Not long ago, I received an email from Dr. Stephen M. Colecchi, director of the Office of International Justice and Peace for the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB), supporting my view that nuclear disarmament is a pro-life issue. This position repeated a long-standing, but seldom repeated 1983 statement of the bishops, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, placing peace issues alongside abortion in the Catholic conscience.
A little more than a week later, I received a more lengthy communication from Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee in Washington taking me to task for a column I wrote about the bishops’ concerns about the place of abortion in health-care reform legislation.
The different points of view and tone from two offices in Washington advocating *Catholic teaching suggest to me that the USCCB suffers from bureaucratic schizophrenia. I hope I am wrong.
Schizophrenia is the technical word, often equated with a split personality. It is a mental condition in which there is no cohesive integration – or even awareness – of what the other personality is saying or doing.
For some time now, the bureaucracies that coordinate the work of the U.S. Catholic Church have divided most political outreach between offices that deal with Justice and Peace and offices that concern Right to Life issues. This is an administrative decision that does not in itself represent a rejection of the “seamless garment” that weaves together the social justice vision of Catholicism. But in practical terms, I think the division of these two tasks into two different offices has become the Solomonic decision to “cut the baby into half.” While such a division may assuage internal bureaucratic needs, I think it often invites “Cafeteria Catholicism“.
Unfortunately, this separation of the concerns starts in the Vatican and is imitated in Washington and in countless dioceses and even in parishes. The result is bifurcated attention to the issues with political applications. Justice and Peace include disarmament, immigration reform, opposition to war and torture, labor protections, living wage and human services in hospitals and clinics. Right to Life is centered on abortion and stem cell research. Not incidentally, the division between Justice and Peace on one side and Right to Life on the other corresponds to supporting Democrats or Republicans. (While both sides are honored in official pronouncements, it does seem that Right to Life gets the lion’s share of funding and attention in the places I have lived.)
There is also a different approach to the laity in this bureaucratic division. Right to Life communications tend to be letters with instructions on how to take urgent action in the political forum. Justice and Peace efforts are usually centered on workshops and program study guides, intended to inform and invite deeper thinking on the topics.
Talking with ordinary Catholic lay persons in the pews, however, does not justify this bureaucratic schizophrenia. While some of us have higher levels of awareness or commitment to one side or the other of the partisan divide, most people in Catholic America want peace and justice as much as they want the right to life. Catholics look to our Church for unity in the things that matter and expect our clergy to help us think clearly about moral issues when deciding things politically – but not make those decisions for us.
I await lay reaction to the letter on health care legislation that is supposed to be inserted into all parish bulletins in November of 2009. To its credit, the letter calls the pending health-care reform “needful,” although most of the message is about clarification of abortion funding. At least the bishops did not repeat what Mr. Johnson wrote to me, calling the Obama Administration’s position a “hoax” and stating that President Obama is malevolently conducting “an exercise in misdirection, intended to snooker the gullible, and to satisfy those who are looking for an easy answer and who can be trusted not to look too closely at the matter.”
This bureaucratic schizophrenia is a long-standing problem that will not be solved by 700 words in this column. But the attention directed this way by important advocates of the USCCB’s teaching renders moot the question from concerned lay persons, “Can you hear me now?”
*Note: The National Right to Life Committee was founded by Msgr. McHugh in 1973 and was located in the offices of the then NCCB. It is legally separate from the Catholic Church today, which allows it to lobby Washington.