When the Bishops Speak, Can the People Understand?

It is three months since the Pastoral Letter on War and Peace was published. Most of the tumult and shouting — and editorializing — that accompanied its preparation has died away. It is obviously premature to look now for evidence of its impact within the ranks of the Church, but — like any book — its 150 pages can be assessed in terms of its declared purpose. This, then, is a kind of book review. How can it be rated as the “invitation and challenge to Catholics in the United States to join …. in shaping national choices and policies?”

After a dozen readings and a conscientious effort to summarize it in ten pages, I find myself wondering if, in their prayers for divine enlightenment and guidance as they worked at the letter, the drafters or the bishops turned to St. Paul — speaking in I Corinthians, 14 — for inspiration. It is hard to believe they did. A statement attributed to Archbishop John Roach, speaking after the November review of the second draft1 now seems prophetic: “Perhaps the consensus will be on ambiguity.”

I Corinthians, 14 can well be characterized as the divinely inspired Christian “style book” for “revelation or knowledge or prophecy or instruction” (I Corinthians: 14,6); it prefers 5 intelligible words to instruct others over 10,000 words in a tongue and warns against what we today might well call the “uncertain trumpet syndrome.”

A burning and sincere desire to prophesy, instruct, and pass on revelation and knowledge is everywhere apparent in the pastoral letter, but style, some biblical citations of dubious relevance, and its threefold perspective make understanding difficult. Part II, which deals with the technical and political complexities of deterrence and examines their relation to the moral criteria previously set forth, has many emotional overtones in it which make it difficult to grasp and evaluate in rational terms. The task is made even more difficult by the invoking, later, of Deuteronomy 11,26: “I set before you life or death, a blessing or curse. Choose life.”2 The practical alternatives before American Catholics are not mortal life or death, anymore than they were for the children of Israel when Moses spoke those words to them. Like us today, they-after 38 years wandering in the desert-(and we too have wandered for 38 years since the bombing of Hiroshima!) – were being forewarned to make right decisions every day thereafter once they had finally entered the Promised Land! The “life or death” choice was and still is whether we live and act in the Lord or die to the Lord in the few years of mortal life allotted to each of us. The bishops may have recognized the context in which the words were spoken, but how many of our laity or activist clergy will, or will want to?

Scriptural citations that edify or stimulate emotional responses are of course perfectly legitimate elements of the homiletic art, but in a document that calls on people to think about harshly practical and immediate problems, citations that inform or that provoke thinking are more appropriate. Why, for example, did not the bishops see fit to accompany their acknowledgement of the obligation of sovereign states and their citizens to provide for the common defense and their discussion of deterrence with citations that are directly relevant both to their exposition of jus ad bellum and jus in bello theology as well as today’s dilemma over deterrence? Luke 22:36, 22:49-51 would have been enlightening. In the first, Christ tells his apostles how to prepare for their mission after his death and says “the man without a sword must buy one.” Told that two swords were on hand, he replied “Enough.” In the second instance — a moment of critical confrontation — He was asked, “Shall we use the sword?” but did not reply. It was only after the sword had been used that he said “Enough” — and healed the man who had been wounded. Aren’t we involved today in a real and critical debate — as far as the U.S. deterrent is concerned — over “how Much is enough?”

Combining the three perspectives in the one letter overloads the communication circuit for most laymen. Expressing “universal morally authoritative principles and formal church teaching” and to “reaffirm statements of recent popes and the teachings of Vatican II” on war and peace in the same document is manageable, even though not easy. How, for example, is the average layman to deal with the guidelines for understanding embodied in the Pastoral Constitution of Vatican II — which the bishops say apply equally to their letter — when what is quoted is the ponderous assertion that “the constitution must be interpreted according to the general norms of theological interpretation?” Many will conclude they don’t dare interpret because they haven’t the faintest idea what those “norms” are. Others will conclude they must turn to someone — obviously a theologian!— to have things explained for them. And where, today, can a layman turn to find the credentials of a theologian to assure him that the person both knows and abides by the “norms” understood by Vatican II?

It is the inclusion of the third perspective, the “identification of (contemporary) concrete questions and expressions of the Council’s opinions on them” that tends to short- circuit the whole endeavor. For most of us, bishops are traditionally authoritative figures and their “opinions” authoritative opinions. Their acknowledgement that different opinions on these questions may be held “legitimately” is of little help for most of us. We can see that, as American citizens and members of the people of God they have every right to express their views as individuals, but can they have both authority and equal rights at the same time? If what we are all seeking is a solution, is not one opinion likely to be more “legitimate” than others? Doesn’t their call for “serious consideration” of their views suggest to the layman looking for guidance where the greater legitimacy is to be found? For many to resist such a call is to feel guilty. Add such guilt to the terror which the bishops claim to share with many of their flocks, and what are the chances for constructive and rational discussion, even when conducted with civility and charity? What happens to the confidence and hope in the Lord with which the bishops call on us to deal with these issues? I for one don’t share the “terror” though I am deeply concerned, but I cannot say that I am immune from feelings of guilt and a certain defensiveness even as I write this.

It seems likely that the bishops recognize some of the problems involved in digesting the messages of the full text since they authorized the circulation of a summary as an aid to use of the letter. We can only hope that most of those who use both in discussions and explanations will recognize and honor the bishops’ intent and don’t pick and choose what to emphasize. The summary itself has tendencies in that direction. But, enough of literary critique.

The letter can, I think, be considered with benefit from another perspective. As an American Catholic I am pleased to credit Cardinal Bernardin’s address to the N.C.E.A. (see the May issue of Catholicism in Crisis) for suggesting what that perspective should be. If we view the letter as a pioneering venture into an area where no useful precedents exist — and other letters are projected — we can perhaps take a “childlike” joy in the fact that they have done as well as they have. Charity and recognition of our national peculiarities as Americans and Catholics should lead us to applaud their intent and acknowledge the difficulties they have faced. Deciding political issues by consensus is not in our political tradition, even though we have at times achieved much by creating an effective majority by bipartisan compromise on national issues. On the other hand, the long experience of the American church in combining the monarchical institutional style of papal authority with diocesan autonomy, where each bishop was, free, without reference to his peers, to deal with local issues and challenges has molded the thinking habits of many of the faithful (particularly the older ones) and most of today’s bishops. The innovations of Vatican II have not yet been fully digested. This, which we might call “Church federalism,” is similar to but not analogous to our political federalism. Where papal authority has been obtained, consensus thinking was natural for the church. It has never faced the challenges that democracy operating at the national level has, historically, presented to our national society. And after 200 hundred years the political system still has bugs! Should we not recognize that, as we move into unexplored territory, American Catholics should thank God for our political experience? It can help us to recognize potential pitfalls and hazards; we can recognize healthy signs promptly and help bring them to fruition.

We all have much to learn. Clergy and laity alike must recognize that an effective consensus on moral issues can only be attained if we are firmly committed to unity with the whole of the universal church and temper every moral judgment on contemporary issues with unfailing love and respect for each other. On the other hand, those who lead or aspire to lead in the church here — again, clergy and laity alike — must find a way to ensure that a sincere and stubborn effort is made to make their message to the faithful as unambiguous and understandable as people, with God’s help, can make it.

We already know what is involved in being at the same time citizens of the United States and of the state in which we reside. Now we must reconcile — in practical rather than theoretical terms — being, as individuals, members of the mystical body of the Church and citizens of the United States. For leaders and would-be leaders a good deal of humility will be required to accomplish this.

Could it be that the promulgation of the Pastoral Constitution at Vatican II requires, as our national constitution did, where the states were concerned, the promulgation of a subordinate constitutional instrument for the Church in America? How about a bicameral deliberative system, where a second chamber representing us as individuals might meet, deliberate and express opinions on the relevance of the consensual dicta of the Episcopal Council to our contemporary problems? A majority opinion arrived at in this manner might well be considered the “most legitimate” of a variety of views, without denying or inhibiting anyone from expressing and working for the acceptance of equally legitimate views. For us, diversity within unity is legitimate. Factionalism — which already threatens the church in America — clearly is not.

1“The Churches and Nuclear Deterrence.” Foreign Affairs. Spring, 1983, p.852.

2“The Pastoral Letter on War and Peace”: Origins May 19. 1983. p.27.


  • John Hanson

    When he wrote this article in 1983, John L. Hanson was living in Westminster, Maryland.

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