Playing the Politics: Inside The Bishops’ Conference, Part II

The U.S. Catholic bishops used to be called the Democratic Party at prayer. Actually, they’re more like pro-life Democrats. So why don’t they promote the gospel of life?

When my parents were growing up in the 1950s, one of their regular prayers as Catholics was for “the conversion of Russia.” This took various forms. My father, who grew up outside Seattle, attended a huge vigil in 1956 at Husky Stadium, where the University of Washington’s football team played. Tens of thousands of Catholics showed up, at the invitation of the local prelate, and prayed five decades of the rosary. My mother, raised in the pre-Vatican II culture of San Francisco, had a similar experience at Star of the Sea Elementary School. Every day the nuns would ask the students to pray for the conversion of the Communist country, as well as for the pagan babies in China.

My parents weren’t alone in praying for Communism’s demise. Practically the whole leadership of the Catholic Church joined them. As historian and journalist Charles R. Morris in 1995’s American Catholic recounts, “Even the most liberal bishops followed the straight Vatican line on communism, as did the Catholic press and the clergy.” To be sure, the Catholic anti-Communist movement wasn’t perfect—it distracted some attention away from the struggle to end racial segregation here at home. But by most counts, it was a noble, and ultimately successful, effort to combat social evil. It fostered a cultural climate in which support for Communism—a diabolical system that killed more people than Nazism—simply was not tolerated.

Contrast the Catholic Church’s political response back then to today. Take its efforts at living the “gospel of life,” the Church teaching that Catholics must oppose laws that permit human abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, and cloning. In terms of rhetoric, the Church’s response could hardly be better; it’s been bold and uncompromising. “[A]bortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) wrote in its 1998 pastoral letter, “Living the Gospel of Life.” Pope John Paul II, in a statement read three years ago at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, called issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty “the great civil rights issue[s] of our time.”

Hoping to gauge whether the rhetoric has matched the reality, I talked recently with more than a dozen Church officials, Catholic politicians, and social conservatives. They judged the USCCB according to three criteria: its ability to influence legislation in Congress, with Catholic legislators, and with the Catholic laity. On the first score, the USCCB earned high marks. It was seen as an able advocate on behalf of the Church’s social agenda. On the second, however, the bishops got failing grades. Of the 144 Catholics in the House and Senate, the American Life League estimates that at least 71 are vocal abortion supporters. And on the third score, even some of the USCCB’s own staffers thought that the Church’s culture-of-life efforts have been spotty and episodic.

“[The Church] could do more, a lot more, to educate lay Catholics,” Richard Doerflinger, the associate director for policy development for the USCCB’s Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, said plainly. “A lot of priests think that it gets political. So instead of talking about the moral aspects, they’re putting it to the side…. Even in election years, priests should feel free to talk about these issues.”

He’s right. Most Catholics don’t seem to know much about the gospel of life. They don’t know it rationally, such as how violent abortion is to the mother and baby. And they don’t know it spiritually, such as wanting to attend a huge pro-life vigil at Fenway Park or a smaller one at St. Cecilia’s.

Why can’t the Church in America, at a time when anti-Catholic bigotry is far less intense and pervasive than it was in the 1950s, truly live the gospel of life? There are a couple of answers, and although the debate is marginal, this is hardly an academic exercise. A lot depends on getting it right. More than 1.3 million pre-born babies are aborted every year, hundreds of people have been executed by the state, and human cloning is seemingly around the corner.

To conservatives, the chief blame should be assigned to the USCCB, which is seen as run by liberals and socialists. To Doerflinger, the problem is that the USCCB and the bishops haven’t done all they can. What I found, however, was that neither of those answers was fully adequate. The real problem is a failure of will and imagination. Church leaders, especially those at the USCCB, have yet to form any national plan to enact the gospel of life. Although the USCCB established and works with an obscure grass-roots pro-life organization, it has failed to tap the potential of 66 million American Catholics.

Pro-life Democrats at Prayer

The English critic G. K. Chesterton is reputed to have once written that the Catholic Church needs to get Christian theology correct from the start. Otherwise, the faithful will suffer from the resulting errors. In the same way, critics today need to diagnose properly the Church’s efforts to build a culture of life.

For years, conservatives have criticized the USCCB, saying that it represents “the Democratic Party at prayer.” (Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican, is sometimes credited for coming up with the term; speaking at the University of Notre Dame Law School in September 1984, he said that the charge was often laid at the feet of “some liberal Protestant denominations.”) Because of the USCCB’s support for federal programs, especially those that seek to aid minorities and immigrants, many conservatives are disdainful. Coming in for flat-out contempt is the USCCB’s opposition to the 1996 welfare-reform legislation, which, partly because it reduced the poverty rate among black children, is viewed as a near-total success. “They adopt left-wing views, and when they do depart from the Democrats, such as on abortion, they’re not as effective as National Right to Life,” says Kate O’Beirne, Washington editor of National Review. “The fact is priests live in a socialistic system, so I can see why the whole conference is run that way,” says Rep. Anne M. Northup, a Kentucky Republican.

Although overly broad, those charges contain some truth. The USCCB, at least until sometime in the early 1990s, subscribed to a kind of unreconstructed liberalism on most issues. Consider its 1983 pastoral letter on war and peace. Despite wisely cautioning against the use of nuclear weapons, it totally ignored the real threat of the Soviet Union. Or take its 1986 pastoral letter on the economy, “Economic Justice for All.” Despite stressing the importance of good wages to families, it ignored the fact that no-fault divorce laws are a major cause of child and female poverty.

And the USCCB remains plainly liberal on foreign and economic policy. It tends to favor federal intervention in the former and oppose it in the latter, although now it does so with some bows to conservative thought. Consider its opposition to Republican efforts to reform welfare. “We ended up opposing the [1996] bill because it had terrible provisions on legal immigrant families,” said John Carr, director of the Social Development and World Peace Committee. “We believe in work, but we want to raise families in dignity. Even Wade Horn at HHS said [welfare reform] should get families out of poverty.” Or take its opposition to the U.S.-led war against Iraq. “… [W]e continue to find it difficult to justify the resort to war against Iraq, lacking clear and adequate evidence of an imminent attack of a grave nature,” the USCCB’s administrative committee wrote in November 2002.

Nevertheless, the bishops have hardly been socialists or Marxists. Even their documents from the 1980s contained a major proviso: that Catholics, in weighing the bishops’ policy prescriptions on economics and foreign-policy issues, can disagree. The bishops merely insisted that Catholics support their goals, such as reducing nuclear stockpiles or providing universal health care. Both documents use nearly identical terms and phrases. Our policy recommendations lack the same “authority” as our principles. We write as pastors, not public officials. We speak as moral teachers, not economic technicians.

Contrast this language with their statements on cultural issues, such as human abortion or cloning. It’s no contest. Almost without exception, their language is unambiguous. They don’t qualify their authority; there are no statements such as, “We are pastors, not politicians” or “We could be wrong, because we’re men, not women.”

The truth is that the USCCB is more like a group of pro-Life Democrats. It has not only called for Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton to be overturned, but for an outright ban on abortion. Indeed, the National Right to Life Committee in its earliest years was headquartered inside the USCCB’s building in the capital, according to the 1997 Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars by journalist Cynthia Gorney. And on other issues, such as homosexual marriage, the USCCB has been uncompromising. On September 10, 2003, the USCCB’s administrative committee passed a resolution in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban homosexual marriage.

This pro-life Democrat philosophy flows naturally from two sources. One is Christian and Catholic thought, especially that from the 20th century. On economics, the USCCB’s views derive more from the papal encyclicals Rerum Novarum (1891) and its pastoral statement Economic Justice for All (1986) than from any laissez-faire—friendly documents before the late 19th century. On abortion, its views derive more from the 2,000-year weight of Church teaching than from St. Thomas Aquinas. And on foreign policy, its views hew more closely to just-war theory than most anything from the medieval age. Yet there’s also a perennially Christian quality to the USCCB’s political philosophy. It tends to favor the weak and vulnerable against the strong and powerful. Marx and Nietzsche would be as diametrically opposed to its agenda as would Stalin and Margaret Sanger.

The other source for the USCCB’s philosophy is its status as a key part of a global institution. As USCCB staffers often note, the Catholic Church in America is the largest nongovernment provider of social services in the country. It runs hospitals, schools, homeless shelters, crisis pregnancy centers, as well as larger institutions such as Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services. As a result, the USCCB’s political priorities are defined, along with its understanding of Church teaching, in relation to these programs. “[We] bring a lot of institutional presence—with health, education, and welfare, immigration, and international relief,” says Frank Monahan, director of the Office of Government Liaison. “And that brings a lot of positive reception. We are part of an international church.”

In addition, the USCCB recently has gotten more strongly pro-life. At long last, it has challenged Catholic politicians who favor choice on human abortion—take its 1998 pastoral letter “Living the Gospel of Life,” for example. Though weak and spiritually blind to the fact that such politicians should not receive Holy Communion, it is more conservative than past documents. “No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life,” the bishops write. (The only qualification offered is that Catholic politicians can vote for legislation that, though it doesn’t ban abortion altogether, seeks to reduce it.) Also, the document implied, without outright saying it, that banning abortion should be considered a higher goal than trying to end even poverty. It stated, “We live the Gospel of Life when we live in solidarity with the poor of the world…. Yet abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others.”

There’s a reason the USCCB has gotten more conservative on the issues of abortion and gay rights: Within the last 15 years, American society in many ways has gotten much more liberal, to the point that gay marriage and human cloning are seriously debated in public and voted on by Congress.

Some Successes

Many movement conservatives dismiss the USCCB’s position on abortion, cloning, and homosexuality. To them, the USCCB doesn’t prioritize its goals and so fails to make much headway on these issues. “I think their problem is that they’re engaged in so many issues,” O’Beirne noted.

Some lobbyists, on the other hand, complain that the USCCB has too few priorities. Michael Horowitz, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, expressed dismay that the bishops didn’t support legislation, eventually signed into law, that combats prison rape. “Where was the bishops’ conference?” Horowitz said, his voice rising. “No place.” As John Carr pointed out, though, “The conference doesn’t have a position on prison rape. We have about 60 issues [to deal with] and not 100.”

Yet it’s undoubtedly true that the USCCB should prioritize better. If it did, no doubt fewer so-called Catholic politicians would favor culture-of-death policies.

Despite these valid concerns, pro-lifers in Washington almost uniformly praise the USCCB. In their view, it is a major voice for families and religion, especially on the issues of human abortion and cloning. “I just can’t say enough good about them,” said Douglas Johnson, the legislative director for National Right to Life. “They’re an extremely important part of the pro-life coalition—very, very important on all these bills [partial birth, unborn victims].” Said Thomas Glessner, president of the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, “I think they’re as effective as anyone has been.” The USCCB’s lobbyists also won plaudits for their efforts in trying to pass President George W. Bush’s faith-based legislation. “I think they’ve been effective in holding the coalition together,” Jim Towey, director of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives at the White House, said. “They’ve been pretty much in the middle, so groups on the left will talk to them and not to us.”

Coming in for special praise was Doerflinger, who was seen as a go-to guy on the issues of human abortion and cloning. “When it comes to stem cells, no one does it better,” said Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican. “He’s easily the most effective [on the issue] in Capitol Hill.” Johnson said that Doerflinger had engineered one of the pro-life movement’s few victories during the Clinton years. In 1995 Doerflinger stuck an amendment into an appropriations bill that bars the federal government from spending money to harm human embryos.

All of those lobbying efforts are part of the USCCB’s insider strategy, which seeks to appeal to lawmakers directly. Like many Washington interest groups, however, the USCCB also seeks to advance its agenda via an outsider strategy, which appeals to lawmakers indirectly, either through the media or by going to the voters or “grassroots.” The USCCB uses an outsider strategy especially when it comes to pro-life issues. For the most part, this job has fallen to a small Washington-based organization called the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment.

The committee, which was set up by the USCCB in 1974 and continues to work with it, relies mostly on postcards and phone banks to influence Capitol Hill, according to executive director Michael A. Taylor. Since 1990, Taylor estimates, the organization has sent 84 million postcards to Catholic dioceses around the country, urging parishioners to sign and mail them to their members of Congress. Its legislative targets have ranged from the sweeping Freedom of Choice Act in the early 1990s to, in recent years, a ban on partial-birth abortion and a ban on human cloning. Only in the last instance has legislation that the committee supported failed. “No one had ever experienced that volume of mail on an issue before. I think it certainly had an impact,” said Steve Kearney, a spokesman for the Baltimore archdiocese and former press secretary to U.S. Rep. James A. Hayes, a Louisiana Democrat.

Yet while the organization has been effective, it may be less so today. Said Kearney, “The preprinted postcard had a limited period of effectiveness. And nothing ever really can replace personal contact.” Also, Taylor does not make grand claims about the success of his organization. I asked him what has been the committee’s biggest accomplishment in his 14 years as executive director. He said plainly, “Well, essentially keeping the issue alive. In 1973 the [Supreme] Court said, this is the law of the land. Go home. It didn’t happen. What we have done here, working through the Catholic conferences, is that in the ’90s abortions are going down, attitudes are changing dramatically, even pro-choice people are saying abortion is wrong.” In essence, Taylor believes that his organization has prevented the abortion industry from achieving total victory and nudged things in a pro-life direction.

The Untutored Catholic

It’s a wonder Taylor’s group has achieved what it has. By Washington standards, the organization is a lilliputian. It has three part-time and three full-time staffers. The annual budget is $500,000, all of which is donated by dioceses around the country. Its public profile is almost nonexistent. Nor is the committee a tribune for the people. Even Taylor, who exudes optimism, doesn’t really claim that his organization has educated and mobilized the laity about culture-of-life issues. He can’t.

Even many practicing Catholics appear to be indifferent to the legal status of abortion. Consider the results from a November 2002 Crisis Magazine poll conducted by QEV Analytics, a Washington-based organization. It interviewed by phone 1,000 Catholics, who were almost equally divided between active and inactive. Only 55 percent of active Catholics favored enacting any legal restrictions that would reduce the number of abortions; 36 percent of the actives actually opposed doing so. Note that this question only referred to “restrictions.” That’s a far cry from trying to ban abortion altogether—which, after all, is the goal of the Committee for a Human Life Amendment. By the same token, only 39 percent of active Catholics said they opposed the death penalty, and only 59 percent wanted to outlaw human cloning.

The laity’s apparent ignorance about culture-of-life issues ought to be troubling to Church leaders. Why aren’t ordinary Catholics being educated about the issues? Is this the fault of the USCCB, the Vatican, or individual bishops?

The answer appears to be all three.

Rome hasn’t done all it can. It hasn’t outlined a larger plan or strategy for proclaiming the gospel of life. If it had, it’s likely the USCCB would follow, since it does so consistently. In 1995, the pope wrote “The Gospel of Life”; in November 1998 the USCCB came out with “Living the Gospel of Life.” In July 2003 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith came out with its letter about the necessity of Catholic politicians to oppose homosexual marriage. Two months later the USCCB’s administrative committee came out with the constitutional-amendment resolution.

At the same time, the USCCB hasn’t done all it can either. Doerflinger acknowledged that it hasn’t engaged its members directly. “[T]here are documents that go out to the conference on election issues. I think we have a responsibility to explain to bishops and priests what we can do, and it doesn’t require scorecards or endorsing candidates,” he said.

Why the USCCB hasn’t engaged the bishops more directly is an open question. Doerflinger takes the view that the USCCB has limited jurisdiction. This is true, but there’s nothing preventing it from taking a host of actions. For example, it could mandate that priests and bishops educate their flock about culture-of-life issues and leave the details to the dioceses. Such a plan would necessarily feature Catholic churches and schools.

Walking the Walk

The bottom line is that the USCCB needs to marry rhetoric with reality. As stark and eloquent as “Living the Gospel of Life” was as a document, it hasn’t been matched with a similarly virtuous blueprint or plan. “As I get older, I appreciate the value of good leadership. You need good followers, but you really need good leaders,” said David Carlin, former Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island senate. “And when I think of pro-life issues, I think that, at a time when we need the leadership of Lincoln and Roosevelt, the bishops are giving us the leadership of [Herbert] Hoover and James Buchanan. Good men to be sure, but not the right men for a time of crisis.”


  • Mark Stricherz

    Mark Stricherz is the author of Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party.

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