Does Anyone "Get" the Role of the Laity?

Here's a summary of the U.S. Bishops' latest initiative --asking Bush to take "bold action" at the G-8 Summit. Sigh. I'll take this occasion to step onto my role of the laity soap-box.
In 1985 Dinesh S'Souza wrote a blast at the USCC in Policy Review entitled "The Bishops as Pawns." Couldn't find the original article on-line, but here's the way D'Souza described it in an interview:
At the time, Catholic bishops were writing "pastoral letters as to why nuclear weapons were dangerous. I got my Dartmouth mind working -- wouldn't it be funny to call up these guys, 30 of them, and ask them some rather elementary questions?" He called them directly, quoting from one letter: " 'You write that the cost to make an MX missile is a waste of money. How much do you think it costs?' 'You say the MX missile takes the arms race to a new level. How many warheads are on an MX missile?' I got the most outrageous, wacky, uninformed answers. Obviously what was going on -- the bishops had nothing to do with this. They had a left-wing staff, at the U.S. Catholic Conference in D.C., writing all this stuff. Those guys were well-informed. But the bishops didn't have a clue."
D'Souza also got wacky answers when he asked the bishops questions referring to their pastoral on the economy such as, "What is a marginal tax rate?" Their answers revealed they were . . .shall we say. . . not experts on economic questions, either.
My point is not to bash the bishops, nor to take them to task for any particular policy position, but simply to respectfully suggest that the role of the pastor is to insist on the fundamental principles of Catholic social and moral teaching. Specific policy recommendations are properly the role of lay people who are expert in those fields. The bishops should let us duke it out.
To cite just one example, the Church insists on a "fundamental option for the poor." In other words, caring for the poor, widows and orphans is a non-negotiable principle of Christian life. The Gospel, however, leaves us with no prescription for how to accomplish this. Is it "Catholic" to support a broad welfare state that ensures a safety net for the poor? Is it "Catholic" to dedicate oneself to acts of service such as hospitals, soup kitchens and the like? Is it "Catholic" to work for what the President calls "an opportunity society" that stimulates initiative so that jobs are created and more and more people can break the cycle of poverty? Yes. If the first and third options seem opposed to one another, well, Jesus left it to us to figure out which way is really best or if some combination or balance can be struck. Figuring out how best to live out Christ's call in the world is precisely the mission of the laity.
When the bishops --and I sincerely believe they are making a good-faith effort to serve the Gospel when they issue these kinds of statements-- step in and impose one solution from on high, they are making a mistake that goes beyond the fact that (candidly) I often find myself opposed to their specific prescriptions. They are causing the following unintended consequences:
  1. They violate an important principle of Catholic social thought, subsidiarity. This is the principle that local solutions are best. You always want solutions to be made at the level of authority that is closest to the actual problem.
  2. They undermine their own teaching authority on matters of faith and morals. Remember this past election cycle when some left-wing group issued a press release arguing that John Kerry was the most Catholic member of Congress? We laughed, but judging solely by matching up votes with stands the bishops had taken, that was absolutely correct. The idea that being pro-life is a non-negotiable article of faith, whereas more than one position is possible on economic policy, was lost.
  3. Most importantly for the point I am making, they usurp the role of the laity, which at worst drives some people out of the Church (people who confuse the bishops' policy recommendations with dogma) and at best enervates the kind of creative Christian thinking about problems that we urgently need in order to build a civilization of justice and love. Why should I try to tackle a problem a new way if the bishops have already told me the "Catholic" position?

The sudden emergence of a "Catholic vote" in the 2004 election proves the bishops still have a powerful voice, I think. Even though they didn't agree with one another about how to handle the communion/pro-choice politician issue, the very fact the subject came up and was publicly debated seems to have had a dramatic effect. Why dilute that voice making specific policy recommendations rather than articulating clearly and loudly what the framework for debate ought to be? We don't need to know what the bishops think our tax rate ought to be, no matter how sound their position, because their ordination gave them no economic charism. That is, my Ordinary has no power qua bishop to opine on tax matters (qua citizen he is of course entitled to say what he likes).

On the other hand, lay people do need the sacraments in order to be sanctified; they do need the witness of holy priests, and they do need to be taught the fundamental principles of Catholic social thought --and then unleashed to find the most effective and creative ways to apply them. Without at all intending it, I think the ultimate message of a statement like the one linked above is that our pastors don't much trust us --the laity-- to find Christian solutions to the problems we face. Yet if the "role of the laity" means anything, it is that God has called each one of us not only to personal holiness, but to use our talents and creativity and work to sanctify the world we live in. With complete respect, I wish the bishops would let us. Don't hand-feed us the solutions and initiatives we ourselves are called to contribute. Instead, challenge lay-people to realize their own missions within the world.