TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Question 153: May an adviser adjust advice on one matter to gain a hearing on another?

I am a public health physician with specialized training in obstetrics and gynecology, but have never practiced in that field. However, the bishop has asked me for confidential advice on a complex and difficult problem involving the department of obstetrics and gynecology at a local Catholic hospital. He described the problem to me and asked me to think it over and help him decide what he ought to do. When I am ready to advise him on the matter, he said, he would like me to come to his home for dinner and an open-ended session. I readily agreed to do what I can to help with the problem, though I really am much more concerned that he take seriously my advice about a different matter, namely, health considerations, including sex education, in our Catholic schools. (I have been working on this for some time with the diocesan superintendent of schools, who is preparing a plan he will deliver to the bishop next month.)

Up to now I haven’t met the bishop, but I am told that, though devout and hardworking, he is thin-skinned and disposed to ignore bad news. What I shall have to tell him will not be good news, and it will point to some serious mistakes he already has made in handling the problem. If I speak clearly and straightforwardly, I expect he will not be so receptive to my advice regarding the schools. But unless I am blunt, I am afraid he will miss the point.

I never have advised a bishop before and know you have. How would you handle this?


The question concerns the responsibilities of a person who has agreed to provide advice. The relevant general norm is: One should fulfill a commitment unless one has a reason adequate to break it without being unfair. This norm must be specified by pointing out that lack of candor would be deceptive and also can be specified by explicating what is involved in advising well. The physician should not let his concern that his advice on a different matter be accepted affect either the substance of the advice to be given on this occasion or the case for following it. Suggestions also can be offered for dealing with the bishop’s possible unreceptiveness to sound advice.

The reply could be along the following lines:

In agreeing to give the bishop advice, you committed yourself to making a reasonable effort to be what he needs, namely, a good adviser. If you had a good reason not to carry out your undertaking—for example, the conflicting claims of other, more pressing responsibilities—you might fairly break your commitment and provide no advice at all. If you do give advice, however, you must fulfill your commitment by trying to be a good adviser. Otherwise, you would deceive the bishop. He would suppose that you were doing your best to advise him well, while you really would be shaping your advice on this matter so as to dispose him to be receptive to your advice on the other, in which you happen to be more interested.

Good advisers try to help those they advise judge truly and act rightly. They do their best to communicate effectively, in order to make their advice less likely to be misunderstood and more likely to be taken into account. Your responsibility is graver than in most cases of giving advice. The matter itself probably is important; the bishop is exercising his office in the Church; and you, as a member of the Church with expertise he lacks, have a special duty to help him fulfill his responsibility (see LG 37; CIC, c. 212, §3).

Advising is not merely providing information but helping someone arrive at practical truth by sound practical reasoning. Moreover, in advising the bishop, the reasoning to be assisted is not merely technical reflection about how to achieve a particular goal but moral reflection about how to fulfill his responsibilities. So, in thinking out your advice for the bishop, keep in mind his responsibilities, capacities, and limitations, and try to contribute to the reflection you believe he must carry through if he is to see what he really ought to do. Possible alternatives also must be considered and the reasons against them stated within the framework of what is morally possible for him and required of him. Be ready to listen to the bishop until you thoroughly understand his problem and his possibilities for dealing with it, and only then venture to offer advice.

Prepare well. Pray that the Holy Spirit enlighten and strengthen you and the bishop—you to develop and give good advice and the bishop to receive and make use of it. If necessary, you should refresh your knowledge about any nonmedical aspects of the matter. You might be tempted not to do the necessary work, since you are not enthusiastic about advising on this problem and, perhaps, do not expect to be paid. Having agreed to advise, however, you should take the task as seriously as its inherent significance requires. In agreeing to think over the problem the bishop outlined, you implicitly promised to refresh your knowledge on the subject and do any research you judge warranted. Since you cannot expect him to be familiar with technical terminology and scientific presuppositions you usually take for granted, be ready to supply necessary background information and explain matters in ordinary language. Perhaps you should prepare a brief written and/or graphic presentation of essential points, if you think that would help him understand them. In sum, you should prepare as seriously as you would if you were preparing to make a professional presentation to an important audience; you should not do less for the bishop than you would for the chief public official under whom you work.

In planning what advice to give and preparing the case for following it, set aside your concern about the bishop’s future openness to the advice you expect to give him on the other matter, and focus on advising well on this occasion. To alter in any way the substance of your advice on this occasion in view of your greater interest in the other matter would be to deceive the bishop and betray the confidence he is placing in you. You could only think such trimming reasonable insofar as it seemed conducive to a better outcome on the whole and in the long run. But you cannot know that—you cannot even know how interested the bishop is in your advice on each of the two matters—and so you are in no position to foresee and commensurate the goods likely to result from either setting aside your concern about the other matter or letting it affect your advice on this one. That being so, trimming now would be altogether unreasonable.

Still, without doing that, try insofar as possible to avoid offense. You may do this partly in view of your interest in his being receptive to your advice on the other matter. But you should do it, in any case, in order to increase the chances of having your present advice understood and taken into account. Talk about the problem as an objective state of affairs and avoid emphasizing his personal involvement. When you must mention his mistakes, you can avoid underlining the point that they are his if you use the passive voice or speak impersonally about “things done inappropriately,” “a policy that had best be discontinued,” and so on. If mentioning his responsibility for a mistake cannot be avoided, make it clear that you take it for granted he did his best and any missteps were understandable.

You also might try to prevent your advice here and now from dimming prospects for your advice on the other matter by speaking frankly to the bishop during dinner. Assure him that you realize the problem he has asked you about is only one of many complex and difficult matters he must deal with. Tell him of your deep concern regarding health considerations in the Catholic schools, your temptation to soften your advice on the present problem in view of that concern, and your decision not to do that. Then, express the hope that your present effort will not prevent him from taking full account of your work on the other matter. That straightforward approach might dispose him to understand and sympathize with your concern.

In talking with the bishop and trying to understand his view of the problem, your perspective inevitably will change somewhat in the course of the conversation. Be ready to revise and correct what you have said previously as your grasp of the problem improves. Toward the end of the session, if possible, reorganize and restate your advice from your final perspective. I also suggest that you prepare a careful memorandum as soon as possible afterwards and send it to him, so that he will have your best thinking in written form to reflect upon and share with other advisers.

The diocesan superintendent of schools, a good pastor, or some other mature and well-balanced diocesan priest will have had experience in dealing with the bishop, and should be able to give you helpful information about him. I suggest that, in preparing for your session with him, you ask one or more such priests the question you have asked me, though without mentioning, even in general terms, the subject on which the bishop is seeking your advice.