USCC Watch: Cherchez le Secretaire

As regular readers know, USCC Watch believes that the USCC staff exercises an enormous influence over the bishops’ public statements. So when a controversial statement appears, USCC Watch shouts “Cherchez le secretaire,” and compares the statement with the known sympathies of the relevant staff member(s).

Approaching the USCC from that angle, I have often wondered what would happen if a particular member of the staff became too controversial. Or what would happen if one USCC aide began drafting statements that didn’t match the ones put out by other USCC departments. Well,….

This past summer, an unusual thing happened: the bishops’ conference cracked down on an influential liberal theologian. On July 3, the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine issued a criticism of Catholicism, a book by Rev. Richard McBrien. The statement heaped praise on McBrien for his sincerity, his scholarship and his cooperation with the bishops’ inquiries. Still, when they reached the bottom line, the bishops found that some of McBrien’s views were “difficult to reconcile with authoritative Catholic doctrine.”

Needless to say, that statement made waves. Father McBrien is not an isolated fanatic; he is the chairman of the theology department at Notre Dame, and one of the most popular liberal theologians in the country. Father McBrien himself accepted the bishops’ criticism humbly. Indeed the bishops’ statement itself complimented him for participating in “a model of cooperative ecclesiastical concern for the integrity of the faith….” Still, his intellectual allies—and they are numerous—were horrified by the bishops’ statement.


How did that statement come to appear? Cherchez le secretaire! The secretary of the Committee on Doctrine is Monsignor Richard Malone, a youngish man who, during an earlier stint at the Vatican, developed a great admiration for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Let’s pause here for a short review. For the past several months, Cardinal Ratzinger has been expressing strong reservations about the work of bishops’ conferences. Monsignor Malone makes no secret of his enthusiasm for Cardinal Ratzinger. This summer the American bishops publicly cautioned a liberal theologian. Monsignor Malone was the chief staff person working on the bishops’ statement. Hmm. An interesting set of facts, isn’t it? But the next fact is more interesting still.

In September—just a few weeks after the bishops issued their statement on the McBrien book—Monsignor Malone was informed that the USCC would no longer require his services. His contract expires next summer; it will not be renewed. Anything he does between now and then will be marked clearly as the work of a lame duck.

Of course these things are always more complicated than they seem. For all I know, Malone may be a horrible administrator, or he may have committed some other grevious blunder. But if I were asked to join the USCC staff tomorrow (admittedly a remote possibility) I would begin my new career with a few precedents in mind. A few years ago, Father Bryan Hehir was universally identified as the main force behind the bishops’ “peace pastoral.” Shortly thereafter, Father Hehir was promoted. A few months ago, Monsignor Richard Malone was identified as the main force behind the bishops’ statement on the McBrien book. Shortly thereafter, Monsignor Malone was ousted.

(Memo to self: If hired by the USCC, draft controversial statements criticizing the Reagan Administration. Do not draft controversial statements defending Catholic doctrine.)

By now, the average Catholicism in Crisis reader has probably read dozens of comments on the second draft of the bishops’ economic pastoral. Cynics might be wondering how soon someone will begin discussing the footnotes. Well, wonder no longer.

To my mind, the most shocking sentence in the entire draft (and actually it appeared in the first draft as well) is a single sentence at the end of the very first footnote. In that footnote, the draft lists the most prominent statements of Catholic social teaching: documents of the Second Vatican Council, papal encyclicals, collections of papal and episcopal statements. Then, at the end of a long list, one sentence appears in parentheses: “In certain of the quotations from these documents in this letter the texts have been retranslated into language which is both faithful to the original and sexually inclusive.”

The message—painfully obvious to anyone who read the draft carefully—is that the pastoral never speaks about “all men”; the reference is always to “all persons.” Apparently the USCC has absorbed the feminist argument completely. (Although, to be honest, Archbishop Weakland is listed as “chairman” of the drafting committee, rather than “chair.” Perhaps this oversight will be corrected in future editions.)

Personally, I love the English language, and I am loath to alter that language simply to suit the latest political fashion. When I was in school—not so very long ago—I learned that the word “man” has a dual meaning. Sometimes it refers to a male human (oops! a male person); sometimes it refers to the species in general. In that sense the term is already “sexually inclusive.” But leave that aside; that is not the main point here.

Anyone who has studied Catholic social teaching carefully realizes that the Church does not accept the premises of contemporary America feminism. On the contrary, both in Vatican II and in subsequent papal statements, the Church has drawn a very clear distinction between the proper roles of women and men. So when a papal encyclical speaks of “man,” it is quite possible that the pope had no intention of being “sexually inclusive.” Inevitably, therefore, the draft provides a very misleading synopsis of Catholic social teachings.

But the problem goes still deeper. The most alarming fact is that, in the text of the second draft, the pastoral alters quotations. One of the most elementary canons of scholarship is that one never, never alters quotations. Nor is it sufficient to say that the draft has “retranslated” the documents in a way that is “faithful to the original.” The sole purpose of the new translations was—someone please correct me if I am wrong—to remove offensive phrases. That sort of retranslation (read: censorship) cannot possibly be “faithful to the original.” The old translations might not have made the pastoral letter popular, but at least they would have made it honest.

Philip Lawler


Born and raised in the Boston area, Phil Lawler attended Harvard College, graduating with honors in Government in 1972. He did graduate work in political philosophy at the University of Chicago before entering a career in journalism. He has been Director of Studies for the Heritage Foundation, a member of two presidential inaugural committees; and a candidate for the US Senate. As a journalist, Phil has acted as editor of Crisis magazine. In 1986 he became the first layman to edit The Pilot, the Boston archdiocesan newspaper. From 1993 through 2005, Phil Lawler was the editor of Catholic World Report, an international monthly news magazine. And in 1996, recognizing the power of the internet, he founded Catholic World News: the first online Catholic news service. Phil Lawler is the author of five books on political and religious topics. He has recently completed a new book titled "The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture". His essays, book reviews, and editorial columns have appeared in over 100 newspapers around the United States and abroad, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe. Phil lives in central Massachusetts with his wife Leila and their seven children.

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