Which Comes First? Confused Priorities at the U.S. Catholic Conference

In Northeast Washington, D.C., before a mammoth futuristic building a mighty bronze statue of Christ stands half hidden behind trees. This building is not connected with the nearby Catholic University, nor with any of the many religious orders in the neighborhood. Neither is it one of the myriad bureaucracies staffed by the federal government. Rather, it is the home of the United States Catholic Conference, Inc., which, like many other large corporations, is best known by its acronym — the USCC .

The role of the USCC is to provide the “organizational structure and resources to carry out the civic-religious work of the Church,” according to the Catholic Almanac. To uphold the Church’s principles in their order of importance is part of this role. These principles are communicated to the USCC by the National Catholic Conference of Bishops (NCCB), the episcopal conference of U.S. bishops founded in 1966.

The pope and the bishops have repeatedly stated that the taking of innocent human lives poses the greatest threat to the body of Christ, the Church, in this century. In a June letter sent to every diocese in the world, Pope John Paul II wrote, “When legislative bodies enact laws that authorize putting innocent people to death and states allow their re-sources and structures to be used for these crimes, individual consciences, often poorly formed, are all the more easily led into error. In order to break this vicious circle, it seems more urgent than ever that we should forcefully reaffirm our common teaching, based on sacred Scripture and tradition, with regard to the inviolability of innocent human life.” An obvious place to reaffirm this teaching is in the U.S. Congress, the legislative body capable of outlawing or at least discouraging this “slaughter of the innocents.”

The Church has no better vehicle for delivering this message to the U.S. legislature than the USCC’s Office of Government Liaison (OGL), which attempts to carry out the Church’s civic-religious mission by lobbying Congress on specific issues.

In an April 1991 newsletter the USCG outlined its legislative program, which includes 74 issues under consideration by the 102nd Congress. The newsletter begins, “The program reflects the concern of the U.S. bishops in matters as diverse as civil rights, the right to life, housing appropriations, child care, and foreign affairs.” Among its “top priority issues” the USCG first lists “congressional enactment of a new Civil Rights bill dealing with employment discrimination,” followed by “prohibition of federal funding for abortion,” then by “increased funding for low-income housing development by community based organizations,” and so on. Nowhere in the newsletter does the OGL state as central priorities the outlawing of abortion and euthanasia themselves.

The problem lies not so much with any particular issue being tackled as with an institutional structure which lacks the faculty to distinguish qualitatively between issues. Out of 74 issues of legislative concern for 1991, the USCG lists 19 “level-one” issues without distinguishing among them, which gives the impression that they receive equal attention and lobbying effort. One of these level-one priorities is sup-porting “legislation which serves to regulate the cable television industry to provide greater protection to consumers from unreasonable or abusive rates,” not to mention “standards for consumer protection, customer service, minimum technical quality.” The document repeatedly lists under a level-one heading legislation that supports “conditioning U.S. aid” to El Salvador to encourage human rights progress and “increasing appropriations for refugee admissions and assistance overseas.”

Although OGL deputy director Mark Gallagher says that “the most important issue that the USCC lobbies for is the unborn,” the effectiveness of the USCC’s legislative program in this area is highly dubious. The lobbying efforts of the OGL have strongly affected legislation concerning U.S. military aid to El Salvador and refugee aid, for example. But the OGL and the Office of Pro-Life Activities (OPLA) have failed to achieve passage of new anti-abortion legislation, as knowledgeable congressional staffers affirm.

The USCC helped change U.S. policy toward El Salvador by transforming the NCCB’s principle of “defense of human rights” and “condemnation of violence” into a specific policy objective: Get Congress to cut military aid. In 1990 the USCC’s Office of Latin American and Caribbean Affairs lobbied Congress, as they had in previous years, to monitor and impose strict conditions on U.S. military aid to El Salvador, thereby sending, in the words of a USCC press release, “a clear signal to the government and military of El Salvador that failure to protect human rights and to pursue dialogue and negotiations seriously [would] cost them U.S. support and military assistance.” For the first time in ten years Congress voted to withhold military aid ($42.5 million of the proposed $85 million) to that strife-torn country.

“The Catholic Church played an extremely effective role in getting the cut. It wouldn’t have happened other-wise,” says Mark Schmitt, speechwriter for Senator Bill Bradley (D., N.J.).

Testimonies given by missionaries stationed in Central America and organized by the USCC proved “extremely convincing” in House and Senate hearings, adds Mike Morell, press secretary for Senator Barbara Mikulski (D., Md.), who sits on the subcommittee on foreign operations and foreign aid.

Liberal Democrats are not the only staffers who cite the USCC’s effectiveness in cutting military aid. Aides to conservative Republicans also agree that the Conference was instrumental in promoting opposition to administration policy: “The Catholic lobby is very effective on Central America,” says a legislative assistant in Henry Hyde’s (R., Ill.) office, “especially [when they bring in] the Maryknoll nuns.” Previously undecided Catholic members of Congress can be swayed by the USCC, “especially in the grey areas of foreign policy,” says Joe Eule, legislative assistant to Robert Dornan (R., Calif.), who is a Catholic conservative. Although in January President Bush released $21 million of the withheld $42.5 million as non-lethal military aid to El Salvador, Representative Joseph Moakley (D., Mass.) and Senator Christopher Dodd (D., Conn.) are hopeful that, with the help of the USCC-directed Catholic lobby, military aid will be cut or suspended in 1992.

The USCC has also proved instrumental in enacting legislation to aid political refugees, congressional staffers say. Congressmen try to enlist the support of the USCC because the Church is respected and its “moral persuasion” on ethically murky political issues is effective, says Moakley aide Jim McGovern.


Minimal Influence

If the USCC’s effort on behalf of human rights progress in foreign countries brings acknowledged results, its call to Congress to protect the unborn sounds like an impotent howl at the moon, even though the USCC dedicates as much or more money and energy to the abortion issue, according to USCC officials.

Since 1973, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion on demand, the USCC has failed to convince Congress to pass pro-life legislation, and no constitutional amendment to protect the unborn has survived the House Judiciary Committee. In 1983, the Senate voted on the Hatch/Eagleton Amendment that “a right to abortion is not secured by this Constitution”; it was defeated 50 to 49, 17 short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass it. If the OGL spoke to Congress in a clear, loud, and uncompromising voice, perhaps an amendment would be brought to term.

In 1989 “no pro-life law was repealed or weakened,” the USCC boasted, but this was thanks to President Bush, who vetoed four bills containing pro-abortion provisions, not to Congress being affected by any pro-life lobby. Last year, according to the National Right to Life Committee, various “procedural” motions came before the House that concerned abortion on demand on military bases, funding of abortion in the District of Columbia, and foreign aid funds for pro-abortion groups; all were defeated.

The USCC “held the line, stopped it from worsening,” says Robert Royal of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, but it “hasn’t done much else.” Comparing his office to other anti-abortion groups, Richard Doerflinger, chairman of the Pro-Life Activities Committee at the USCC, argues, “we are probably the more effective lobbyists on the abortion issue on Capital Hill for two reasons: We choose our battles carefully, and we argue our case in a factual way. We are careful to make our arguments in a nondenominational way … and do not lobby Catholic members any more than non-Catholic members.”

Other observers believe, however, that the USCC’s influence has been minimal on this issue. Why? In defense of the Office of Pro-Life Activities, it should be said that “no lobbyist is effective on [the abortion] issue,” in the words of Bradley aide Schmitt. Joe Eule, Schmitt’s conservative counterpart on Dor¬nan’s staff, agrees: “99 percent of the members know how they will vote” on this issue. The bishops’ position is merely used to justify members’ predetermined positions, he says. The USCC can affect legislation when the vote is marginal, as in the case of El Salvador, but “it is impossible for lobbyists to be effective when public opinion is set,” Schmitt says, and other Hill staffers agree.

But is the pro-abortion position really the informed opinion of the public that much of the media and many pro-abortion members believe it is? The Wirthlin poll, sponsored by the NCCB/USCC, documents how ill-informed Americans are about the number of abortions in the United States and the reasons for them. The figures, which show significant public support for several aspects of the pro-life agenda, were sent in a press release to members of Congress in November 1990 and again in January 1991.

Since their efforts to reverse Roe v. Wade by congressional means have failed, the USCC’s Office for Pro-life Activities has directed resources, including a $5 million donation by the Knights of Columbus, toward new strategies. These include contracting with the well-known public relations firm Hill and Knowlton; publishing Abortion Monitor, a monthly one-page summary of news items that may otherwise be overlooked by the major media outlets and Congress; publishing Life Insight, which “highlights support programs for pregnant women and their children.” A flood of such material is sent out during the annual congressional debate over how the U.S. government should treat “the most vulnerable members of our society.” The NCCB/USCC also plans large advertising campaigns to reach voters.

Since big money lobbying and advertising seem to work for Planned Parenthood and other “pro-choice” organizations, perhaps they will work for the USCC.

Despite all the USCC’s efforts, the OPLA has thus far been unable to persuade many of the Office of Government Liaison’s usual political allies to vote pro-life. For example, Mikulski, a Catholic, has voted pro-abortion consistently since she entered office. One of her staffers says that the USCC “makes a good case for the official Catholic position,” but the Maryland senator is “too busy to comment” when asked if she felt any pressure from the USCC’s pro-life lobby.

If members of Congress respect the USCC’s opinion, even authority, on the morality of human rights violations in El Salvador, why aren’t these same members concerned about incinerating the “gift of life” that is, in Pope John Paul II’s words, “such a fundamental value that anyone can understand and appreciate its significance, even in the light of reason alone”? Apparently, the OGL’s legislative program sheds no light for them. Doerflinger says, “With someone like Mikulski, we try to convince the member that the same Catholic principle that underlies the rights of the poor” underlies the right of the unborn. “We try to argue for consistency across the spectrum for human life,” he explains.

This attempt to induce an appreciation for the unborn by arguing for a consistent ethic of life has, so far, not convinced pro-abortion members of Congress. Perhaps what is needed is a clearer, louder argument to Congress to explain how respect for human dignity follows from the more fundamental respect for human life. The “seamless garment” is a catch-phrase used to justify pacifism, but it seems to do little for the pro-life cause. Robert Royal believes that some internal work needs to be done before the external apparatus — the USCC — can be more persuasive: “The job of the bishops is to get the natural law arguments framed. They have not done it.”

Why can the USCC effect change in legislation that protects human rights in foreign countries but not legislation that protects the primary right to life at home? Perhaps expecting the USCC by itself to effect change in abortion legislation, given the obstacles, is unreasonable. But it is not unreasonable to expect a clear communication from the USCC of their first priority, if they hold one. Abortion is the primary evil that besets our society today. No matter how unpopular and futile, the USCC must use as much power as it has to fight the good fight. Catholics should demand that their elected representatives and Church representatives help to order the moral priorities of American society, and not the other way around.

What more, then, can the USCC do? Perhaps a re-allocation of the uUSCC’s resources is needed to protect the NCCB’s first principle in the United States. The USCC’s budget last year was $19,181,593 — larger than the Heritage Foundation’s $17.9 million or the Brookings Institution’s $15 million. The OGL does not break down its spending by specific issues, say USCC officials; there is no way to tell how much is spent on lobbying for pro-life lobbying as compared to lobbying for other issues. “The abortion industry is very profitable, willing to spare millions of lives for millions of dollars. More people are dedicated to pro-life, but they need to be heard,” says Doerflinger. The pro-life cause, in other words, needs more bucks and more bang for the buck.

The USCC’s problem lies not with its positions on any one issue, which are often morally sound, but with the confusion that surrounds the ordering of issues. This confusion may have proved a useful shield in the secular political arena. If the USCC forcefully and clearly proclaims that outlawing abortion and euthanasia is, as the bishops instruct, its number-one priority, it risks alienating many pro-choice members of Congress who support many of the USCC’s other political and social concerns. “We see through a glass, darkly,” said Paul. Confusion only serves to darken the vision of those who might otherwise see. When the USCC equates fighting abortion and euthanasia with improving cable TV regulations, it risks betraying the civic mission of the bishops’ conference. Truth and moral clarity should prevail over disorder and darkness.

  • Susan Moran

    At the time this article was published, Susan Moran was an editorial assistant for publications at the American Enterprise Institute.

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