Social Teachings At Risk In The American Catholic Church
A Review and Commentary on "Changing Witness, Catholic Bishops and
Public Policy, 1917-1994" by Michael Warner
"Changing Witness, Catholic Bishops and Public Policy, 1917-1994",
is the product of eight years of research. It is a history of the
"intellectual changes that have rippled through Catholicism in
America over the past two generations." Its thesis is that while
it is generally presumed by Catholics that the Bishops' policy
statements are predicated on "an authoritative doctrinal tradition
interacting with millennia of human experience and reflection,"
the degree to which the U.S. Bishops' Conference "has carried the
wisdom of the Catholic tradition into the American public square"
is questionable and is a matter of opinion. The author of Changing
Witness, Michael Warner, was given special access to collections
of the Catholic University of America and the Catholic Theological
Union in Chicago, which greatly assisted his research.
In his Foreword, George Weigel, president of the Ethics and Public
Policy Center, described the Catholic Bishops' public policy in
the years 1917-1994 as a "struggle (that) has taken place in a
valley between two towering peaks" (vii), between Popes Leo XIII
and Pius XI on the one side and Pope John Paul II on the other.
These Pontiffs promulgated the monumental encyclicals on the
social teachings of the Church: - Leo XIII, 1891;
Quadragesimo Anno - Pius XI, 1931 (Forty-year anniversary of
- John Paul II, 1991 (one
hundredth anniversary of ).
What transpired during the intervening years is central to Michael
Warner's analysis and evaluation. As the American Church
"travelled through this valley, it jettisoned some of the
traditional but still serviceable, philosophical and theological
equipment while adopting many of the social, economic and
political tenets of secularist humanism, including a preference
for statist approaches to social welfare policy and a dovish view
of international affairs."
The author introduces his analysis with the trenchant statement:
"The place I begin is Rome because before making their social
pronouncements, the American Bishops have either taken their cue
from the Pope or gauged their distance from him." -- Laurene
+ + +
The Birth of Catholic Social Teachings
In 1879, Pope Leo XIII promulgated the encyclical, (On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy According to
the Mind of St. Thomas), restoring pride of place to the natural
law philosophy of Aquinas which had fallen into neglect since the
years of the Enlightenment. In 1891, he promulgated the encyclical
(On the Condition of Workers). These two papal
documents marked the rehabilitation of Thomism and a "remarkable
effort to discern Christian norms of justice for industrializing
Leo's extraordinary insight with its genuine concern for the
working class elicited praise from the Protestant theologian,
Abraham Kuyper: "It must be admitted to our shame that the Roman
Catholics are far ahead of us in their study of the social
question . . . The encyclical of Leo XIII gives the principles
which are common to all Christians, and which we share with our
Roman Catholic compatriots" (Protestants and Natural Law by Carl
Braaten, quoted by Michael Warner from First Things, January
In his "immortal document" Leo "condemned socialism and capitalism" and laid the foundation for his teaching on the
"classical and Christian idea that society should be ordered
according to the natural hierarchy of the end of human activity"
(n. 19). He "emphatically opposed classical liberalism arguing
that the human dignity of the worker transcends the importance of
Leo's Immortal Document
The author quotes extensively from , reacquainting
the reader with the scope of Leo's insights, the depth of his
knowledge and understanding of the social problems confronting the
nations at the turn of the century. There is a certain
timelessness of Pope Leo's wisdom which makes it so relevant for
the Catholic faithful of our day:*
"Man's 'true worth and nobility' reside not in material well-
being but in 'moral qualities . . . in virtue'" (n.24).
"Leo posits the family-not the individual or the State or
polity-as the primeval social entity. Private property is a
'right' of individuals 'in accordance with the law of nature,' but
this 'right . . . must belong to man in his capacity as head of a
family'" (n. 13).
"With a growing economy . . . people would 'cling to the country
in which they were born, for no one would exchange his country for
a foreign land if his own afforded him the means of living a
decent and happy life.' These gains would only accrue . . . if the
citizenry's means were not 'exhausted by excessive taxation' " n
"Leo asserts the rights of the family against the State for the
family is a true society and 'older than any State by virtue of
its end which is the transmission of life'" (n. 12).
"The State 'must be conformable in its institutions to right
reason and natural law'; only States that observe 'moral rule'
will thrive and prosper" (n.32). "The State however, should not
seek to do everything for its citizens. 'The State must not absorb
the individual or the family' . . ." (n.35).
"If 'human society is to be healed . . . no other way can it be
healed save by a return to Christian life and Christian
"The Church ameliorates social tension by reminding the wealthy
of their social and spiritual obligations and the poor that 'in
God's sight poverty is no disgrace' (n.23): true dignity is found
in virtue (n.24) . . . the Church helps men endure through mutual
charity and works of mercy . . . and in the many religious
societies and institutions founded by the Church for the relief of
the poor" (n. 28-30).
"Leo defends the irreplaceable role of Christian charity against
those who would substitute in its place 'a system of relief
organized by the State'" (n.30).
It does not "take a village," as some would have it, to raise a
child. In 1891, Leo stated the obvious: "For the civil government
to intrude into the family . . . is a great and pernicious error.
Paternal authority-which has the same source as human life itself-
can be neither abolished or absorbed by the State." The Pontiff
quoted St. Thomas: "'The child belongs to the father' . . . and
takes its place in civil society not of its own right but in its
quality as member of the family in which it is born.... The
Socialists therefore in setting aside the parent and setting up a
State supervision" Leo asserts, "act against natural justice and
break into pieces the stability of family life" (n.11).
concludes with the exhortation: "Since religion
alone can suffice to destroy the evil at its root, all men should
be persuaded to return to real Christianity." Leo pleaded for an
"outpouring of charity-the mistress and queen of all virtues." He
directed his appeal to the hierarchy, "the venerable Brethren"
never to cease urging upon "men of every class . . . the Gospel
doctrine of Christian life . . ." (n.45).
The Foundation of American Catholic Social Analysis
In the years following the promulgation of the
American Bishops, lacking a national organization, made little
effort individually to educate the laity on the significance of
Leo's encyclical. They met infrequently as a body of bishops. From
1789 to 1919, there had been a total of only thirteen official
meetings. The statements from these meetings, addressed to the
clergy and faithful, took the form of Pastoral Letters.
With the entry of the United States in World War I, the American
hierarchy set up a National Catholic War Council in Washington,
D.C., to coordinate Church-supported services and relief efforts.
In 1919, the Bishops, meeting at Catholic University, agreed to
Pope Benedict's XV's recommendation that a national office should
be established "to promote Catholic interests." The War Council
was regrouped as the National Catholic Welfare Council.
The Pastoral Letter of 1919, tied as it was to the newly formed
Welfare Council, established "the theoretical foundation of
American Catholic social analysis for the next half-century." It
attacked "secularism -the expulsion of God from daily life and the
enthronement of the state as the sovereign ruler in human
affairs." It stated the "only remedy was to recognize God as the
source of justice and the author of our being." It rejected both
collectivism and individualism as offshoots of secularism. "The
authority and logic of papal social teaching based on the natural
law served as the basis for social commentary." The 1919 Pastoral
announced the establishment of the Department of Social Action
under the newly formed Council. Its purpose was "to coordinate
those activities which aim at improving social conditions in
accordance with the spirit of the Church."
The controversy which arose among the Bishops in regard to the
authority of the Council was resolved when its name was changed to
National Catholic Welfare Conference, "emphasizing the fact that
the body had no plenary or binding power of law as had been
implied by the term 'Council'." And since Bishops were not
required to join the Welfare Conference, the NCWC "social
commentary" concentrated "on issues of immediate interest to
American Catholics and was less likely to engage the Bishops as a
group in partisan controversy over political issues."
Although a technical difference existed between NCWC, the
canonical organization and NCWC, Inc., a separate entity, the two
were interchangeably referred to as the NCWC. The principal action
of the NCWC Social Action Department, was "the promulgation and
application of the principles enunciated in papal encyclicals and
American episcopal statements." The agreed upon approach to
influencing national policy "was making one's views on an issue
known long before any relevant legislation came to a vote. From
1920 to 1968, the year of its dissolution," the department was run
successively by four priests-John A. Ryan, Raymond McGowan, George
Higgins with the assistance of John F. Cronin. They "exercised a
quiet but crucial influence over the composition of the Bishops'
statements and their translation into social action."
Father Ryan, who served as director from 1920 to 1945 "combined
unwavering obedience to the Church with an outspoken zeal for the
working man." Ryan rejected socialism and individualism because
both demoted human dignity; the former explicitly denied it, while
the latter refused to recognize it. Grounded as he was in and its Thomistic philosophy, Ryan taught that "many of
Aquinas' teachings on social life were 'still pertinent because
they were based on the eternal laws of justice'." He believed
"virtue was indispensable to social progress . . . he attacked
contraception and testified before Congress about the harmful
effects of artificial birth control on individuals, families, and
society itself." He was outspoken in defending the Church's duty
and right to insist on strict enforcement of the increasingly
flouted laws banning the sale of birth-control devices.
"The Natural Law's prohibition of contraception apparently served
as the hinge of the argument; Ryan believed that the state must
never abet or condone, either by statute or by law enforcement,
that which is intrinsically evil."
In recalling NCWC's early years, Warner comments: NCWC and the
Social Action Department "moved slowly and cautiously in the
politically conservative 1920s.... Ryan's mixture of progressive
activism and restrained rhetoric defined the NCWC's approach to
social issues. He especially took pains to ensure that his
positions flowed from the logic of the social encyclicals" and he
also tried to avoid giving offense to certain powerful Bishops.
Natural Law Guidelines In "Quadragesimo Anno"
" had been published a generation earlier but the
American Bishops lacked the means of collectively implementing its
prescriptions until the formation of NCWC after World War I....
While relatively secure after 1922, the secretariat and its
staffers were not committed to any explicit program of social
goals and political tasks." However, a change occurred in 1931
when, on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of , Pope Pius XI addressed the "social and economic
developments since the turn of the century."
(On the Reconstruction Of the Social Order) "represented the most
ambitious papal attempt to apply natural law guidelines to special
institutions under modern conditions." Pius XI described as the "incomparable encyclical" (n. D; as "this
remarkable document of pastoral solicitude" (n.2); "the on which all Christian activities in social matters ought
to be based" (n. 39).
"It laid down for all mankind very sure guidance for the right
solution of the difficult problem of human fellowship called 'the
social question' (n.2). Leo defended the cause of 'working-men,
surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hard heartedness of
employers and the greed of unchecked competition.' He sought
neither help from liberalism nor socialism . . ." (n.10).
With , the Church's social doctrine reached new
heights. The papal pronouncement, of the principle of subsidiarily
function with its logic embedded in the natural law, was
recognized by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. This teaching put
a cap on the scope of government authority: it was not intended
that government usurp the rights of the individual, the family or
intermediate associations. Only when these were incapable of
solving problems should government intervene. However, the Holy
See recognized there are some functions for the common good only
government can perform.
In introducing the "Principle of Subsidiarity," Pius XI gave
priority to "the reform of social institutions" -stating "it is
principally the state that comes to mind. "
"Just as it is wrong to withdraw from the individual and commit to
a group what private enterprise and industry can accomplish, so
too it is an injustice, a grave evil and a disturbance of right
order, for a larger and higher association to arrogate to itself
smaller and lower societies. This is a fundamental principle of
social philosophy, unshaken and unchangeable . . . Let those in
power, therefore be convinced that the more faithful this
principle of subsidiary function be followed . . . the greater
will be both social authority and social efficiency" (n. 79-80).
As Warner notes: " would reign supreme for
thirty years in statements by the National Catholic Welfare
Conference as Rome's definitive word on modern economic problems."
The American Bishops and their staff before 1960 "based the social
teaching on the guiding principles of the Thomistic natural law
philosophy . . . and remained remarkably consistent in addressing
new issues through decades of great political change."
NCWC Public Policy Statements
Father Ryan was exuberant, sensing in
vindication of much of his thinking and approval of much he had
promoted for thirty years, "including social justice, the living
wage and new forms of cooperation between labor and
industrialists." His enthusiasm led him to endorse many of
Franklin Roosevelt's policies. That came to an end, however, in
1940 when NCWC personnel were prohibited "from taking part in that
year's presidential campaign, a prohibition thenceforth observed."
Ryan and his successors in the Social Action Department "drafted
NCWC public policy statements for four decades" and then "handily
cited the same documents as authority for departmental
As for the Bishops' Conference (NCWC), "it virtually never
addressed public policy.... The Social Action Department never had
completely free rein but for years exercised substantial influence
over episcopal social statements." From 1931 through 1960, these
statements embodied the "Thomistic natural law principles" the
cornerstones of Leo XIII and Pius XI encyclicals. The NCWC, while
recommending "certain kinds of social reform pertinent to the
American condition," did not lose "sight of the primary teaching
mission of the Church: to bring men to salvation through Jesus
Christ. Virtue, morality and the dangers of secularism and other
ideologies remained the focus of the Bishops' statements through
Warner cites as examples:
The 1953 Statement on Man's Dignity, addressed man's knowledge
of his place in the cosmos by intellect, and the ultimate
fulfillment of his longing for God through a "self-determining
will capable of choosing wisely within the framework of law."
The 1958 statement, Explosion or Backfire? stressed that
"economic development and progress are best promoted by favorable to (man's) Such
progress implies discipline, self-control, and the disposition to
postpone present satisfactions for future gains." (emphasis in
The 1951 statement, God's Law: the Measure of Man's Conduct,
noted that "right reason had arrived at the knowledge of the
existence of God, of man's creation by God, and of a sense of
man's dignity and freedom. These universal insights into natural
law laid the foundation for family, state and society and kept
them in right relation."
The 1940 Statement on Church and Social Order stated that "the
only remedy for social and economic ills was a return to the
Gospels and a recognition of God as the origin and end of
The 1947 Statement on Secularism explained that "ignorance of
God's role in human life and of humanity's place in creation led
to unstable morals, poor education, the debasement of the family,
greed and socialism in economics, totalitarianism and war abroad,
and the imperiling of democracy at home.... The moral regeneration
which is recognized as absolutely necessary for the building of a
better world must begin by bringing the individual back to God and
to an awareness of his responsibility to God. This, secularism by
its very nature, cannot do."
The 1937 Statement on Social Problems indicted a " 'sizable army
of communist propagandists among left-wing professors, teachers
and intellectuals' and noted that 'many of the promoters of
organizations calling themselves peace and youth movements,
sponsors of stage and screen entertainment and so-called crusaders
for democracy' often wittingly or unwittingly served communist
The 1959 Statement on Freedom and Peace "identified communism as
the foremost obstacle to peace, followed by nationalism and
poverty.... Communism would be overcome," the Bishops added, "only
when Christians proclaimed freedom under the principles of God's
law. Statesmen should continue their often disheartening quest for
peace . . . but they should remember that 'appeasement in such
matters leads only to the peace of the conquered'."
The Erosive Assault on the Natural Law Tradition
In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, dissatisfaction with the natural
law tradition gained ground among some Catholic intellectuals and
scholars who entertained the notion that "Thomism had been
rendered obsolete by modern science and philosophy." Coupled with
this development, "liberal Catholic laymen began to criticize the
American Church's campaign to impose Catholic moral standards on
non-Catholics-particularly the clergy's repeated efforts to shore
up America's crumbling restriction on birth control and
Catholic liberals "denounced" these efforts as "divisive." This
situation came to a real head in July 1968, with the promulgation
of Pope Paul VI's encyclical, "The extent of
Thomism's decline among American Catholic intellectuals" became
apparent. Leading this dissent were "Fr. Charles Curran and one of
his teachers, the German theologian Bernard Haring.... Though the
American hierarchy defended the Pope's much-awaited encyclical . .
. as they did again in their November 1968 pastoral letter, Human
Life In Our Day, they did not attack the sexual revolution of the
1960s." In their pastoral, the Bishops failed "to reiterate the
NCWC's teaching that contraception promoted vice and undermined
Warner writes that this "retreat of American Catholicism from
Thomism as a philosophical template naturally precipitated a sharp
decline in confidence in the social teachings based on natural
law.... After 1970, the Thomistic concepts that remained in the
social teachings of the American Bishops would survive only as
isolated vestiges . . . but no longer a coherent whole."
At the same time, "a new liberalism" was forming, one that "deemed
equality something for the government to promote; this coupled
with the lack of confidence in the 'natural law theory' . . .
spurred the overhaul of the NCWC."
The Critical Years in the Valley
In 1966, following Vatican II recommendations that national
episcopal conferences "invested with certain juridical authority"
be established, the American Bishops restructured the NCWC. The
National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) was set up as the
canonical body; the same Bishops comprised the United States
Catholic Conference (USCC) when commenting on public policy or
acting as an entity incorporated under civil law.
Where previously, membership had been optional, it now became
mandatory; this also applied to diocesan financial support. The
presidency would be an elected office no longer reserved for the
"most senior cardinals." Significant changes were made in the
secretariat-the 25 existing offices were streamlined into five
departments with the Departments of International Affairs and that
of Social Development, perhaps the most important.
"The men who moved into newly created posts in these offices gave
less allegiance to the natural law tradition than had their
predecessors in the NCWC," Warner notes. Some of them believed the
"Thomistic-based tradition was actually a hindrance to Catholic
social action." Changes that began "at the top" soon filtered
through "all levels of the conference."
The NCCB's first elected president in 1966 was Archbishop John F.
Dearden of Detroit, reportedly a "leader of the so-called
progressive wing of Roman Catholicism." In 1968, he appointed as
general secretary, Joseph Bernardin, "a young soft-spoken Bishop
with a growing reputation for his skills as a diplomat." His
principal assignment was "the stream-lining of the old NCWC staff
structure." Warner comments: Bernardin "would accomplish this task
and quite a bit more."
Bishop Bernardin "believed that the Church and its teachings
urgently needed modernization" and told the National Catholic
Reporter (April 17, 1968) that the "current national crisis" was
such that "statements and pastorals were no longer sufficient. We
must come up with specific programs which we will fund." He
expanded upon some of his thinking in an address at the University
of Bridgeport that same year. He "warned that conservative fear of
the unknown threatened to halt renewal in the Church." Should "the
movement for change" lose "momentum" due perhaps because of
"traditional Catholic skepticism" then he cautioned there would be
"tension and conflict" and the Church would lose its struggle to
restore the relevance of religion to every day life. Bernardin
left the USCC in 1972; he later served as NCCB president from
1974-1977 and "remains one of the most influential members of the
Warner documents in considerable detail the changes in public
policy which occurred during the "years in the valley" following
the reorganization the American Bishops' Conference. Under the new
structuring, the chairs of NCCB and USCC committees were limited
to three years and consequently the liberal influence exercised by
committee staffers (not subject to term limits) was substantial.
In those formative years under Bernardin as General Secretary and
his successor, Bishop James S. Rausch, there was a certain amount
of turnover, but one who retained his influence through the years
(to this day) is Fr. J. Bryan Hehir, appointed in 1973 as director
of the Office of International Justice and Peace.
The USCC Secretariat During the 1960s and 1970s
During the 1960s, the Bishops issued several pastoral letters on
the escalating question of civil rights (1958, 1963). In 1966,
however, a change took place; the question of race was joined to
the question of poverty. In the pastoral, Race Relations and
Poverty, the NCCB "or at least its secretarial apparatus . . .
replaced the understanding of human society as an organic entity
under the ordering norm of the common good" with a "social
political analysis of individual groups-Blacks, Hispanics,
Indians-and suggested that the primary cause of their relative
deprivation was prejudice."
In the 1968 pastoral, prepared prior to, but released after the
assassination of Martin Luther King, "the Bishops sought to make
the institutional Church an advocate for the oppressed. They urged
government intervention" and said "all white Americans were guilty
of racism" and declared the Church should work with all men of
good will "to encourage, support, and identify with the efforts of
the poor in their search for self determination."
Warner comments: "The attribution of social guilt to that mass of
allegedly apathetic and prosperous Americans who did not work
directly for change would become a staple of USCC and NCCB
The following year, 1969, "the USCC proposed that the Church
address the current crisis by leading a massive development effort
to assist the struggle of the poor to achieve self-determination.
" It promised "$50 million to meet the evident need for funds
designated to be used for organizing groups of whites and minority
poor to develop economic strength and political power in their
In 1970, the NCCB approved a resolution establishing the Campaign
for Human Development "to teach the poor to help themselves while
educating the 'nonpoor' and instilling in them a new sensitivity
to the problems of poverty." (Ed. Note: For over 25 years, U.S.
Catholics have contributed millions to the annual CHD collection;
3/4 of the monies are distributed at the discretion of USCC to
left-wing politically oriented groups -not to the poor as this
"This new approach," Warner states, "downplays the traditional
principle of subsidiarily . . . USCC officials became boosters of
dramatically expanded federal power, claiming that the federal
government was the most reliable and sometimes the only engine of
change -a conclusion the staff eventually applied to other social
questions as well."
A priest on the USCC staff suggested at a congressional hearing in
1969 not to "worry about eroding the traditional federalism of the
American political order." He asserted, "We should not give those
'state governments that had a certain role to play in producing
that poverty, the key to supposedly getting us out of it'."
USCC Elite Controls Social Doctrine of the American Church
By the 1970s, "USCC leaders and staff became the new elite of the
American Church setting the agenda and defining social doctrine
more and more for the Bishops so that the concerns and ideology of
the USCC secretariat became indistinguishable from that of the
During these years, its liberal leadership under Bishops Bernardin
and Rausch with their new advisor Fr. Bryan Hehir, endorsed a 'new
social ethic' which "regarded tied to some greater service for
the common good, as oppressive.... This new conception of justice
banished the traditional notion of a natural social order and
consequently, the older distinction between justice and charity."
As the concept of social sin took hold, "some USCC statements
implied that citizens participated in social sin without even
knowing it." Fr. Hehir "defined social sin as an organization or
structure that systematically works to the detriment of groups or
individuals. . "
On the concept of clerical activism, the USCC "called for
political activism at all levels of the institutional Church." Fr.
Hehir "formally defended clerical activism in an article in the
New Catholic Encyclopedia." He held that "the weakness of pre-
conciliar Catholic social teachings stemmed from its sketchy
understanding of the distinction between the Church's nature (or
mission) and its social ministry."
Some Bishops "resisted the new activist role" the USCC had for
them. When asked to support a "draft resolution that stopped just
short of urging Washington to restore the Panama Canal to
Panamanian control, Cardinal Carberry, St. Louis, complained he
knew 'nothing at all' about Panama and felt silly voting for such
a resolution. After the resolution nevertheless won approval,
Bishop Joseph McNicholas, Springfield, IL, complained the 'staff
people want us to take positions on everything under the sun'."
USCC Espouses Federal Programs and Control
The USCC "preferred a direct federal role in resolving many social
problems." Although it did not defend "every government
initiative" it favored "new federal programs instead of supporting
efforts by private groups or local governments.... Catholic
leaders recommended central economic and social planning" or as
Fr. Hehir "chastely described it, 'coordination and direction of
complex social systems'." In 1975, the USCC Administrative Board
called for federal loans to financially stricken New York City-
without mentioning a role for New York State.
Bishop Thomas Kelley, O.P., Louisville, who succeeded Bishop
Rausch as general secretary in 1977, "looked to the federal
government to facilitate full employment through 'sustained
economic planning and job creation programs'." As Warner observes:
"Spokesmen for the Bishops rarely discussed any domestic problems
that weren't amenable to increased federal control." (Editor's
note: These citations reflect the American Bishops' abandonment of
the principle of subsidiarity-one of the pillars of papal social
Vatican II's document, , (The Church in the
Modern World), clearly states, "Christ did not bequeath to the
Church a mission in the political or social order; the purpose He
assigned to it was a religious one"(n.42). As Warner explains:
"The Church as a whole reserves the right to initiate charitable
activities 'on behalf of all men' especially for the benefit of
the needy when circumstances demand action." And while "secular
activities belong 'properly though not exclusively to laymen' who
are to become more learned in their particular field . . . they
are to draw 'spiritual light' from their pastors. But this is not
to say that clergymen have either the mission or the expertise to
prescribe concrete solutions for every problem."
Fr Hehir's Influence on Public Policy
The social teachings of the Church had "always stressed that human
dignity advances only when progress is linked to virtue." Now,
however, NCCB and USCC statements on "personal morality reversed
these earlier teachings.... Vice was attributed to social problems
rather than to sin or individual moral failure." In fact, after
1970, "the Bishops and their staff rarely repeated the NCWC
argument that full human and social development advanced only when
individuals . . . learned to control their baser desires. This
separation of virtue from social progress marked one of the most
significant developments in the social teachings of the American
Bishops since 1919."
"Father Hehir publicly suggested that actions which would be
sinful for the faithful could be publicly tolerated . . . if
committed by non-Catholics. He advanced the argument that Paul
VI's ban on contraception in applied to
morality not public policy and that the traditional natural law
teaching had maintained a distinction between the two realms."
Although Fr. Hehir's recommendations were not always implemented,
"his concern that a strict application of Catholic sexual mores in
matters of public policy would cost the Church valuable allies was
echoed by the secretariat's quiet efforts to 'broaden' the
Bishops' opposition to legalized abortion." These efforts produced
so much controversy in the Bishops' Conferences, the "weary"
leadership gradually "demoted abortion from its place as the most
pressing public policy matter affecting American life."
While "the secretariat succeeded in formulating social policies
agreeable to mainstream liberalism, a challenge to Catholic
activism had emerged with the legalization of abortion. The
Supreme Court decision entrenched in constitutional
law the secularist argument that religion (or indeed, any
conception of ultimate truth) is tangential to democratic
government and potentially dangerous to it. Many Catholics . . .
wanted the Church to discipline Catholic officials who supported
legalized abortion . . . but most bishops and their advisors in
the secretariat believed this course too drastic; they feared the
loss of all influence and credibility in Washington. . . ."
Warner continues, "USCC's liberal leadership tried to minimize the
friction with its secular allies by muting its own statements on
what Fr. Hehir called 'personal' morality." The USCC leadership in
the 1970s tried "to convince influential prelates (such as NCCB
president, Joseph Bernardin) that inequality and injustice . . .
were the root of the problems like abortion and thus the real
threat to life in the modern world."
Public Policy during the Reagan Administration
The "consistent ethic of life" with which Cardinal Bernardin
"attempted to codify the internal logic of the new social teaching
of the American Catholic Church" during the Reagan era had its
origin in 1973 with Bishop Rausch. "Discomfited" by the intensity
of the developing anti-abortion movement, Rausch introduced the
notion of a "consistent theory of rights." He stated "concern for
the right to life of the unborn must be linked to . . . concern
for the quality of life of the very poor, the aged, and the
minority members of the American community. "
Warner writes, "In August, 1976, NCCB president Archbishop
Bernardin had issued a statement supporting a constitutional
amendment to restrict abortion," and had "publicly criticized
Jimmy Carter (for) the Democrat nominee's 'inconsistency' in
refusing to support an amendment . . . Five days later Bernardin
praised the Republican platform for 'clearly and forthrightly'
endorsing a constitutional remedy." His statement, viewed as an
endorsement of the Republican candidate, "rankled USCC staff
members." The NCCB Administrative Committee rejected "the
impression that Bernardin had endorsed Gerald Ford, and urged
Catholics to consider the entire range of positions taken by the
presidential candidates." The USCC staff, however, "with no
authorization from the Bishops' leadership published a list of
their positions and those of the party platforms." And, "Carter's
platform reflected the USCC staff version of Catholic social
teachings far better than Ford's.... After this quarrel abortion
was effectively de-emphasized either by omission or as one among
The NCCB 1976 pastoral letter, To Live In Christ Jesus, "called
abortion an 'unspeakable crime' and mentioned it with seven other
concerns, including housing, employment and discrimination." This
issue was not only downplayed in subsequent Bishops' statements,
they failed to "offer any concerned reaction when the Democrat
Party reiterated and strengthened its proabortion platform plank
When Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco succeeded Bernardin as
NCCB president in 1977, he stated "abortion opponents must also
defend life in all other areas." Warner writes, "Quinn's use of
this logic marked a victory for USCC staffers who had advocated
such an approach since 1973, and also set the stage for the debate
of the following decade over the 'consistent ethic of life'."
When Bernardin announced the "consistent ethic of life," he
entertained the hope "it would be compelling enough to halt the
drift of political moderate Catholics toward Republican ideas and
candidates." NCCB leadership was concerned about "an increasingly
centrifugal church." With American Catholics "arguing over issues
like abortion and arms control," the policies of President Reagan
were serving "as a lightening rod" for the "diverging
constituencies": "opponents of abortion encouraged and mobilized
by Reagan"; "pacifists alarmed by his militant opposition to
Moscow's 'evil empire'."
With the "American Bishops under great pressure to reach a
compromise," Warner states, "the Bishops modified the social
teachings of the Church, but at a price.... Politically
conservative American Catholics - temperamentally and doctrinally
some of the Church's most loyal subjects-were alienated." And
"more importantly, the American Bishops preserved unity in their
own house by lessening their reliance on papal social teaching."
Each of the NCCB/USCC dominant themes during the 1980s "summarized
and codified ideas expressed in statements from the Bishops since
the Second Vatican Council: The modified just-war doctrine of The
Challenge of Peace; the option for the poor in Economic Justice
for all; and Cardinal Bernardin's Consistent Ethic of Life....
These major statements offered an ad hoc wisdom instead of
developing the Church's natural law tradition as enunciated by
pontiffs in the modern era from Leo XIII on."
The Challenge of Peace "in stating there were two rival truths
about the morality of war (just-war doctrine and biblical
pacifism)-could hardly insist on the Church's special insight into
the natural law." And Economic Justice for All "made only the most
modest claim for the Catholic understanding of the truth about
man's place in creation." In describing the educational mission of
the Church, it "suggested Catholics had as much to learn from the
world as vice versa."
Neither Pope John Paul II or the other national episcopal
conferences have adopted these "formulations," Warner writes. In
fact, in and , Pope John Paul
II has emphasized the role of "the acting person in the natural
law and has presented Christian morality and sacraments as
profoundly liberating. By comparison NCCB seemed to craft new
rules to serve primarily political purposes, easing internal
stresses in the American Church and rendering Catholic social
teaching more critical of Reagan administration policies."
Bishops as Social Activists
In 1982, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Detroit, wrote in Origins 12
(Sept. 30, 1982) of the "episcopacy's new role as social theorists
and activists: The Church's reliance on 'timeless and unchanging
(ethical) norms' had been overthrown during the tumult of the
1960s." War and revolution had "forced the faithful to reinterpret
their social and political attitudes. Progressive elements in the
Church influenced by Latin American adherents of 'liberation
theology' performed this reinterpretation." Bishop Gumbleton and
others "argued that the natural law vision of an organic society
guided by the Church's wisdom . . . was anachronistic, ahistorical
and in no way indispensable to Church teaching." Archbishop
Rembert Weakland, Milwaukee, also "enunciated the new social
teaching of the American episcopacy." Both Gumbleton and Weakland
are identified with the two controversial pastoral letters of the
In 1981, Archbishop John Roach, St. Paul-Minneapolis, then NCCB
president, appointed Bishops, not the secretariat, to "clarify and
update" previous statements on nuclear arms. The NCCB drafting
committee, chaired by Archbishop Bernardin included Bishops
Gumbleton and George Fulcher, Columbus OH (both members of the
pacifist Pax Christi); Daniel P. Reilly, Norwich, CT (he along
with most Bishops signed the Pax Christi nuclear freeze petition
in 1982); and John O'Connor, then auxiliary Bishop of New York
City and head of the U.S. Military Vicariate.
Fr. Hehir led the team of advisors, Warner states. Bernardin set
one limit: "The finished pastoral would not call for unilateral
nuclear disarmament." The Holy Father set another limit with his
"conditional toleration of nuclear deterrence" expressed in 1982.
Within these limits the drafters were "to defend the broad outline
of American nuclear strategy without providing aid and comfort to
the Reagan administration."
The draft documents ("Gumbleton leaked the first draft") caused
considerable controversy in the United States, and overseas the
reaction "among European Bishops prompted the Holy See to convene
a meeting in Rome" in 1983. Archbishops Bernardin and Roach, with
Msgr. Daniel Hoye and Fr. Hehir "met with European Bishops and
Vatican officials including the Secretary of State, Cardinal
Casarole, and the Prefect for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal
That the concern "of the Vatican officials and the Europeans that
the latest draft came close to imposing contingent prudential
judgments as morally binding teachings and misrepresented the
Scriptures . . . by juxtaposing a new pacifist tradition alongside
the just war teaching was later endorsed by the Pope in a private
audience with Bernardin." The Challenge of Peace "marked a
compromise between the pacifism of Gumbleton and the liberal
pragmatism of Hehir."
As Warner comments: "The Bishops' concern for arms control . . .
led them to oppose virtually every proposed modernization of
American weapons and strategy.... They also feared that Western
anticommunism jeopardized prospects for arms control.... This
judgment that technology was more important than ideology in
Soviet-American relations paralleled the approach Hehir had taken
in earlier years. He had repeatedly cited papal warnings about the
need to bring modern weapons under moral control but rarely
mentioned papal emphases on the danger of totalitarian ideology."
How "The Challenge Of Peace" Played in Central America
The drafters of The Challenge of Peace "consistently opposed the
build-up of American forces and U.S. military aid and intervention
abroad. Indeed in criticizing Reagan administration defense
policies almost across the board, the Bishops and their advisors
arrived at essentially pacifist recommendations." How The
Challenge of Peace played in Central America is a striking example
of a lack of moral certitude in assessing that situation. Warner
"The USCC secretariat regarded the Reagan administration as
almost immoral in its support for reactionary Central American
elites and its seeming preference for military solutions that
avoided the structural causes of regional conflicts."
"The USCC repeatedly characterized the Reagan administration as
preoccupied with military solutions and warned that a 'victory'
won by arms would only precipitate further bloodshed."
"Two years later, the USCC reversed itself and grudgingly
endorsed military assistance to El Salvador, as long as that aid
was part of a larger diplomatic strategy."
"Bishops and USCC officials denounced U.S. military aid to the
Nicaraguan rebels as soon as rumors of that covert
program began to circulate in Washington. "
"While the USCC noted the national elections that swept the
Sandinistas from power in 1990, the Bishops drew no connection
between the military pressure created by the and the
Sandinista's final acquiescence in a democratic solution."
"The USCC's Hehir wanted Washington to dissuade the Soviet Union
and Cuba from arming the Sandinista regime and the Marxist rebels
in El Salvador, but neither he or other Church representatives
explained how the halting of American deliveries of military aid
would win Soviet and Cuban cooperation."
"The Bishops and their secretariat . . . seemed more embarrassed
than enlightened when representatives of the Salvadoran Bishops
conferences visited Washington in late 1981 to ask their American
brothers to support U.S. military aid to their nation."
"Several years later Nicaragua's Bishops were annoyed by what
they regarded as insensitivity. For example, when a spokesman for
Nicaraguan Archbishop Obando y Bravo protested the conduct of
Thomas Quigley (International Justice and Peace Office, USCC) to
General Secretary Daniel Hoye in 1984. Quigley had made statements
to the Sandinista-controlled media that, when aired seemed
critical of the Nicaraguan Bishops." (The footnoted reference to
an article in the National Catholic Register, Sept. 9, 1984,
"reported that Quigley has asked a former nun who had worked in
Nicaragua not to criticize the Sandinistas because such criticism
would only give ammunition to the Reagan administration.")
"Bishop Joseph Sullivan, Brooklyn, also got an earful when he
met with a group of Central American Bishops in 1987. They told
him-apparently to his surprise-that the Sandinistas were
totalitarians and that the NCCB should pay more attention to the
region's Bishops and less to North American activist clerical and
religious groups that claimed to be bringing social justice to the
region." (This appeared in a Margin note in Origins 17, August 13,
Economic Justice For All Redefines Subsidiarity
Our Sunday Visitor (March 29, 1981) in a report "Bishops' Body
Vows All-Out War on Reagan Budget Cuts" capsulized the NCCB's
reaction to federal spending cuts proposed by the Reagan
administration. The 1981 NCCB Labor Day Statement exposed its
political leanings: "Do we want a government that is a protector
and promoter of human dignity and human rights.... Or do we want a
government that is the protector of the wealthy and a producer of
greater inequality-a government of the rich, by the rich and for
the rich?" (Editor's note: Political verbiage in use to this day.)
Archbishop Rembert Weakland's drafting committee was of a similar
mind and "unilaterally reinterpreted its mandate" to focus
attention on the American economy in the "areas of jobs, poverty,
trade and planning." The pastoral "urged that Catholics,
government and society in general were obligated by Scripture to
remedy this situation, calling it the preferential option for the
poor." This phrase had been borrowed from the 1979 Latin American
Bishops Conference at Pueblo, Mexico, which had spoken of
"preferential options for the poor and for youth in the Church's
evangelizing activity." NCCB/USCC "discreetly omitted the option
for young people and removed the 'option for the poor' from its
evangelical context when they used it as a call for social
justice," Warner writes.
Weakland's "primary target was not poverty but inequality." While
the "finished pastoral reflected the Bishops' long-standing
concern with a better distribution of the fruits of the American
economy," it looked to the state "to equalize access to the
benefits of modern society.... The Bishops wanted government to
move from its alleged role as social referee to a commitment to
reduce social inequality." In a word, they circumvented the
principle of subsidiarily. This is not to say subsidiarily was
slighted, on the contrary it is quoted and mentioned in many
paragraphs. However, the Bishops' overriding interest was "the
creation of an order . . . that guarantees . . . securing economic
rights for every person." This is the "New American Experiment"
enunciated in Economic Justice for All.
Although Warner does not mention the "New American Experiment," it
refers to the Bishops' reliance on "liberal commentators and
analyses," citing studies by groups such as Children's Defense
Fund and the writings of Richard Barnet and Gar Alperovitz among
(Editor's note: These writers are hardly liberal or progressive,
but rather warrant the label of radical left. Barnet and
Alperovitz have had a long association with the Institute for
Policy Studies. Alperovitz addressed the Ad Hoc Committee on the
Pastoral and was among a small group selected to present papers at
a symposium convened at Notre Dame University for the Bishops on
the committee. His paper, "Planning for Sustained Economy" was a
definite call for government planning of the economy.
(As for Children's Defense Fund, a radical left advocacy group,
its president Marion Wright Edelman, is well-known to the USCC,
having addressed on several occasions the annual Social Ministry
Gathering cosponsored with Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief
Services, and the Campaign for Human Development. A major feature
of this annual Gathering in Washington, D.C., is lobbying Congress
for Catholic activists' funding. In short, for welfare entitlement
Passage of a Welfare Reform Bill
The Welfare Reform Bill recently passed in Congress with the
repeal of an automatic Federal entitlement, signals that "social
welfare as 'a federal responsibility has been broken," according
to a Wall Street Journal editorial (August 1, 1996). "Until
recently, the ethos was that welfare was a
responsibility." Now "the ascending ethos holds that the
organizing principle of our politics should be
responsibility away from the massive authority of one government
and dispersed among the variants of 50 political units." (emphasis
in original). "Among the list of Democratic allied institutions-
the Democratic forward infantry-" the Journal mentions "the
satellite groups orbiting around Marion Wright Edelman" and "the
"Centesimus Annus" (On the Hundredth Anniversary of "Rerum
Wittingly or unwittingly, the Journal was echoing Pope John Paul
II. In his encyclical, , the Holy Father writes
of the expansion of the so-called Welfare State. He makes note of
"excesses and abuses . . . that have provoked very harsh
criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the 'Social Assistance
State.' These are the result of an inadequate understanding of the
tasks proper to the state." Here again, he states, "the principle
of subsidiarily must be respected always with a view to the common
"By intervening directly and depriving society of its
responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of
human energies and an ,
which are than
by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by
an " (n.48-emphasis added).
(Editor's note: this is so true of the American Welfare system.)
Warner issues a challenge for American Bishops: "Explain John
Paul's teaching to the nation, a people unaccustomed-at least in
recent years-to hearing that their inalienable rights derive from
the laws of Nature and of Nature's God.
"Imagine," he poses, "a Bishops' Conference explicitly devoted to
teaching all Americans about the central dynamic of the Natural
Law: that the truth dictates certain imperatives for human
freedom, and that denial of truth does not affirm but actually
erodes that freedom . . . If what is taught by our national
Bishops . . . fully articulates John Paul's reflections on freedom
and truth . . . it could echo throughout Christendom as more
peoples confront the dilemmas familiar to the American experience
of ordered liberty."
*(Editor's Note: Quotations are from Warner; parenthetical numbers
refer to paragraphs in .)
In the Pastoral Letter of 1919 (the first since 1884), the
Bishops' references to the United States as a Republic are
striking-regrettably a practice long since abandoned. Here are
"The dominant personality of Cardinal Gibbons as a great
churchman and a great citizen of the Republic...."
". . . We greet you dear brethren as children of the Holy
Catholic Church and as citizens of the Republic on whose
preservation the future of humanity so largely depends."
Washington, D.C., is referred to as the "Capital City of the
"Our country had its origins in a struggle for liberty. Once
established as an independent Republic it became the refuge of
those who preferred freedom in America to the conditions
prevailing in their native lands."
This 1919 Pastoral Letter also included references to Leo XIII's
"It is the opinion of some and the error is already very common,
that the social question is mainly an economic one, whereas in
point of fact, it is first of all, a moral and religious matter
and for that reason its settlement is to be found mainly in the
moral law and the pronouncement of religion" (,
"The nature of human liberty, however it be considered, whether
in the individual or in society, whether in those who are governed
or those who govern, supposes the necessity of obedience to a
supreme and eternal law, which is no other than the authority of
God, commanding good and forbidding evil; and so far from
destroying or even diminishing their liberty, the just authority
of God over men protects and makes it perfect" (,
"Pope Benedict has recently expressed a desire that the people
should study the great encyclicals on the social question of his
predecessor, Leo XIII. We heartily recommend this advice to the
faithful and indeed, to all the people of the United States. They
will find in these documents the practical wisdom which the
experience of centuries has stored up in the Holy See and,
moreover, that solicitude for the welfare of mankind which fitly
characterizes the Head of the Catholic Church."
-The National Pastorals of the American Hierarchy 1792-1919,
National Catholic Welfare Council, 1312 Massachusetts Ave.,
Washington D.C. 1923.
Newsletter of the Wanderer Forum
Foundation and Forum Affiliates
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Vol. IX, No. 3 Fall, 1996
Copyright, The Wanderer Forum Foundation
THE FORUM is published by the Wanderer Forum Foundation. Business
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Subscription: $8.00 per year
Frank Morriss. Laurene Conner. co-editors