Social Teachings At Risk In The American Catholic Church

Author: Laurene Conner

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 Conner

+ + +

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 societies."

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 1992).

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 profit."

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 47)

"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 institutions'" (n.27).

"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 initiatives."

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 this period."

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 original)

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 creation."

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 ends."

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 pornography."

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 society's foundation."

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 Bishops' Conference."

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 analyses."

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 communities."

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 resolution suggests.)

"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 American hierarchy."

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 teaching.)

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 other issues."

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 in 1980"

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 1980s.

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 Ratzinger."

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 writes:

"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, 1987.)

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 others.

(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 programs.)

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 Catholic Church."

"Centesimus Annus" (On the Hundredth Anniversary of "Rerum Novarum")

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 good.

"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."

-Laurene Conner


*(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 some examples:

"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 American Republic."

"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 encyclicals:

"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" (, 1891).

"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" (, 1888).

"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 -Four mailings a year- Vol. IX, No. 3 Fall, 1996 Copyright, The Wanderer Forum Foundation

THE FORUM is published by the Wanderer Forum Foundation. Business and publication office is located at P.O. Box 542, Hudson, WI 54016-0542; 612-426-2812.

Subscription: $8.00 per year Frank Morriss. Laurene Conner. co-editors