USCC Watch: Setting the Agenda

On paper, the powers of the U.S.C.C. look meager indeed. The national staff has no authority over diocesan leaders — no power to issue orders for a nationwide strategy. The U.S.C.C. exists only to provide “support services” to the local Catholic organizations across the country — to act as a conduit for information, suggestions, and proposals.

In practice, that role is a very powerful one. Consider: each diocese has a director for religious education, a director for social action, a director of publications, etc.. Each diocesan director has the autonomy to run his own show. Still, all those diocesan officials read the same materials — materials published by the U.S.C.C. — and they all attend the same conventions — conventions sponsored by the U.S.C.C.. So it should come as no surprise if they all begin talking about the same subjects — subjects favored by the U.S.C.C.

What subjects does the U.S.C.C. favor? The simplest way to answer that question would be to examine the contents of U.S.C.C. publications, and to scan the lists of speakers at U.S.C.C. conventions. Without question, the most favored subject right now is — surprise! — nuclear weapons. Of course, it is difficult to deny that the American bishops consciously chose to put nuclear weaponry at the top of the agenda. Still, the U.S.C.C.’s enthusiasm for the topic is extraordinary. Consider, if you will, some of the topics that have not evoked the same sort of enthusiasm.

In 1980, the Synod of Bishops (all the bishops of the world, not just the Americans) discussed the role of the family in the modern world. As they dispersed, the bishops called on Pope John Paul II to synthesize the ideas that they had discussed. The Pope set to work, and produced one of his most acclaimed works: the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio. (If you have trouble remembering the Latin, just think of it as “consorting familiarly.”) The Holy Father — still acting as spokesman for the whole Synod of Bishops — then recommended that Familiaris Consortio should be studied in every Catholic parish around the world.

Familiaris Consortio was published in 1981. Have you seen a copy yet? Has it been mentioned — much less studied — in your parish? In your diocese? Try strolling into the diocesan offices some day and asking for a copy of the document. See how long it takes to find one.

Now compare this response with the efforts to publicize the American bishops’ “peace pastoral.” Try to explain the difference. Is the Pope’s subject less important? That can’t be it; everyone agrees that the Christian family is under siege, and no institution is more important to the Church than the family. Does the document have less authority? Obviously not; with the support of the Pope and of the assembled bishops of the Universal Church, Familiaris Consortio clearly carries the Church’s full teaching authority.

Then what is the reason for this discrepancy? One popular explanation is that Familiaris Consortio is a very difficult document — long and theologically weighty. But “The Challenge of Peace” is just as long, and — let’s face it — not exactly a breezy bit of prose. Yet there are several dozen “study-guides” for “The Challenge of Peace,” and hundreds of related essays, slide shows, leaflets, books, and videotapes. There is even (and this is not an exaggeration) a “free-verse translation” of the pastoral. And there are conferences. Everywhere you look, there are conferences.

Several weeks ago, I attended one of those conferences: a conference for diocesan education directors, sponsored by the U.S.C.C. department of education. The few hundred diocesan leaders gathered there heard Cardinal Bernardin speak about the need for a consistent pro-life effort, linking the peace pastoral with the Church’s work to stop abortion. (The Cardinal’s speech, like his much-publicized earlier speech at Fordham University — indeed, like virtually all his statements on this topic — bore the marks of Father Bryan Hehir’s distinctive writing style.) There was a bombs-and-rockets analyst from Yale, speaking the peculiar language of that breed and assuring us that things are worse than we think. And of course Father Bryan Hehir was there, providing the dramatic high point of the conference with his usual stirring speech.

His usual stirring speech, I say, because I have heard Father Hehir speak many times before. Still, this performance was something new. Because in this atmosphere — at a U.S.C.C. convention of Catholic educators — Father Hehir came across as a conservative! His talk was not much different from the talks he gives to other audiences. But the reaction! One woman wondered why the Church wasn’t equally progressive on issues like the ordination of women; a young man hinted that the bishops really meant to condemn nuclear deterrence outright. And on the podium Father Hehir was manfully holding the line: No, the Church would not make decisions by majority vote. No, the bishops were not endorsing the Democratic Party wholesale.

Is there some reason why a U.S.C.C. conference at-tracts such a liberal audience? Can it be because the diocesan officials who attend such meetings are fed liberal ideas so regularly?

Let me close by mentioning another recent conference — this one definitely not sponsored by the U.S.C.C. The, East Coast conference for Religious Education is an independent group, not affiliated with any official Catholic organization. Nevertheless, C.C.D. teachers from all over the East traveled to the conference at parish expense. (That is, their expenses — and their $65 registration fees payable to the East Coast Conference — were paid by ordinary Catholics who tossed a few dollars in the collection plate on Sunday.) What did those C.C.D. teachers hear?

The keynote speaker was Daniel Maguire, an ex-Jesuit who now spends his time lambasting the Reagan Administration and supporting the pro-abortion Catholics for Free Choice. Maguire ranted on about Reaganism; en route this “outstanding moral theologian” informed his Catholic audience that “birth control is not always a sin, and that non -birth control can frequently be sinful . . .” (My emphasis.) Sister Ann Whittman lashed out bitterly at the Pope for failing to ordain women. The other speakers harped on the same themes. During the entire three-day conference, there was not a single reference to the Church’s teaching authority, nor to the Pope, that was not either a direct assault or a scornful joke!

Now imagine an ordinary, inexperienced diocesan leader. When he first becomes involved in Church work, he is invited to meetings like the East Coast Conference. There he hears the people who are described as the Church’s leading intellectual lights. And they all say the same things! Naturally, if he doesn’t have particularly strong ideas of his own, he falls into line. If he does have particularly strong ideas, then he either 1) joins forces with the “progressive” forces to fight for radical change, or 2) grows disgusted with’ the whole charade, and abandons his position on the diocesan staff.

No, the U.S.C.C. does not have power to enforce its decisions. But like all other central organizations, it does have the power to set the agenda. What more does it need?

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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