Multa Obstant

If you had been elsewhere in the galaxy until recently, you might suppose that when the president of the U. S. Catholic Conference issues a statement on Nicaragua he would allude to the welcome given the Holy Father in Managua, the campaign of vilification against members of the hierarchy in that benighted country and the subversive effort to destroy the Church from within by means of base communities.

You might suppose that any American who wishes to pontificate on what is going on in Nicaragua would attend to the revelations of such unimpeachable patriots as Violeta de Chamorro, Humberto Belli and Arturo J. Cruz. The last named published in the summer, 1983 issue of Foreign Affairs a piece entitled “Nicaragua’s Imperiled Revolution,” a reading of which might have made current Nicaraguan reality vivid to the archbishop of St. Paul.

If Archbishop Roach felt compelled to speak — I wonder what it is like for a prelate in the landlocked Midwest suddenly to be visited by the compulsion to issue a statement on Nicaragua — on a Central American country, a traditionally Catholic country, a country to which Pope John Paul II so recently paid a visit, surely he might have been inspired by the many statements John Paul issued on that occasion. There is nothing in Archbishop Roach’s statement that reveals he is even aware of that visit. But then there is nothing in his statement that reveals the influence of Roman Catholicism or Christianity on the views expressed.

There are two ways to react to such a statement. On the one hand, the substance of it might be scrutinized. On the other, the phenomenology of such statements could be discussed.

As for its contents, it is safe to say that no one who reads with any assiduity the Washington Post or the New York Times or perhaps even the St. Paul Pioneer Press will find any novelties. Archbishop Roach can be numbered among those who regard the United States as the source of trouble in the world. His concern is that the Reagan Administration might take the Monroe Doctrine seriously. He calls for a “diplomatic non-military solution” in Central America. Like Archbishop Hickey of Washington, another prelate who finds foreign affairs irresistible, Archbishop Roach calls for positive diplomatic engagement. He opposes any U. S. military intervention in Central America. He deplores the “unrelentingly hostile policy rhetoric” coming from his own country.

In short, Archbishop Roach serves up the thin gruel prevalent in the intellectual soup lines of the liberal, leftish, radical anti-American ghetto. Needless to say, if he wishes as a man to adopt this impoverished world view, if he wishes to link his future with that of Fritz Mondale, that is no concern of yours or mine, save to the degree that we might find it diverting to discuss politics with someone who happens to be archbishop of St. Paul.

But we are confronted, not by random remarks of John Roach, but by an official statement of the archbishop of St. Paul in his role as president of the U.S. Catholic Conference. There is, however, no discernible relation between the ecclesiastical posts Archbishop Roach holds and the content of his statement on Central America. The question must arise: why must there be such a statement at all? To whom is it addressed? For whom does it speak? What authority does it have?

I do not think the world would be a poorer place if the USCC stopped issuing statements at sundown today and never issued another in the future — at least insofar as this statement on Central America by Archbishop Roach is typical. Alas, it is all too typical. There are arguments for and against covert aid to those who are trying to wrest their revolution back from Marxists in Nicaragua, but there is no single Catholic position on the matter. For the president of the U.S. Catholic Conference to issue this tendentious statement, which might as easily come from Mondale headquarters, as if it were the official Catholic position, is offensive. It is no less offensive to the concerned Catholic who might share the archbishop’s views.

Archbishop Roach seems to be addressing the Congress of the United States, seeking to influence its vote on a particular bill, as if he spoke for Roman Catholics at large. He does not speak for me on this issue and I would not presume to speak for him. The statement has only the authority of its arguments, and I can discover no arguments in it. It is, then, a simple declaration of outlook. Whose outlook? That is the most important question of all.

I was recently at a meeting in Washington held at the Kennedy Institute, a group of Catholics come together to offer advice to the Weakland Committee and to stave off the expected gaucheries (appropriate word) of its impending report. From time to time, something of great wit or insight or wisdom was said. I was struck by how often such pithy pearls were prefaced or followed by the remark: “Of course, they won’t pay any attention to us.” It was said that someone at Harvard(!) had already been commissioned to write a draft of the Weakland report. To say that there was general cynicism about the procedures of the U. S. Catholic Conference would be, as understatement, understated.

What is the picture that emerges? A great many intelligent and informed Catholics believe that the U.S. Catholic Conference has fallen into the hands of a small group of ideologues who manage to foist their opinions on the bishops and have them issued, not as their personal views, but as the views of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Brian Benestad’s book demonstrates the odd similarity between the social statements of the bishops and the standard leftist line on such matters. Let it be said immediately that the situation would be procedurally the same if Archbishop Roach were issuing statements backing covert aid to Nicaraguan rebels, warning against negotiation with Salvadoran insurgents and lamenting the demand for immediate elections in that war-torn country. Whether Babylonian or benign, for the bishops to fall into such captivity is a most unfortunate state of affairs.

If a good many Catholic intellectuals have had forced upon them this cynical attitude toward the U. S. Catholic Conference, it is in some degree due to the tone our prelates adopt when it is pointed out that their statements almost invariably fall on the same place in the political spectrum. Nobody likes to be told that he has fallen into bad company. Nobody likes to be described as being conned. Alas, sometimes these observations are just. Those of us who feel acute discomfort at having to criticize USCC statements attributed to bishops respectfully ask the bishops of the nation to ponder whether the buskin fits.

Archbishop Roach’s statement on Central America is a narrowly partisan viewpoint parading as the Roman Catholic position. Those of us who disagree with it would like to be free of the onus of apparent disrespect to successors of the Apostles when we call it bunk.

  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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