if you don't have a sense that this is part of what you ought to be."

O'Brien said, "The most striking thing to me about the recent reorganization is the absence of any significant public voice arguing against the downsizing of the episcopal conference and arguing in favor of a strong national conference. ... I think it was dramatically evident in the last year that no one cares enough about the conference to support it. ... I'm not surprised, because the silence has been deafening in the church over a variety of issues in the last five or six years. But it's extremely disappointing."

Capizzi argued that in terms of moral judgments being specific about issues such as nutrition and hydration or not bombing innocent people is different from specifics in the economic pastoral such as support for subsidies for family farms. As a result, he said he thought that "the laity's confused, maybe willingly so, about the authority of these kinds of teachings."

Father Hehir responded that given the degree of education and sophistication of today's U.S. Catholics the danger is not that the bishops will speak over their heads or confuse them. "The danger is talking beneath them. ... The danger is not addressing the issues they face each day," he said.