Disputations: Predictable Positions

For some thirty years now, America’s Roman Catholic bishops have engaged in a curious political activism that has accomplished precious little by way of either transforming the views of Catholics in the pews or of power brokers in Washington.

Finding its inspiration in pronouncements on human “dignity,” “rights,” and “development,” a new strain of liberal intellectualism has taken hold in the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and in its brother organization, the United States Catholic Conference, seeking to put forward a distinctly Catholic voice in national affairs that interprets the “signs of the times.”

In a procession of statements over the bishops’ imprimatur—many of them more minutely detailed than papal encyclicals—the bishops have laid out a political theology, but they have trodden such an indistinct gray line between sacred truth and liberal political activism that they have left the national flock confused about social issues like wealth, racism, abortion, crime, and war—while convincing the nation’s political establishment that Catholics as a bloc can be safely patronized and ignored.

Now, critics are coming forward, wondering out loud what was once only whispered in the corridors by concerned Catholics.

“The developments of the last generation,” writes Michael Warner in his new book on the bishops, Changing Witness, suggest that a national conference of Catholic bishops that takes specific stands on public policy issues risks dividing Catholic citizens against one another and diminishes the Church’s moral authority.

“The Church becomes, in the public mind,” continues Warner, “just another interest group.” The bishops’ attention to careful, often ambivalent, policy pronouncements has diluted their message and obscured its Christian focus. “Since the formation of the NCCB and the USCC,” he writes, “the bishops have never really explained how the Catholic faith presents the truth to society.”

Warner’s book raises the crux of the question for the U.S. bishops: how to mesh their assigned roles as spiritual leaders of Catholicism in America with their self-perceived roles as potent contributors to the nation’s political discussions. Subtitled “Catholic Bishops and Public Policy, 1917-1994,” the book suggests they have satisfied neither role very well.

Warner’s is a careful and valuable interpretive study of the development of the bishops’ social doctrines over the last thirty years. The Vietnam War, racial rioting, legalization of abortion, the poverty issue, nuclear arms control, and the collapse of Great Society programs all tested the bishops’ effort to construct a seamless ethos and a coherent philosophy. Too often, however, the garment became torn along the seams and difficult to mend.

On issue after issue, the bishops tripped over one another in pursuit of definitive positions. In early 1972, he notes, just as organized opposition to President Nixon’s bombing of Vietnam began to coalesce, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton “complained that the bishops’ latest condemnation of abortion was flawed because it was not accompanied by a condemnation of the bombing campaign.” For Catholics in the pew, such a gaggle of liberal activism only added to their confusion over a fast-changing liturgy.

It was a period, writes Warner, when within the staff of the bishops’ conference there emerged a “new elite of the American Catholic Church espousing a ‘Catholic radicalism’ that was deeply pessimistic about American capitalism and liberal democracy,” an elite that “sought to use the Church as a megaphone for social criticism.”

The period saw a profound change in the American Catholic Church’s philosophical outlook, Warner argues convincingly. Gradually the political theology of the bishops saw its roots in Thomist natural law die away as it abandoned the notion of the “organic society” and the notion that, no matter how humble the station in life, individuals were equal before their God and responsible for their own morality. Rather than viewing man, as did Pope Paul VI in Populorum Progressio, as “chief architect of his own fortune,” the bishops focused on the ills of the political system and subtly shifted the church’s preference for the poor to a preference for statist position. Virtue and social progress became separated by the bishops. The notion of sin virtually disappeared from their pronouncements. By 1986 and the issuance of its “Economic Justice for All” policy paper, the NCCB was reflecting a notion that the indolent poor were the saints of American society, victims of an economic grinder not unlike that conjured up in the dreams of Karl Marx.

“The pastoral suggested,” writes Warner, “that problems which disproportionately affect the poor, such as divorce and illegitimacy, were spread by `false values’ trickling down from society’s upper classes. . . . This was not an admission that lethargy or immorality can cause poverty, but rather a depiction of the poor as passively molded by social mores. The possibility that some poor people could have become self-destructive on their own, or that a poorly ordered soul could lead even a wealthy individual to vice, was not discussed.”

Pity the white, middle-class, and pew-bound Catholic who studied these pronouncements and wondered how he or she had caused such monumental problems while earning a living and raising a family.

Meanwhile, the legalization and encouragement of abortion as a national policy of birth control became an even dimmer blip on the bishops’ radar screen. Faced with a Washington establishment that unrelentingly legislated in favor of the killing of the unborn, the bishops pulled back. “Many Catholics (most of them politically conservative) wanted the Church to discipline Catholic public officials who supported legalized abortion,” writes Warner. “Most bishops and their advisors in the secretariat believed this course too drastic; they feared the loss of all influence and credibility in Washington.” If true, that is a colossally damning statement.

The bishops, says Warner, grew reluctant to fight the abortion battle unless forced to do so in the context of some other issue, such as health care reform, and even there the clerics allowed it to become muddled yet again, this time in the issue of “access to the poor.”

Attacking the growing risk of nuclear war while “muting their teaching on promiscuity and contraception,” says Warner, the bishops found themselves unable to construct a consistent ethic of life and “far from fulfilling its expectations, it was not the glue to hold together what seemed at times to be splintering the Church.”

The costs of the bishops’ efforts at being secular political prophets have been sizable, says Warner. Too often they have produced “sterile options of cultural accommodation or ‘pragmatic’ compromise with modern ideological error.”

In contrast, he points to Pope John Paul II and his clear and unequivocal condemnation of the modern “culture of death” in all its forms. John Paul II, Warner points out, “has deliberately and systematically taken a different route” than the bishops, reaffirming the “obligation of the church to proclaim the truth to all mankind,” insisting “that truth derives from and points to Christ.”

More attention to this papal guidance, suggests Warner, would help the bishops recoup the losses they have suffered with their muddy message of political theology. Indeed, they could use the pope’s thought as the needle of Christian truth that is necessary to sew the seamless garment that, thus far, has eluded them.


  • Jan Samoraj

    At the time this article was published, Jan Samoraj was a veteran Washington writer.

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