A Guide to Improving Shepherding
Part 1 showed how the Bishops’ championing of Muslim migration and support of the foes of American democracy advance Political Correctness more than Gospel. Part 2 demonstrated that their treatment of the U.S. border issue focuses almost exclusively on illegals and ignores the impact of illegal immigration on American citizens, including their congregations. Part 3 examines the reasons for the Bishops’ mistakes and proposes ways to overcome them.
The Church spent the better part of two millennia following Mark 12:17 and blessing those who respect human law (as well as Divine law). Today it admonishes supporters of immigration law. One doesn’t need a Ph.D. in moral theology or ethics to wonder, “What’s going on here?” Let’s see.
Catholic social thought has traditionally rested on three premises: 1) Every human being is created in the image and likeness of God and thus is drawn to truth and goodness; 2) Every human being is heir to Original Sin and therefore vulnerable to falsehood and evil; 3) Every human has free will and, depending on circumstances, is partly or entirely culpable for his/her choices.
These three premises led over time to additional beliefs: that because we are all created in the image and likeness of God, each of us has certain rights, notably the right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness; that because of our human imperfection, we can harm other people and be harmed by them; and therefore, that government is necessary to ensure that rights are protected.
Centuries of experience with monarchical and clerical governments led to the realization that those who governed were as imperfect as those they governed, sometimes more so; in addition, that the very acquisition of power tended to inflame that imperfection. Lord Acton expressed the matter succinctly: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This understanding led to the realization that for a government to avoid betraying the purpose for which it exists, it must have checks and balances.
The Catholic hierarchy eventually acknowledged the imperfection of monarchs (especially those who disagreed with them), but they have had considerably more difficulty accepting their own imperfection. This difficulty, I believe, is a major cause of their failure as shepherds.
This difficulty is understandable. For one thing, bishops, in contrast to even highly educated laypeople and the great majority of clerical theologians, are anointed, and thus tempted to believe that they receive special guidance from the Holy Spirit and are therefore exempt from the clouding of the mind and weakening of the will that afflict the rest of humanity.
That belief is greatly enhanced when a group of bishops share the same views on issues. After all, the Church teaches that “although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they can nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly. . .” when they agree with the Pope and among themselves on a matter of faith and morals. (Emphasis added.)
The teaching of the Catholic Church on infallibility is of course carefully worded and heavily qualified: it does not assign infallibility to what a group of bishops from one country proclaim on their own without consulting the Pope and other bishops, or to proclamations that are not formal statements on faith or morals. But the Bishops can easily forget their limitations they feel strongly about their opinions.
Let me be clear. I am not questioning whether bishops can ever speak infallibly. I am merely suggesting that believing they speak infallibly under certain circumstances can lead them to believe that everything they say is beyond questioning. The latter belief can effectively close their minds to opposing views and thus prevent them from learning from others, particularly from the unanointed. That belief could explain, in part, why their statements about immigration have been both intellectually disappointing and pastorally unhelpful. (See Part 1 and Part 2 of this essay)
But there is yet another reason for the Bishops having difficulty accepting their own imperfection—the powerful influence of Humanistic Psychology, which has dominated U.S. culture for almost six decades. The main tenets of that psychology are that everyone creates his/her own truth and reality, that feelings are more trustworthy than reason, and that high self-esteem is required for mental health and achievement in life. Extended exposure to that message creates an obstacle to intellectual humility for anyone. That obstacle becomes much more formidable when combined with the self-assurance bishops’ draw from their anointed status and potential for infallibility.
That formidable combination can also cause them to forget that, in most cases, they were chosen, not for their scholarly achievement in theology but for their organizational and managerial skills, and it would therefore be wise for them to consult more knowledgeable clerics and laypeople before making theological judgments.
Now for the most important question: What can the Bishops do to overcome their failure to provide sound guidance on immigration? I recommend that the Bishops:
Understand why they are so attracted to the Democrat Party
The Bishops’ statements I have examined in the three parts of this essay suggest they are influenced by a number of movements concerned with poverty. One is the Social Justice movement begun in the1850s by Luigi D’Azeglio S.J. Another is Liberation Theology, the late twentieth century movement, championed by Gustavo Gutierrez O.P, that arose from the poverty of Latin American workers and aims to liberate them both from poverty and from oppression by the wealthy and powerful. Though Rome has been suspicious of Liberation Theology’s blending of Marxism with Scripture, the movement has a large following among clerics. Both movements share what Gutierrez calls a “preferential option for the poor,“ a perspective the entire Church, including the American Bishops, has embraced.
Here the matter becomes interesting. Secular movements also claim to represent the poor and oppressed. Liberalism is one such movement, and its claim of concern for the poor accounts for the Bishops’ attraction to it and to the Democratic Party that sponsors it. But in recent decades Liberalism has morphed into Progressivism and even into Socialism, both of which favor government control of property and natural resources, differing only in the degree of that control. Both are also unenthusiastic about, if not hostile toward religion. The Bishops thus remain tethered to systems of thought that may be compatible with Catholic concern for the poor but are fundamentally incompatible with Catholic teaching in the larger sense. The question is how do the Bishops break that tether without seeming to abandon the poor?
Stop idealizing the poor
I am not saying abandon the poor or ignore the biblical message that what we do for them we do for Jesus Himself. I am suggesting that the Bishops be more realistic in the image they project of the poor in their statements about migrants and refugees. Gustavo Gutierrez said something very similar to this in explaining the term “preferential option for the poor.” Not all poor people are good, he noted, so their goodness is not why we have this preference for them. “We should prefer them not because they are good (if they are, fine!) but because first of all God is good and prefers the forgotten, the oppressed, the poor, the abandoned.” (James B. Nickloff, Gustavo Gutierrez: Essential Writings, p.146)
The Bishops should also remember that, while secularists may speak of poor migrants as if they were angelic creatures capable of being harmed but not of harming, we Christians believe that the poor, like all other humans, are capable of sin. By remembering this, they will be able to resist elevating the rights of people who cross the border illegally above the rights of citizens and to think more carefully about supporting sanctuaries that protect violent law-breakers.
Ponder Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum
This landmark encyclical, written in 1891, has proved to be not only wise but also prescient. It offers insights into Socialism that are especially valuable today, when socialist ideas are being advanced by many American politicians. It also offers a clearer and much needed understanding of our obligation to the poor. The following quotations from the encyclical are among the most relevant: (The emphasis is mine)[Socialists] hold that by . . . transferring property from private individuals to the community, the present mischievous state of things will be set to rights [sic], inasmuch as each citizen will then get his fair share of whatever there is to enjoy . . . [This transfer is] emphatically unjust, for [it] would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community . . . Every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own.
The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property.[Although sharing one’s wealth and other temporal blessings is a requirement of Divine Law], it is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity—a duty not enforced by human law.
Among the many and grave duties of rulers who would do their best for the people, the first and chief is to act with strict justice . . . toward each and every class alike.
Neither justice nor the common good allows any individual to seize upon that which belongs to another . . . The State would therefore be unjust and cruel if under the name of taxation it were to deprive the private owner of more than is fair.
If the Bishops apply Leo’s ideas to the present US immigration crisis, they will conclude that citizens of the United States are also children of God with fundamental rights that should not be abridged, especially not by the government. Those rights include secure borders and protection from unfair taxation to provide entitlements to illegal aliens. Moreover, if they follow Leo, they will conclude that, though each of us has a debt to our less fortunate neighbors, it is a debt in charity rather than justice.
Emphasize the individual’s responsibility for charity
As Pope Leo suggested, it is individuals that are responsible to God for loving and helping their neighbors, particularly those in dire need. That is very different from saying, as socialists do, that governments are responsible for providing that help. The Bishops would do well to encourage Catholics not to rely on government to meet their responsibilities to neighbors but to support private charities, particularly religious ones like the Bishops’ own Catholic Relief Services.
Oppose Progressive/Socialist programs for the redistribution of wealth
Such programs are intended to improve the lot of the poor in this and other countries, so Bishops are obviously inclined to advocate for them. However, they should instead oppose them, and not only because they violate the right to private property, as Leo argued, but also because governments are notoriously inefficient and wasteful in carrying out such programs. Besides, the programs themselves are generally counterproductive, as was demonstrated in the Plymouth Colony redistribution experiment of the 1600s, which Governor William Bradford confirmed “bred confusion, discontent, distrust, and the colonists looked upon it as a form of slavery.” In our own time, the examples of Cuba and Venezuela illustrate even more dramatically the failure of efforts to redistribute wealth.
Distinguish between legal vs. illegal immigration.
In their writings, the Bishops tend to avoid this distinction. They speak of “immigrants” and “migrants” and avoid any reference to the breaking of laws. That is disingenuous because the laws exist and when people cross the border without permission, they are by definition law-breakers. Equally disingenuous is their frequent use of the phrase “a nation’s right to control its borders” without ever acknowledging it as a meaningful principle that entails making laws and enforcing them, deciding who can enter the country and who cannot. In addition to acknowledging the distinction between legal and illegal immigration, the Bishops should acknowledge the complexities of illegal immigration. Rapists, robbers, and murderers pose as honest refugees and “Coyotes” use children as pawns, create fake families, sexually abuse and extort immigrants, and use them to smuggle drugs into the country. Border authorities must deal with all these problems and therefore deserve respect rather than demonization.
Defend the U.S. and its Constitution
There are two reasons the Bishops should make this defense and urge every Catholic pastor to do so as well. First, because the country’s principles and values are founded mainly on Judeo-Christian teachings, and secondly because the country is under attack from many politicians and media people who want to change those principles and values in ways that will undermine human freedom and dignity.
Reconsider their support of Muslim immigration
As I documented in Part 1 of this essay, the Bishops have enthusiastically supported Muslim immigration to the United States. I also documented that the Muslim Brotherhood recommends “eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and ‘sabotaging’ its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion [Islam] is made victorious over all other religions.” They also expect all Muslims to practice Sharia law, which allows the killing of rebellious children, Muslims who leave the faith, deny Allah’s existence, speak sarcastically about Allah, deny any verse of the Koran, commit adultery, or practice homosexuality. The Bishops and other Christians are of course, commanded to love all neighbors, including Muslims, so finding the way to do so while protecting Americans from Sharia law is no small challenge. But for the Bishops to ignore that challenge is to endanger 80 million Catholics and 250 million other Americans.
Choose more reliable news sources
This last recommendation may seem the least important of all, but in a sense it is one of the most important. A careful reading of the more than a dozen USCCB statements I analyzed in Part 1 and Part 2 of this essay will reveal that most if not all of the news sources the Bishops use to frame their statements are biased toward Democrats and, worse, filled with Democrat talking points and themes. Some examples of the themes reinforced by (though not directly repeated in) the Bishops’ statements are these: Republicans hate the poor and love Wall St. tycoons; Trump is a racist, homophobic, and xenophobic white supremacist who hates immigrants and whose policies will destroy the nation; and his followers are either knaves or fools. The Bishops owe it to their flocks and the Church in general to seek out fair news sources or, failing that, to consult conservative as well as liberal sources.
I began this essay by describing the powerful forces that have caused American Bishops to fail in their responsibility to the nation’s Catholics. Readers may wonder why I have ended it with ideas for turning that failure into success. Do I really believe that having made up their minds, the bishops will summon the humility required to change them? The honest answer is I am not sure. But I know that the Holy Spirit has been known to accomplish even greater changes than this.
Copyright © 2019 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero