USCC Watch: The Bishops at the White House

If Ronald Reagan has decided that he can never trust the bishops again, I can’t say I blame him.

Late in April, President Reagan invited the leadership of the American bishops’ conference to the White House for a luncheon and a series of briefings on topics of mutual interest. Among the guests were the nation’s most powerful prelates: Cardinals Bernardin and Krol, Archbishops O’Connor, Law, Szoka, and Kelly, and Bishop Malone, the president of the bishops’ conference.

Because of another engagement, Cardinal Krol was forced to leave a bit early. As he stepped out of the White House, he confronted a gaggle of reporters, who asked about the tone of the meeting. Cardinal Krol responded that anyone interested in a fight would have to look elsewhere; the sessions had been cordial and productive.

Shortly thereafter, the other bishops made their exit, and the same reporters asked the same questions. This time Bishop Malone answered, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a typed statement. After a nod of acknowledgement for the President’s efforts to stop abortion, the statement lashed out sharply at Reagan’s policies, especially concerning Central America and nuclear weaponry.

Admittedly not a surprising statement, taken by itself. The bishops have taken the same line fairly consistently. But the reporters had not asked for Bishop Malone’s political analyses; they had asked for a description of the White House luncheon. And as everyone present agreed (see Cardinal Krol’s reaction, for instance), the meeting had been quite friendly. In short, Bishop Malone’s statement was completely inaccurate!

Come to think of it, why did Bishop Malone have a prepared, typed statement in his pocket? Obviously his impromptu press conference had been planned in advance. No matter what had occurred during those few hours inside the White House, he would have said the same thing.

Keep in mind, too, that the meeting inside the White House had been unfailingly civil. Much of the discussion concerned issues on which the President and the bishops agreed — notably abortion and tuition tax credits. When the conversation turned to Central America or arms control, the bishops made their points calmly. Bishop Malone did not scold the President in person. He waited until he had the attention of the press.

Understandably enough, White House aides felt that they had been set up. Many people within the Reagan Administration had argued against a Presidential meeting with the bishops, citing the potential for bad publicity. Now Bishop Malone was fulfilling their direst prophecies. Rest assured that the President will think twice before he invites the bishops to lunch again.

Fortunately, the press gave very little play to Bishop Malone’s statement. Most newspapers merely mentioned that the meeting had taken place; many carried a White House photo of the President walking with the bishops, with everyone wreathed in smiles. And apparently some of Bishop Malone’s colleagues took exception to the statement; by the time the bishops arrived back at USCC headquarters, they had already decided not to make the statement available to the press.

Still, some damage was done. In Washington, even the most partisan politicians usually play by the rules. What Bishop Malone did at the White House is simply not done. People who behave that way do not survive for long in politics. So the bishops will be forced to spend some time repairing their reputation.

On the other hand, perhaps some good will come out of the gaffe. Chances are that Bishop Malone did not write that statement by himself. Chances are that he had help from someone on the staff of the USCC. And chances are that, as the bishops realize the impropriety of Bishop Malone’s statement, they will learn to look carefully at the material the USCC staff hands them.

In that statement, Bishop Malone condemned the Reagan Administration for mining a harbor in Nicaragua. Nobody asked for my opinion, but I happen to agree that the mining was unwise. Still, it pays to keep these things in perspective. No one was killed by those harbor mines; no one was even hurt.

During their hours at the White House, the bishops heard a good deal about Reagan efforts to stop abortion. As Archbishop O’Connor put it, “I don’t know what more we could ask for” on that issue.

So, on the predominant moral issue of the day — the issue that costs 1.5 million lives each year — the bishops see eye-to-eye with the President. Yet when they meet to discuss the whole range of political topics, Bishop Malone chooses to attack the President for his stance on other issues. Surely he realizes that in an election year, such an attack can only help the President’s opponents — who disagree with the bishops on the abortion issue.

Maybe I’m too simplistic. But when the harbor mining begins to kill 1.5 million people a year, I’ll put that issue at the top of my agenda.

Early in May, it was not a bishop but a USCC staff member generating controversy at the White House. At a briefing on religious persecution in Nicaragua, several speakers complained that the USCC had not provided much help to embattled Christians in that country. Thomas Quigley, the USCC’s resident expert on Latin America, rose to rebut the charges.

Quigley’s rebuttal was startling. He explained that the USCC gets its information from the Nicaraguan bishops themselves, and he claimed that those bishops have not reported any widespread religious repression! At this, the briefing room exploded. A half-dozen different voices shouted out examples of the Nicaraguan bishops’ statements on exactly this issue. For several minutes, the briefing degenerated into a shouting match, with Quigley the main object of attack.

Several readers have asked me to repeat something from last month’s column, and I think it does bear repeating: The USCC has testified in favor of continued U.S. military aid to El Salvador. Yes, there were strings attached, and yes, the USCC statement urged against any increased level of that aid. Still, the bishops have made a very noteworthy change in their posture. Maybe the USCC rhetoric about Central America will begin to change, too.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if the bishops’ staff in one diocese came out in opposition to the expressed opinion of the whole national conference? Well, we are now in a position to learn. On March 20, Father J. Bryan Hehir — representing the bishops — delivered the USCC testimony in favor of continued military aid to El Salvador. On the very same day, the Social Justice Commission of San Francisco sponsored an ambitious city-wide effort to lobby for an end to U.S. military aid to El Salvador. Sounds to me like a direct contradiction.

Please don’t be impertinent, and ask what would happen if some diocesan social-justice commission began lobbying against the nuclear freeze. Let’s just stay tuned, and see how quickly the folks in San Francisco change their goals for El Salvador.


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