George Weigel had a lengthy, but well worth the read article in the December edition of First Things on what the proper role of the Catholic Church should be when it comes to the public square:
The postconciliar tendency of Catholic public policy agencies to take a position on almost everything also distorts the social doctrine of the Church. The Church does not have plenary competence in the public sphere. She cannot state that the American presidential-congressional system is preferable to the Westminster parliamentary system, or that a bicameral legislature is superior to a unicameral legislature. The Church has no competence to declare that legislative action should or should not be subject to judicial review, or that there are “implied powers” in any executive office, or where the prime rate should be set, or on which side of the road driving should occur.
The Church does have the competence to teach that taxation is just, for to pay taxes is a matter of exercising one’s responsibility to the common good. The Church has no competence to suggest that its social doctrine contains clear instructions on what constitute just rates of taxation, and it demeans its social witness (and misapplies its own social doctrine) when it does so through agencies of its pastors.
The Church has the right and the duty to teach that a just society makes provision for the elderly, the sick, and the severely handicapped who, for reasons beyond their control, cannot care for themselves. The Church has no competence to pronounce on whether that societal obligation is best met by state-mandated and tax-funded programs, by private- and independent-sector programs, or by some mix of the two.
To suggest otherwise not only overestimates the Church’s competence; it also tends to obscure her priorities. When the Church’s chief pastors or their public policy agencies intervene in the public policy-process on a vast array of matters that do not, except in the remotest sense, touch on questions of first principles or on areas of the Church’s special competence, they inevitably suggest that all issues are equal in the eyes of the Catholic Church. This lack of discipline dissipates energies that could be better applied in a more focused way.
Weigel’s effort to set boundaries and limits to what the Church’s role should be is admirable and long overdue. He’s exactly right that while the Church can and should teach about obligations and duties that its members have when it comes to things like taxes and caring for the elderly, disabled, and poor, the Church should not get involved in the exacting details about how these obligations and duties should be exercised. Whether the marginal tax rate of individuals earning over $250,000 a year should be increased by 2% is not something the Church needs to weigh in on. Or whether the biennial budget for the state of Minnesota should be $37.5 billion or $39 billion dollars. As Weigel notes, the Church needs to stick to the first principles lest it get bogged down in trying to influence everything and thus end up influencing nothing.
Another key suggestion from Weigel is that the Church and its leaders stop trying to play the role of a special interest group that seeks a place at the table in the political process. Instead, he believes that the Church should seek to educate, inform, and engage with the folks in the pews on what the Church’s teaching is on these first principles and what those teachings mean to the pertinent issues of the day. The power of the Church is indeed with its people and they are the ones-if given proper guidance-who can most effect the public policy changes the Church would like to see take place.