A Political Pastoral Draws Silence from the ‘Separation’ Crowd


October 1, 1983

Just as the President of the United States was getting ready to apply pressure to curtail Cuban and Nicaraguan interference in El Salvador and just as the House of Representatives was readying a report on the unreported violence of the El Salvadoran guerrillas, Bishop John McGann of the Rockville Centre Diocese issued a pastoral letter which at best will confuse the faithful on Long Island under his jurisdiction and at worst possibly harm the people in Central America whom he, a kindly soul, is trying to help. Yet, despite the religious tone of this purely political statement, it is not being subjected to severe criticism, even by those who excoriated Cardinal Humberto Medeiros for issuing a somewhat similar — but fundamentally different — pastoral on abortion. And herein lies a story that must be told; for it involves not only the proper religious role of the Catholic Bishops of America in terms of the First Amendment but also the proper role of journalism in reporting on this precious guarantee of religious and journalistic freedom.

To begin, as the recent Pastoral on Peace by the Bishops of America reminds us, there is a difference between binding moral principles and the practical application of these principles. As such, it would follow that the proper role of any bishop in pronouncing upon political matters from a religious perspective involves the obligation to clearly distinguish between binding moral principles and the practical application of these principles which, in the words of the Pastoral on Peace, does not “carry the same moral authority as (a) statement of universal moral principles and formal church teaching.” In this context then, the pastoral of Cardinal Medeiros on abortion involves a binding moral principle, i.e., that it is always wrong to intentionally take an innocent life; while the pastoral of Bishop McGann calling for an end “to the continued appropriation of military assistance to the regime in El Salvador” involves a practical judgment which is binding upon no one.

Consequently, for Cardinal Medeiros to remind those in his spiritual care that abortion is murder while pointing out the factual voting records of some candidates is perfectly in keeping not only with his role as shepherd and citizen but also as a loyal adherent to the Nuremberg Principle that one is obligated to obey the higher law.

On the other hand, for Bishop McGann to judge that El Salvador be denied recertification and to advance that judgment on the basis of the “interconnection between religion and politics” is for him to call for religious obedience on a practical, political matter outside of his province as a shepherd of souls. In a word, it is (unlike the religious pastoral of Cardinal Medeiros) a religious interference in the practical working of the political order and the precise kind of intrusion which those who excoriated the Cardinal fear. Yet, there has been silence, even though for some silence itself on such matters has been heralded as a kind of quiet wrongdoing.

Further, for the Bishop to “urge the people of (his) diocese to weigh carefully the teachings of the hierarchy and to respond to the cry of the poor and oppressed of El Salvador by raising our voices in strong opposition to the continued appropriation of military assistance to the regime in El Salvador” without pointing out that two of the hierarchical “themes” to which he refers are really at variance with his own pronouncement and without noting that the “regime in El Salvador” came into power as a result of an unprecedented voter turn-out for him a) to compromise the teachings of the hierarchy and b) to undermine a legally constituted government which is being threatened by what the principles of the recent Bishops’ Pastoral on Peace would term an unjust use of force.

The two hierarchical “themes” to which Bishop McGann refers (and ironically supports) which are at variance with his own pronouncement, call for a “broad based political solution” and an end to “any outside military assistance”. Now, the first “theme” presupposes the injustice of the guerrilla cause; for by the terms of the Just War Theory (as outlined in the Bishops’ Pastoral on Peace), recourse to military force is only permissible after all other means have failed. As such, the second “theme” must also be understood within the terms of the Just War Theory, namely, that (in the words of the Pastoral on Peace) every “nation has a right and duty to defend itself against unjust aggression.” Consequently, military assistance would be required as long as the unjust aggression continues; while unilateral disarmament would not only compromise the teachings of the hierarchy but would undermine the legally constituted government as well.

Hence, this pronouncement of Bishop McGann is purely political and theoretically lacks the hierarchical support it claims. Accordingly, it should have drawn more fire than the pronouncement on abortion engendered. That it hasn’t indicates a failure on the part of those self-proclaimed guardians of the First Amendment who saw fit to chastise the Archbishop of Boston. For the proper role of bishops in America (as they themselves have noted in their Pastoral on Peace) is not to confuse practical, political judgments with moral pronouncements. And the proper role of journalists is not to remain silent, especially after having excoriated a Cardinal who, they mistakenly thought, tried to take the First.


  • Timothy A. Mitchell

    In 1983, Timothy A. Mitchell was an editor of the Pro Ecclesia and other journals and a free-lance writer.

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