It all began quietly enough. Bishop Joseph O’Keefe, vicar general of the New York Archdiocese, advised all parishes to avoid inviting guest speakers who might “attack the Church” or who reject the “clear, unambiguous teaching of the Church.” That sounded straightforward enough, and (just in case anyone had any doubts) Bishop O’Keefe had the full public support of his boss, Cardinal O’Connor. But the bishop hadn’t reckoned with New York’s most famous amateur theologian, Governor Mario Cuomo.
As Governor Cuomo saw it — and helpfully told the mass media — the new policy was unwieldy. If they followed Bishop O’Keefe’s advice consistently, Cuomo reasoned, Catholic parishes would exclude not only people who favor abortion, but also those who favor birth control, or even the death penalty. (The U.S. bishops have consistently lobbied against capital punishment.) And while the Church teaching on capital punishment might not carry the same weight as the prohibition on abortion, Cuomo added, nevertheless “all three [that is, the condemnations of artificial contraception, abortion, and capital punishment] are Church teachings.” And if anyone doubted that he knew his stuff, the Governor pointed out that Rev. Richard McBrien, the chairman of Notre Dame’s theology department, had agreed with his interpretation of Church teachings.
There are two very interesting footnotes in this case. First, Governor Cuomo placed great emphasis on the “Catholic teaching” about capital punishment. By the sheerest of coincidences, his Republican opponent in the upcoming election, Andrew O’Rourke, supports the death penalty. And since he himself has clashed with the Church over abortion, the Governor has obvious ulterior motives in this case: if he can’t speak in parish halls, by golly O’Rourke shouldn’t, either. Second, when he needed a theologian to help him determine exactly what the Church teaches, Cuomo sought out Father McBrien. An interesting choice. Just months ago, the U.S. bishops warned that Father McBrien’s own catechism failed to present Catholic teachings accurately. Still, while revealing, these are merely side issues.
The main issue is the political manipulation of the bishops’ teaching authority. Mario Cuomo is not an ignorant man; he should certainly realize the distinction between the U.S. bishops’ public-policy suggestions and the immutable truths of the faith. (So should Father McBrien.) But less educated Catholics — to say nothing of observers from outside the Church — might not grasp that distinction.
The Catholic Church holds to many fixed doctrines: the Real Presence, the Immaculate Conception, the Trinity. But our bishops rarely issue joint statements on these matters — and when they do, those statements pass unnoticed. When the bishops’ conference speaks out on capital punishment, however, the headlines are assured. Is it any wonder that many Catholics, noticing the headlines about political issues and the silence about others, become confused about the bishops’ theological priorities? Is it any wonder that politicians like Mario Cuomo play upon that confusion?
Every Catholic can find some issue on which he disagrees with his bishop — whether it is the Arian controversy, the minimum wage, or the need to repave the cathedral’s parking lot. In an age of do-it-yourself theology, there is a strong tendency to assume that all such disagreements carry equal weight. So the outright heretic, who denies the Resurrection, can claim that his dissent is not different from that of someone who rejects the bishops’ arguments on the merits of the MX missile.
For several years, the American bishops have issued public statements on a grab-bag of political issues, thereby expanding the range of questions on which, inevitably, some Catholics will disagree with them. At the same time they have countenanced an enormous volume of scholarly speculation, even outright dissent, on core Christian doctrines. (Recall that it was the Vatican, not the U.S. bishops’ conference, that finally drew the line on Father Curran.) In the resulting confusion, many puzzled Catholics have begun to decide for themselves which doctrines are most important to the faith.
One important aspect of a bishop’s mission is to help the faithful distinguish between fallible judgments and fundamental dogmas, between the passing issues of the day and the eternal truths of the faith. On many — most — questions, believing Catholics will always disagree. But some issues are beyond dispute. Being a Catholic means adhering to the fundamental truths of the faith, or else being a Catholic means nothing at all.
Sooner or later, for the welfare of ordinary faithful Catholics, our bishops must restore some clarity to the discussion. Bishop O’Keefe’s policy — refusing Church sponsorship for speakers who disdain Church teaching — is a step in the right direction. But only a step. Governor Cuomo’s disingenuous reaction shows how far our bishops still must travel.