USCC Watch: A Saboteur at the USCC?

As usual, the weather in Washington was unbearable during August. But the heat was particularly intense around the headquarters of the U.S. Catholic Conference. And as usual, the hottest topic of all was Nicaragua.

Readers of this column will recall that, some months ago USCC spokesman Tom Quigley had announced that the Church in Nicaragua was not being persecuted. Maybe criticized, or assailed, or perhaps even abused; but not persecuted. Well, whatever one chooses to call it, the Sandinista campaign against Catholicism accelerated during this summer. First the Sandinistas charged a bothersome priest with carrying explosives, in an episode that had all the ear-marks of a frame-up. Then, when Managua Archbishop Obando y Bravo led a peaceful march to protest that priest’s arrest, the government retaliated by expelling 10 Catholic priests from the country.

Archbishop Obando denounced the Sandinistas’ new wave of repression; Pope John Paul II denounced it; Bishop James Malone, speaking on behalf of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, denounced it; Senator Edward Kennedy denounced it. And the USCC? Well, of course they didn’t approve. Still, Quigley and his cohort reserved their harshest criticism for the Reagan Administration’s policy toward Nicaragua.

As it happened, Joan Frawley was visiting Nicaragua just after the latest incident. (Joan Frawley, for those who don’t know her, is the National Catholic Register reporter who has kept that paper two or three jumps ahead of the competition in its coverage of the Nicaraguan Church.) She visited Archbishop Obando, and secured a truly dramatic interview. Among other things, the Nicaraguan prelate complained: “The first thing the North American Church needs is good information.” Then, explaining why the U.S. bishops don’t have good information now, Obando made a startlingly blunt accusation: “And any letter that we send to the bishops never arrives there.”

Where is the bottleneck? Is it really possible that someone at the USCC is actually sabatoging the work of Catholic bishops in another country? A clue surfaced in the July/August issue of the Central America Report — a radical-left publication put out by the Religious Task Force on Central America. In an unsigned column, the Central America Report made its position clear:

But the conflict in Nicaragua is not between church and state; the conflict exists within the church itself and is a political conflict between those who basically support the revolution … and those who oppose the revolution and seek to hold on to some of the structures of the past.

If anyone missed the message of that paragraph, the next one laid any doubts to rest. The latest clash between Church and state, the Central America Report declared, “is another in a series of highly political and provocative actions on the part of Archbishop Obando and other Managuan church officials.”

Clearly the Religious Task Force has sided with the Sandinistas, and against the Archbishop. Yet the Steering Committee of the Religious Task Force is dominated by Catholic clerics. And there, prominent among them, is that name again: Thomas Quigley.

So there it was. An official of the USCC was working with a group that lined up against the Nicaraguan bishops. And needless to say, the Nicaraguan bishops were not very happy about that fact. In August, Joan Frawley uncovered yet another blockbuster story for the National Catholic Register. The Nicaraguan bishops had written to their fellow bishops in the U.S., formally complaining about Quigley’s performance!

And now our own American bishops are forced to take a stand. Obviously, they will side with their Nicaraguan brothers. But a statement of support will not be enough. For some time, bishops in Central America have complained privately about the treatment they receive from the USCC. Now that those complaints are out in the open, some fundamental changes will be necessary. Look for more on this front, and soon.

Religious issues are prominent in this year’s Presidential campaign, and nowhere is the debate more interesting than in New York, where Governor Mario Cuomo has locked horns with the redoubtable Archbishop O’Connor. By the time August arrived, the issue had generated enough controversy to warrant a statement by the American bishops. Bishop Malone, acting is his capacity as President of the bishops’ conference, prepared just such a statement. . Originally, Bishop Malone had planned to issue the statement after both major parties had held their conventions. But somehow (again, all fingers are pointing toward the USCC), the statement began leaking. The New York Times, in particular, hinted that Malone would offer some blunt criticisms of the Republican Party, to offset the perception that O’Connor had attacked the Democrats.

Leaks can be damaging, especially when someone is leaking information selectively. To avoid further confusion. Bishop Malone decided to release his statement earlier than planned — before the Republican convention. His statement was balanced and fair; it certainly did not indicate any partisan loyalties: Yet it was uncompromising in its condemnation of abortion. Specifically, Malone rejected the idea that someone could be “personally opposed” to abortion while continuing to vote for abortion funding. In that respect, his statement matched earlier statements by Arch-bishop O’Connor, Archbishop Whealon of Hartford, and the New York state bishops’ conference.

Although Governor Cuomo is still debating the issue, the question has already been settled. In fact, it was settled long before this year’s squabble began. It was Pope Paul VI who issued the Declaration on Procured Abortion, in November, 1974. In that document, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated:

Whatever the civil law may decree in this matter, it must be taken as absolutely certain that a man may never obey an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law approving abortion in principle. He may not take part in any movement to sway public opinion in favor of such a law, nor may he vote for that law. He cannot take part in applying such a law.

When the Church’s position is so abundantly clear, and when the issue of abortion is so prominent in an electoral campaign, the American bishops face a difficult practical problem. They cannot, and should not, instruct their people on how to vote in November. On the other hand, particularly since Geraldine Ferraro’s presence on the Democratic ticket seems to suggest that a good Catholic can accept the Democratic Party’s stance on abortion, the bishops cannot stand by in silence. As Archbishop O’Connor put it, a prelate has the duty to correct erroneous ideas about the Church’s teachings.

If the bishops seem to be coming down hard on the Democrats in 1984, then, don’t chalk it up to partisanship. The bishops haven’t altered their position just for this election year. The Catholic stance on abortion has not changed; the authoritative Vatican document appeared ten years ago. Bishop Malone deserves kudos for his even-handed treatment of a delicate issue.


Philip F. Lawler, a former editor of Crisis Magazine, is the author most recently, of Contagious Faith: Why the Church Must Spread Hope, Not Fear, in a Pandemic.

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