From Scripture to Policy Position
By Christopher Dodson
North Dakota Catholic Conference
Every legislative session — except during the pandemic — the North Dakota Catholic Conference hosts a dinner for legislators. The dinner provides an opportunity for the bishops and conference board members to show their appreciation for our elected officials and enjoy a time of fellowship and meal. As a rule, we do not engage in any lobbying and do not make the legislators sit through a presentation.
This year was different. The new ethics law, ironically, requires such events to include lobbying, which the Ethics Commission calls “an educational component.”
To comply with the new law, I gave a short talk on the sources and the process that the bishops use when they take a position on a bill. Because Catholics in the state might also wonder how the process works, what follows is a revised version of my talk.
It starts with Sacred Scripture. All of it, from Genesis to Revelation, divinely reveals the truths about the human person, the ordering of society, and our interactions with each other. This is especially true for the Gospels because Christ is the complete Revelation.
In fact, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which was promulgated by Saint John Paul II to summarize the Church’s social doctrine cites Scripture over six hundred times. Everything the North Dakota Catholic Conference does is rooted in Scripture. This is the first “rule” of the conference.
Through the years the Church gained a greater understanding of the foundational teachings found in Scripture. The Compendium puts it this way: “[Social Doctrine] has its roots in Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels and the apostolic writings, and takes on shape and body beginning from the Fathers of the Church and the great Doctors of the Middle Ages, constituting a doctrine in which, even without explicit and direct Magisterial pronouncements, the Church gradually came to recognize her competence.”
This brings us to the Church Fathers, such as St. John Chrysostom — probably the only saint I have quoted in legislative testimony. And, St. Basil the Great, who as a bishop appealed to the local Roman governor to build a bridge, not because Scripture said “build a bridge,” but because, applying the principles of Scripture, he concluded that it was needed for the common good.
Among the western Church Fathers, there was St. Augustine. Saint Augustine not only wrote City of God, but, with his fellow bishops in North Africa, created what could be called the first Catholic conference. The bishops hired a layperson, who was also a lawyer, to protect the rights of the church and the poor before the Imperial Courts.
In the Middle Ages, we have St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas showed how the governing of society can be expressed in the Natural Law. The Natural Law can be knowable by people of goodwill with the use of reason and without appeal to Divine Revelation alone. For example, the Ten Commandments state “Thou shall not steal,” but people who have never heard of the Ten Commandments can conclude that stealing is wrong.
This is the second “rule” of the North Dakota Catholic Conference. A position must be knowable in the Natural Law.
Later in the history of the Church, we have the social encyclicals. They provide magisterial teaching about the economy, labor, the environment, social conditions, peace and war, and more. All the teachings of the encyclicals are rooted in Scripture and expressible in the Natural Law. Along with the encyclicals we have the documents of Vatican II, the Catechism, and finally, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
The result is the body of Catholic social doctrine. The bishops then examine contemporary issues, including bills in the North Dakota legislature, in light of this doctrine. The North Dakota Catholic Conference’s role is to provide the bishops with information and carry out their decisions. The conference, therefore, contributes the Church’s voice to legislation and issues facing our lawmakers.
At times a legislator may disagree with the bishops. This brings us to the third rule of the Catholic Conference. Disagreement does not mean that the legislator is a bad Catholic, a bad Christian, or a bad person. The conference’s role is to contribute to the development of public policy, not to judge whether someone is a good or bad Catholic, Christian, or person.
In summary, the positions taken by the North Dakota Catholic Conference must be rooted in Scripture, expressible in the Natural Law, made by the bishops of North Dakota, and done in a manner that judges the bill, not the legislator.
On a personal note, I want to share what I told the legislators at the North Dakota Catholic Conference dinner. “For me, someone who loves the law, the political process, and the Church, I cannot imagine a better vocation. And I cannot think of a better place to exercise that vocation than North Dakota.”
What We Do
The North Dakota Catholic Conference acts on behalf of the Roman Catholic bishops of North Dakota to respond to public policy issues of concern to the Catholic Church and to educate Catholics and the general public about Catholic social doctrine.