USCC Watch Crow and Kudos

Thanksgiving is barely past, and already there is another bird on my menu. I think it’s time for me to eat crow.

In the middle of November, the American bishops met here in Washington to discuss the first draft of their pastoral letter on the American economy. For almost a year, I had confidently predicted that that letter would be “leaked” to the press in the midst of this year’s election campaign. Well, I was wrong. The first draft of the letter was held under extremely tight security. Even in Washington — where literally dozens of curious outsiders were maneuvering for a sneak preview — only the very few people on the bishops’ writing staff saw a copy of the document before Election Day.

I know a few people who saw early versions of the bishops’ first draft. They have been pledged to secrecy, and they honored their pledge. I also know several others who think they should have seen early versions of the pastoral letter; they did not. And of course I know dozens of people who tried to learn what the first draft would contain; they failed.

To maintain that secrecy, the bishops’ drafting committee took some stern measures. By unhappy experience, the USCC has learned that any document distributed to all the American bishops (and, necessarily, to their staffs) will quickly find its way into the hands of the media. So on this occasion, even the bishops were kept waiting. The draft was express-mailed to all 300-odd American bishops on Election Day, giving them less than a week to digest it before their Washington meeting.

At the start of this month’s column, then, let me apologize to the bishop’s drafting committee, and to the staff of the U.S. Catholic Conference. More than that; let me offer my congratulations. Washington is a city of kibitzers, and in recent years it has become virtually impossible to keep a document under wraps — especially when the public knows the document is being prepared.

So let’s give credit where credit is due. The U.S.C.C. has accomplished something that the C.I.A. cannot always do: it has prepared a major, controversial document — a document that is eagerly anticipated by dozens of interested parties — without allowing any premature revelations.

While I am busy congratulating the bishops’ drafting committee, let me take the same opportunity to congratulate dozens of other bishops as well. During the 1984 campaign season, the Ferraro-O’Connor-Cuomo debate drew an unusual amount of attention toward Catholics’ interests. Under pressure (and, it should be mentioned, with Archbishop O’Connor firmly in the lead), the bishops performed admirably.

Since these debates generated plenty of headlines in secular newspapers, I will not bother to recount them here. But I feel compelled to mention some of the bishops’ statements. The bishops of New York, of course, were in the forefront. Then there were similar statements from the bishops of Connecticut, Pennsylvania (special kudos for Scranton’s Bishop Timlin), New England, New Jersey, Colorado, California (another bow to Bishop Mahony of Stockton) . . . the list goes on and on. Again and again, bishops underlined the simple truth: the Catholic Church does not, and cannot, countenance abortion on demand.

Unfortunately, there were some sounds of discord. In mid-October, 23 bishops led by Detroit’s auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton released a statement arguing that nuclear weaponry poses a moral question that voters should consider at least as seriously as abortion. Shortly thereafter, Cardinal Bernardin made much the same point in a Washington speech. The net effect to these statements — which the bishops should surely have recognized in advance — was to nourish the opinion that Governor Cuomo is correct, and the Catholic Church does not require believers to work against abortion in the political realm.

If my informants relayed the story accurately, Bishop Gumbleton actually went much further in his own individual efforts to unseat Reagan. According to one report, Gumbleton stated that abortion was secondary to nuclear disarmament as a campaign issue, and that the Democratic Party was clearly superior on the nuclear question. So far, so predictable. But then the Bishop continued by saying that there was no difference between the Democratic and Republican parties on the question of abortion!

Our own elections overshadowed the mock-election held in Nicaragua. Still, a few naive Americans might believe that the Nicaraguan farce had some real meaning. Anyone who cherishes that belief should be exposed to the devastating analysis supplied by Humberto Belli in an “Occasional Bulletin” published by his Puebla Institute (P.O. Box 520, Garden City, MI 48135). Belli provides far too much detail to include in this column, but a few of his most salient points are:

1. The token opposition to the Sandinista front came only from parties that the Sandinistas themselves have approved.

2. During the campaign, the Sandinista directorate continued to enforce laws prohibiting criticism of the ruling party. In fact, Sandinista law makes it a crime to fail to support the Sandinistas.

3. The armed forces in Nicaragua are controlled by the Sandinista party, rather than by the government itself. And all media are either in the hands of the Sandinistas or heavily censored by them.

Those, again, are only a few of the points Belli raises. But imagine an election in which the ruling party decides who can run, and what he can say, and how the news can be reported. Next imagine that the ruling party counts all the ballots. And if that isn’t enough to render the election meaningless, keep in mind that the ruling party controls the military. Just suppose, per impossible, that some Nicaraguan Galllup found the Sandinistas’ opponents leading in the opinion polls. How long do you suppose the commandantes would tolerate that situation?


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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