Despite the fact that the United States Catholic Conference has taken dozens, even hundreds, of positions on public policy issues in the name of the American bishops over the past decade, on only two occasions has the media paid much attention: to the pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace,” and to the recent statement disavowing partisan support for particular candidates or parties issued by Bishop James Malone in the name of the USCC Executive Committee.
The response of the media/political culture on these two occasions is both fascinating and instructive. “The Challenge of Peace” was greeted with almost universal approbation, indeed adulation, on the networks, in the national news magazines, and in the major national dailies (excepting the Wall Street Journal and some voices in the Washington Post). Malone’s proclamation met with almost audible relief: thank God (or Whomever), that crazy Archbishop in New York wasn’t really going to get down to cases on the politics of abortion.
The ghost of Paul Blanchard and other nativist anti-Catholics smiled somewhere; the Catholics were back on leash.
Such was not Bishop Malone’s intent, of course, and his statement itself has nothing really exceptionable in it (with one caveat I’ll note below). But in politics, particularly media politics, the context is almost everything. The bishops were applauded when they issued “The Challenge of Peace,” not because the dominant secularized currents of thought in the media/political culture were eager to have an explicitly Roman Catholic voice in the debate over national security policy, but because the bishops’ prudential judgments (and the whole tone of the pastoral) seemed to give welcome aid and comfort to the policy preferences of the networks, the opinion papers, and the weeklies. But when the focusing issue became abortion, the same voices that embraced the NCCB in May, 1983 backed off as if they were being approached by lepers. The Post‘s Haynes Johnson, an infallible barometer of left/liberal media sentiment, actually confessed to being “scared” by this dangerous admixture of religion and politics. The Times editorialized about the danger to the Republic that Arch-bishop O’Connor’s original remarks on the politics of abortion represented. About the only thing missing was a warning about a tunnel being dug from St. Peter’s to the Vatican nunciature in Washington, D.C.; but we’re living in a more enlightened age than that of Al Smith, don’t you know?
The controversy around the bishops and politics is a subset of a much broader debate about the role of religious institutions, organizations, and values in the public life of America. And I don’t mean to be flip about any of this: we are squarely down to questions of first principles here. But one has to wonder what the bishops (and, perhaps more interestingly, the relevant staff members of the USCC) think about the different receptions accorded “The Challenge of Peace” and their various statements on abortion. Or about the different receptions accorded various USCC statements on social welfare policy, the economy, and, say, tuition tax credits? Is there a pattern of response from the media/political culture? Does that pattern suggest that the bishops and the USCC are appreciated or scolded precisely in partisan terms (even if the question is of ideological, rather than Democratic/Republican, partisanship)? What does that tell us about the capacity of the USCC and the bishops to shape a more ethically nuanced debate on public policy issues, rather than being one other actor in a pre-existing argument? Shouldn’t the Catholic leadership of America begin to think through its responsibilities to join with others (Lutherans and evangelicals, for example) in addressing the complex question of how we can re-clothe what Richard Neuhaus has rightly called the “naked public square”? Does the formal leadership of American Catholicism have nothing of substance to say on the question of what happens to a democracy like ours when the religiously-based values of the majority of its people are ruled out of order in public discourse? Can we not play an important mediating position between the extremes represented by the ACLU and Moral Majority, Inc.?
These are the kinds of questions to which the bishops might usefully turn their common attention. But in doing so, they may have to concede some painful distinctions; and, to return briefly to the Malone statement, one of the most painful distinctions necessary is between the abortion and nuclear weapons issues. Of course, at one level, both of these are matters of the sanctity of human life. But there are differences in the issues that are at least as important as this general similarity. It is not the public policy of the United States to take innocent life through “direct attacks on non-combatants in war”; it is the public policy of the United States, at present, to allow the virtually unrestricted taking of innocent life through abortion. Approximately 1.5 million abortions were performed in the United States in 1983; over one and a half million Americans legally killed their children, sometimes for excruciatingly complex reasons, more often for personal convenience. That is an immediate, present danger. The bishops have pointed it out, time and again. But they need not expect to win political points on the abortion issue by having the “right” (which means “left”) view of nuclear weapons and national security strategy. That is one lesson of the O’Connor/Ferraro/Cuomo/Malone contretemps that bears a lot of reflection as the bishops consider their intended role as shapers of the moral dimension of our public policy debate.