Perspectives — The Bishop Malone Statement

It would be a mistake to escalate Bishop Malone’s statement into a major declaration by the United States Catholic Conference. The statement was originally intended to be released after the Republican and Democratic Party conventions — to remind the American public that while bishops address issues of public policy, they do not endorse or disavow political candidates. That is fairly routine stuff.

What changed the timetable for issuing the statement, according to Russell Shaw, secretary for public affairs for the USCC, was that the New York Times on August 9th published on its front page “a leaked and strangely skewed account of the Malone statement: Instead of an admonition to politicians, it was depicted as an admonition to bishops.” Consequently, the USCC released it the very same day, ten days before the opening of the Republican convention in Dallas. That early release seemed to make the USCC statement a direct challenge to Governor Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic candidate for the vice – presidency.

In his August 9th statement, Bishop Malone deferred to an earlier USCC statement on “Political Responsibility: Choices for the ’80s,” released on March 22, 1984. He commended the earlier statement to “the attention of anyone who wishes to know where we stand.”

Every four years, months before the political parties convene to nominate their presidential candidates, the USCC issues “a statement” on political responsibilities in an election year. The first was in 1976. These are not controversial documents as such. They restate briefly some of the many positions which the U.S. bishops have previously taken on domestic and international questions, ranging from abortion to El Salvador.

Taking Bishop Malone’s recommendation literally, I reviewed the 1984 statement. It looked routine, until a news story released by the National Catholic News Service flagged my attention:

Much of the document reads like the 1980 predecessor, except for minor alterations in wording ….The USCC is the public policy arm of the U.S. bishops.

My instincts and suspicions were titillated. Was someone trying to play down the 1984 statement? Was the USCC’s 1984 release indeed a replay of the “oldies” of 1976 and 1980?

After reading all three statements from cover to cover, what did I find?

(1) Each quadrennial updating was longer than the earlier one, the latest running over 7,500 words.

(2) Almost exclusively, it was the “role of the Church,” i.e., the bishops’ responsibility for the political order, that was being elaborated. Generally speaking, Church and bishops were used interchangeably, leading to confusion about whose responsibility was being addressed. In passing, the USCC statements gave a half bow to the role of the laity in politics.

(3) The 1984 statement, however, visibly tried to resist equating Church with the USCC, as it highlighted, in one place, the “responsibility of all members of the church”: the “laity” and the “hierarchy.”

(4) This year’s statement also attempted to upgrade the role of rank and file church members who work inside “the institutions and structures of society, the economy and politics.” For the first time, the USCC statement asserted unequivocally that:

It is the laity who are primarily responsible for activity in public affairs.

The USCC then goes on to remind us and itself that the “hierarchy also has a distinct and weighty responsibility in this area.”

What the editors of Commonweal said about Bishop Malone’s August statement can be applied to the USCC March statement:

On one point, however, the bishops are still fudging. Can a Catholic, in good conscience —indeed, on solid, traditional Catholic grounds — agree with the church’s view of abortion but disagree with the bishops on what, if anything, should be done about it legally? Of course, he — or she — can. And the bishops know it. They have not, unfortunately, said it right out.

Despite this demurrer, the bishops have begun to put their priorities in better order, as evidenced by the significant changes in their 1984 March statement on political responsibility.


  • Ed Marciniak

    In 1983, Ed Marciniak was president of the Institute of Urban Life.

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