Silent Revolution: The Bishops and Their Aides

As may be evident to most observers by now, the public debate between American bishops over the policy paper on AIDS has little to do with AIDS and much to do with the overall theological and ecclesiological rift in the Catholic Church in America.

Simply, that debate is about power and truth. And that rift is essentially between two wings in the Church — and their differences are hardly stylistic or peripheral. This is a division of substance, and the chasm between the two is growing at such a pace that a great deal of bridge-building will be necessary to reunite the sides. The unity of the Church in America has weakened. Most people know it. Few say it aloud. The “cold war” intensifies.

Hans Kung, the German writer Pope John Paul II removed from his chair in Catholic theology, spoke in New York City in September at a meeting of the Association for the Rights of Catholics. Also attending the meeting were Charles Curran, the former Catholic theologian the Pope removed last year, and Rosemary Radford Reuther.

Kung may have accurately pinpointed that division when he said, “The network of another kind of church is being formed from below, within and outside our congregations. It is a church shared by many pastors and chaplains, benignly tolerated and indirectly supported by many anonymous people at the switching points of the ecclesiastical apparatus, and in some countries and continents by many bishops as well.”

Reuther, a well-known radical theologian, had promulgated the same analysis seven years earlier. What she wrote then bears directly on the ecclesiological and theological struggle current in the Church in America. Reuther said, “A new consensus could only come about if this traditional power could be deposed and the Church restructured on conciliar, democratic lines accountable to the people. Then the theological consensus of the academy could serve as a guide for the pastoral teaching of the church. . . . That the academy replace the hierarchy as the teaching Magisterium of the Church. This cannot be accomplished by the academy itself. It entails the equivalent of the French Revolution in the Church.”

The most recent front of that revolution opened when the United States Catholic Conference in Washington published a document entitled “The Many Faces of AIDS: A Gospel Response.” The document states that because Catholics live in a pluralistic society where everyone does not follow Catholic moral teaching, it is appropriate to teach about condoms.

Because we live in a pluralistic society, we acknowledge that some will not. . . .refrain from the type of sexual or drug abuse behavior which can transmit AIDS. In such situations, education efforts, if grounded in the broader moral vision, could include accurate information about prophylactic devices or other practices proposed by some medical experts as potential means of preventing AIDS. We are not promoting the use of prophylactics, but merely providing information that is part of the factual picture.

At first glance, in a secular world inured by advertising and sex education, such a statement seems rather harmless. So why the fuss? Remember how in high school history classes everyone could be so smug about reducing religious issues to essentially political and material ones? The Reformation or the Thirty Years War would be seen in context of the land in question, not the ideas. Sure, the ideas would be mentioned, but — wink, wink — who would fight a 30-year war over predestination?

Well, some people would. Some people did. And this current debate is about religious ideas as well. And again, religious ideas with very real political consequences.

First, the political consequences. At the heart of this debate is the role and control of the United States Catholic Conference in Washington. For the last few years now complaints have arisen, following the famous jibe against the Church of England, that the Conference has simply become the “Democratic Party at prayer.”

The USCC is the administrative arm of the Catholic bishops in the United States. Every bishop is a member. But these bishops administrate particular dioceses and the work of the Conference is left in the hands of the appointed staff. The Conference has published two controversial statements on the role of the United States military and its nuclear deterrent and on the American economic system.

Each of those previous statements met with heavy opposition among Catholic laity, secular experts in economics and military planners, editorial writers, and officials in the Reagan administration. But there was little overt or public opposition among the bishops themselves. This may have changed.

On the issues of nuclear deterrence or economics, the bishops could be patronized. Like the old clergyman over for tea in a P.G. Wodehouse story (“how good of you to come and say such provocative things”), the Pentagon and Wall Street were back to business as usual. Even bishops who ratified the previous pastoral letters knew that the specific policy recommendations in the documents were not binding on the faithful — morally or doctrinally.

But the issue of AIDS is at the heart of Catholic moral teaching. Here, for the first time in years, is an issue on which the bishops and the United States Catholic Conference are playing in their own league. And now the division in place for years — the division Kung and Reuther pinpoint — is emerging in the public light.

That division essentially between the staff of the Conference and some of the more recent appointments of Pope John Paul II—appointments made in recognition of the proclivities of the Conference. Those bishops include John O’Connor in New York, Bernard Law in Boston, and Anthony Bevilacqua in Philadelphia.

These bishops, especially O’Connor, are upset with the language of “The Many Faces of AIDS” document. But they’re equally upset with the way the Conference handled the matter. Instead of debating the issue among themselves at the last meeting of the entire Conference, the AIDS statement was released by the administrative board after the bishops left town. No discussion.

It would be hard to believe no one on the staff of the Conference or on the administrative board anticipated the commotion over such a statement. In fact, the controversy had to have been expected. Therefore, the argument goes, a conscious decision by those in power was made to make an “end run” around the entire Conference on the pretense that the release of the statement after the next meeting of the bishops in June would cause a loss of “timeliness” — a strange argument from staff members who composed three and four drafts of the controversial nuclear and economic pastoral letters.

Here the political division meets the theological differences. Some critics say that it is to the advantage of those who support the notions in the document for the debate to take place in public because this is the best way to muddy the waters on Church teaching. The mistake of those opposed to traditional teaching would be to dissent directly from any teaching. A guerrilla or disinformation campaign is far more effective, especially if the other side can be made to look “hopelessly out of touch” or “reactionary.”

In fact, a blueprint for such an effort was proposed by Reuther — a defense of pluralism.

In the immediate future we cannot hope for a new consensus that will overcome this theological split between the academy and the hierarchy. . .the best we can hope for is the defense of pluralism . . . pluralism can be defended only by making sure this hierarchical power structure is not strong enough to repress successfully the independent basis of conciliar and liberation theology.

Appropriately, the opening words of the most controversial paragraph of the AIDS document begin, “Because we live in a pluralistic society. . . .” Reuther also notes that “the reason why there is any significant intellectual pluralism in the Catholic Church today is primarily because the hierarchy has lost control of a number of important institutions and Catholic media.”

In the case of the AIDS statement, the scenario might go something like this: staff members recognized that an ostensibly harmless instruction on the nature of a pluralistic society and condoms would form the visible level of the argument; a second level, the operative level, would be a torpedo at the theological foundation of Church teaching on sexual morality, especially the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae.

The dissent on that teaching alone continues unchecked in many quarters of official and academic Church life despite an even more ringing endorsement of Paul VI’s original position by John Paul in Familiaris Consortio. If a guerrilla war is being waged against Catholic sexual morality, then no better time exists to put a wedge in the closed door to birth control than after a long process of public debate on AIDS in which the populace has already become inured to condoms. The staff of the USCC could expect a big ho-hum from most secular quarters and yet place a neat little time bomb beneath the theological superstructure of Catholic teaching.

But such a scenario would have to be based on theological suppositions that would question the entire broad base of Catholic teaching on sexuality. Not just AIDS but the nature of marriage, artificial birth control, homosexuality — in fact, the nature of what constitutes human sin.

The question most critics of the statement ask is why after years of fighting the values of a contraceptive society — years in which the Church fought hard despite heavy dissent from many in its ranks — it would suddenly give in to those same societal values on homosexuality? Or as columnist Joseph Sobran asks, “Why would American bishops have taken the position it’s okay to wear condoms provided you’re not wearing them to prevent conception?”

Moreover, why would the Conference recommend condoms when a debate exists in the outside world about the reliability of such instruction? The New England Journal of Medicine published information that condoms may have a failure rate of 17 percent. Even if that rate were lower, the fact remains that in relation to heterosexual activity and birth control, the

Church never saw itself as a bureau of public health simply because the mechanical means and information were available.

The only answer to this sudden about-face must lie beyond AIDS. Who wrote it? Why was such a major topic promulgated without the approval of the majority of American bishops?

Once again, enter Cardinal Bernardin. He was the ranking prelate on the committee that oversaw its drafting and he has been its most vocal cheerleader since the controversy began. But he did not write the document.

That task fell, once again, to staff members. Father Michael D. Place of the Archdiocese of Chicago was the principal consultant and writer. He has been a consultant to Cardinal Bernardin ever since Bernardin was Archbishop of Cincinnati.

Who is Father Place? The evidence suggests that he may be the “switching point of the ecclesiastical apparatus” Hans Kung writes about. In an article titled “Reflections of a Moral Theologian” in the official publication of the education department of the United States Catholic Conference, Place stated certain theological propositions that have been vehemently opposed by other theologians and by Rome. Those propositions form the philosophical underpinning for allowing the instruction of condoms in the context of Catholic teaching on AIDS.

In his article, which is a critique of the National Catholic Catechetical Directory, Place states, “Obviously change in areas such as family life or sexuality or the state would have significant import for ethical thought and would suggest the possibility of modification of earlier ethical conclusion.”

In speaking of the conflict situations which people face, Place writes, “They are faced with the question of how they are to make decisions about the appropriateness of specific actions when some conflict arises. In the older tradition such conflict was recognized and addressed by the ethical principle of double effect. While still of value, that principle is today found by many moralists to be too limited in its application. Thus, they have developed what is known as the principle of proportionality as a guide for making ethical decisions in conflict situations. . . . as my colleague Father Timothy O’Connell says, one ought to do as much good as possible and as little evil as necessary.”

As O’Connor and Law recognized, and other bishops knew as well, this approach to morality was condemned by the last three popes and the bishops of the United States. The approach is essentially a form of consequentialism which requires the abandonment of moral absolutes and implies that the end justifies the means. Father Places’s theological school becomes most clear when he writes on sin: “Personal sin then is not as easily identified with the doing of a particular ‘bad act.’ Personal sin comes about when one refuses to live the creation destiny of being a responsible and relational person . . . ultimately, a human action has the personal significance of selfishness as it is expressive of this fundamental perspective.”

Father Ronald Lawler, who teaches at St. John’s University, points out that it is “never right to do even a small evil to avoid any physical effects whatever.” Lawler continues that “introducing prophylactic ‘information’ into education of children and young people is not at all a case of ‘tolerating’ an evil long in place, endemic to the culture, impossible to remove. Rather it is a case of initiating and introducing an evil into education, educational programs, and hospital provision.”

Lawler also notes that the USCC document proposes not “a case of ‘toleration’ at all but . . . an impermissible form of material cooperation in evil. In no way is there any moral or natural right to condoms as a consequence of inherent human dignity. Rather it is opposition to them as a defense of human dignity that is part of Catholic tradition.”

Now the AIDS document of the Conference seen in the context of such varying theological suppositions sets the stage for a major debate in the next few months before the bishops gather in June. Not only will the bishops have to address the actual specifics of AIDS teaching, but why the controversy and resulting confusion occurred, and the role the staff of the United States Catholic Conference played in the matter. Was this merely a bureaucratic bungling of blueprint for revolution?

In his earlier critique of the bishops’ catechetical teaching, Place wrote that “Hopefully, the wisdom gained. . .by those who are on the front line of communicating the Christian life, the catechists, will provide the necessary concepts and knowledge for future revisions.” Place suggests that a partnership between theologians and educators should be established. That partnership rings back to Reuther’s call that the academy replace the hierarchy as the magisterium of the Church.

If such a view were held by an academic elite in the Church, it would go a long way in answering why the staff of the Conference saw no reason to consult the bishops of the United States. The fact is that the bishops long ago conceded their expertise at the Conference to the staff in such matters as military planning and economics with the pastoral letters. But having diluted their authority in those areas, they left themselves wide open to the arrogance of power in a realm thoroughly their own domain: the legitimate exercise of episcopal magisterial teaching in faith and morals.

As the final touches are placed on the new multi-million-dollar USCC facility at Catholic University, the bishops of the United States are going to have to ask vis-a-vis the staff of the USCC, are they any longer their own men or have they been bought off — and if so, at what price?

This is a question that Cardinal Bernardin, Father Place’s superior and the ranking prelate on the committee which issued the AIDS document, may have to answer to Rome. It is still not too late, however, for Bernardin to provide leadership in correcting the embarrassing and destructive organized dissent among the staff of the U.S. Catholic Conference.


  • Keeney Jones

    At the time this article was written, Keeney Jones, a graduate of Dartmouth College, had a degree in theology from the Angelicum University in Rome. He worked in the office of U.S. Education Secretary William Bennet.

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