USCC Watch: On Representing Catholics

During the past several weeks, I have spoken privately with a few critics of this column, and critics of the American Catholic Conference. I don’t intend to use this space to continue our arguments; on the contrary, I hope they notice that their criticisms have some effect. But I do think it might be helpful to clear up a few points.

First, some critics have charged “USCC Watch” with bias. I plead Guilty, unashamedly. “USCC Watch” is not meant to be strictly factual, like a good newspaper headline story; it is meant to express an opinion, like an editorial.

Unfortunately, this column is quite different from newspaper editorials in another sense: most people who read editorials have already read the headlines, so they already know the facts on which the editorialists are commenting. In the case of the USCC, most Catholics are not nearly so well informed. So this column must report the facts, as well as comment on them.

As a result, “USCC Watch” has sometimes been a mixture of two journalistic genres: reporting and editorializing. (“It’s neither fish nor fowl,” I admitted to one critic. “Yes, but maybe leaning a bit toward foul,” he replied.) Everyone expects an editorial writer to make the strongest possible case for his viewpoint, and so no one complains too vociferously if he chooses his facts selectively, or slants his reporting to favor his own interpretation of those facts. But when reporters take the same liberties, readers can justifiably complain.

So let me make my intentions clear. Henceforth, I intend to write “USCC Watch” as an opinion column. I shall do my best to present the news accurately, and I hope readers will correct me whenever I make mistakes. But I do not claim to be a detached observer. I have strong opinions about the subject at hand, and my opinions will undoubtedly color my interpretation of events. Let the reader beware.

Second, some critics have charged that in naming our organization the American Catholic Conference, we upstarts were intentionally misleading people, encouraging the belief that the A.C.C. was the bishops’ official organization. This time I plead not guilty.

To be sure, many people mistake the A.C.C. for the U.S.C.C. We regularly receive their phone calls, and requests for their publications—all of which we faithfully forward to them. And on one memorable occasion, our printers delivered a shipment of our stationery—with our address printed quite clearly on the masthead—to the U.S.C.C. headquarters at 1312 Massachusetts Avenue. Take my word for it: we do not regard the confusion as an asset.

On the other hand, keep in mind that most people in this country, Catholic or not, do not really keep track of the names of the bishops’ organizations. Only a relatively few people could accurately name the bishops’ official bodies, the N.C.C.B. and the U.S.C.C. (And virtually no one knows the difference between those two bodies.) If we had named our organization, say, the Congress of American Catholics, I’ll wager that many people would still have thought that we represented the bishops. In fact, I can’t think offhand of any name that would identify our organization and its purposes without confusing some people.

Well, there is one possibility. If the name identified our group as an organization of the laity, perhaps most of the confusion would be dissipated. But at what cost? Alas, most Americans seem to think that Catholic laymen are second-class citizens, whose opinions are not particularly important.

In one sense, then, our organization’s name was selected as a challenge to the U.S.C.C. By calling ourselves the American Catholic Conference, we suggested that we represent American Catholics. More than that: we suggested that we have as much right to represent American Catholics as any other group.

Actually, the U.S.C.C. doesn’t even claim to represent all 52 million Catholic Americans; it represents the bishops. On questions of faith and morals, the bishops’ authority is supreme, and so their organization unquestionably represents the Catholic Church in America. But on political issues, the bishops’ opinions are not necessarily authoritative, and so the U.S.C.C. can be challenged.

Take, for example, the case of the bishops’ forthcoming pastoral letter on the economy. In the first draft, that document calls for increased U.S. contributions to the soft-loan window of the World Bank. Is that call an article of faith? Obviously not; it is a political judgment. Now suppose that same passage remains in the document when the pastoral letter is finally approved by the bishops in November. And suppose that the A.C.C. takes the contrary position. (Keep in mind, this is a theoretical example; I am not predicting either possibility.) Could either the U.S.C.C. or the A.C.C. then honestly claim to represent the views of American Catholics? Whose claim would be more plausible?

The answer, I think, is that each organization would be challenged to prove its claim. That, precisely, is the mission of the American Catholic Conference. If the U.S.C.C. makes political judgments, it should be forced to demonstrate how those political judgments reflect the position of American Catholics. And if the U.S.C.C. position is not undeniably the position of the Catholic Church, it deserves competition.

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