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On the Authority of our Bishops

March 16, 2010

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.[1]

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).[2]

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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

  1. David Raber permalink
    March 16, 2010 9:52 am

    So, in other words, you are a dissident, and not really a Catholic!
    Just kidding. It seems to me you have summed things up nicely on this issue. It is always a balancing act between accepting authority and speaking and acting as we believe to be right when our thinking differs from that of authority. The authority is crucially important for the unity of the Church, but the dissidence, for lack of a better word, is often important for the integrity of the Church and for reform when that is needed.
    Important in my mind is a distinction between dissidence (or more mildly, “difference of opinion”)and rebellion. Luther was a rebel, Erasmus was not, though they shared many views about doctrine and the Church. St. Francis was not a rebel, obviously, but some enthusiasts of his time who shared many of his views about gospel poverty, etc., were certainly rebels.
    Would-be rebels, stay in the Church! Have some humility and perspective, even if you have to have more than your hyper-orthodox critics. The Church is a very large, and yes, heterogenous organization with a long, long history, and it is such, and has persevered, I believe, because God is working in it in a way he is working nowhere else.

    • March 16, 2010 10:02 am


      Right, it is a balancing act. Though some would like to make it such, Catholicism is not fideism. There is room for diversity, and indeed, it expects it. Rebellion is indeed something quite different from disagreement — and you provided a good example there, though we could always add many saints who were criticized in their life and vindicated in their death. But I think one thing which is important is the desire to work with the principles and preserve them.

  2. R.C. permalink
    March 16, 2010 11:59 am


    Brilliantly stated. Really very well done.

    • March 16, 2010 12:02 pm


      Thanks. I just wanted to get it out in the open, because I feel these distinctions are often misunderstood, or ignored, from time to time.

  3. M.Z. permalink
    March 16, 2010 12:15 pm

    Well said Henry.

  4. Kyle R. Cupp permalink
    March 16, 2010 1:09 pm

    Excellent post, Henry.

  5. March 16, 2010 2:39 pm

    Very clear. Thanks Henry.

  6. March 16, 2010 4:36 pm

    I think we also need to be careful about the degree of deference we grant to other experts as well.

  7. March 16, 2010 9:11 pm

    It needs to be.

    To take on example, scientists can tell us all sorts of things about embryos. Those facts can help inform our determination of whether they are persons.

    But ultimately, scientists cannot make the determination, and I would not submit my conscience to the scientific consensus on this matter.

    • March 17, 2010 3:02 am


      You still are not making much sense. What is your point? Did you actually read the post?

  8. David Nickol permalink
    March 17, 2010 6:24 am

    John McG,

    Of course embryologists cannot tell you whether an embryo at any given stage is a person. But if you were looking for embryological facts that needed to be taken into consideration to determine if an embryo was a person or not, it would be embryologists, not bishops, who would be the experts.

    And if there were a very useful drug that caused birth defects in developing embryos, I am sure the USCCB (and everyone else) would want the drug regulated by law, but exactly how those laws should be written would be a matter for legislators, physicians, and the FDA. That the drug should be regulated would be something the bishops could speak on with authority. Exactly how it should be regulated would be beyond their area of competence.

    • March 17, 2010 6:44 am


      Well, I don’t think John got my point with his question. I was pointing out that bishops have to rely upon experts in different fields, but their choice of experts is a human choice, and quite fallible. The experts themselves are fallible. Therefore, discussing points based upon fallible information from experts will lead to possible issues and concerns and explains why, even if one agrees with the principles of the discussion, there can be disagreement in the practical ramifications of it. The bishops can get bad information, and often do — which is what we have seen lately (like in the abuse scandal; lawyers and psychologists both gave them bad info which they used).

  9. David Nickol permalink
    March 17, 2010 8:48 am


    I just wrote a long message somewhere else pointing out that in the health care debate, the principle criterion by which the bishops have insisted health care legislation be judged is whether or not it is consistent with the Hyde Amendment. The Hyde Amendment isn’t Catholic doctrine, and in fact it is not consistent with Catholic doctrine in that it permits funding of abortion in cases of rape, incest, and threat to the life of the mother. So the bishops speak with near-absolute authority when they say abortion is intrinsically evil. But since the Hyde Amendment is not Catholic doctrine, the bishops position from the outset has been one of political compromise. And now with experts disagreeing on whether the House or the Senate version more closely reflects the Hyde Amendment, we’re into a murky area where neither the bishops nor anyone else really can be considered to be speaking with the moral authority of the Magisterium.

    Those who so fiercely defend every pronouncement from the bishops and the bishops’ experts and spokespersons are not defending Catholic doctrine or even Catholic teaching. They are defending the prudential decisions of bishops on how best to draw up legislation that will reflect some, but not all, of the Church’s teachings.

    • March 17, 2010 8:54 am


      Well, one can but wonder if the Hyde Amendment had first been suggested by President Obama, because it doesn’t stop funding of abortion in case of rape or incest, some people would have argued against it because they would have read it in support of abortion. It is indeed right to point this out. As I have said elsewhere, incremental improvements are ok — if one group do it, but if another, it seems to be “all or nothing.” Another example of this is the criticism of this bill because it doesn’t support immigrants. Ok. I agree, that is a deficit, and should be corrected. But the idea that “if the immigrants don’t get it this time, no one should” is sound is rather strange — everyone or no one? Really? Yes, I think the immigrants should get in on the care. But if they are not this time, they won’t in the future either. No one will. IF we set the standard of all or nothing, nothing will ever change.

  10. March 17, 2010 9:39 am

    My point is that while we should not be completely deferential to bishops on matters outside their competence, the same also applies to secular experts.

    We all remember Colin Powell sitting at the United Nations presenting a convincing case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. As we know, he was incorrect.

    But why was he incorrect? I submit that part of the reason he was incorrect was that he, along with the rest of the Administration, was coming from a perspective of presumption for war.

    In a post above, MM is asking us to give deference to Prof. Timothy Jost’s analysis of the health care bill. I have no reason to disbelieve Prof. Jost’s expertise on this matter, just as I had little reason to mistrust that Colin Powell and the Administration were experts in intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s regime.

    But I am not sure that Prof. Jost is operating from the same moral principles that I am in forming his analysis. I suspect he would prefer that HCR not fund abortion, but is it a deal-breaker for him as it is for me?

    What I want to guard against is the notion that if the consensus of experts in a domain disagrees with the conclusions of either an individual bishop or the bishops as a collective, then that is sufficient to establish that the bishops are speaking out of turn and outside their expertise.

    There is a murky area between matters of moral principle and matters of domain expertise, and both bishops and domain experts have input into that place.

    • March 17, 2010 9:48 am


      Again, why make that point, when no one is saying otherwise, indeed, part of the post is based upon the fact that bishops rely upon such experts and thus are even more fallible when they have to do so? That was a part of the point. It is not a criticism of the bishops (they have other duties and expertise), but a point of fact of how we have to interact, and so, why things require that understanding when talking about what they bishops state and why.

      As for Professor Jost, whether or not he agrees with us on principles, those principles are not needed in order to discuss what a bill does or does not do. And his expertise gives him credibility — it doesn’t make him perfect but, if one on prudential analysis relies upon his discussion of the bill, what then?

  11. March 17, 2010 10:41 am

    I think one of the unanswered questions of the post is how do we determine when the bishops are, in fact, in error, and then how we go about resolving the difference.

    A convenient way of making that determination is that if the bishops speak for or against a certain application of moral principles, and a consensus or significant quorum of domain experts disagrees with that application, then that is sufficient to conclude that the bishops are applying the principles incorrectly, and the only question that remains is how we go about expressing our dissent.

    I disagree. An honest mechanic can tell me that something in my car is broken, and know better than I the consequences of me not performing some maintenance on it. But only my wife and I are qualified to determine how that repair should be prioritized with respect to the other things claiming parts of our family budget. That a mechanic has determined that the repair should be made does not automatically mean we are unwise if we decide not to.

    The upshot of the Prof. Jost commentary seems to be, “This expert says that HCR doesn’t fund abortion, so anybody (including the bishops) claiming to oppose HCR on pro-life grounds is a hypocrite or a dupe!” I challenge that this is the correct attitude to have.

    I think there’s just as much danger in trusting domain authorities to overly influence moral decisions as there is in religious authorities to overly influence application decisions.

    Not every expert who the bishops disagree with is Galileo.

    • March 17, 2010 10:46 am


      You have not actually read the post too well. The post discusses different levels of authority, and points out how, on something which is lower in the list and outside of the competence of the bishop, their authority is much less, and one can disagree. It is not “when they are in error,” sometimes, but “there are multiple possible ways to read the same situation and we must deal with that fact” The Church allows for a plurality of positions within the reach of the principles, and it is not always a matter of one is right and another is wrong — this is why we have Doctors of the Church with strong disagreements!

  12. David Nickol permalink
    March 17, 2010 10:44 am

    Bishops speaking on legislative matters are speaking outside of the area of their expertise. When they say abortion is intrinsically evil and should not be funded with taxpayer dollars, they are on solid ground. When they say the House version of the bill accomplishes that better than the Senate version, unless this is clear to all reasonable people, they are relying on experts just like the rest of us.

    Also, there are matters of interpretation that experts cannot settle. Some believe that government subsidies to those buying insurance that covers abortion, even if they are required to pay for the abortion coverage separately and the insurance company is required to keep funds segregated, still amounts to government funding of abortion. That is something not even the greatest experts can settle.

  13. David Nickol permalink
    March 17, 2010 10:50 am

    The upshot of the Prof. Jost commentary seems to be, “This expert says that HCR doesn’t fund abortion, so anybody (including the bishops) claiming to oppose HCR on pro-life grounds is a hypocrite or a dupe!” I challenge that this is the correct attitude to have.

    John McG,

    I have seen nothing but praise for the calm and respectful way Jost has addressed the the position of the bishops and their experts. The fact that you interpret him to be saying those who disagree with him are hypocrites and dupes leads me to believe you lack anything resembling objectivity.

  14. March 17, 2010 1:01 pm

    I am not critizing Prof. Jost; I am criticizing the manner in which is commentary has been deployed.

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