Pax Nobiscum


December 1, 1983

Amidst persistent fears that the U.S. Bishops’ Peace Pastoral was drawn up in an atmosphere clouded with pacifist overtones, conservatives especially should not lose sight of an encouraging development that accompanied drafting of the document.

From prelate to parishioner, the “Challenge of Peace” clearly sparked renewed interest in determining just what constitutes essential Catholic teaching on the whole subject of war and peace. As recently as a year ago, most American Catholics were either deficient or at best hazy in their grasp of the long-neglected just war theory — the “mainline” Church tradition in this case-and what it might mean for the nuclear age.

To their credit, the bishops addressed the question at length, even if the final NCCB document also reflected their discomfort with nuclear deterrence as a theory of national defense. Direct consultations with German and French bishops and with Vatican authorities earlier this year proved the U.S. contingent was both ready and willing to listen and learn.

Yet the pacifist doubt lingers and grows. In my own estimation, it is inspired largely by the process being used to implement the pastoral as a teaching vehicle, rather than by the document itself. Whether it’s most ardent defenders are ready to concede the point or not, however, the doubt is fed strongly by the fact that the implementation team is composed of three bishops who are all members of the international peace group, Pax Christi.

The situation recently touched off a distressing controversy in the St. Louis archdiocese, in which a prominent Catholic laywoman ended up getting accused of engaging in “Ecclesiastical McCarthyism” because of her objections to the Pax Christi connection.

Normally, a relatively parochial matter such as this might as well be allowed to die a natural death. There were mitigating factors in the case, however, that merit a second look: a) The person lodging the charge was St. Louis Archbishop John L. May; b) The lady in question was Eleanor Schlafly, executive director of the 25-year-old Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation; c) The tempest spilled out of the teapot onto the pages of both the diocesan (St. Louis Review) and the national Catholic press (Our Sunday Visitor); and d) As a staff member for a local secular paper, I was one of the journalists involved in reporting the whole situation.

Moreover, the charge of McCarthyism is one most people do not take lightly, for good reason. Ever since the 1950s, it was been used by the American liberal community as a sign of the “reactionary” temperament at work in the arena of public debate. The charge is meant to sting, and sting sharply.

If I were Mrs. Schlafly’s defense lawyer, however, I would be strongly inclined to move for hasty dismissal of the case against her as frivolous on its face — except for the special respect that is clearly due the office of archbishop. Nor do I mean to be facetious here. In an era of religious ferment like ours, it is admittedly no easy task to serve as shepherd to a flock of half a million Catholics, as is the case in St. Louis. A little in-depth analysis is in order, therefore.

Shortly before an archdiocesan symposium on the pastoral was to be held in mid-September, a half dozen Catholic laymen appeared at a press conference to question what they saw as a “pacifist bias” in some of the symposium speakers. Mrs. Schlafly, one of the press conference participants, voiced- particular concern about Pax Christi’s potential influence in Catholic schools. She illustrated her point by identifying some pacifist passages drawn from prospective textbooks already in print.

Now in all fairness, it must be pointed out the archbishop had no way of knowing Mrs. Schlafly had prefaced her remarks by making clear the Mindszenty Foundation’s support for the pastoral itself, considered apart from the implementation process. Editorial deletion of that endorsement from the story I wrote for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat led to an unfortunate misunderstanding.

It was at a symposium press conference, then, that the archbishop alleged Mrs. Schlafly had indulged in the use of cheap innuendo to discredit the reputation of Pax Christi. Fortunately, he chose that same occasion to note that pacifism is considered in the pastoral only as an honorable option for the individual. It was a point, he added, which would in no way nullify the responsibility for self-defense vested in the elected leaders of our nation’s government. (That position, incidentally, was quite consistent with the aims of the Mindszenty Foundations, as nearly as I understand them.)

Yet in recent months, it has become obvious Mrs. Schlafly’s scepticism about Pax Christi is shared by other voices in the Catholic press and by a fair number of parish level Catholics as well, despite the presence within its ranks of some respected members of the American hierarchy whose loyalty to their church is not in question.

The very name itself, of course, — Pax Christi: The peace of Christ — has a ring of magisterial authority about it. But let us not delude ourselves: merely attaching a lofty name to a peace project or organization does not guarantee the success of its aims. An irksome example of the converse that comes to mind is Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), the peace group named by Pope John XXIII’s famous Encyclical that was ruled out of bounds by the Vatican for priests only a few months ago. The reason: It is apparently a Marxist-inspired organization designed to undermine the integrity of the church’s work in Czechoslovakia.

Next, there is the matter of Pax Christi itself and its meddlesome involvement in Central American affairs just over a year ago. It is a matter of record that Pax Christi International came into sharp conflict with CELAM, the Latin American Bishops’ Council, after a controversial report on the status of human rights in Central America was issued by PCI, following a one-month visit there by several of its members. (The original NC News Service report, incidentally, appeared in the St. Louis Review in May of 1982.) Not only did the PCI report suggest Nicaraguan Church leaders were dragging their feet in identifying with the objectives of the Marxist revolution there; PCI also hinted CELAM itself, spearheaded by Archbishop Miguel Obando Bravo of Managua, was in open disagreement with the Holy See’s view of Nicaragua.

CELAM leaders were properly incensed. As anyone who has followed the situation knows very well, Archbishop Obando has been a tower of strength in support of the papacy in his area. In addition, the Pope made his own support of Archbishop Obando abundantly clear on his visit to Nicaragua early this year. Only a blind man, on the other hand, could have missed the implications of the insulting treatment given the Pope by the Godfathers of the revolution during the Mass John Paul II celebrated in Managua.

The PCI report was, if the reader will pardon the expression, a super example of Ecclesiastical Imperialism at its worst, not to mention an irksome flouting of the Church’s own hallowed principle of subsidiarity. Who was in better position to judge the plight of Central America, after all: The Latin Bishops who work among the people there, or a group of touring European prelates?

Nor have the anxieties of Catholics been placated by the uneven leadership of Pax Christi in America. It would be pointless to deny Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, as president of the group, the right to espouse the pacifist option himself, or to seek other adherents for his position.

But what does his ambiguous role in the recent Mansour case, to cite a pertinent point, tell us about the farsightedness of his overall vision as a church leader? The order from Rome affecting Sister Agnes Mary Mansour was itself a test of fidelity to basic Christian doctrine, as well as church discipline. In placing himself so quickly among the most vocal critics of the church’s handling of the case, Gumbleton was not simply quibbling with the Vatican; he was openly questioning the fairness, if not the authority, of his own archbishop, since the case originated in the Detroit archdiocese.

At a minimum, all this surely shows that the hierarchy, in pushing ahead with the peace pastoral in parish and school, can ill afford to hypnotize the layman with the notion that Pax Christi speaks with the clear voice of the Church herself. Quite simply, it does not.

I would also suggest that the pastoral, which is worthy of study on its own merits, ought not to be used to crowd other important matters off the spiritual agenda of the American church. As things stand, however, lay people are often left to their own devices to generate parish interest in such excellent documents as Pope John Paul’s Familiaris Consortio, to name only one. It is an eloquent (and much ignored) defense of the Christian family and the rights of parents, not schools, as the primary educators of their children.

At heart, I suspect, most ordinary Catholics would much prefer to work in close harmony with their bishops, rather than feel forced to grope their way along in a twilight zone of confusion. But it is disheartening when lay people, taking their cue from Vatican H, speak out on matters they are knowledgeable about, only to face needless recriminations they do not deserve.


  • Dick Goldkamp

    Dick Goldkamp wrote for the St. Louis Globe Democrat, Fidelity and the National Catholic Register.

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