Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
June 29, 2009
Bishops offer a much needed moral perspective on issues
It's as predictable as night follows day. A bishop or bishops' conference will issue a statement on some pressing public issue, ranging from oilsands development to abortion, and naysayers will complain that instead of entering the public square, the bishops should stick to tending their own flock.
One does not hear the same complaint about other groups. The Alberta Cattle Commission's forays into public policy, for instance, are not followed by complaints that ranchers should stick to looking after their cows and stay out of politics.
Perhaps this is because the cattle commission and other groups are seen as interest groups, entitled to speak because policy decisions affect their livelihood. The bishops do not have vested interests in most issues they address.
Presumably, those who do not want groups of Church leaders pronouncing on these issues feel only interest groups and "experts" should debate public issues. This is a narrow notion of democracy. Indeed, it is not democratic at all. It would exclude the vast majority of the population from discussing political issues.
What seems to be the real concern is that it is Church leaders who are daring to speak out. The attempt to keep them out of public debates relies on the distorted notion of separation of Church and state, which assumes that churches should be constrained from "imposing their views" on society.
To be sure, it would be illegitimate - both from the Church's and from the state's points of view - for clergypersons to assume public office precisely as representatives of their religious bodies.
That is accepted, even valued, in Islamic republics. In Western nations, we promote the notion that Christian laity should serve in politics and the judiciary, not as delegates of their churches, but as morally informed people who will follow their consciences.
What the bishops bring to public debates is something different. The bishop has a role as teacher of faith and morals. Bishops are not expected to have expertise as ecologists or economists. What they contribute to the public square is moral expertise - they ask moral questions and state relevant moral principles.
In doing so, they enrich public debate. Rare are the political controversies that can be solved solely on the basis of technical data. Politics is the realm of public moral decision-making.
Not only should people of varied religious convictions and no religious convictions tolerate the bishops' input, they should welcome it.
The bishops' interventions do not represent fiats from on high. Rather, they are a reminder that political and economic issues have a moral component and that morally sound decisions are essential for the good of society.
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