On Tuesday night I was a caller on Catholic Answers Live: Open Forum Q&A with Jimmy Akin (hour 1). I asked about a U.S. Bishops’ Conference document from 2000 that has a footnote expressing a policy position about handguns. Mark Shea hosted Facebook discussions on this recently. The audio link is below (at 17:45), and also I made an unofficial transcript below. But first, the upshot:
Jimmy is right. Individual bishops are capable of Teaching Doctrine on Faith and Morals, but they aren’t even trying to do that in the policy recommendations of this document (much less in what they stuck in a footnote). Catholic teaching itself tells us that bishops sometimes Teach Doctrine intentionally to bind Catholics to agree, but most of the time when discussing policy issues they are only intending to say something deserving of respectful and prayerful consideration. Evangelium Vitae deliberately and authoritatively declares abortion must be prohibited. The USCCB’s 2000 crime statement, and many other bishops’ policy views, lack the characteristics of what a bishop does when he teaches doctrine, and they lack it by the intent of the bishops themselves.
I have no problem with the bishops and the Catholics who agree with the 2000 statement’s recommendations on crime and gun control. My problem is with people like some of Mark’s followers who call fellow Catholics “dissenters” because they respecfully come to a different conclusion. Jimmy Akin is not a dissenter for believing that the policy recommendation in footnote 36 of this bishops’ document is not a Teaching of Doctrine on Faith and Morals.
Anyone who calls Jimmy’s position dissent is, as Shea would say it, “Insane.” They are making an idol of their own politival view. They are piling burdens on fellow believers that the Church herself does not impose. And their bad ecclesiology posits an infantile Catholicism so that even when bishops tell Catholics to apply reason and sense and general principles, such people stubbornly insist that Catholics are being commanded what to think.
Even on an issue like the death penalty, which has strong statements against it in doctrinal documents like the Catechism and EV, Cardinal Ratzinger himself made clear there among Catholics is a “legitimate diversity of opinion” (“but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia”). This room-to-disagree is far more true when it comes to an issue about what society must do with handguns, and whether to “eliminate” them, because footnote 36 of the 2000 statement by the U.S. bishops is not framed as an authoritative doctrinal teaching either by the nature of the document or by the tenor of the statement. That policy prescription possesses no Doctrinal Teaching at all compared to the death penalty.
Catholic teaching on the issue limits itself to generalities: affirming defense of people in one’s responsibility including by use of arms (Cathechism 2265) and expressing that guns should be approproately and sensibly regulated. Cardinal Ratzinger is not a dissenter for saying a “legitimate diversity of opinion” exists among Catholics on such issues.
Cardinal Dolan, while president of the USCCB in 2013, declared “I don’t pretend to be an expert on what should be in each specific [gun regulation] bill, and I will never be an authority on the number of bullets that should be in an ammo clip, or the proper way to conduct background checks before selling someone a firearm. That’s the proper responsibility of our legislators.” Infantile Catholics deny this assertion of Cardinal President Dolan and insist that he is Teaching Doctrine when he expresses his policy view on specific gun control measures. The only time these Catholics think a bishop is not Teaching Doctrine is when he insists he is not Teaching Doctrine.
Unofficial Transcript of Catholic Answers Live, hour 1, June 3, 2014 (18:17–23:18)
Caller Matt: There is a document on the USCCB website called “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice,” from November 15th of 2000. It says it was approved for publication by the full body of bishops at their November 2000 general meeting (it doesn’t give a vote count). And the document says–what I want to ask about is something it says–“We reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns.” And then it cites its own footnote 36, which says “However, we believe that in the long run, and with few exceptions (i.e., police officers, military use) handguns should be eliminated from our society.”
My question is, does this footnote statement, or any other statement from a Catholic bishop or bishops, require Catholics to believe handguns should be eliminated from our society, or that handguns are immoral except for law enforcement and military, or does it require Catholics to support specific gun control proposals that add restrictions to handguns in the U.S.
Jimmy Akin: OK. I’d have to peel the question into at least two parts, because you mentioned individual bishops. And an individual bishop is capable of exercising his magisterium in his own diocese, but not more broadly. And even then he’s not capable of exercising his magisterium infallably, the way the Pope is. And so if he were to engage his teaching authority in his own diocese to say handguns should be eliminated, that wouldn’t be an infallible statement, and people in his diocese would have to determine the weight of that and of whatever particular level of authority he put behind the statement. And I’m not aware of a bishop who’s done that.
In terms of…the question I’m more easily able to answer is on the conference level. As far as I’m aware, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops did not approve this unanimously and did not get the Holy See’s signoff for it to become an official theological statement. It is a pastoral statement that is offered to the faithful. Since it was approved by the whole body of bishops, it is a statement of the U.S. conference of bishops. But that doesn’t mean it’s a doctrinal statement. It appears to be a pastoral statement that contains the thought of the conference in a general way offered to the faithful for their reflection. But it doesn’t count as a doctrinal statement unless it’s approved unanimously so that all the bishops agree in engaging their teaching authority, or unless it’s been forwarded to Rome for Rome’s approval as a teaching document. And as far as I’m aware neither one of those is the case here. So as far as I’m aware this is a pastoral document that offers food for thought to Catholics but is not doctrinally binding.
Patrick Coffin: Matt in Hyattsville.
Matt: What if one’s bishop voted for it and then you basically have, you don’t have that bishop doing anything additional… Jimmy Akin: It depends on… Matt: Does the framing of the document itself make it a statement by your bishop that,
Jimmy Akin: No…
Matt: …my bishop is teaching handguns should be eliminated from society and therefore…
Jimmy Akin: No. Saying “I believe something,” I mean, presumably if he voted for it, I mean, he is likely to subscribe to that provision. Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe he just thought it was good enough overall that he was willing to vote for it even if he didn’t agree with every single word. But it doesn’t constitute…voting for a communal document does not constitute an exercise of individual magisterium. If you want to do that you’ve got to do it individually. And so, and as I said, merely saying “I believe this” doesn’t mean, “and you must, too.” OK? So even with the statement “we believe this,” even if every bishop in the United States said that, that’s a statement of their belief. That’s not the same thing as saying “this is part of the Catholic faith.”
Patrick Coffin: And binding on the faithful.
Jimmy Akin: Right.
Patrick Coffin: In a country where there’s such a thing as a Second Amendment people can arrive at different conclusions than some of the leaders might seem to.
Jimmy Akin: It’s certainly…they would need to say it much more forcefully and with a greater level of approval if they wanted to bind the faithful on this point.
Patrick Coffin: Great. Would this be something analogous to what Pope Emeritus Benedict said about governments’ conclusions about war or the application of the death penalty, that it’s not an absolute doctrinally binding thing?
Jimmy Akin: Right, and there can in his words be a “legitimate diversity of opinion” among Catholics on those matters.