USCC Watch: Bishops As Political Practitioners

By now every Catholic—everyone who can read—has seen reports about the bishops’ pastoral letter on economics. And extensive analyses are sure to come. For now, just a few quick observations.

First and foremost, the document discussed at the bishops’ November meeting was a first draft. It was not a definitive statement. Indeed, the bishops repeatedly expressed their desire to hear comments on that draft.

Second, anyone who wants to follow this debate closely must read the bishops’ document, or at least the official summary. Newspaper reports on the draft have been remarkably inaccurate. Secular analysts tend to see only the political implications of the bishops’ analysis. That’s understandable enough, but the bishops themselves recognize that faithful Catholics might reach different conclusions on practical political questions. So the political suggestions are, arguably, the least important aspect of the document.

Far more important, in the long run, is the fundamental question of the bishops’ political role. Has the American hierarchy made a conscious decision to enter the realm of practical politics? Do the bishops feel comfortable that all American Catholics already understand the Church’s social teachings adequately, so that all that remains is to implement those teachings? Are they worried that laymen cannot—or will not—take effective political action by themselves?

The pastoral letter on economics raises more specific problems, to be sure. But it would be a shame if we lost sight of the forest amid the trees—if the debate over economic analysis drowned out the more general debate on the bishops’ proper role. Last year it was defense policy; this year it is economics; a few years hence it may be some other topic. So we debated about defense policy, we debate about economics, and we shall debate about the next topic. Sooner or later, we should step back and ask ourselves why we are debating.

Are there any issues involved here that faithful Catholics cannot debate—issues for which the bishops are willing to invoke their full teaching authority? If so, which issues are they? If not, aren’t the bishops eroding their own authority? If Catholics are free to disagree on the finer points of economic analysis (or defense strategy, or whatever), why should the bishops try to define “the” Catholic position? Is there any such thing?

At that same meeting, the bishops heard a report from Archbishop John May (of St. Louis), chairman of an ad hoc committee studying the Equal Rights Amendment. ERA has been a real sticking point for the USCC. Although most bishops seem quite sympathetic toward the idea of equal rights, they are adamantly opposed to any measure that might strengthen the case for legal abortion. During the last session of Congress, the USCC lobbied for an anti-abortion amendment to the ERA, and when feminists refused to allow that amendment, the bishops’ lobbying helped to assure ERA’s defeat.

But of course ERA will be back, in this 99th Congress, and Archbishop May’s committee has been studying the issue carefully. In his report at the November meeting, the Archbishop concluded that, in the absence of an anti-abortion amendment, ERA was still unacceptable. But if such an amendment could be attached, the situation (May continued) would be very different. Still, the Archbishop stopped short of saying that his committee would actually endorse an amended version of the ERA.

The press dutifully reported all this, and delighted in Archbishop May’s admission that his committee had taken a “wimpy” position on the issue. But apparently nobody looked into the issue any further. Well, almost nobody.

Archbishop May’s report was based on an exhaustive memorandum from Wilfred Caron, the USCC’s top legal counsel. Caron’s memo was a bit long and more than a bit dry, but it was well worth reading. First, of course, he established the problem that ERA poses for anti-abortion work. But he went further. Suppose an appropriate amendment to ERA eliminated the concern over abortion; what then?

Well, think about it. Suppose ERA became a part of the Constitution. Discrimination on the basis of sex would be illegal, of course. And any institution that practiced such discrimination would have a tough time keeping its tax-exempt status. So what about an institution which (for example) did not allow women to become priests? An interesting question, isn’t it? The Caron memo points out that the Church would probably be granted an exception to that ruling; but the legal outcome is a bit uncertain.

Archbishop May’s report, and counsel Caron’s memo, make two things clear. First, the bishops favor the idea of an ERA. Second, the ERA in its present form is so vague as to be dangerous. So will the USCC lobby hard against the measure, or in favor of clarifying amendments? Watch this space.

By the way, could I offer a respectful suggestion to both Archbishop May and Mr. Caron? Their reports both cite the “right to abortion” secured by the Roe v. Wade decision. Obviously, Catholics can never recognize a “right” to abortion. Wouldn’t it be wiser to call it an alleged right?

What would a “USCC Watch” column be without some report on the latest activities of our favorite USCC staffer, Tom Quigley?

During his recent electoral campaign, Congressman Bob Edgar (D.-PA.) bragged to his Catholic constituents about his close working relationship with the USCC staff. Why only recently, he pointed out, the USCC had arranged for him to take a trip to Ireland, to confer with Catholic leaders there about the situation in Central America.

That report didn’t sit well with pro-life leaders in Edgar’s district. Edgar is a consistent opponent of pro-life legislation, and his (pro-life) Republican rival had been counting on substantial support from Catholic voters. Angry letters began to appear at USCC headquarters, and soon the correspondents included not only USCC staffers and Pennsylvania-area Republicans, but also the Irish bishops and Philadelphia’s Cardinal Krol.

The USCC had a logical explanation, of course. As his boss Monsignor Hoye explained it, Mr. Quigley had been unaware of Rep. Edgar’s pro-abortion stance. And in fact Quigley had not “arranged” Edgar’s trip to Ireland; he had merely provided the Irish Church officials with a list of Congressmen who were actively involved in the discussion of Central American affairs.

Great. That leaves just three questions. 1) How could Quigley have been unaware of Edgar’s stance on abortion? Surely his colleagues in the USCC’s pro-life office could have informed him; in fact, anyone even vaguely connected with pro-life work should have known. 2) Why was Edgar high on Quigley’s list of Central America experts? Yes, he votes reliably against the Reagan administration. But his Congressional assignments are to the Public Works and Veteran’s Affairs Committees. 3) There is at least one prominent Catholic Congressman on the Foreign Affairs Committee who does specialize in Latin America. Was Henry Hyde on Quigley’s list?

By the way, Congressman Edgar was re-elected by a narrow margin.

Still, Quigley doesn’t spend all his time doing favors for opponents of the Reagan administration. At a seminar held in Washington in November, Quigley announced his belief that: “Some forms of socialism are just as oppressive as forms of capitalism.”

Golly. I didn’t realize socialism could be that bad!


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