Thursday, August 12, 2004

The USCCB Presidential Questionnaire

Yesterday's Washington Times ran an article, titled "Catholic Survey Criticized as Partisan", by St. Blog's own Victor Morton. It's about the recent Questionnaire sent in the name of the bishops by the USCCB's Office of Government Liaison to the Presidential candidates.

As one of the critics cited in the article, I thought I'd add a few more of my thoughts on the matter.

I think the survey is seriously flawed. As I said for the article, the survey takes a "throw-everything-in-but-the-kitchen-sink" approach, that makes no distinction between the differences in moral gravity of various issues. The Survey is organized alphabetically. The ostensible reason for this approach, given the rationale provided by the Office of Government Liaison's director Bill Ryan, is to avoid the appearance of the bishops making "editorial comments" on the responses. But the bishops wouldn't be making editorial comments on the politicians' responses by distinguishing between fundamental moral teaching and issues of lesser gravity. The result is simply incoherent.

The result is a hodgepodge of issues with no principles or hierarchy of values seeming to organize them. For example, the question "Will you support or oppose a federal constitutional amendment to protect the right to life of unborn children?" is right next to "Will you support or oppose legislation to reduce government subsidies to large corporate farmers and redirect those funds to low-income new farmers and ranchers?". The legislation to reduce subsidies to corporate farms may very well be a good idea, but no one in his right mind could pretend that it is of equal or even approximate moral weight to the issue of protecting the lives of innocent children. But you'd never get that idea from the survey.

Furthermore, as I said in a comment which didn't make it into the article, the survey mixes issues on which the Bishops Conference have made policy recommendations of a prudential nature with those which are a matter of fundamental moral teaching, as though they were of equal weight. For example, the survey asks "Will you support or oppose legislation to increase the federal minimum wage from the current $5.15 per hour to $7.00 per hour over two years?" From this I can assume that the USCCB has taken a position advocating such an increase. But the specific policy recommendation that increasing the minimum wage would, in fact, help poor people is a prudential judgment. It is a judgment on which some Catholics (such as myself), based on Catholic moral principles, would differ. It is perfectly possible to be a good Catholic and say "I think raising the minimum wage in this way at this time would be a bad idea." But an issue such as cloning or embryonic stem-cell research admits of no such prudential judgment. The survey gives no evidence that such a distinction exists.

Frankly, I also fail to see how the bishops have any business at all wasting their time by making policy recommendations and asking politicians about such issues as communications law, in which they have no conceivable competence. One of the questions is "Will you support or oppose legislation to strengthen the regulation of broadcasters to ensure that they meet their public service broadcast license obligations?" This question, by the way, is conveniently juxtaposed against the issue of cloning. For the bishops to include such matters in their survey just trivilaizes it, and undermines their ability to be taken either intellectually or morally seriously.

The US bishops themselves have been clear that life issues are of foremost importance today, saying things like "Failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the 'rightness' of positions in other matters", or "The right to life is the foundation of all other rights."

But the survey in no way reflects that teaching. And therein lies the the real problem. This survey, authored by the bishops' conference, doesn't reflect the teaching either of the universal Church, or even of the bishops in whose name it is issued.

Austin Ruse, president of the Culture of Life Foundation, is quoted in the article as speculating that "these questions reflect the legislative priorities of the lay staff" of the USCCB. Whether that is true or not, I don't know. But this incident raises questions which seem to keep coming up again and again:

Who is really speaking when statements are issued in the bishops' name?

Who really runs the USCCB?