USCC Watch: Report on Bishops’ November Meeting

When the bishops met in Washington last November, three interesting items were on the agenda, and one was not. So let’s begin with the item that was not on the NCCB agenda: the fate of Father Bryan Hehir.

Father Hehir, as nearly everyone knows, was the staff director for the bishops’ committee that wrote the War and Peace Pastoral. To be more precise, he was the director of the USCC’s Office of International Justice and Peace which is itself a subdivision of the Office of Social Development and World Peace. (Please excuse all the long titles; they become relevant later in our story.) In that role, he generated a tremendous amount of attention — much more attention than any prudent staff aide ordinarily wants. The press credited him (inaccurately, he insisted) with author- ship of the pastoral letter; the political left made him their hero; the political right lambasted him; and at least a few bishops were visibly nervous about his superstar status.

Amid the furor, several misconceptions about the man arose. According to the popular image, he is a scheming, secretive Jesuit, oblivious to his clerical obligations and brutal with his ideological adversaries. That image is inaccurate on all counts. (Even his name is almost universally mispronounced; it should be “hair,” like the stuff on top of your head.) In fact, he is open and friendly by nature, even with agents provacateurs like myself. Far from, ignoring his priestly functions, he is (at his request) assigned to a local parish, where he says Mass and hears confessions regularly. He isn’t even a Jesuit; he is on loan from the Archdiocese of Boston. But on one point, the popular image is correct: Father Hehir is a formidably skillful rhetorician.

By the middle of 1983, anyone interested in Catholic affairs had recognized Father Hehir’s skills. Which created a problem. What happens when a staff aide becomes more famous than the leaders he serves? And when that staff aide becomes the focus of a bitter controversy?

When he arrived at the NCCB meeting in November, Father Hehir had a new title. Henceforth, he will head the USCC’s Secretariat for Social Development and World Peace. On paper, that is certainly a promotion; he will be supervising (among other people) his successors. Yet he will be working only half -time at the USCC, leaving room for a half -time teaching assignment at Georgetown’s Kennedy Institute.

So what, exactly, has happened? Has Father Hehir been promoted? Or has he been ushered gently upstairs, to an office that demands a high profile and a low level of involvement? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, back at the agenda, the bishops’ most important action for the November meeting was the approval of a pastoral letter on Hispanic Catholics. The letter was not political; it dealt with the specific problems and strengths of the Church among Spanish-speaking American Catholics. If the letter occasioned any controversy, it escaped my notice.

There was controversy aplenty on the horizon, however. The bishops heard a preliminary report from Archbishop Rembert Weakland (Milwaukee), who chairs their ad hoc committee drafting a pastoral letter on the American economy. (See the Documentation section of the January 1984 issue of Catholicism in Crisis.) And Bishop Joseph Imesch (Joliet) presented a report for the ad hoc committee on women. Both projects received a green light from the assembled bishops. The pastoral letter on economics is scheduled to be promulgated in 1985; that on women in 1987. Expect to hear much, much more about both subjects.

In his report, Archbishop Weakland announced that the drafting committee wanted to avoid any accusations of meddling in the 1984 political campaigns, and consequently the first draft of the pastoral would not be available for discussion until the November 1984 bishops’ meeting, when the elections will be safely behind us. (Of course, the rules of the conference require that all bishops receive a copy of the draft one month before the meeting, and so we can be sure the draft will “leak” in October. Still, that is probably too late to influence political campaigns.) There were few hints about the content of the letter, except insofar as the interim report listed the bishops’ four principal concerns: 1) the generation of employment, 2) welfare, 3) international trade, and 4) government economic planning.

Unlike last year’s pastoral on nuclear weapons, the letter on capitalism comes with ample advance warning. Catholic laymen should be brushing up on the topic now, and making sure that their views are represented to the bishops before the ideological lines are drawn. The American Catholic Conference will be making this project our top priority for 1984. Anyone interested in learning more should feel free to contact us for information and/or suggestions. [Write P.O. Box 11485; Washington, D.C. 2008.]

The role of women — in society and in the Church — provided the headlines for this year’s NCCB meeting. Just prior to the formal bishops’ meeting, several bishops attended a weekend symposium on women’s issues, where they heard speakers ranging over the whole ideological spectrum from those who favored women’s ordination to … well, those who favored women’s ordination. (A few bishops, notably Bishop O’Rourke of Peoria, were bold enough to comment on the absence of representation for the orthodox viewpoint on the subject.) At the same time, in Chicago, a more radical conference of Catholic feminists heard theologian Rosemary Ruether lash out against the Church, the Pope, and the hierarchy in terms more virulent than Martin Luther’s harshest prose.

The stage was set for the bishops. Having heard the interim report from Bishop Imesch, they could issue a bland statement and bow out of the issue. Or they could plunge ahead with their projected pastoral letter, exposing themselves to the withering attacks that would indubitably result. They chose the latter course.

In the abstract, a pastoral letter on the role of women seems eminently desirable. Surely the Church has something to say to a society whose views on sexuality and family life are as skewed as those of contemporary America. Unfortunately, the issue is unlikely to be framed in those terms. Instead, the debate will inevitably revolve around the twin questions of whether women should be ordained, and whether women are victims of discrimination within the Church. On the first question, the lines are already drawn tight. The Pope has made it abundantly clear that the Church must not continue discussion of women’s ordination; it is a closed question. And feminist groups are equally adamant that ordination is only the first, minimal demand on their agenda. Is there any conceivable compromise? Or have the bishops opened a question that could lead the American Church virtually to the brink of schism?

As for the question of discrimination against women within the Church, let me quote from the (informal) minutes of the bishops’ meeting: “Bp. McKinney asked why the letter would treat of women in society and in the Church, and Bp. Imesch said that there is also discrimination against women in society …” [emphasis added]. Now wait. There is also discrimination against women in society? Meaning that we all know the Church discriminates against women? Have the bishops surrendered before their first battle?


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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