Betraying the Bishops: “Official” Interpreters are Abusing the Peace Pastoral

In June 1983, when they published their pastoral letter on war and peace, the American bishops had two purposes: to help the formation of in­dividual consciences, and to offer moral guidance in a public policy debate. To accomplish these tasks, the bishops insisted that the pastoral letter be used in its entirety, as a guide. The bishops also warned those responsible for teaching the pastoral letter that they must indicate what the legitimate op­tions may be to their own recommen­dations and conclusions.

However, over the last two years those responsible for teaching the pastoral letter have betrayed the bishops. To make matters worse, the people primarily responsible for this betrayal are the very ones to whom the bishops turned, in confidence, to teach the pastoral letter accurately and ob­jectively. Thus, one finds members of the National Catholic Education Association, of the United States Catholic Conference’s Departments of Education and Communication, and of diocesan “peace and justice” organizations, teaching the pastoral letter in an inaccurate, biased, and selective manner.

This betrayal confuses the faithful, hinders their legitimate freedom of choice, lessens the teaching authority of the bishops, and weakens the in­fluence of the Church in society. The Challenge of Peace deserves a better fate.

One would hope, and indeed expect, that each bishop will take action to guarantee that The Challenge of Peace is being taught accurately and objec­tively, in its entirety, in his own diocese. One would also hope that every Catholic trying to form his con­science will realize the very wide range of legitimate options open to him. Finally, one would hope that all involved in the formation of public policy, both inside and outside the government, will be aware of what the American, French and German bishops did and did not say in their respective pastoral letters.

The pastoral letter on war and peace — “so long and complex it probably will not be read by most of the 52 million U.S. Catholics,” to quote the Washington Post — is being taught in parochial schools and religion classes, discussed in parish meetings, weekend retreats, college classes, and Sunday sermons. In this essay, the focus will be on the ap­proach of the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) to im­plementing the letter in Catholic schools. 

The Catholic school system in America is vast — 3,400 schools and 3,000,000 students — and the pastoral letter is to become an important part of the educational programs for all students. In the words of Rev. Brian J. McCullough, former director of the bishops’ clearinghouse for implemen­tation of the letter, “I can’t imagine a kid going through 12 years of Catholic school and not dealing with the moral aspects of this (the nuclear) issue.” Sr. Patrice Hughes, S.C. , Assistant Superintendent of secondary schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., explained, “For children in kindergarten through grade 10 . . curriculum planners will concentrate on methods for helping the youngsters develop the skills needed for peacemaking. In the 11th and 12th grades we will be getting more into the area of open debate, i.e., with efforts made to present high school juniors and seniors with viewpoints both favoring and disapproving of the docu­ment.” Finally, about 125 Catholic colleges and universities are develop­ing courses or programs about the let­ter. Some church officials have noted a common problem in implementing the pastoral, “many Catholics mistakenly believe that The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response calls for unilateral disarmament by the United States.” One reason for this is the manner in which many members of the National Catholic Education Association are teaching it.

The December, 1983, edition of NCEA’s journal, Momentum, devoted its entire issue to the pastoral letter, and is indicative of the way in which NCEA leaders would like the letter to be implemented. The issue contains two major parts: essays on implemen­ting the pastoral, and specific ex­amples of how Catholic schools around the country are responding to the letter.

Pat Feistritzer, editor of Momen­tum, identified Sister Loretta Carey, R.D.C. , Father Peter Henriot, S.J., and Father Maurice Monette, O.M.I., as “the persons who desired, planned, worked through and enabled us to realize this theme issue of Momen­tum.” Therefore, my analysis will focus on Carey’s and Henriot’s essays for implementing the pastoral. (Monette, like Henriot, is at the Center of Concern.) Then, I will analyze some specific programs developed in response to the letter, which are men­tioned in Momentum.

In her essay, “Teaching Alter­natives to Violence in the Resolution of Conflict,” Sister Loretta Carey states that “Teaching nonviolent con­flict resolution is the most important response educators can make to the bishops’ letter and the one which ultimately will have the greatest effect on the American Catholic communi­ty.” The interested reader will not find that statement in the pastoral letter. Rather one will find this statement: “We believe work to develop non-violent means of fending off aggres­sion and resolving conflict best reflects the call of Jesus both to love and justice…. But, on the other hand the fact of aggression, oppression and in­justice in our world also serves to legitimate the resort to weapons and armed force in defense of justice.” If Carey is using the paragraph just cited to support her statement, she has “quoted” the pastoral selectively and destroyed the balanced presentation of the bishops.

The bishops are here echoing Vatican II and successive Day of Peace messages since that time. For example, one sees the requisite balance in Gaudium et Spes: “Insofar as men are sinful, the threat of war hangs over them, and hang over them it will until the return of Christ. But to the extent that men vanquish sin by a union of love, they will vanquish violence as well.”

One cannot ignore the fact that the building of peace will be a long pro­cess. (“Like a cathedral, peace must be constructed patiently and with un­shakable faith.”) Conflicts will con­tinue to occur, as they have in the past, preventing the emergence of ideal con­ditions necessary for peace. (As Pope John Paul II tells us, echoing St. Augustine, “Peace is the fruit of order.”) Therefore, one could argue that teaching the pastoral’s admonition to men and women in the military ser­vice is the most important response educators could make to the letter. “We feel …,” that admonition said, “that we can urge you to do everything you can to assure that every peaceful alternative is exhausted before war is even remotely con­sidered.” However, recognizing that some conflicts cannot be settled by non-violent means, the bishops con­tinue: “In developing battle plans and weapons systems, we urge you to try to ensure that these are designed to reduce violence, destruction, suffer­ing, and death to a minimum, keeping in mind especially non-combatants and other innocent persons.” Emphasizing this teaching to Catholic children, some of whom will become members of America’s armed forces, directly addresses the two major concerns of the bishops regarding modern warfare: the potential violation of the just war criteria of discrimination and propor­tionality.

Carey’s understanding of how “peace” has been re-established in the past is to me unique. “Both definitions of peace in Catholic tradition — the tranquility of order and the fruits of justice — presuppose some form of disorder and injustice which peaceful activity will change.” For Carey, non­violence restores order and corrects injustice.

It is precisely because “peaceful ac­tivity” has not restored Augustine’s “tranquility of order” and corrected injustice that “… there is only one Catholic tradition: the just war theory.” Footnote 31 of the pastoral reminds us: “Augustine called it a Manichean heresy to assert that war is intrinsically evil and contrary to Chris­tian charity, and stated: ‘War and con­quest are a sad necessity in the eyes of men of principle, yet it would be still more unfortunate if wrongdoers should dominate just men.'”

Given her understanding of how peace is restored, it is not surprising that Carey demands that, “The insights of Gandhi and the strategy he developed for achieving necessary political and social changes by non­violent means must be a part of peace studies. According to the Gandhian philosophy, peaceful ends cannot be achieved by violent means.” A foot­ note to paragraph 15 of the French bishops’ pastoral letter challenges Carey’s (not the bishops’) prudential judgment on this issue: “It could be asked, for example, what would have happened if Gandhi, in place of having as a partner Lord Louis Mountbatten, had had one of the celebrated tormen­tors of Europe. The persecution of non-violent people in the East should also give us pause for reflection about any movement down a one-way street.”

The just application of force has often brought peace. It has restored the tranquility of order which unjust ag­gression had violated. It has thus created the conditions in which the “fruits of justice” could be sought. Whenever and wherever man, because of his fallen nature, has resorted to un­just aggression, the church has taught that recourse to force to restore order, as a last resort, is not only a right, but also an obligation. Peaceful activity, i.e., pacifism, may create a “tranquility of order,” but it could be that of the un­just aggressor over his victims. It is very unlikely that it would bestow the “fruits of justice” on the oppressed.

Throughout the issue of Momen­tum, the pastoral letter on war and peace is repeatedly referred to as the “peace” pastoral. Thus, Peter Henriot titles his essay “What Did the Bishops Say? An Overview of the Peace Pastoral.” For him, “The bishops make very clear the traditional roots of the ‘pacifist’ position in the example of Jesus as understood by early Church practice and teachings.” Fr. Henriot has not cited the pastoral correctly. Pacifism was not the universal practice or teaching of the early church, and the bishops make this clear: “Moved by the example of Jesus’ life and his teaching, some Christians have from the earliest days of the Church com­mitted themselves to a non-violent life style. Some understood the gospel of Jesus to prohibit all killing. Some af­firmed the use of prayer and other spiritual methods as means of re­sponding to enmity and hospitality.”

Continuing in the same vein, Henriot states that “Vatican II affirm­ed the correctness of the pacifist option and the pastoral repeats this affirma­tion.” Not as an absolute, however. When one reads the bishops’ conclu­sion, one finds that Vatican II did not make a judgment on the “correctness” or “incorrectness” of pacifism or non­violence, but rather said: “Moreover, it seems right that laws make humane provisions for the case of those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided, however, that they accept some other form of service to the human community.” Moreover, Vatican II did not rescind the earlier church teaching which maintained the distinction between the rights and duties of the individual, and those of the state. The bishops repeat this teaching in their letter.

Sister Loretta Carey, as the director of the Fordham/NCEA Center for Education for Justice and Peace, is an influential member of the National Catholic Education Association, and her opinions are now being “infused” into children in many Catholic schools throughout the country, under the guise of “implementing the teachings of the Peace Pastoral.” Fr. Peter Henriot is the Director of the Center of Concern in Washington, D.C.; the Center’s materials are also widely used.

Even this partial analysis of NCEA materials shows that the letter is not being taught accurately. Yet, it is “familiarity” with such materials prepared by Carey at Fordham, Henriot at the Center of-Concern, and other like-minded individuals and groups which the NCEA Executive Staff states “is a minimal require­ment” for teaching the pastoral letter.

One may question not only what the NCEA is teaching, but also how it is teaching the pastoral. The stated con­viction of the NCEA Executive Staff is that “to teach the pastoral as informa­tion rather than formation is the first danger.” (Alas, I see no danger that the pastoral letter will be taught to my children as “information” by the hierarchy of the National Catholic Education Association.) In addition to the Carey and Henriot essays, the December, 1983 issue of Momentum contains examples of how Catholic schools across the nation, staffed by many members of NCEA, are im­plementing the pastoral letter on war and peace.

At the Academy of Our Lady of Good Counsel in White Plains, New York, students act out of “the belief that because both the pace and direc­tion of nuclear arms race are so much a result of actions taken in Washington, the fate not only of Americans but of all people all over the world lies pretty much in our hands.” Accordingly, the students “have engaged the assistance of a good portion of the student body for protest marches, anti-nuclear demonstrations, and joining USA (United States Activists).” Yet the bishops, after acknowledging that we, as Americans, have not “…lived up to all our own ideals,” provide the re­quired balance by also stating, “But having said this, and admitting our own faults, it is imperative that we confront reality. The facts simply do not support the invidious comparisons made at times, even in our own socie­ty, between our way of life, in which most basic human rights are at least recognized even if they are not always adequately supported, and those totalitarian and tyrannical regimes in which such rights are either denied or systematically suppressed.”

The French and German bishops are more explicit on this point. The French bishops declare that, “it would be unjust to put everyone into the same category and close our eyes to the ag­gressive and dominating character of Marxist-Leninist ideology. In this ideology everything, even the aspira­tion of nations for peace, must be utilized for the conquest of the world.” In the German bishops view, “For Marxists-Leninists, world revolution remains an ideologically in­dispensable hope which so far has not been abandoned. Apart from a number of other factors, the East-West conflict rests primarily on this doctrine of deadly enmity between revolutionary socialism and capitalism.”

To cite another example from among the many available in Momen­tum, the principal of the Hales Franciscan High School in Chicago, states, “In light of our Pax Christi Chapter and other peace efforts, we do not allow any military groups to recruit at our school. When representatives call, we tell them frankly that we consider their presence inappropriate and that we wish to avoid the possible confu­sion of giving mixed messages to our students.” What of the actual confusion which will occur when a student compares the above interpretation of the pastoral letter with what the bishops actually say: “It is surely not our intention in writing this letter to create problems for Catholics in the armed forces. Every profession, however, has its specific moral ques­tions and it is clear that the teaching on war and peace developed in this letter poses a special challenge and oppor­tunity to those in the military profes­sion. Our pastoral contact with Catholics in military service, either through our direct experience or through our priests, impresses us with the demanding moral standards we already see observed and the commit­ment to the Catholic faith we find. We are convinced that the challenges of this letter will be faced con­scientiously….”

Of course, the bishops are merely restating the teaching of Vatican II on the military profession. Both the U.S. and German letters contain the rele­vant quote from Gaudium et Spes: “All those who enter the military ser­vice in loyalty to their country should look upon themselves as the custodians of the security and freedom of their fellow-countrymen; and where they carry out their duty properly, they are contributing to the maintenance of peace.”

In view of all the above, the prin­cipal of Hales Franciscan High School is entitled to express his views, but he is not entitled to justify these views by appealing to the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter, or to teachings of the universal church as expressed in Gaudium et Spes. In defense of the selection of programs singled out as commendable examples of implementing the pastoral letter, NCEA apologists may point out that Momentum included an essay about a Catholic military school, St. John’s, in Washington, D.C. Yes, but the title of the essay is: “Can a Catholic Military School Promote Justice and Peace?” The bishops do not ask this question, for they know that the answer is “yes.” They also know that the question itself creates a false dichotomy, for one approach to peacemaking cannot be chosen to the total exclusion of the other.

Therefore, the bishops say we “… believe work to develop non-violent means of fending off aggression and resolving conflict best reflects the call of Jesus both to love and justice … [but] on the other hand, the fact of ag­gression, oppression and injustice in our world also serves to legitimate the resort to weapons and armed force in defense of justice” (emphasis added).

My analysis and conclusions in this essay merely reflect and expand upon those of Professor Chester E. Finn of Vanderbilt University in an essay in the Wall Street Journal titled “Catholic Schools Veer Toward Pacifism” (Dec. 27, 1983). Finn, referring specifically to the NCEA’s December issue of Momentum, wrote: “Perhaps the most worrisome aspects of the whole publication are the recur­rent suggestions that it is too bad the bishops gave even limited approval to the doctrine of deterrence and to the possibility of a “just war,” and that it is only a matter of time until they reconsider those bellicose notions.” Writing in support of Finn’s essay, Fr. James Schall, S.J., of Georgetown University, wrote:

The “UNESCO style” ideas about world peace so often part of this general pacifist approach Prof. Finn noted — ideas which have never worked for either development or freedom — must be subject to the perceptive caveat of the German bishops: “Such a world authority design­ed to protect freedom and peace must not be created along the lines of a centralist, unitary state….” And what a debt we owe to the French bishops, who reminded us that “The Church does not encourage unconditional pacifism. She has never preached unilateral disarmament, knowing full well that this could be a signal for violence on the part of an aggressive military, political, and ideological complex.”

In writing their pastoral letter on war and peace, the bishops were careful to maintain continuity with the great heritage of Catholic thinking on this complex subject. The result was a document both challenging and temperate — a document that charts a course between the Scylla of pacifism and the Charybdis of Realpolitik. Catholics and all people of good will — but most of all the bishops themselves — are ill served by those who undertake to implement the bishops’ teaching with partisan zeal, but who fail to give an accurate, balanced presentation of that teaching.


  • Matthew F. Murphy

    At the time he wrote this article, Matthew F. Murphy, a former U.S. Air Force officer, was a public information officer with the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. The views he expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government.

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...