USCC Watch: Selective Sources

Several months ago, in this column, I criticized the USCC’s choice of a speaker for an annual meeting: a comparatively obscure Congresswoman by the name of Geraldine Ferraro. Apart from her ardent support for government-sponsored abortion, I hadn’t noticed anything extraordinary about Miss Ferraro. Apparently the USCC staff had noticed something that I missed. Which proves — in case anyone doubted it — that this column is fallible.

Still, as I reflected on my misjudgment, I began to wonder how the USCC spotted Miss Ferraro’s political potential. Certainly her name was not often in the news at that time; the Democratic primaries had not even begun, let alone the speculation about Walter Mondale’s running-mate. Is it simply because the USCC staff is so closely attuned to the political scene? If so, that’s not a bad thing, by any means; the USCC’s purpose includes political work, and if the bishops need any political representatives at all, they might as well have competent ones. And yet, I couldn’t help reflecting, the USCC doesn’t usually seem nearly so closely attuned to the political world. So, again, how did they know about Ferraro?

That question bothered me. No answer came to me. Instead, I recalled a host of similar questions. Soon it was a trend: in one instance after another, I wondered how the USCC staff became acquainted with different political operatives. Let me give a few examples.

A few months ago, the USCC put together a day -long extravaganza called World Communications Day, featuring a series of talks on (what else?) the peace pastoral. The roster of featured speakers included Father Bryan Hehir, George McGovern, anti-nuke crusader Helen Caldicott, and — brace yourself — the Washington bureau chief for TASS. Now of course, there’s a definite leftward tilt to that list, but where the USCC is concerned a leftward tilt can be taken for granted. What I wonder about is how the USCC thought to invite those particular speakers — especially the man from TASS. I mean, can you imagine sitting around a room, tossing out the names of potential speakers,’ and coming up with that list?

Personally, I wouldn’t know how to contact Helen Caldicott, let alone TASS. And I wouldn’t know whether the TASS flack could speak English well enough to handle the assignment. To be sure, I could find out with a few phone calls. But the idea(s) would never occur to me. How does the USCC come across these people? It’s a cinch they didn’t bump into them at Mass.

How about you, dear reader? If you were setting up a forum to discuss the bishops’ pastoral letter, would those names cross your mind? If I requested suggestions for speakers — for a Church-sponsored event — would you name a woman who denies the afterlife, as Helen Caldicott does? Father Hehir is a natural choice, of course; and George McGovern is a reasonable suggestion. But TASS?

On that same World Communications Day, the USCC proudly unveiled a new television commercial about nuclear weaponry. (And isn’t it a coincidence that the commercial was available just in time for the 1984 electoral campaign?) The commercial was put together by a man named Tony Schwarz. The name is probably not familiar, but you might know his work. Remember, in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson’s campaign team put out a commercial that featured a little girl, sweetly picking flowers, menaced by a countdown toward nuclear holocaust? Yep, that was Tony Schwarz’s handiwork.

In 1964, the Democratic Party realized that the daisy-picking ad had gone too far, and quickly pulled it off the air. Since that time, Tony Schwarz has not gained much further prominence. What has he been doing? Oh, making ads for pro-abortion groups. And yet when the USCC decided to make an anti-nuclear commercial, the name of Tony Schwarz somehow came to mind.

Things aren’t much different at the diocesan level. Just before the Democratic convention in San Francisco, a group of organizations including the Moral Majority held a convention called Family Forum, pushing traditional family values. (I know some of the Family Forum participants personally; I have bumped into them at Mass.) At the same time, a group of transvestites wearing nuns’ habits staged a public parody of Catholic worship. The Archdiocesan peace-and-justice types quickly issued a statement, condemning not the transvestites, but the Moral Majority. Why? Father Myles Riley explained that some Family Forum participants promote violence against homosexuals. Could he name names, and give specific evidence? No. And what about the people who wore nuns’ clothing and devised pagan rituals? Oh, Father Riley explained, actually the “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence” do some charitable works around the city.

Now again I ask: how did Father Riley – who obviously knows nothing about the Family Forum crowd other than what he reads in fashionable newspaper columns – know about the charitable work of a local transvestite pagan group? Certainly those charitable works (whatever they might be) are not well publicized. Apparently Father Riley knows a good deal about one side of the story, and absolutely nothing about the other.

Back at the national level, the USCC shows the same sort of selective expertise on the question of Central America. Ask USCC adviser Tom Quigley whether there is religious persecution under Guatemala’s right-wing regime, and he will (correctly) reply in no uncertain terms that there is. But ask about Nicaragua’s left-wing government, and the answer is not so clear. Given dozens of opportunities, the USCC has yet to issue a clear-cut statement condemning the Sandinista regime — the way it has condemned the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador in the past.

Why this discrepancy? The official answer from the USCC is that they are simply acting on the information they receive. Then why don’t they receive information about persecution in Nicaragua? Could it be because they don’t listen? Exiled Nicaraguans like Humberto Belli and Edgar Macias say that they do not feel welcome when they report Sandinista abuses to USCC personnel. Geraldine Macias complains that the USCC advised her to keep quiet about Sandinista repression, since if she spoke out she would be helping the Reagan Administration. When Rep. Connie Mack (R. -Fla.) introduced a Congressional resolution in support of the Nicaraguan Catholic bishops, his staff reported zero enthusiasm from the USCC.

But don’t rely on these reports, and don’t rely on mine. Find the July 29 issue of the National Catholic Register, and look for the explosive interview with Archbishop Obando y Bravo, the embattled head of the Nicaraguan Catholic Church. Asked about how Catholics in the U.S. could help him, the archbishop replies:

The first thing the North American Church needs is good information. They receive a lot of information from the Popular Church and the Sandinistas – which is the same thing. The government here manipulates all the groups that come. And any letter that we send to the bishops never arrives there.

Now let me conclude by asking, once again, the question that has stumped me. How is it that the USCC is so very familiar with the folks on one side of the political spectrum (even when those people are ardently anti-Catholic) and so unfamiliar with even devout Catholic folks on the other side?

By

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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