Who Speaks for the Catholic Church?

Multiplicity of ‘Catholic’ voices at the Democratic National Convention highlights and exploits confusion among the faithful about who defines Church teaching.

WASHINGTON — The 2012 Democratic National Convention featured a slew of self-identified “Catholic” voices — from the vice president of the United States to the daughter of a slain U.S. president, from a “nun on the bus” to Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who delivered the final blessing at the three-day event. 

A half century ago, the lineup of Catholics would have been a source of pride for an immigrant Church. But this year in Charlotte, the diverse, even contradictory positions of these co-religionists seemed designed to sow confusion, leaving the audience to ask: Who speaks for the Church, and does the Church still hold to non-negotiable truths on issues like abortion and marriage?

While Caroline Kennedy told convention delegates that her Catholic faith bolstered her defense of “reproductive rights,” Cardinal Dolan’s benediction beseeched the Almighty to defend unborn life.

Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of Network, the social-justice lobby, also stepped to the podium, leveraging the moral authority of her Church to condemn the budget proposal of a fellow Catholic, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the GOP vice-presidential candidate.

Sister Simone elicited wild applause when she reminded the delegates that Ryan’s proposed cuts of social programs had been strongly criticized by the U.S. bishops, and she was cheered when asserting that “pro-life” values explained her own bus tour that targeted Ryan’s fiscal priorities.

Yet this same audience also applauded top abortion-rights activists who warned them that GOP efforts to bar federal funding of Planned Parenthood and protect conscience rights would turn back the clock on women’s rights.

Thus the convention proceedings left the impression of a moral equivalence between defending the unborn child’s inalienable right to life and partisan decisions to block cuts in social spending. In a similar vein, speakers seemed to suggest that a genuine Christian concern for women could be fully realized through abortion-rights advocacy.

No surprise that Cardinal Dolan, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, used his benediction to address the selective approach to issues of justice.

“Grant us the courage to defend it — life, without which no other rights are secure.  We ask your benediction on those waiting to be born, that they may be welcomed and protected,” the cardinal prayed, in his distillation of Catholic teaching on the inalienable dignity of all human life, along with passages addressing traditional marriage and religious freedom.

Did the television audience pay special attention to the cardinal’s pointed remarks? Hard to tell, when even Church leaders must fight for airtime to articulate definitive Catholic teaching.

So, who speaks for the Catholic Church in the public square?

Ed Peters, a prominent canon lawyer, stresses the authoritative role of bishops as teachers of faith and morals, but he also notes the limits of that authority in matters of prudential judgment on which people of good will can disagree.

“One should always keep in mind the distinction between ‘Church teaching’ and ‘Church teachers,’” Peters told the Register.

“Many people can, and indeed should, promote ‘Church teaching,’ but engaging in that activity — even over a long time or in a highly public manner — does not make one a ‘Church teacher.’

“Only bishops have the charism to act as ‘Church teachers.’ See Canon 756. The rest of us, particularly laypersons, promote Church teaching only according to our gifts and situations in life — Canon 759.”

As for the U.S. bishops, who release statements on a variety of moral and social issues, Peters noted that “the degree to which they exercise their magisterium is to be assessed from many factors such as, say, the deliberation with which they address various topics, the consistency of their remarks with Scripture and Tradition, and the degree of connection between the subject matter before them and the doctrines of the Church.”

Canon law “expressly cautions against putting forth one’s personal opinion as if it were Church doctrine — Canon 227,” he stated.

Asked to comment on the spectacle of Catholic speakers at the convention explicitly citing their faith to justify a slew of policies, John Haas, an influential moral theologian at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, briefly outlined the Church’s caveats about this kind of speech.

“The last two Pontiffs have made it very clear that ‘public Catholics,’ such as clerics and consecrated religious, ought not to become involved in partisan politics,” he said.

Noting Sister Simone Campbell’s appearance at the convention and her statements regarding Congressman Ryan, Haas said, “It was most inappropriate for Sister Simone to have claimed that the Romney/Ryan proposals did not conform to Catholic Church teaching.” 

“That is not her place. What would the reaction have been if a Sister for Life in full habit had denounced the DNC positions [at the GOP convention] on the killing of unborn children and the legal sanctioning of sodomy?” Haas asked.

“The bishops are the only ones who speak authoritatively on doctrinal and moral matters. Faithful Catholics, from laity to theologians, speak authoritatively, derivatively, by faithfully and correctly applying Church teaching to concrete situations. But they ought not to do it in a highly charged partisan environment such as a political convention.” 

Earlier this month, Cardinal Dolan’s decision to attend the Democratic National Convention, after already agreeing to attend the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., fueled a robust debate among Catholics who support Church teaching on life issues, marriage and religious freedom.

Some feared that the cardinal’s appearance amid the lineup of pro-choice Catholic politicians would confer a degree of respectability on social policies antithetical to Church teaching. This concern reflected an awareness that, in the public mind, the cardinal did indeed represent the Church and its teaching: His presence would carry special weight.

However, Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and a prominent Catholic public intellectual, defended the cardinal’s decision as an effective counterpoint to partisan rhetoric that has characterized Catholic opposition to abortion as an attack on women’s rights and Catholic support for traditional marriage as evidence of bigotry.

“If, as the Obama-Biden campaign alleges, there is a ‘war on women,’ Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, is its field marshal. If opposition to same-sex marriage is ‘bigotry,’ as many on the left insist, then Cardinal Dolan — as the most prominent defender of marriage as the union of husband and wife — is the country’s leading bigot,” wrote George in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

“The cardinal’s presence confounds efforts by the abortion-rights and gay-marriage movements to stigmatize and marginalize those who refuse to fall into line.”

After the cardinal delivered his benediction, George Weigel, the papal biographer, commended him for making the trip to Charlotte and speaking before possibly hostile convention delegates, many of whom strongly oppose the Church’s teachings on life and marriage.

“I doubt that any American bishop in history has delivered a more courageous benediction at a public event, under more difficult circumstances, than Cardinal Timothy Dolan did in Charlotte last night — a prayer made all the more important by the tone and message of the Democratic convention on life issues, religious freedom, marriage and the teaching of the Catholic Church,” wrote Weigel in a widely circulated email that was picked up by on the Archdiocese of New York’s blog.

The Catechism of the Church defends the right of the Church, under the authority of the Roman Pontiff and in communion with the bishops, to uphold the continuity of Catholic moral teaching in season and out.

“To the Church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls,” states the Catechism (2032).

“The ‘Roman Pontiff and the bishops are’ authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach the faith to the people entrusted to them, the faith to be believed and put into practice” (2034).

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, however, several generations of Catholics have come of age during an era shaped by theological dissent and weak catechesis.

Initially, Catholic moral theologians like Father Charles Curran challenged the authority of the Pope and the bishops to speak authoritatively on contraception use. Dissenting theologians subsequently questioned the validity of Catholic teaching on abortion, divorce, premarital sex and homosexual unions.

In a 1987 article in Christian Century, “Roman Catholic Sexual Ethics: A Dissenting View,” Father Curran repeated the now familiar argument.

The “great discrepancy between Catholic teaching and Catholic practice has called into question the credibility of the hierarchical teaching office. Because of the Church’s sexual teachings, a good number of Roman Catholics have become disillusioned and have left the Church,” he asserted.

This month, the statements of some Catholic speakers at the Charlotte convention seemed to echo the insights of Father Curran and other dissenting theologians. Yet, rather than leave the Church as Father Curran predicted, some of these Catholics have chosen to identify themselves as Catholic while publicly dissenting on issues like contraception and same-sex marriage.

Vice President Joe Biden, a self-identified practicing Catholic, pledged to secure “a future where women control their own choices, health and destiny.”

And if Biden offered a veiled promise to protect abortion rights and a federal mandate that threatened the free exercise of church-affiliated social agencies, hospitals and universities, Caroline Kennedy was more explicit, underscoring the even more limited impact of Catholic moral teaching on younger baby boomers. 

“As a Catholic woman, I take reproductive health seriously, and, today, it is under attack. This year alone, more than a dozen states have passed more than 40 restrictions on women’s access to reproductive health care,” said Kennedy.

Once upon a time, women religious like Network’s Sister Simone might have admonished Kennedy for failing to study the teaching of her faith with sufficient diligence. But as a political lobbyist, Sister Simone has a different mission and focus.

Asserted Sister Simone: “Paul Ryan claims his budget reflects the principles of our shared Catholic faith. But the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated that the Ryan budget failed a basic moral test because it would harm families living in poverty.”

Still, while there is no way to measure which Catholic speaker at the convention carried the most weight with the television audience, it's clear that the cardinal had an impact.

In a Sept. 7 Los Angeles Times post, commentator Mitchell Landsberg registered a "clear impression that the cardinal ... seemed to be chiding the Democrats over their support of same-sex marriage when he prayed: 'Show us anew that happiness is found only in respecting the laws of nature and of nature’s God. Empower us with your grace so that we might resist the temptation to replace the moral law with idols of our own making or to remake those institutions you have given us for the nurturing of life and community.'"