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Phil Lawler

Opinion, ,

Tennessee bishops shouldn’t have opposed state’s heartbeat bill. Here’s why

Phil Lawler

March 11, 2019 (CatholicCulture.org) — The Catholic bishops of Tennessee recommended against support for a "Heartbeat Bill," on prudential grounds. The bishops may be right in their political judgment. But even if they are, they had no business issuing their statement.

In that statement, the bishops made it quite clear that they are in sympathy with the sponsors of the legislation: that they "wholeheartedly support" the intention of the "Heartbeat Bill." Their concern was based purely on political tactics. In other states, the bishops noted, "Heartbeat" legislation has been passed, enacted, and then overturned by the courts, leaving the pro-life cause worse off than before the bill was introduced. Therefore, they reasoned:

Given the field of legal realities that we must consider, we believe it would not be prudent to support the "Heartbeat Bill" knowing the certainty of its overturning when challenged, in addition to the court ordered fees that would be paid to the pro-abortion plaintiffs. Instances like these remind us that we must be prudent and support other pro-life pieces of pro-life legislation that stand a better chance of being upheld in the courts and, possibly, become the vehicle that forces the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe once and for all.

In putting forward this argument, the Tennessee bishops were obviously not making a point based on fundamental Catholic doctrine or Church moral teaching. They were making a purely political argument. And bishops — how many times do we have to remind them? — have no special authority to make prudential political judgments.

Again, the bishops' political judgment might be right. Then again, your political judgment might be right, or my political judgment might be right. Or maybe all of us — you and I and the bishops — will be proven wrong. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion. In Tennessee and every other American state, there are lay Catholics with both experience and expertise in politics. It would behoove pro-life activists — and Catholic bishops — to listen to their advice. But no one has the right to claim — or even to imply — that his political prognostications carry the weight of Church authority.

Bishops speak with authority when they speak on matters of faith and morals. Questions of political tactics fall within the proper sphere of the laity. When bishops trespass in that territory, they generally make mistakes — as the Tennessee bishops did in this case.

It may be true that the Tennessee "Heartbeat Bill" would be overturned in court. But isn't it possible that this bill would be better crafted, that it could survive a constitutional challenge, that it might even furnish the case that finally undermines the disastrous legal precedents set in the Roe and Doe decisions? We cannot be certain. Neither can the bishops.

But we can be certain that as the debate continues in Tennessee, supporters of legal abortion will draw comfort from the bishops' public statement, using it to suggest that that legislation is "so extreme that even the bishops oppose it." We can be equally certain that Catholics involved in the pro-life movement feel betrayed by the bishops' public recommendation against their favored bill, and non-Catholics in the pro-life movement will question whether they can count on Catholics as reliable allies. The bishops fear that the passage of the "Heartbeat Bill" could ultimately harm the pro-life movement. Maybe so. But the bishops' opposition has already caused some serious harm.

Please, bishops, do the work that is set out for you: ensuring that the faithful have access to the sacraments and to sound Catholic teaching. Don't try to set yourselves up as political analysts. It's not your role; it's not your charism; it's not your strong suit. We need your pastoral leadership. We don't need your political advice.

Published with permission from CatholicCulture.org.

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