Late Edition: A House Divided

Concerning the recent National Catholic Bishops’ Statement, Always Our Children, a few thoughts.

(1) What exactly is this statement, and whose opinion, precisely, does it represent? Does it deserve any more attention than a homily one might hear from an ordinary pulpit on any given Sunday or, say, an editorial one might read in some journal of Catholic opinion?

If the answer to the latter question is yes, a further series of questions becomes necessary. Although the statement is nominally the work of the Committee on Marriage and Family, its publication was “authorized” by the Administrative Committee, a far weightier entity within the Conference. But what does such authorization mean—that the Administrative Committee approved of its contents, or only that it had no objection to publication?

If the Administrative Committee approved of its contents, are we to infer that the Conference is speaking, or only a majority of the committee’s members? Is this normally the way the Administrative Committee represents the views of the Conference? Is this the way the Conference members wish to have their views made known on controversial matters?

Merely having to ask such questions suggests that there is something deeply flawed about the bureaucratic structure of the NCCB. Insiders have revealed a fair amount about the provenance of Always Our Children—for example, that it has been floating around in one form or another for two years or more; and that its authors include a number of people who make no bones about their opposition to Church teaching on homosexuality. Although the document was never presented to the Conference for its deliberate sense, its members are now stuck with a statement that piggy-backs on their authority without explicit authorization or any real bureaucratic accountability. Can you think of any other organization that operates in this manner? Imagine a group of Capitol Hill staffers writing a report that somehow manages to leverage itself into a congressional declaration with the knowledge and assent of only a few members of Congress.

If the bishops want to make use of their collective episcopal authority to pronounce on this, or any other issue, they ought to speak as a Conference after due deliberation. This aside, it borders on the scandalous that a document so flawed as Always Our Children should have seen the light of day. It is time for the NCCB to get its house in order.

(2) The statement goes out of its way to say what it isn’t—e.g., “The message is not a treatise on homosexuality. It is not a systematic presentation of the church’s moral teaching.” And again, later: “This message is not intended for advocacy purposes or to serve a particular agenda.” (Emphasis supplied.) These are odd disclaimers. They have precisely the character of add-ons insisted upon by one or more members of a committee who were unable to effect substantial changes in the main body of the text. The interesting question is why they should have been thought necessary at all.

It is certainly true that the document is not a systematic exposition of moral theology on homosexuality, but it is nevertheless guided by and filled with highly dubious assumptions and statements—all in the guise of pastoral counseling—that necessarily question the validity of Church teaching. The document assiduously avoids any express or implied reference to the core of that teaching, i.e., that homosexual attraction and behavior are objectively disordered; and in one critical instance, by use of dishonest ellipses, misquotes the Catechism. Despite the disclaimer about advocacy, the document, taken whole, can only soften the church’s teaching on homosexuality. That is precisely the way most of the popular media painted it, and that is, one suspects, precisely the intention of some of its principal drafters. While the statement nowhere flatly rejects Church teaching, it certainly goes out of its way to avoid it and, at every critical turn, it muddles or soft-peddles that teaching as if it were somehow embarrassed to embrace it.

In lieu of reliance on Church doctrine, it indulges a characteristically soft psychobabble, the effect of which is to induce tolerance for behavior that the document nominally condemns. Taken whole, the net impression created by the statement is that compassionate understanding is an adequate substitute for truth. With all due respect, the bishops aren’t very good at psycho-talk, and we’d all be better off if they left it to the shrinks. Instead, they should stick to their knitting—the exposition and defense of Church teaching.

Michael M. Uhlmann

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Michael Martin Uhlmann (born 1939) is currently Professor of government in the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College. Prior to teaching at Claremont, Dr. Uhlmann was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Vice President for Public Policy Research at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

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