Bishop Paprocki gives legal community a lesson in Catholic social teaching

By | September 26, 2012

The name of the Mass is derived from the traditional red vestments, which represent tongues of fire symbolizing the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Red Mass is offered for judges, attorneys, law school professors, students and government officials.


Bishop David Ricken and Bishop Thomas Paprocki are pictured inside St. Francis Xavier Cathedral prior to the third annual Red Mass Sept. 20. Bishop Paprocki, of the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., served as homilist at the Mass and keynote speaker at a gathering for members of the St. Thomas More Society of the Diocese of Green Bay. (Rick Evans | For The Compass)

“For a person of faith, the whole purpose of the Red Mass is to pray for wisdom, for courage, for guidance in our jobs and we certainly need that,” said William Griesbach, a federal judge on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin who serves as the chair of the St. Thomas More Society of Green Bay.

“We are asked and called upon to make very important decisions and the issues that we deal with are very difficult, so to be able to look to your faith and to look to prayer and the prayers of others to help you do that is welcomed,” he added.

In his talk, Bishop Paprocki, who was appointed the bishop of the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., in 2010, stressed that, when applying Catholic social teaching, it’s important to distinguish between those aspects of the teaching that are binding principles and those that are prudential judgments.

“Principles are binding insofar as they must be held by the faithful for the sake of salvation,” he explained. “Prudential judgments involve the reasoned application of these principles that allow for considerable latitude and discretion.

“Statements of popes and bishops on policy, legislation and other situational applications or principles provide guidance to the faithful, but they are not binding,” he added. “The distinctions between binding principles and prudential judgments are not always clear and absolute. Different legal and policy proposals are often compatible with a particular binding principle, but it is not always so.”

Bishop Paprocki used the $2 million cut to the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), formerly food stamps, as an example of a policy that may be looked at as a binding principle of Catholic social teaching, but actually involves a prudential judgment.

Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., and Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development and the Committee on International Justice and Peace, told Congress that restoration of the funding is necessary in accordance with Catholic social teaching.

“They are simply making a prudential judgment that this program is a necessary, practical means for feeding the hungry,” said Bishop Paprocki. “Reasonable minds can come to conclusions on more reasonable ways to feed the hungry.”

Bishop Paprocki, who studied law at De Paul University in Chicago and was admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1981, also emphasized that it is not an “either/or” aspect of this teaching.

“It’s not a question of choosing either the private sector or governmental involvement,” he said, “but of both the private sector and the government working together in their appropriate spheres. The word Catholic means universal and, as such, the Catholic approach to matters is to seek inclusion rather than exclusion of views, options, methods and persons.”

The budget proposed by now Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan was addressed in the keynote. Bishop Paprocki said that those who reject Ryan’s budget as not keeping with Catholic social teaching on the economy and the role of government have “read the tradition in far too narrow of a fashion.” Members of the Georgetown University faculty and Dr. Gerald Beyer, a professor at St. Joseph University in Philadelphia, were among those who claimed that Ryan’s budget weakened the protection for the poor, elderly and sick.

“(Ryan’s budget) may or may not be the policies that we as a nation should choose to pursue,” said Bishop Paprocki. “I am responding to the claims that these proposals contradict Catholic social teaching. Claiming that they do undermines the good will that is necessary for dialogue within the church. Dialogue within the church should be a model for others, not a replica for hyperbole and superficiality that typifies conversation in the public square today.”

Bishop Paprocki, who co-founded the South Chicago Legal Clinic to help provide legal services for the poor, also served as homilist at the Red Mass, the third annual in the diocese. He opened and closed the homily by singing a portion of “Amazing Grace.” His message, as supported by the lives of John Bradford and St. Paul, included that we “only go from day to day, moment to moment, by the graces of our God.”

The Red Mass is the main event for the St. Thomas More Society. Members also gather for Mass and a short talk during Lent and celebrate St. Thomas More’s feast day, June 22, with Mass and a presentation. The society has also offered a CLE (Continuing Legal Education) course on ethics. The Green Bay society is the third in the state joining Madison and Milwaukee.

“We open it up beyond the legal profession and encourage people to come if they are interested,” said Griesbach. The 2013 Red Mass is scheduled for Oct. 24. For more information about the St. Thomas More Society, visit

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