The End of the Age of Distraction

After decades of questionable pastoral statements, the US Catholic bishops’ statement on religious liberty is a triumph.

During the last third of the previous century, serious Catholics in America increasingly came to wince at the news that the body of their bishops had issued a new document. The reason was that the bishops’ most notable pronouncements in that period often were ill-conceived and verbose statements that could seem more partisan than pastoral. Worse yet, documents issued by certain committees of US bishops contained disturbing moral guidance that, far from transmitting the faith, actually posed dangers to it. If lay Catholics who endured this period of confusion and irresponsibility came to hope never again to see another document from the US bishops, they perhaps can be forgiven.

Nonetheless, even the most exhausted and exasperated Catholic would do well to attend carefully to the recent statement issued by the US bishops’ ad hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. That document, Our First, Most Cherished Liberty (April 2012), is a welcome break from the pattern that the bishops set in the late 1960s and followed for three decades. This powerful and lucid statement on religious liberty seems to have closed out the long period of questionable and verbose pronouncements from the American bishops, and it holds out the promise of a new era of gravity, clarity, and courage.


One cannot fully appreciate this new statement without first recalling the tumultuous history of the documents that the Catholic bishops in America issued between 1968 and 1998. The bishops’ 1968 pastoral letter Human Life in Our Day defended the Church’s teaching against artificial contraception—which Pope Paul VI recently had reaffirmed in Humanae Vitae—but in the same document, the US bishops took away with the left hand what they had granted with the right, by legitimizing dissent against the papal teaching. The US bishops’ conference would create an even more hospitable environment for dissent with their 1976 Call to Action conference in Detroit.

Perhaps the bishops’ best-known pastoral letter was the one on war and peace, The Challenge of Peace (1983). As George Weigel has argued, that letter was a serious effort and made a lasting contribution to the debate over war and peace, but its vision was severely limited (cf. First Things, “The Next Line of Hills,” April 1990, and “The End of the Bernardin Era,” February 2011). It was beholden to the nuclear freeze movement, unmeasured in its assessment of the Reagan administration’s foreign policy, and skewed in its reading of the Catholic just war tradition. It neglected the importance of human rights activism and of the ideological struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. As a result, in the wake of the momentous events of 1989 in Europe, the bishops’ pastoral on war and peace, which had taken them three years to complete, became a dead letter before the decade was out.

The bishops’ next pastoral, Economic Justice for All (1986), so enthusiastically championed government intervention into the US economy that it caused Fortune magazine to accuse the bishops of socialism. In addition, the bishops descended so deeply into specific policy proposals—on matters such as the minimum wage and preservation of the family farm—that Michael Novak and other prominent lay Catholics argued that the bishops had stepped beyond the sphere of their authority, not to mention their expertise.

In the drafting of the pastoral letters on both peace and the economy, intervention was necessary to address positions of questionable orthodoxy that had been included in early versions of the documents. The content of early drafts was more important than might appear at first glance. In fact, the first drafts actually could be more influential than the final versions. The reason was that the body of US bishops in this period had adopted more or less the posture of a secular legislature, and thus had taken to making numerous official drafts public. However, later drafts rarely received the same level of press coverage as the first draft, and as a result, problematic passages and ideas could remain in the public mind even if they eventually were corrected in later drafts or the final version.

The Holy See intervened in the composition of the peace pastoral because the US bishops’ first draft had termed nuclear deterrence objectively sinful but nonetheless tolerable, thus appearing to embrace the moral error of approving the doing of evil to bring about good (cf. Romans 3:8). The corrected final version would adopt Pope John Paul II’s teaching that deterrence remains morally acceptable. Msgr. George Kelly recounts the long gestation of the pastoral letters on peace and the economy in his 1990 book, Keeping the Church Catholic with John Paul II.

The most serious difficulty with the economic pastoral appeared in its third draft. That draft seemed to embrace a Malthusian ethos, sounding the alarm “that the earth’s resources are finite and that population growth tends to grow exponentially.” Moreover, it continued, our concern must be for “the quality of human life,” and the Church recognizes “the need for all to exercise responsible parenthood.” Thus, in a couple of brief passages, the drafting committee (headed by Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee) managed to incorporate the favored code words of the proponents of population control, euthanasia, and artificial contraception. However, Archbishop Thomas Donnellan of Atlanta intervened to have the language on population growth ameliorated, to have the reference to “quality of life” omitted, and to have “responsible parenthood” placed in the proper context of the teaching of Pope Paul VI.

The longer the US bishops persisted in crafting wide-ranging pastoral letters, the less fruitful their efforts became. They spent almost nine years working on a letter to address “women’s concerns,” One in Christ Jesus (1992), only to have their final product fail to gain sufficient votes for adoption by the conference as a whole.

Again, early (and widely disseminated) drafts contained questionable passages. For example, the first draft was more a survey of feminist opinion than a teaching document, and it gave voice to several problematic opinions without correcting them. One such opinion was the attribution of the teaching on the male priesthood to cultural conditioning and patriarchy. Another such sentiment was concern “that the dialogue about abortion appears to be closed.” The draft repeatedly referred to sexism as a sin (and a heinous sin), but never used the word sin in any other context, including in its references to abortion, homosexual activity, and artificial contraception. During the long and futile period of drafting, several bishops publicly dissented from the Church’s teaching on the reservation of the priesthood to men (which the first draft tellingly characterized, not as Catholic teaching, but merely as the position of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).

The fourth and final draft of the women’s pastoral was much improved, but remained deficient. When in 1992 the full body of bishops failed to adopt the document, it became a mere report from the bishops’ Committee on Women. Helen Hull Hitchcock of Women for Faith and Family penned the document’s sad epitaph:

After more than eight years, and four official drafts of the bishops’ pastoral letter on “women’s concerns,” we have seen an increase, rather than a decrease, in confusion about the issues with which the pastoral concerns itself … This confusion afflicts not only the laity … but some bishops.

If the efforts of the full body of bishops to produce pastoral letters were flawed or futile, the productions of smaller groupings of bishops—the various committees of the national conference—could be disturbing and even offensive. At least two documents emanating from committees of US bishops during this period were positively scandalous. In The Many Faces of AIDS (1987), the Administrative Board controlled by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago declared that, for those who reject Church teaching on sexual morality, “educational efforts [in Catholic institutions] … could include accurate information about prophylactic devices or other practices proposed by some medical experts as potential means of preventing AIDS.”

The term “other practices” for preventing AIDS, Msgr. Kelly noted, was a transparent euphemism for so-called “safe sex” or “safer sex” techniques to be used by same-sex couples. Lay leaders and numerous individual bishops objected not only to the content of the document, but to the covert way that it had been approved. The full body of bishops never voted on it, but nonetheless The Many Faces of AIDS was promoted as the statement of the full conference of bishops. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith judged that this document not only tolerated evil, but actually facilitated it. Two years later the US bishops would issue a more satisfactory statement on this subject, but The Many Faces of AIDS never was withdrawn and the powerful Cardinal Bernardin continued to defend it.

Ten years later, the bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family, chaired by Bishop Thomas O’Brien of Phoenix, issued a pastoral message addressed to the parents of children manifesting same-sex attraction. The most appalling feature of this statement, Always Our Children (1997), was that it counseled parents that, if they discover their children “experimenting with some homosexual behaviors,” then “the best approach may be a ‘wait and see’ attitude.” Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska issued a justly scathing response: “The document, in a view which is shared by many, is founded on bad advice, mistaken theology, erroneous science, and skewed sociology. It is pastorally helpful in no perceptible way.”

Bishop Bruskewitz went on to call the document “wicked,” and to characterize it as containing “evil advice.” He closed by advising the faithful to ignore or oppose it.

Although Always Our Children was a message from a single committee, rather than the body of Catholic bishops as a whole, this distinction predictably was lost on the media and most of the faithful. Like other similar statements, Always Our Children entered the public consciousness as a pronouncement from “the bishops,” even though most bishops never had seen the text before it was issued or had any opportunity to vote on it. Always Our Children was so flawed that then-Cardinal Ratzinger demanded that it be corrected and reissued the following year.


What finally halted the downward spiral of verbosity, futility, and scandal in the statements of the US bishops’ conference and its committees? The key events were three.

The first was Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Apostolos Suos (1998), which finally reined in the national conferences of bishops and their committees. Almost certainly prompted by the scandal of Always Our Children, the Holy Father declared that committees of bishops enjoyed no teaching authority whatsoever. Moreover, he stated, pronouncements of even the full conference enjoy teaching authority only when the bishops adopt them unanimously (or else by a two-thirds vote with the later recognitio of the Holy See). Most pointedly, the Pope asserted that both the national conferences of bishops and the committees of bishops “exist to be of help to the [individual] bishops and not to substitute for them.”

The second event was the clerical sexual abuse crisis, kindled in Boston in 2002 and soon to blaze all the way to Los Angeles, leaving scarcely any diocese in between unscorched. The abuse crisis raged with fury, but as it raged, so also did it purify. For the most part this purification consisted in the bringing to light of the truth and in the punishment of sexual predators, but a less visible part of the purification has been a reduction and streamlining of the bureaucracy of the US bishops’ conference. This no doubt has resulted from a growing reluctance among the lay faithful to provide financial support for initiatives outside of their own parishes.

However, a more interesting development connected with the abuse crisis has been an apparent change in attitude among many of the bishops—that is, an increase in modesty in deciding when to speak, coupled with an increase in force and clarity when they do speak. Longtime Catholic observers were outraged, though not necessarily surprised, when the University of Notre Dame announced in 2009 that it would confer an honorary doctorate of laws degree on President Barack Obama, the most vehement promoter of abortion ever to ascend to the nation’s highest office. However, the faithful were encouraged and astonished when some 80 of their bishops rebuked and condemned Notre Dame (including about 40 percent of the nation’s diocesan bishops). The faithful appreciated the force and eloquence that many of these statements displayed, but what struck them even more was the sheer number of bishops who stood up against the nation’s flagship Catholic university. These faithful would like to have seen a majority of the nation’s bishops reprove Notre Dame, but they nonetheless were pleased, especially if they remembered the 1970s and 1980s when it was unrealistic to expect more than a handful of bishops publicly to take such counter-cultural stands.

The third significant event has been President Obama’s attack on religious liberty in general and on the Catholic Church in particular. Not all recent threats to religious liberty in America have originated with President Obama, but his administration has accelerated and increased those threats. He has excluded Catholic bishops from participating in federal programs to care for victims of human trafficking, despite the past success of the bishops’ efforts in this area. The Obama administration brought about this exclusion indirectly by means of an unacceptable demand that all participants, including the Catholic bishops, provide referrals for contraception and abortion.

In addition, the administration has attempted to usurp the prerogative of churches to determine the qualifications for their own ministers. The Supreme Court, however, unanimously declared this policy unconstitutional in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2012).

The Obama administration’s most serious threat to religious liberty to date is the provision that has become known as the HHS mandate. In implementing the president’s health-care reform law, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services issued an interim rule in August 2011 requiring employers with health insurance plans to provide free coverage of all FDA-approved methods of contraception, including sterilization and the abortion-inducing drug Ella.

The HHS mandate contains a religious exemption, but a very narrow one. It exempts parishes and dioceses from having to provide contraception, but it does not exempt most other Catholic institutions, such as schools, universities, hospitals, soup kitchens, and crisis pregnancy centers. This is a departure from several decades of federal administrative practice, which until now had provided broad protection to rights of conscience in health-care programs.

It was primarily the HHS mandate that prompted the publication in April 2012 of the statement Our First, Most Cherished Liberty by the U.S. bishops’ ad hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. If the bishops’ modesty and restraint in the decade following the onset of the sexual abuse crisis had given the faithful reason to stop wincing at the publication of bishops’ documents, this recent statement on religious liberty has given them genuine cause for esteem, and even pride.


Why is Most Cherished Liberty such an advance over earlier documents? To begin, the statement is admirably prudent. One of the challenges that bishops face is discerning when to speak on a public issue and when to keep silent. On the one hand an authentic understanding of the claims of Christ reveals that there is no aspect of human life that falls entirely outside of the Church’s purview. In light of this principle, the bishops would seem to have wide latitude in speaking out on social issues. On the other hand, however, it is emphatically the role of the laity to bring the spirit of the Gospel into secular life, and if the bishops speak out on every social issue of note, then the distinctive role of the laity may be obscured and the hierarchy may become overly enmeshed in temporal affairs.

The recent document is prudent because the bishops have judged well that religious liberty is a crucial issue on which their leadership is welcome, and even necessary. Father Richard John Neuhaus once enunciated a clear rule of thumb for bishops’ statements: “When it is not necessary for the Church to speak, it is necessary for the Church not to speak” (cf. First Things, January 1992). This rule may strike some as overly restrictive, but it contains much wisdom, and the bishops seem to have come closer to taking it to heart in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis. Lay Catholics criticized the pastoral letters of the 1980s for exceeding the bishops’ sphere of authority, and although some in the secular press have criticized the bishops’ entry into this debate, Catholics generally recognize that their voice is entirely fitting here.

Another sign of the bishops’ prudence in this document is their poignant call for a “Fortnight for Freedom” from June 21, the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, until the Fourth of July. This was a period of prayer, study, and catechesis on “our Christian and American heritage of liberty.” If the bishops in the 1980s were too willing to delve into the intricacies of public policy, the bishop-authors of Most Cherished Liberty have shown an admirable restraint in searching out their proper place in the debate. To be sure, they do indeed call for a specific political outcome—the repeal of the HHS mandate—but by coupling this call with the inauguration of a period of devotional exercise and liturgical celebration, they make clear in an eloquent way that they are speaking, not as partisans, but as pastors.

In addition to the document’s prudence, the second noteworthy characteristic of the religious liberty statement is its force. The bishops do not shy away from using grave words to address a grave crisis. In addition to calling for a Fortnight for Freedom, the bishops urge another liturgical initiative as well. They ask the clergy to preach about liberty in particular on the Solemnity of Christ the King, a celebration that Pope Pius XI initiated in 1925, and one that the US bishops describe as “a feast born out of totalitarian incursions against religious liberty.” Thus, through their reference to this particular feast as a response to totalitarianism, the bishops unmistakably signal the seriousness of the current threats to religious liberty, but by making this point through liturgical symbolism, they deftly avoid all stridency. (In 2012, the Solemnity of Christ the King falls on November 25.)

The bishops also show force by deploring the duplicity with which the Obama administration has forced the HHS mandate on the country. The mandate is offensive, not only because of its content, but also because of its context. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York (the current president of the US bishops’ conference) reports that President Obama assured him in November 2011 that the implementation of the health care reform law would protect rights of conscience and would not jeopardize the work of Catholic institutions in the fields of education, health care, and service to the poor.

However, the administration’s announcement on January 20, 2012 that the HHS mandate would remain unchanged was a clear repudiation of the president’s assurance to Cardinal Dolan. Following a renewed outcry from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the president announced a so-called “compromise” or “accommodation” on February 10, 2012, but this measure turned out to be nothing more than a cynical ploy and an empty assurance.

The Obama “accommodation” purportedly would spare Catholic institutions from having to provide contraceptives by requiring their insurers to provide them. However, this solution is unacceptable because many Catholic institutions are self-insured, and thus still would be required to provide contraceptives under the so-called “compromise.” In addition, even for those institutions that are not self-insured, they too would end up paying for contraceptives, albeit indirectly, through insurance premiums. In Most Cherished Liberty, the bishops advert to these demeaning and cynical tactics by aptly describing them as “equivocal words and deceptive practices.”

The third notable feature of Most Cherished Liberty is a subtle but important transition that the bishops make in the passage described immediately above. In late 2011 and early 2012, the bishops in their public statements expressed concern primarily with gaining the exemption for Catholic institutions that those entities previously had enjoyed in the administration of federal health care programs. By the time that they issued Most Cherished Liberty in April 2012, however, the bishops were making much broader claims for freedom. That is, they now were seeking not merely a broader exemption to cover a wider range of Catholic institutions, but rather a complete repeal of the HHS mandate.

They had come to realize that an exemption for Catholic institutions would do nothing to protect Catholic individuals, Catholic business owners, or indeed non-Catholics and nonbelievers who equally might have moral objections to including contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs in their health care plans. This deeper appreciation of freedom led the bishops to make their most ringing claim:

In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices. If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. … An unjust law “is no law at all.” It cannot be obeyed, and therefore one does not seek relief from it, but rather its repeal.

This transition is moving and momentous. There was nothing wrong with the bishops’ attempts in late 2011 and early 2012 to protect Catholic institutions, but Most Cherished Liberty goes further by expanding the bishops’ vision to include the conscience rights of all Catholics and indeed all fellow citizens. This shift decisively eliminates all intimations of interest group politics, and it manifests an unmistakable concern for the common good.

The bishops’ emphasis on liberty is a welcome tonal shift from some of their past documents. The pastoral letter on war and peace, issued in the final decade of the Cold War, focused largely on arms control and neglected the moral aspect of the struggle between freedom and authoritarianism. Similarly, their economic pastoral decisively championed governmental intervention into the economy with little or no recognition of the importance of economic liberty for persons and societies.

In this connection, perhaps the most interesting passage of Most Cherished Liberty is the bishops’ historical account of how the very first US bishop, John Carroll, sought the advice of the Jefferson administration as to who should be appointed as the Church’s representative in the regions recently acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Interestingly, today’s bishops cite with approval the decision of Jefferson and his Secretary of State, James Madison, declining to participate in this deliberation and leaving the matter entirely to the Church’s own authority. Although the bishops recount this event as an example of proper governmental respect for religious liberty, the same episode could serve equally well as a helpful memo to self, gently reminding the bishops of their own sometime temptation to rely excessively on governmental solutions and interventions. Such reliance, it now seems undeniable, can entail unacceptable restrictions on the liberty of the people and of the Church.

The fourth and final noteworthy quality of Most Cherished Liberty is its brevity. The peace pastoral comprised 339 numbered paragraphs and 64 pages, while the economic pastoral crossed the finish line at 365 paragraphs and 90 pages. In addition to their other limitations, the pastorals of the 1980s were so tedious as to ensure that only the most diligent (and lonely) Catholics actually would read them. By contrast, the Bishops’ ad hoc Committee for Religious Liberty has produced an interesting and readable document of a spare 12 pages.

Of course, the statement’s brevity is praiseworthy not merely for the sake of comfort, but also because it helps to make the document accessible to the greatest possible number of the faithful. With little fear of contradiction, one fairly could describe Most Cherished Liberty as the only document ever issued by the bishops’ conference or one of its committees that leaves the reader wanting more.


Many Catholic commentators on the dispute between the Church and the Obama administration over the HHS mandate have noted that the real issue is not contraception, but religious liberty. And so it is.

However, astute observers note that the administration appears to have chosen this particular fight with impressive cunning. Cardinal Dolan has stated his belief that the Obama administration targeted the Church on the issue of contraception precisely because of the unpopularity of her teaching on this subject, even among the Catholic laity. This is the Church’s weakest point, and the one at which it must appear most tempting to try to divide lay Catholics from their bishops.

Why is Catholic teaching against artificial contraception so little understood and so little defended? Cardinal Dolan frankly acknowledges that, since Humanae Vitae (1968), US bishops largely have failed to transmit to the faithful the Church’s teaching on sexual morality in general, and on artificial contraception in particular. Moreover, one could add, they have failed, not because their attempts to transmit the teaching of Humanae Vitae have proven unsuccessful, but rather because those attempts have been practically nonexistent. The typical American bishop has not gone down swinging, but rather with his bat on his shoulder. Moreover, the isolated bishops who did promote this teaching, such as Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle of Washington, DC, received little support from their brother bishops.

What were the American bishops doing while they weren’t transmitting the teaching of Humanae vitae? In the three decades following that encyclical, they—at least through their national conference and its powerful leaders, Cardinal John Dearden of Detroit, Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, and their protégés—were legitimizing dissent against Humanae Vitae, holding a Call to Action conference that would develop into a full-fledged movement of dissent, writing verbose pastoral letters on arms control and the economy, and spending nine years in an ill-fated attempt to craft a letter on “women’s concerns.” In addition, as discussed in part I of this essay, some individual bishops and committees of the national conference were taking public positions that posed positive dangers to the authentic faith of Catholics.

This apparent disinterest in the teaching office is striking for many reasons, but most of all because the leaders of the Dearden-Bernardin generation of bishops purported to identify themselves so emphatically with the Second Vatican Council. However, that Council, in discussing the role of the bishop, gave pride of place to his teaching office (cf. Christus Dominus, 12-14). By contrast, the documents surveyed in part I above suggest that, as a national body, the US bishops’ priorities were those, not of teachers, but rather of activists, policy wonks, sociologists, and perhaps even therapists. Some of the efforts of the US conference in this period may have been worthy, but even among these, some more wisely might have been left to the laity. As a result of the large-scale failure of the American bishops effectively to transmit Catholic teaching on sexual morality, the period of 1968 to 1998 might be called the Age of Distraction.

Given these sobering reflections on recent Church history in America, is it wise to speculate that Most Cherished Liberty truly may have closed out the Age of Distraction and inaugurated a new era of clarity and courage? Needless to say, this remains to be seen. A single document does not a new era make.

However, one possible gauge of how this question may be answered is the development of the US bishops’ understanding of their own role as bishops. History rarely provides second chances, but it seems that a generous Providence indeed may be granting to the American bishops a second chance to embrace and defend the long neglected teaching of Humanae Vitae. If Catholics see their bishops seizing this opportunity and rising to this challenge—rising in the pulpit, rising in the public square, and raising their pens to write lucid and inspiring pastoral letters on marriage and sexual morality—then it will be clear to Catholics and their fellow citizens that the American bishops do indeed mean to teach in earnest and to usher in an Age of Clarity and Courage.

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About R. Michael Dunnigan 9 Articles
R. Michael Dunnigan is a canon lawyer and a civil lawyer, and he lives and works in Indiana.