Thursday, 15 May 2008

Global warming and the Cardinal: when should we have something to say?

The editorial by Hugh Henry in the latest edition of Fidelity Magazine defends Cardinal Pell's right to make comments on issues such as global warming (where he dissents from the 'consensus'), on the basis that he is leading by example and encouraging Catholics to inject themselves more forcefully into the public debate.

I'm not so sure that Mr Henry is right on this one.

Catholics should be in the public square - but shouldn't it be the laity speaking up?

It is certainly true, as the Pope has argued forcefully during his recent US trip, that Catholics have a right and indeed a duty to participate in public debate.

What is a lot less clear to me is whether it is bishops (or Cardinals) who should be doing it.

Traditionally, in theory at least, the translation of our catholic beliefs into practical policy has surely been seen as primarily the sphere of the laity. The role of the hierarchy is to teach and equip the catholic laity to play their proper role in the world - not to try and do it for them. Current Canon law even attempts to enshrine this principle.

It is true that there have always been exceptions. Some very prominent ones. Some rather long-lived ones.

And it is also true that the number of exceptions, approved and otherwise, from Mgr Cappo's membership of the South Australian Cabinet, to the recent election of a bishop as President of Paraguay, seems to be growing.

But that is not to say that the principle shouldn't be more firmly asserted.

The Church hierarchy, of course, reserves the right to judge the secular order and its representatives.

But that is a very different matter from being active players in the political debate.

Mr Henry seems to think we need some leadership in this area. But I would have thought that the reality is that there are a large number of catholics engaged in this debate, albeit most with somewhat less prominence than the Cardinal.

It is of course the case that the Catholic laity are often relatively ignorant of the important theological principles to apply on issues like this. But isn't the solution to teach them the principles rather than focus on the application of them?

Bishops speaking as private citizens?

As Mr Henry points out, that on this issue the Cardinal is speaking as a private citizen, and that Catholics are free to agree or disagree with him on an issue like this. The reality, though, is that he only gets media airtime on this issue because of his position in the Church.

And it is one thing, it seems to me, for bishops (even bishops of Rome!) to write essentially as private citizens on subjects on which they have some considerable expertise to offer, such as theology; quite another to use their name in areas where their basis for taking a position is less obvious, and might indeed tend to feed the view of religion as anti-science.

I do have to agree with Mr Henry, though, on the broader issue of bishops (and priests) speaking on assorted political, economic and scientific issues:

"How many times have we heard political, economic, and scientific opinions advanced as if they were binding on all catholics? The situation has been particularly dire in the past few decades..."

What are we to make, for example of the recent pastoral letter on Internet safety? The accompanying you tube video from the bishop chosen to front this one up starts by telling us he wouldn't know facebook from second life, or a blog from a chatroom, and disarmingly asks so why is he telling us about the internet? Why indeed! This is all good and well meaning stuff, but is it really the role of a bishop? It seems to me that there are plenty of people out there already advocating on the dangers and uses of the internet - and probably people who actually have some expertise on the subject at that.

And if it is part of the role of the bishop, just what status does it have?

And one could ask similar questions about yesterday's statement welcoming the abolition of temporary visa's for refugees (, the ACBC Submission to the parliamentary inquiry on alcohol taxes, and much more.

Of course there are times when bishops need to speak out on public issues, as Cardinal Pell and others have done, to instruct catholics on the teaching of the Church, the consequences of their actions when inconsistent with that, and even more broadly.

But the danger is that activist bishops will squeeze out the proper role of the laity rather than support it.

Russell Shaw and Todd Aglialoro have written a few interesting articles on this subject at Inside Catholic:

Now my personal view is that Mr Shaw, expert though he is in this field, goes rather too far in his assertions of the rights of the laity, and doesn't give sufficient recognition to the hierarchical constitution of the Church. All the same, there is something in what he is saying, and it has certainly stimulated an interesting discussion on related issues at Amy Wellborn's site:

In any case, you can read on all this from the Australian perspective, and much more (though mostly rather less controversial!), in the latest edition of Fidelity, obtainable from

No comments: