Bishops in the Dark

After several decades of issuing ecclesiastical proclamations such as “Field Education in the Catholic Seminary,” “The Homily and the Sunday Assembly,” and “Liturgical Music Today,” the American Catholic bishops have chosen to enter the public policy arena, with two pastoral letters which challenge the basic tenets of U.S. defense and economic policy.

The letter on war and peace, approved in May 1983, calls for the U.S. to move away from deterrence toward a peace based on disarmament and “mutual trust” with the Soviet Union. The second draft of the letter on the U.S. economy, recently released, demands massive transfers of resources from the military to social spending, and from the West to the Third World.

The immediate result of the two pastoral letters has been a switch of constituencies for the bishops. Theologians and jour­nals usually supportive of the hierarchy have sternly criticized its foray into partisan politics. By contrast, the people who once berated and caricatured the theology of the bishops, and their pronouncements on settled Catholic teaching on abortion and artificial contraception, now speak of their names solemn­ly, even reverentially, invoking of all things the bishops’ authority.

Even groups such as People for the American Way (PAW), which greeted the activism of evangelicals and Archbishop (now Cardinal) John O’Connor’s comments about abortion last year with apocalyptic warnings about mixing God and politics, now throw confetti at the Catholic clerics as they march in their hats and long robes into the public policy arena. John Buchanan, president of PAW, calls the bishops’ recent politicking “valuable” and “encouraging.”

Yet the real issue is not whether the bishops have a right to speak out on political questions; as American citizens, of course they do. An entirely separate issue is what expertise the bishops have to tackle these issues. Defense and economic policy data and analysis are not part of the curriculum at Catholic seminaries. So if the clergy wish to offer serious policy critiques which go beyond broad moral claims (“We must say no to nuclear war,” “Bread before bombs”) they must become familiar with the concepts and the terms of debate.

In their pastoral letters the bishops do not confine themselves to general moral assertions. Indeed the reader is struck by the depth and specificity with which the bishops seek to dissect concrete policies and propose remedial actions. In the letter on war and peace, the bishops call for a “no first use” declaration by NATO, for the United States to abide by arms control treaties including SALT II, for abandonment of missiles such as the MX which “poses a prompt hard target kill capability,” and for a counter-force as opposed to counter- value strategy. The draft letter on the economy condemns flat-tax pro­posals, insists that all fiscal and monetary policy make full employment “the number one goal,” demands more soft loans through the World Bank to underdeveloped countries, calls for subsidies to farmers threatened with bankruptcy, endorses comparable worth legislation and “judiciously administered” affirmative action, and invites consideration for a New Inter­national Economic Order.

I recently contacted several rank-and-file bishops to find out how much they know about defense and economic policy matters. These bishops were selected randomly to represent the mainstream of the American hierarchy. After all, the two pastorals are not intended, and are not being promulgated, as the view of a handful of bishops on a committee or a small crew of advisory staffers, but rather as the collective moral and political judgment of the American hierarchy. So it is fair to ask how competent the average bishop is to evaluate na­tional and domestic policy.

Interviews with these bishops suggest that they know little or nothing about the ideas and proposals to which they are put­ting their signature and lending their religious authority. The bishops are unfamiliar with existing defense and economic programs, unable to identify even in general terms the Soviet military capability, ignorant of roughly how much of the budget currently goes to defense, unclear about how much should be reallocated to social programs, and innocent of the most basic concepts underlying the intelligent layman’s discus­sion of these questions.

Bishop Edward O’Donnell of St. Louis is perplexed about terms such as “frictional unemployment” and “hard target kill capability” which appear in the pastoral letters bearing his name. He has no idea what percent of our budget is spent on defense; “I have to look it up.” He wants an “adequate non­nuclear defense” to protect Europe against a possible Soviet invasion, but is alarmed at the information that conventional weapons cost more than nuclear weapons. Immediately he says that a conventional build-up “doesn’t call for more spending on our part”; let the Europeans pay their own way. How many troops does the United States have in Europe? Bishop O’Donnell “just can’t say.” He does feel that “our whole strategy of fighting World War II was unjustified” because innocent civilians were targeted and killed. How else to defeat Hitler? “You know,” says Bishop O’Donnell, “I don’t have the answer.”

Bishop Patrick Cooney of Detroit says the United States “should not worry about defending Europe or the Middle East” but rather should focus on “building a more just world.” As for how much we spend on defense, “I haven’t looked very deeply into our military situation. Quite honestly, I don’t think we’re getting true information from the govern­ment.” What percentage of the military budget goes to nuclear weapons? “I have no idea. I’m not sure anybody knows.” Bishop Cooney does feel that “we have enough weapons to destroy the world 100 times” and that “the West uses 80 to 90 percent of the wealth of the world,” but he can’t cite sources for those figures. As for Charles Murray’s thesis that poverty programs have actually hurt the poor, it was probably unfair to bring up something so abstruse, but it was still surprising to hear Bishop Cooney retort, “Well, that’s his opinion.”

Bishop Maurice Dingman of Des Moines believes that we have “enough weapons to blow up the world 20 times.” Not 100 times, only 20? That’s right, Bishop Dingman says confidently, and we have enough warheads to destroy the Soviet Union “10 times.” The bishop says he is “going more and more pacifist” because of his realization, “why can’t we win wars without ever lifting a gun?” Confronted with the magnitude of the Soviet build-up and asked to explain it, Bishop Dingman is not flustered. “Megatrends gives me the answer,” he says, in reference to the bestseller. “Both we and the Soviets have hierarchical systems that are outdated. We have to move into networking.”

The term “Keynesian” comes up on our discussion of the letter on the U.S. economy. “Say that word again,” Bishop Dingman interrupts. “That doesn’t mean a thing to me.” Does he feel that cutting marginal tax rates contributed to our present economic recovery? “Cutting marginal tax rates? I’m not sure what you mean by that.” Bishop Dingman launches into an attack on those who advocate eliminating farm subsidies. “Why do we have to go against our Jeffersonian principles? Why do we have 20,000-acre corporate farms in Kansas? What has happened to the family farm?” He sums up his farm discourse thus: “So the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer, and the rich start working with the military.”

Bishop Daniel Hart of Boston won’t hazard a guess about how much we spend on defense, what we spend it for, what proportion of the federal budget it takes up, or how much more we should devote to welfare. “I won’t give figures, because I just don’t know.” Nor will Bishop Hart speculate about the number of missiles, warheads, troops, or tanks the Soviet Union possesses. He is not sure how many soldiers the United States has abroad, or where they are located. “I really can’t say,” he offers in generic response to these questions. Unlike the other bishops, he is even unsure about how many times we can blow up the world with nuclear weapons. “I don’t know.”

Hartford bishop Peter Rosazza, who initially proposed the pastoral on the economy, has “no idea” how much the United States spends on defense. But “it’s astronomical,” he says. “It seems clear we’re going for superiority.” He con­demns the MX missile and the B-1 bomber but is especially vehement about strategic defense. “To me, there’s no ques­tion. It’s a quantum leap to the arms race.” Asked how pover­ty increased in the United States even while the amount spent to eliminate it by the federal government multiplied several times, Bishop Rosazza said, “Wow, that’s a tough one.”

One bishop who freely admits his lack of knowledge is Nevin Hayes of Chicago, “I’m not that well informed,” he says. “Just how many nuclear and conventional weapons we have, I’m not sure.” How can the United States deter a Soviet invasion of Europe without the threat to use nuclear weapons? “I don’t know.” Bishop Hayes condemns the “big monsters” for “putting the mom and pop stores out of business” in this country. He is flabbergasted when asked about marginal tax rates. “Marginal what? This is where I’m way over my head.” At this point, it is probably hopeless to ask him whether he knew anything about the principle behind supply- side economics, Say’s Law. “How do you spell that?” Bishop Hayes wanted to know. “Is it like Murphy’s Law?”

The problem the bishops get into when they leave their ecclesiastical domain and try to be professionals on other matters is hardly new; in 1976 when the bishops passed a resolu­tion calling on the Carter Administration to negotiate a new treaty with Panama, Cardinal John Carberry of St. Louis, told the New York Times he knew “nothing at all” about Panama and felt foolish casting an uninformed vote on such an impor­tant foreign policy issue.

The reason the bishops boldly press ahead in their political activism is their abiding trust in the people who write their pastorals — the policy staff of the United States Catholic Conference (U.S.C.C.). Although most have no formal train­ing as defense strategists or economists, the U.S.C.C. staffers greatly enjoy tackling public policy matters and submitting lengthy analyses that the bishops assume are correct applica­tions of Catholic principles.

The U.S.C.C. is a civil corporation, based in Washington, D.C., whose members are the U.S. Catholic bishops. It was founded in 1966, in the wake of Vatican II, along with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (N.C.C.B.), a canonical body. Previously the bishops issued their joint statements through the National Catholic Welfare Conference (N.C.W.C.), which rarely ventured into politics. The N.C.W.C. focused on improving the institutions of the family, the school, and the church as vehicles for transmitting moral habits. Its pastorals tried to teach people to become bet­ter husbands, wives, parents, and citizens. The assumption was that transforming the individual heart was the best way to transform society — that sin is located not in bureaucracy, but in human beings. Today’s U.S.C.C., however is dominated by men with a political agenda and intensity that is not shared either by the bishops or by the vast majority of American Catholics. Pro­fessor Brian Benestad, author of The Pursuit of a Just Social Order, an authoritative study of U.S.C.C. statements, main­tains that there is “no political diversity” on the staff, and that the U.S.C.C. “thinks it is more important to issue partisan policy statements than to communicate the principles of Catholic social doctrine.” Russell Shaw, secretary for public affairs at the U.S.C.C., says that his colleagues are “probably more liberal” than the bishops, and “unrepresentative of the Catholic population.”

These views are confirmed by conversations with the three senior U.S.C.C. officials who, by common agreement and their own admission, had the greatest influence on the two pastoral letters signed by the hierarchy — Edward Doherty, Fr. Bryan Hehir, and Ronald Krietemeyer.

Doherty, a lumbering bespectacled man, is a former Foreign Service diplomat who now serves as full-time advisor to the Office of International Justice and Peace at the U.S.C.C. He worked on the pastoral letter on war and peace. Yet Doherty’s views did not always prevail: he finds the final document altogether too hawkish, because it permits the United States to retain its nuclear deterrent temporarily. Doherty wants the bishops to advocate immediate unilateral nuclear disarmament by the United States in favor of a conventional weapons deterrent. He does not think this will be exploited by the Soviet Union. “Look at China. Why don’t the Soviets use their enormous nuclear superiority to impose their will on China?” Also, “The Soviets have so much trouble in Eastern Europe. They are having their own Vietnam in Afghanistan.”

Even if the Soviets do take advantage, Doherty asked, what was so bad about America being in a situation like that of Poland — subject to Soviet domination, but free in the heart? “The American tradition of dislike for foreigners would lead to great resistance,” Doherty predicts. Perhaps this vision “seems quixotic and naive,” Doherty says, “but only to peo­ple who would prefer to be dead than red.”

Doherty would prefer to be red than immoral. It’s “preferable” for America to be in the position of a conquered Afghanistan than for it to retain its current nuclear capacity, Doherty says, because “Ethics means living with moral obligations.” Doherty regal* any use of nuclear weapons as immoral, and since “it’s wrong to threaten to do something immoral,” even possession of such weapons is evil and “can­not be justified in terms of the evils of Communism.”

The war and peace pastoral didn’t reflect these near-pacifist sentiments, according to Doherty, because Fr. Bryan Hehir wanted a document not necessarily to reflect Catholic moral principles, but to influence U.S. policy in the direction of disarmament.

Fr. Hehir is secretary of the Office of Social Develop­ment and World Peace, the umbrella that coordinates both domestic and foreign policy statements by the U.S.C.C. He has been called the most influential person in the American church. He sits crouched in an overstuffed chair, peering through bushy eyebrows and waving various books and treaties which are meant to give his comments added authori­ty.

His latest idea, which he stresses is not in the pastoral, is that the United States should get rid of its entire land-based ICBM force. Certainly a unilateral dismantling of about a thousand warheads or so would have “no impact on crisis stability,” Fr. Hehir says.

Fr. Hehir wants the United States to consider basing its nuclear deterrent solely on Trident submarines. It is an unusual suggestion, because submarine-launched missiles are less accurate than ICBMs, and even if aimed at military targets they pose greater risk to civilian population — that is, they are immoral by the standards of the bishops’ pastoral. Land-based missiles are the most effective way for the United States to place Soviet targets and the Soviet leadership at risk and thus deter aggression in a manner morally acceptable to the Catholic hierarchy. “But land-based missiles may provide a more tempting target for a pre-emptive Soviet first strike,” Fr. Hehir points out.

He enjoys conversing in arms control legalese, frequently using terms such as “crisis management prospects,” “hard target kill capability,” and “throw-weight capacity.” But he dislikes being pinned down with specific scenarios. Asked how we should defend Europe against a Soviet invasion with only conventional weapons, he smiles; he won’t say. Asked why the Soviet Union finds it in its interest to build heavy, first-strike missiles if the only goal is to deter a U.S. strike, Fr. Hehir notes merely that it “seems a foolish thing to do.”

He does condemn the idea that the United States should attempt to deter war by threatening to destroy the Soviet nomenklatura in the event they initiate a nuclear attack. “Doesn’t that cut off all control of the situation?” Fr. Hehir asks. “That could make things more destabilized.”

It takes a moment to realize that Fr. Hehir has convinced himself that every approach to deterring war is either strategically foolish or immoral or both. The U.S. shouldn’t target Soviet cities, because that’s immoral. Or Soviet silos, because that’s destabilizing, or the Soviet leadership, because that will make a tense situation worse. Fr. Hehir places all his hopes on arms control treaties; but he does not appear worried about Soviet violations. “On the whole, the Soviets have abid­ed by the treaties,” he says. The Krasnoyarsk radar the Soviets have built in Siberia, for example, which even liberal Con­gressmen such as Stephen Salarz have called a clear Soviet violation, Fr. Hehir terms an issue “still under debate. Ronald Krietemeyer, the youthful director of U.S.C.C.’s Office of Domestic Social Development, is supervising the pastoral letter on the economy. He wants an expansion of social spending which he admits will cost “in the tens of billions of dollars.” In addition, he calls for “some additional billions” to reinforce what he sees as a shredded safety net for the poorest in our society.

Krietemeyer still exudes an early 1960s optimism about the effectiveness of federal spending to cure poverty. “The work ethic among the poor is just as strong as among anyone else,” Krietemeyer says. “In some families people work even though it does not make them better off economically.” In fact, the unemployed are “dying to work, but cannot find jobs.” Why not, in a growing economy? “Because they lack skills,” Krietemeyer says. He calls for “targeted job pro­grams,” especially in high unemployment areas such as Detroit and Pittsburgh. “We have to find a way to do this without increasing inflation.”

Whether this is possible, Krietemeyer doesn’t know. He seems a bit confused at a mention of the Phillips Curve. He calls for “experimentation” to discover job-creation programs that are non-inflationary.

He isn’t persuaded by the argument that a robust economy is the best way to create jobs. He calls tax cuts aimed at economic growth “a scattershot approach which hopes that heating up the economy will generate more jobs.” His argument is that economic growth is too widely and unpredictably dispersed, whereas economic redistribution can be choreographed to benefit minorities and poor people. So where will all the money come from to pay for all the bishops’ proposed programs? Krietemeyer doesn’t want a bigger deficit, and he doesn’t want significantly higher taxes. He finds his revenue in defense. “The bishops believe it is possible to cut back considerably on that $300 billion,” he says. But didn’t the bishops in their war and peace pastoral call for a shift from nuclear to conventional deterrence, a shift that is by its nature more expensive? “That’s out of my field,” Krietemeyer says. “I’m not into the conventional arms issue.”

The men behind the activism of the American hierarchy are, like the bishops themselves, deeply moved about our social problems. But they seem only slightly better informed about the reality of those problems and the difficult choices that a society must make — choices that involve trade-offs. They seem to believe that we can have everything: peace without deterrence, deterrence without the threat to use nuclear weapons, adequate conventional defense without spending more on the military, more federal spending without raising taxes or the deficit, expanding social programs which do not curb incentives or increase inflation. That sort of perfection is not known to obtain in this world.


  • Dinesh D'Souza

    Dinesh D'Souza is an American conservative political commentator, author, and former college president.

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