Bishop Thomas Wenski, Bishop of Orlando, Florida, and chairman of the committee, has responded to Fr. Neuhaus's piece, also at First Things.
The essays can be found:
Father Neuhaus here...
Bishop Wenski here...
The main point of Fr. Neuhaus's article, as I read it, is as follows:
One is inclined to the view that the bishops conference does not have the competence, in the meaning of both ability and authority, to forge, or serve as broker in the efforts of others to forge, worldly stratagems for the Middle East. It is not evident that the nation lacks legitimate political authorities whose task it is to deal with such matters. Nor is it evident that there is a bipartisan call for the bishops to help them do their job.
Bishop Wenski, after establishing the factual record, asserts the rationale for the competency in this case:
The article failed to mention that Members of Congress had asked to meet with representatives of the bishops’ conference and that the focus of these discussions would be the moral questions of a “responsible transition,” a focus that is clear in the complete text of the letters.
Now on the record is the fact that the initiative was that of the politicians, not of the bishops.
Several factors motivate the conference’s engagement with policymakers on Iraq—to share the moral criteria of Catholic teaching, to address a pastoral concern that divisive partisanship not cloud our nation’s moral judgment, and to stand with the Holy Father and the Holy See. The current efforts of our conference are anchored firmly within the tradition of our Church.
These intentions appear worthy, even if one may be forgiven for suggesting the possibility that lurking here is a serious danger of clericalism. In the Catholic Church, clericalism may be defined as the appropriation of the proper task of laypeople by members of the clergy. And according to many Church documents, it is the proper role of the laity to engage in, and order according to the doctrine of the Lord as they see it, all temporal realities. Fr. Neuhaus addresses this overall concern by speaking of ecclesiastical competency in the matter, whether or not it is the opus proprium of the Church to negotiate with politicians about how to formulate a policy which, being realistic about it, will be primarily intended by the politicians to retain or acquire political office and power.
This danger might be minimized were the bishops to engage our entire society, not just Catholics, in public preaching and teaching on this matter, rather than to engage Catholic politicians (whatever that means any more) in private meetings. This would affect how Catholics and others see the issues, helping them to engage in the discernment necessary to exercise their proper role conscientiously. The public discussion that would ensue would contribute to the common good, and thus justify the bishops' efforts. And we are in an election season.
It also strikes me that since the ultimate criterion is the common good of society, about which there are surely many valid points of view, the effort of the Catholic bishops needs to tack toward what we ought not to do, rather than to discern some one perfectly sensible policy to follow. In fact, after describing the limits prescribed by the common good, the bishops should prefer to react to concrete proposals (especially if they are inadequate), rather than to attempt to assist in constructing them.
And exactly why there should not be disagreement under a democratic constitution is just not obvious to me.
But since the episcopal conference lacks (in Church teaching) a magisterial voice of its own, this effort should involve the informed and zealous preaching and teaching of individual bishops, rather than the well-intentioned negotiations of a committee of a conference.