It’s fitting that the battle for our persecuted priests is raging in the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois. It was here, one hundred years ago, that the diocese’s first bishop, the Reverend Peter J. Muldoon, issued letters to his priests calling them to form what he called “parish councils.” Muldoon had come of age in the aftermath of Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical considered to be the first of the Church’s “social teachings,” and he sought a means whereby each parish could implement those teachings in their local communities. His vision was to use the parish councils to bring in members of the laity, teach them Leo’s principles, and then send them out, “as spokes going outward from the center of a wheel,” into the world to make it a better place for the poor and oppressed.
The idea was perfectly consistent with what were understood to be the proper roles of bishops and laity. As noted in Scripture, when the apostles created the office of deacon, the idea was to put others in charge of the congregation’s social needs so that the bishops “may be free to preach the Gospel.” The bishops’ role was to teach the laity the Faith. The laity’s role was to then bring that Faith into the world. Bishop Muldoon’s “parish councils” were designed to do just that: bishops would teach the laity Leo’s social principles, and the laity would then go forth and make them a reality in the world. Muldoon believed in the power that well-catechized Catholic warriors could affect in the world when they were armed with Truth and a proper understanding of the Church’s social teaching.
A reading of historian Michael Warner’s 1995 publication Changing Witness: Catholic Bishops and Public Policy, 1917-1994, gives insight into how the Church’s implementation of its social teachings was actually carried out in America. Warner traces how the bishops, throughout the course of the 20th century, grew more and more involved in the formation of public policy. Rather than teach the laity and then let them be the instruments of social change, they proceeded to usurp the laity’s role in the public square until, as Warner puts it, they had descended so far into the minutiae of public policy that they had become, by 1994, just one more of the country’s many “political interest groups.”