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February 27, 2012

The appointment of Bishop Luc Bouchard as bishop of Trois Rivieres, Quebec, came as a bolt out of the blue. Bishop of St. Paul for 10 years, Bouchard seemed likely to minister here until his retirement in 13 years.

Nevertheless, we wish Bishop Bouchard well in his new ministry. We will not forget his contributions to his diocese and to the Church in Alberta. The bishop stirred controversy in our province with his pastoral letters on gambling in 2007 and the Athabasca tarsands in 2009.

The tarsands letter was not well-received in some quarters. Some grumbled that a bishop should not "meddle" in an area where he had no technical expertise. Such grumbling reflects the poverty of moral reflection in Western society. Economic morality is too often treated solely in terms of efficiencies, profit margins and other measurable outcomes.

Absent is the sense that all societal decisions affect the common good and that Church leaders do have a special moral expertise. Their role is that of the prophet who speaks for those people of current and future generations whose needs are marginalized by the sole quest of economic benefits.

The central exercise of the Church's teaching office is the solemn teaching of revealed truth by popes and Church councils. Catholics must receive such teachings with "firm faith." A couple of layers below those teachings are "interventions in the prudential order" such as the tarsands statement.

A 1990 statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (Donum Veritatis, The Gift of Truth) freely admits that in this area "it could happen that some magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies."

Nevertheless, Catholics are not free to brush aside such statements. The 1990 declaration says, "It would be contrary to the truth, if, proceeding from some particular cases, one were to conclude that the Church's magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments, or that it does not enjoy divine assistance in the integral exercise of its mission" (n. 24).

This is a strong statement. Even a bishop's statement on an economic matter has received divine assistance. The believer has a responsibility to strive to understand the content, arguments and purposes of such statements and, if need be, to revise his own opinions.

"There should never be a diminishment of that fundamental openness loyally to accept the teaching of the magisterium as is fitting for every believer by reason of the obedience of faith" (n. 29).

Bouchard is leaving Alberta, but his statement on the tarsands will stand. It was a carefully researched and reasoned statement on a moral issue. Catholics should continue to give careful attention to both the technical and moral issues that it raises.