Last Friday Fr. Richard Neuhaus posted a piece on the First Things site titled "The Competence of Bishops", a continuation of the debate he has been having over whether it is entirely appropriate of the USCCB to form a joint task force with congressional Democrats with the aim of ending US military involvement in Iraq.
Neuhaus argues that in specifically allying with congressional Democrats (or at least, with a "bipartisan task force" which happens to have only Democrats as members) to achieve a political objective, the bishops dilute their teaching authority and step outside their proper sphere. What they should do, he argues, is focus on preaching clearly the moral issues involved.
This has prompted some to accuse Neuhaus of behaving little differently from those on the political left, who get all huffy about the bishops exceeding their competence when they speak out on issues such as abortion and assisted suicide -- as when Cardinal Mahony called out a specific Catholic and friend in the California Legislature for his prominent support of an assisted suicide measure. I think there's a legitimate case to be made that laws on issues such as assisted suicide and abortion come so close to dealing directly with the moral issue itself, that there is no distinction between the moral and political issue, but let's leave that aside for now.
The bishops are the direct successors to the apostles, our shepherds in the Christian faith. As such, their primary duty is to convey to the faithful, and to the world, the sacred truths of the Christian faith.
In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI wrote, "Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due, is an essential task which every generation must take up anew. As a political task, this cannot be the Church’s immediate responsibility… The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible." In that they are the institutional backbone of the Church, I think one might legitimately say that the political task of "building a just social and civil order" is thus not primarily the task of the bishops. Their task, as the shepherds of the Church, is to convey to the world clearly and convincingly what truth and justice are -- leaving the laity to figure out how to instantiate those truths in civil society.
So to that extent, I think Neuhaus has a pretty solid point. The bishops would, I suspect, be most successful if they focused all their energies on preaching the faith and morals of the Church, and made sure that their administration of their diocese did not cause blowback that radically undermined that message.
However, a bit of historical realism is also called for. Once upon a time, it was not unheard of to refer to bishops as "princes of the Church". The term is not used now, in part, because of the bad taste which the excessive opulence and temporal power of some bishops left in people's metaphorical mouths. But for well over a thousand years, the centrality of Catholicism in Western Culture meant that episcopal sees were naturally centers of great power.
For much of that time, in most parts of Christendom, bishops were selected by the local temporal powers, not the Holy See. (Though, of course, the bishop could only be consecrated by the Church, not the temporal powers.) While bishops were responsible for supporting and overseeing much of the great Christian thought and art of the last two millenia, they also collected taxes, waged wars, and generally became enmired in the power struggles of their regions. People were used to the idea that while the bishop was God's shepherd, and thus deserved great respect, he was also a ruler and a man of power.
In the US, bishops never held this kind of direct temporal power, but nonetheless, if you read over the biographies of the great 19th and early 20th century bishops of this country, you'll find plenty of men who wielded considerable political influence, in the sense of looking after their (often poor immigrant) flocks and working with the political machines that sought to both protect and benefit from the packed immigrant neighborhoods.
While these bishops certainly worked hard to catechize their flocks and convey the doctrines of the faith, they also played politics on a scale none of our modern prelates could even aspire to. (I don't think a bishop has called for or stopped a riot any time recently, but both used to be well within the capability of the prelates of cities like New York and Boston.)
With the waining of the "Catholic ghetto" and the general slackening of Catholic cultural solidity in the last sixty years, this power has mostly vanished. I think there's also been a deliberate attempt on the part of the hierarchy to become more "pastoral" and less political in their approach. (It may also have been helped by the evaporation of the Democratic party as a Catholic-friendly option. Traditionally, Catholics had been solid Democrats, and I think many bishops would far rather be "non-partisan" than be seen as in any clear sense aligned with the other party.) A few still like to play the game. It was downright fun to watch Cardinal Mahony swing the LA City Council around by its tail while pushing to be able to build his cathedral where we wanted to -- though the process of seeing the monstrosity go up was considerably less fun.
One of the ironies of the new wave of orthodox Catholicism in the last 25 years, is that despite its deep love for tradition, it is in many ways a re-building rather than a continuation. This is added to by the fact that so many of our writers these days are converts from within the last 25 years -- as indeed is Fr. Neuhaus. Even among cradle Catholic like myself, we have often fallen in love with a historic Catholicism which needs to be rebuilt before it can be experienced.
Thus, while I think that it is a good point that the primary duty of bishops is to server as a shepherd in regards to faith and morals, it is perhaps also as well to recall that for more than half of Catholicisms history bishops have been temporal as well as spiritual princes. I would assume that, back when the bishop of a major city might maintain his own army and try to make sure that his own preferred claimant achieved the temporal throne, people would naturally have been able to discern the the distinction between a bishop's temporal and spiritual activities.
Is it really reasonable to believe that today's bishops will not also have their own partisan leanings? Is it necessary to ask the bishops to remain silent on temporal issues, or should we simply try to remain clear on what are the firm teachings of the faith versus what is the "political battle to bring about the most just society possible."