On the Authority of our Bishops
We have to face the facts: our bishops are both the successors of the apostles deserving our respect and obedience as well as humans who are fallible and make mistakes. The two go hand in hand, and we must always remember both of these facts when discussing the activity of our bishops. When they teach according to the basic principles of our faith, when they preach our basic moral positions, they are at their best and most authoritative. When they try to engage those same principles and show us how to apply them in our everyday lives, then things get trickier, because this involves human opinion and conjecture, and so is more liable to be mistaken. Even with such mistakes, we must treat our bishops with respect because of their office, but it does not mean we cannot speak out and present our prudential understanding in response to the bishops and engage them in a dialogue as to what is the best way to apply our principles in our daily lives. In such situations, we must work with them to promote the basic principles and show how we agree with them in the basics of the faith, while we also point out our own understanding of what it means in a given situation, and point out, in as charitable a manner possible, why we think they might be mistaken.
The principles must, in all occasions, by the foundation for our engagement. We must understand that it is these principles which are the highlights of their teaching authority. Questioning the principles themselves involves a far greater risk and responsibility than questioning the application of those principles. The application is very difficult to determine. Indeed, because there is a diversity of situations, sometimes the applications will differ according to time and place (as Pope John Paul II has suggested with the issue of the death penalty). There is a need for flexibility in their application, but this flexibility must not be seen as moral relativism, but must indeed always be centered upon the principles which we hold dear.
In acting out principles with practical reason, this means, among other things, our insights will differ, and so our understanding of what is best to be done will differ. It does not have to be seen as infidelity if we question the prudential decision of a bishop, if we believe we have an insight they do not have or have overlooked. It would be infidelity, however, if we use our prudential decisions as a means to question the overarching principles of our faith.
It is the custom for people to act like a bishop knows everything that is needed to be known if their judgment agrees with our own. It is a way to squash debate over practical reason. However, as soon as a bishop does something which we do not like, or it can be shown that a bishop doesn’t have a complete insight even to the workings of his diocese, our reaction to that news depends upon who the bishop is and whether or not we like them (“of course he can’t know everything,” will be the response to the failings of those bishops we like if something happened under his watch which he didn’t seem to have control over; “he should have known and so is guilty of neglect” will be the response to bishops we do not like if he didn’t know something and abuse happened; just look at how people treat different bishops in regards to the child abuse scandal to see how this is the case).
Instead of treating bishops as either all knowing or ignorant, we would do better to understand that in all situations, there is an element of authority being used when they speak out as a bishop, but it is limited to their human ability and according to the manner in which they are engaging their authority. That is, on principles of faith, their authority is strongest. When talking about how to live out those principles in our daily lives, there is a strong amount of authority, but because some of this is in the realm of practical opinion and opinion, the authority is much less than when discussing the principles themselves (and can lead to failures, as we see in all the kinds of mistakes which happen in dioceses across the world). When engaging civic debates over particular laws, the bishop still has an authority — he is still engaging various principles of our faith and morals — but because his understanding of the law in question can be quite fallible (and is often given to them by some second source who they trust but a source which might not be telling them the full impact of the law or could be wrong in reading the law itself), recognizing that fallibility is not to dispute his ecclesial authority but is rather a dispute in his understanding of a particular legislation. In this way, if the bishops are told a certain law would deport every Hispanic living in America, and they react against the law because they believe that is the case, their principles would be sound in rejecting the law, but they could be completely wrong as to the law itself. It should be understandable why bishops could be mistaken: their primary place is within the church and teaching their flock the principles of faith; while they must have an active role in civic society, because we cannot separate our faith from our daily lives, they also have to rely upon all kinds of secondary sources, such as advisors, to determine what is going on. They must judge these sources, to see if they should believe or not believe what their sources tell them, and this activity is very human and very fallible. In this way, arguing against their understanding of a given legislation, given to them by a secondary source, is not the same thing as arguing against them on the principles of our faith: indeed, the principles are presupposed.
If we can understand this three-fold distinction, it would help people understand why support for our bishops as they preach on the principles of our faith (being against abortion, euthanasia, torture, abuse of the environment, etc) does not mean one suddenly is against those same bishops when one disagrees with their prudential or civic understandings of those principles. One could, of course, be wrong in applying those principles; it is not a free for all. But one must work with them and support them as best one can. If someone makes a bad application of them, their bishop will be able to reply to them and point out how their practical application fails the principle itself — and can then deal with that failure as they see fit. But one thing we must not assume is that the bishops’ decision, if their prudential reason leads to the same end as ours does, limits the way others can read the situation. The bishops’ understanding should be respected for what it is, and so one who finds a reason to disagree with their bishop should seek to preserve the principles their bishop proclaim as they explain why they disagree– this will be the best way to point out our respect to them as well as understanding that they are, after all, human, just like us.
 And there might be times when a prudential decision is in error, and contradicts principles of our faith. If that is the case, correction is to be given. Prudence does not give one the right to do anything one should want to do.
 Recognizing the human error of bishops we like, even if it is grave error, does not have to be an attack on them, and indeed, it is sometimes something they need to hear. Too many bishops are surrounded by mere yes-men, and that is the cause of a great number of scandals, because it keeps the bishops themselves entirely ignorant of the real world situation.