Media Distortions: What do the Bishops Want?

(Ed. Note: This article ran in defective form in the April issue)

No doubt many people depend for their information about important issues on the media. Because they lack intelligence, inclination, or means, they must rely on second-hand facts and second-hand interpretations. From this, we gather, they make their personal decisions and they make their political statements.

While Americans may rely on objectivity in the media, it is a relatively new development and one not wedded to the concept of a free press. It gained credence in the mid- nineteenth century as newspapers removed themselves from the influence of single individuals or single political parties. Americans as a result have grown to harken to newspapers as sources of truth. Yet truth is not always what they purvey, no matter how objectively they purvey it.

With the question of the Catholic bishops of the United States and nuclear weapons, particularly in relation to nuclear freeze proposals of varying stripe, media have assisted in the creation of a hall of mirrors which is further reflecting confusion back into the newspapers. Essentially, either the media distort or the bishops do not know what they want, or the media distort and the bishops do not know what they want. It is possible that both are true, lending a new paradox to the paradox of deterrence.

The current newspaper-fed perception is that the American Catholic bishops, one hundred fifty-five of whom have signed the Randall Forsberg Freeze proposal, have officially endorsed such a proposal in the Second Draft Pastoral on war and peace. This is incorrect on many counts, not the least of which is the allegation that the “Forsberg Freeze,” entitled “A Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race,” is supported in any way by the Second Draft Pastoral.

There are really three “freeze” proposals with which one must be familiar in order to understand the fallacy of the notion that the Second Draft Pastoral supports the widely publicized April, 1982 Forsberg Freeze. First, there is what might be termed the “Pastoral I Freeze,” generated by the First Draft Pastoral which argues “Not only should development and deployment of new weapons cease, the number of existing weapons must be reduced in a manner that reduces the danger of war.” This reflects the intent, if not the actual nature, of the Forsberg Freeze, which specifically calls for the United States and the Soviet Union to “adopt a mutual freeze on the testing, production, and development of nuclear weapons and of missiles and new aircraft designed primarily to deliver nuclear weapons.” The last of this triad of freeze proposals is “Pastoral Freeze II,” generated by the Second Draft Pastoral which does not mention the word “freeze,” yet in which the bishops evince “support for immediate, bilateral verifiable agreements to halt the testing, production and deployment of new strategic systems.”

What is important to note is that the second and third mentioned “freezes,” the Forsberg Freeze and the Pastoral II Freeze, are not only different, they are opposing in nature, intent and scope.

The Forsberg Freeze, first presented in 1980 but revised in April, 1982, is a four page document. The first page is an innocuous statement presenting what would seem to be the ultimate sensibility of its own support. The following three pages elucidate and exemplify the specifics of the proposal. The 155 episcopal signers only saw the first page, according to both Pax Christi and the Forsberg Freeze’s St. Louis headquarters. This is important to note, for many of the weapons systems listed on page two of the Forsberg Freeze are incorrectly identified as to the dates of their development, production, and deployment. This is critical, because “The Scope of the Freeze” lists as item number 3 “The number of land- and submarine-based launch tubes for nuclear missiles should be frozen. Replacement subs could be built to keep the force constant, but with no net increase in SLBM tubes and no new missiles.” While the Trident I SLBM is earlier listed in the Forsberg Freeze as “in production” (therefore “freeze”- worthy), that missile was in fact deployed in 1978 aboard the first of 12 Poseidon submarines retrofitted for it. Since “replacement subs” may be added to the fleets of either nation, the Forsberg Freeze specifically allows for the Trident submarine and its original weapons system (Trident I SLBM) as a replacement for older submarines and systems taken out of service. This is interesting because, for all his front-page pacifism, Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen of Seattle has therefore publicly and personally affixed his name to a document which allows for the building, arming and adding to the fleet of the Trident submarine, his “Auschwitz of Puget Sound.”

The issue is further confused when, on close reading, one notes the Pastoral II Freeze is specifically aimed at strategic forces weapons only, not at theatre (now called intermediate range) and tactical nuclear weapons while the Forsberg Freeze, however ill informed, addresses all three types. The Second Draft Pastoral, in fact, would not at all constrain intermediate range/theater systems; it places them outside the Pastoral II Freeze proposal. So while the bishops have called for serious arms negotiations, they neglect to allow for them. The Soviets in their arms negotiations will not eliminate intermediate range/theatre weapons and in fact have not accepted such. They insist on no intermediate range/theater weapons at all, especially the Pershing II and the Ground Launched Cruise Missile set to counter the Soviet SS-20 already in place in Eastern Europe. In essence, American Catholic bishops recommend a negotiating stance which the Soviets have already rejected, something which was clear before the draft was completed even in newspaper accounts of arms negotiations.

Therefore the Forsberg Freeze, which 155 bishops have actually signed, means the Trident can continue to replace old submarines in direct contradiction to the language of the Second Draft Pastoral which explicitly calls for a halt to new strategic systems of which the Trident is one, albeit one which currently (and until 1988) uses missiles deployed well before the 1980 original date of the Forsberg Freeze.

Beyond the replacement only allowance for the Trident, which has 24 missile tubes versus the Poseidon’s 16, the Forsberg Freeze additionally allows for the Trident because it specifically states that no “net increase in SBLM missile tubes” be allowed. At the time of the Forsberg Freeze, the United States had 656 SLBM launch tubes; 160 have been taken out of service since then, so at present six Tridents can join the fleet immediately (including the Ohio and the Michigan) to a total of 144 tubes. In addition, as older Poseidons retire, more Tridents can be deployed even within the terms of the Forsberg Freeze. (We still have 31 Poseidon submarines; 19 of these boats have the older type missile.)

In direct contradiction to the Forsberg Freeze, the Pastoral II Freeze leaves open the possibility of unbridled nuclear weapons systems competition at every level below the strategic, including the development and deployment of Soviet nuclear gravity bombs and Soviet nuclear artillery shells. While the Forsberg Freeze considers all nuclear weapons in all three levels of deployment — strategic, intermediate range/theater, and tactical — the directly contradictory (in terms of strategic systems) Pastoral II Freeze allows consideration of only the strategic systems and throughout implies that American targeting policy is wholly based on civilian population centers. The bishops, it would seem, do not know what they want. Since they have argued loudly that they are competent to judge among conflicting testimonies, it is perhaps unusual that not one of the signers of the Forsberg Freeze stood at the bishops’ November, 1982 meeting to distinguish between the freeze he backed and the one outlined (although never referred to as such) in the Second Draft Pastoral.

National news media were equally unable to distinguish the arguments. On NBC Nightly News Roger Mudd in reporting the October 18, 1982 visit of General Vernon Walters to the Pope, alleged the discussion was about “the political implications of the nuclear freeze movement, including the American Bishops’ letter of support.” (November 9, 1982.) The print media were more circumspect in their reportage. Of the many newspapers reporting on the Second Draft Pastoral, the Richmond Times-Dispatch in an editorial recognized that the Pastoral II Freeze considered only strategic weaponry (November 5, 1982). Others advanced the broadcast misperception that the Forsberg Freeze was total, absolute and immediate, and was seconded in theory and in fact by the Pastoral II Freeze, including Time Magazine (November 8, 1982) and the Washington Times (November 9, 1982). A Washingtom Times cartoon depicted a line of mitered bishops with their leader admonishing “Freeze Thy Nukes,” but only the much smaller circulation USA Today. in an interview with Archbishop Bernardin, asked if the Second Draft Pastoral’s intent was to “push the country toward unilateral disarmament?” He answered “We certainly are not advocating that.” (November 19, 1982). Yet that is specifically what the public perception of the Forsberg Freeze and the Second Draft Pastoral implies.

In some cases, as The Christian Science Monitor points out, it is the Administration itself which is confusing the Freezes. In an editorial on the issue the Monitor wrote “The nuclear freeze issue is knocking on the President’s door once again — this time in the form of an exchange between his national security advisor (who happens to be devoutly Roman Catholic) and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.” (November 22, 1982).

Yet it is National Security Advisor William Clark, not the Second Draft Pastoral, who uses the term “freeze.” “Ours are not proposals for freezes on current high ceilings,” Clark writes, a clear reference to the Forsberg Freeze endorsed by so many bishops. “Such freezes would remove incentives for achieving reductions and would, in any case, require extensive prior negotiations to reach agreement on what number and systems to freeze and on how such freezes might be effectively verified.” (November 16, 1982). Similarly, in an undated letter responding to a May 17, 1982 letter from Archbishop Bernardin, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Lawrence S. Eagleburger states that “Deterrence would also be undermined, though in a more subtle way, by a freeze of nuclear weapons at current levels — even assuming we were able to solve the difficult problem of verification.” Here the Administration seems to be responding to the Pastoral I Freeze, the less strong but broader recommendation (again, not called a “freeze” in the First Draft Pastoral) later replaced by the Second Draft Pastoral’s strategic systems freeze.

Yet the Administration does not seem to distinguish between the Forsburg Freeze, signed by so many bishops, and the Pastoral II Freeze. The confusion is probably caused by the Administration’s assumption that the 155 bishops knew what they were signing; Pax Christi did the entire controversy a major disservice in not circulating the entire proposal when it requested bishops’ signatures.

Still, the question of bishops’ signatures and bishops’ votes is an important one and will be in the news again, well or ill reported, as the Third Draft Pastoral goes for a vote, and for signature, in May.


  • Phyllis Zagano

    When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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