The recent meeting of the American Catholic bishops at the Capital Hilton hotel in Washington, D.C., was a contest of progressive proclamation. The auxiliaries and most reverends reveled in the press attention, trying to outdo each other in the hyperbole of their accusations against their country. “Where is the social justice in America?” “Flow can we sit here while children are starving?” “Nothing has been done about the weapons of mass destruction.” “We have got to say no to death.” “Yes, that’s definitely out.”
During discussion of the draft pastoral letter on the U.S. economy, Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, chairman of the drafting committee, did everything he could to raise the temperature of the accusations. The humbler bishops fell silent, while the exhibitionists railed on. Then there was a bit of a surprise. One bishop stood up and said he felt that the pastoral was too negative and omitted to mention that the U.S. economy was the most productive and just in the world. Moreover, “Our market system more closely approximates the social teaching of the Catholic church than any other.”
Whispers filled the room. Some bishops looked embarrassed at this gauche display. The speaker was identified as Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua of Pittsburgh. Archbishop Weakland began to shift in his chair. What was this guy from one of the most depressed regions of the country doing praising the free enterprise system, accusing his enlightened colleagues of being — of all things — ungrateful? Weakland’s expression was, “We’re doing this for you. So why are you doing this to us?”
Bishop Bevilacqua outlined five areas in which he felt the pastoral was defective. It failed to acknowledge that America’s free enterprise system has created the most benefits for the largest fraction of citizens “irrespective of race and background.” It has done more than any other system to “generate economic development in the Third World.” It comes closer than any other social ideology to reflecting Christ’s teaching. It has simultaneously produced wealth and made sure it is not concentrated among the rich — that most of it remains with the middle class. Finally, it is responsible for more freedom and opportunity than any other country has enjoyed at any time in history.
This was just too much. Archbishop Weakland, in an attempt to refute this renegade bishop, began to sputter about how Bishop Bevilacqua was not in line with “the data.” Look up the facts, my dear man, Weakland seemed to suggest: that will diminish this bad-taste display of pro-Americanism. With that casual rebuttal, the case was closed.
Bishop Bevilacqua, though, was clearly unhappy with the outcome. I caught up with him after the bishops’ meeting. He is an impressive man of medium height, with wavy grey hair and bushy brows draped over peering eyes. Raised in Brooklyn, New York, by immigrant parents, he was ordained in 1949, became an auxiliary bishop in 1980, and transferred to Pittsburgh in 1983 to head the diocese there.
Government figures list Pittsburgh’s unemployment rate at 9.7 percent, but certain sections where steel mills have closed suffer 16-25 percent unemployment, Bishop Bevilacqua says. Aware of the obsolescence of the steel industry, Pittsburgh is moving toward robotics, software and other technology fields; and yet, Bishop Bevilacqua says, people between 45 and 60 years old find it difficult to go through retraining for new jobs.
For the young, retraining and in some cases relocation to places with more opportunity is “inevitable,” Bishop Bevilacqua sees. Painful though these changes must be, he prefers them to the “targeted job creation programs” in the steel industry that the bishops’ pastoral letter would seem to propose, because despite artificial stimulation “the steel industry could fail again and then we’re going to bury people twice.” Bishop Bevilacqua knows that we are in an economic recovery, and jobs lost in manufacturing are being more than made up for in other sectors.
“I’m not an economist,” Bishop Bevilacqua admits. He doesn’t know whether it was President Reagan’s tax cuts that revived the dormant U.S. economy and created nine million new jobs. But he knows enough about the efficacy of free markets to say, “I’m not canonizing our economy. But there isn’t a better one.”
Why aren’t people flocking into Communist countries, Bishop Bevilacqua wants to know. The zeal of the immigrant burns in his eyes. “America is the magnet for people all over the world because of the jobs and freedom it provides.” Archbishop Weakland can cite statistics, Bishop Bevilacqua says, and “what data you use depends on what perspective you are coming from.” Yet it is hard to beat immigrant traffic as a measure of which economic and social system best provides for people’s needs, he says.
The pastoral letter, Bishop Bevilacqua argues, “omits a number of scriptural references which favor economic freedom.” He cites the tale of the talents. “We are urged to use our resources and ability in a free environment,” he says. “We are even urged to take risks, not to bury what we have, but to use it and multiply its value.” Christ never tried to force anyone to do anything, Bishop Bevilacqua says: even his advice to the rich man to sell all he had and give the money away to the poor presumed an environment of freedom — the freedom that is a necessary prelude to virtue, Bishop Bevilacqua seems to imply.
While expressing reservations about the amount spent on the military budget, Bishop Bevilacqua rejects the clear suggestion in the pastoral that resources be allocated away from defense and toward social programs. That’s “too simple a solution,” he says. What the U.S. spends on defense “depends on need.” It should not be up to bishops to decide whether the country needs $100 million or $300 million a year for defense, he adds.
The same day I spoke with Bishop Bevilacqua, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, auxiliary of Detroit, had offered a proposal that a committee of bishops be appointed to evaluate whether the moral conditions imposed on deterrence by the war and peace pastoral were being met by the Reagan administration. But such oversight responsibility was built into the pastoral on war and peace, Bishop Bevilacqua points out; was Bishop Gumbleton presuming that the USCC wasn’t doing its job? Besides, Bishop Bevilacqua says, “My impression is that in his talks with Gorbachev, President Reagan is making a very serious effort at arms reductions. He has said he wants to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Are we saying that we don’t believe him? I think we have to assume he is sincere.”
Incidentally, he asks, “How sincere are the Russians?”
“Even if we aren’t taking all the right steps toward disarmament,” Bishop Bevilacqua maintains, “that doesn’t make deterrence immoral.” He shakes his head. “I support both pastoral letters,” he says. But it is clear that they do not leave him feeling entirely comfortable.
In a word about the Synod in Rome, Bishop Bevilacqua praises “positive steps” by the Pope to “reaffirm Vatican II and correct some of the abuses.” He laments “misinterpretations” of conciliar documents and adds, with a rueful smile, “Hopefully this time the perception will be the same as the reality.”
What differentiates Bishop Bevilacqua from so many of the other bishops who were at the Hilton that day? It’s not easy to say. My guess is that he has a better sense of where the moral center lies. All the bishops feel the overwhelming urge to make the world a safer and better place, but in trying to alter this imperfect society on the margin, Bishop Bevilacqua is not willing to ignore — or jeopardize — the core values that keep us good, and keep us free.