During the last calendar year, as the bishops’ statements on nuclear weapons generated scare headlines, thousands of American Catholic laymen suddenly realized for the first time that their bishops wield a great deal of political clout. That realization was long overdue. Bishops have been addressing political questions since the first Pentecost, and in this country the Catholic hierarchy has compiled an impressive track record for political activism. Still, few American laymen understand the processes by which the bishops choose their topics, hammer out their positions, and form their political strategies.
With this column, I propose to begin acting as a native guide for readers of Catholicism in Crisis, providing some information about the organized political involvement of the American bishops. Specifically, I shall keep readers posted about the activities of the U.S. Catholic Conference. In future issues I shall provide some detail about the specific topics on the U.S.C.C. agenda. This first column, however, will simply provide an introduction. I hope those readers who are already familiar with the organization will forgive me. Unless I am much mistaken, quite a few otherwise knowledgeable American Catholics know virtually nothing about the clerical bureaucracy. So I will start from — excuse the expression — ground zero.
First a few very basic facts. The U.S.C.C. is the secular arm of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, a canonical organization formed in response to the recommendation of the Second Vatican Council, and includes all active American bishops (about 400) as members. The two groups are not identical, but they are so thoroughly intertwined that, for our purposes, the difference can safely be ignored. For the record, the president of the N.C.C.B. is Bishop James Malone of Youngstown; he was recently elected to a three-year term, succeeding Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul. The day-to-day operation is run by an executive secretary, Monsignor Daniel Hoye. The U.S.C.C. has a staff of some 300 people in its Washington offices, and an annual budget of over $20 million.
The President of the N.C.C.B., naturally, exercises the greatest influence over that organization. He appoints the chairmen of the various N.C.C.B. committees, he represents the American bishops to the public, and of course he wields the gavel at the annual N.C.C.B./U.S.C.C. meetings. In the past, the presidency of the N.C.C.B. has been held by some of the country’s most powerful prelates: Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco, and Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul. And the general secretary of the U.S.C.C. is invariably a young priest on his way up; we can safety expect Monsignor Hoye to become a bishop before the end of the decade.
The work of the N.C.C.B. is parceled out to various committees of bishops and appointed staff. Typically, the chairman of a committee is a bishop appointed by the President of the N.C.C.B., and these two then make the remaining appointments after consultations with interested colleagues. Most of these committees remain invisible to the secular press: the committee on the North American College at Louvain, for instance; or the committee on the permanent diaconate. Other committees are swamped with publicity; the ad hoc committee on war and peace was a prime example, and the ad hoc committees on Capitalism and Christianity and on Women in Society and the Church will soon be generating similar public controversies.
Pastoral letters provide the most visible evidence of U.S.C.C. work, but the organization probably does its most effective work in less dramatic settings. The U.S.C.C. devotes much of its energy to public relations and education, relaying the bishops’ messages through newspapers, television, schools, campus groups, and a panoply of educational programs. Once the N.C.C.B. reaches a corporate decision, the staff at the U.S.C.C. does the job of carrying that decision down to the diocesan level, helping to see it implemented in every parish around the country.
Since there are more Catholic parishes than post offices, the U.S.C.C. holds tremendous potential for political power. And in the Department of Social Development and World Peace, the U.S.C.C. has an effective lobby in Washington. Staff members often appear as witnesses for Congressional hearings, and a discreet call from the U.S.C.C. can do wonders to advance or to doom a piece of legislation. Right-to-life workers around Washington still argue vociferously about whether the bishops scuttled the Human Life Bill in the most recent Congress. Staff members of the Department of Social Development and World Peace have played an active role in criticizing U.S. policy toward Central America, particularly toward El Salvador and Nicaragua. And it was the U.S.C.C., with a few last-minute phone calls, which nailed down the recent House vote against the Equal Rights Amendment.
Over the years, no arm of the N.C.C.B. /U.S.C.C. has done more effective public work than the ad hoc bishops’ committee on Pro-Life Activities. The bishops’ prudential decisions for or against particular pieces of legislation might be questioned, and invariably they are. But no one disputes the power of the bishops when they speak to the issue of abortion. And only the most intemperate of critics would question the bishops’ commitment to the right-to-life cause. Until his death, Cardinal Terence Cooke chaired this committee. At their November meeting, the bishops elected Cardinal Bernardin to succeed him. It is significant that Cardinal Bernardin, who could presumably have any committee assignment he wanted, sought this one; it is equally revealing that the job remains in the hands of the country’s most powerful prelate. On this issue, the bishops are ready to play hardball.
When it comes to Social Development and World Peace, however, the bishops’ efforts are open to much more fundamental questions. Past issues of Catholicism in Crisis have documented some of the problems generated by that department, and future issues will surely bring out more. But let me close on an optimistic note. In November, Bishop John O’Connor of Scranton was elected to oversee this department. The bishops could not have found a better choice.
Next month, the bishops’ latest controversies: Hispanics, capitalism, women…and the redoubtable Father Bryan Hehir.