Deal Hudson and those “liberal” U.S. Bishops

Deal Hudson and those “liberal” U.S. Bishops June 12, 2008

I am a third of the way through Deal Hudson’s new book, Onward Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States. I started reading the book with high expectations, and I continue to be impressed with how Hudson portrays the inception of the “Religious Right” in the United States, especially in terms of its Evangelical roots. As a Catholic, Hudson is also intent on describing the role Catholicism in the U.S. has played in the religious conservative moment. That is precisely where things get messy.

A serious problem with his book is one with which I think any thinking Catholic would take issue irrespective of his/her political leanings. Hudson betrays a real inability to think by the light of Catholic faith and its recent American history without refracting it through the conservative Evangelical prism of which he was so long a part. Like so many founders of the Religious Right, despite affirming the distinction, Hudson cannot labor hard enough through the arduous task of distinguishing doctrinal orthodoxy, political conservativism and party politics. The result is a fusion of politics and faith within which the heterodox/liberal/Democratic and orthodox/conservative/Republican dichotomy obtains. The terms of these dichotomies appear to be static in Hudson’s presentation, which is inevitably reductionist and superficial.

Perhaps this unfortunate feature of Hudson’s book is exhibited no more noticeably than in his portrayal of the U.S. bishops and their pastoral work in the 1970s and ’80s. Describing the establishment of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) and the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) in 1966, which were later combined to form the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) in 2001, Hudson claims that both were “aligned” with the Democratic Party. Without offering any source or press release from the USCC or NCCB to support his assertion, Hudson broadly strokes:

Both Catholic conferences were closely aligned with the Democratic Party from their inception, which is only to be expected given the historic relationship of Catholics and Democrats. According to the only major study of the public-policy positions of the bishops, 1979 marked the year that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the U.S. Catholic Conference declared their adoption of “liberal policy prescriptions,” as exemplified in their 1979 pastor letter, “Brothers and Sisters to US.” (Hudson, 17)

The now well-known description of the Conferences as “the Democratic Party at prayer” was elicited by eight years of unrelenting attacks on the Republican administration by Catholic bishops and Conference staffers. (Hudson, 18)

Conference staffers were alarmed by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and for the next eight years did everything they could do thwart his administration.

The bishops’ major pastoral letters of the ’80s, one on war and peace, another on justice and the economy, were aimed at the heart of the Reagan agenda, with the hope that Catholic voters would return to the Democratic Party. (Hudson, 20)

Now, in a blog post at Inside Catholic, such a sweeping generalization without documentation is expected and accepted. But in a 350+ page book on the presence of Catholics and Evangelicals in the public square, such a maneuver is irresponsible and insipid. The “major study” to which Hudson refers is Michael Warner’s uncorroborated Changing Witness: Catholic Bishops and Public Policy, 1917-1994 published by the slightly partisan Ethics and Public Policy Center. But, for the moment, let us pretend that Warner’s study had undergone extensive peer review and was distributed by a universally respected publisher or academic press: Hudson still fails to provide any substance for claiming that the U.S. bishops shilled for Democrats from 1966 on through the 1980s.

The only reference to any episcopal writing Hudson can muster is an brief section of the 1979 pastoral letter on racism and discrimination, “Brothers and Sisters to Us.” This particular letter, which cites extensively from Pope John Paul II and the Second Vatican Council, addresses a timely issue (penned less than two decades removed from the Civil Rights Movement) that the Catholic Church describes as a grave sin. The following passage from Gaudium et spes prepares the letter’s departure: “Nevertheless, with respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent” (no. 29).

Parenthetically, it is interesting to note that Hudson points to “Brothers and Sisters to Us” as embodying the defection of the U.S. bishops toward the political positions he abhors, and yet he spends a good amount of time attempting to exonerate the Religious Right from the charges of racism that have dogged it since its opposition to President Jimmy Carter’s plan to strip segregated private schools of their tax exempt status. Of course, Hudson does not want to challenge the evil of racism, for that would play against his intention to bolster the cause of the Religious Right. What Hudson does actually highlight in “Brothers and Sisters to Us” is the following passage:

The structures of our society are subtly racist, for these structures reflect the values which society upholds. They are geared to the success of the majority and the failure of the minority. Members of both groups give unwitting approval by accepting things as they are. Perhaps no single individual is to blame. The sinfulness is often anonymous but nonetheless real. The sin is social in nature in that each of us, in varying degrees, is responsible. All of us in some measure are accomplices.

In a rather irreverent manner that is apropos of his intentions, Hudson expounds on the bishops’ teaching:

For the bishops, sin was not confined to the individual person. Sin now existed in social structures–and every individual who lived within these structures was guilty of “anonymous sin,” whatever that is. Thus, it was no longer enough for someone to cultivate love for God and one’s neighbor; suddenly it was necessary to change social “structures.” People are not the only racists; social structures themselves are racist. And, of course, it falls to the federal government to reengineer society through its various means of redistributing income and giving preferential treatment to groups claiming discrimination. Catholics were left in the odd position of overcoming their sin by demanding that the federal government use its power to restructure society according to the vision of the Bishops Conference. (Hudson, 17-18)

Lots wrong here, of course, but let us only be detained by a few points. First, the bishops are indeed teaching that there is such a thing as sinful social structures in which many of us participate. Here, they are actually anticipating what John Paul II would later authoritatively describe and descry in the 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis:

If the present situation can be attributed to difficulties of various kinds, it is not out of place to speak of “structures of sin,” which, as I stated in my Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, are rooted in personal sin, and thus always linked to the concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them and make them difficult to remove. And thus they grow stronger, spread, and become the source of other sins, and so influence people’s behavior.

“Sin” and “structures of sin” are categories which are seldom applied to the situation of the contemporary world. However, one cannot easily gain a profound understanding of the reality that confronts us unless we give a name to the root of the evils which afflict us.

In this consists the difference between sociopolitical analysis and formal reference to “sin” and the “structures of sin.” According to this latter viewpoint, there enter in the will of the Triune God, his plan for humanity, his justice and his mercy. The God who is rich in mercy, the Redeemer of man, the Lord and giver of life, requires from people clear cut attitudes which express themselves also in actions or omissions toward one’s neighbor. We have here a reference to the “second tablet” of the Ten Commandments (cf. Ex 20:12-17; Dt 5:16-21). Not to observe these is to offend God and hurt one’s neighbor, and to introduce into the world influences and obstacles which go far beyond the actions and brief life span of an individual. This also involves interference in the process of the development of peoples, the delay or slowness of which must be judged also in this light. (no. 36)

The funny thing is, Hudson attempts to divide the U.S. bishops and John Paul II, attributing to the latter the revitalization of conservativism among American Catholics:

John Paul II set out to restore the traditional moral and social teaching of the Catholic Church, which he called the “culture of life.” In this act of restoration, which he considered the true “spirit” of Vatican II, John Paul II empowered a movement of religious conservativism among Catholics that started down the political path cleared by Evangelicals in the late ’70s and early ’80s. (Hudson, 22)

Yet, John Paul II affirms the one teaching of the U.S. bishops that Hudson cites as indicative of their shift to the Left! Perhaps if Hudson had studied more carefully the pastoral letters of the U.S. bishops in tandem with the social statements and encyclicals of Pope John Paul II, he would have realized that the NCCB/USCC and the Holy Father formed a very united front against social and moral sins throughout the 1980s. If anything, the U.S. bishops showed themselves to be in step with Pope John Paul II on social concerns.

Another problem with Hudson’s caricature of the U.S. bishops’ teaching on structures of sin is his seeming inability to understand the difference between religious and moral approaches to their uprooting on the one hand, and reliance on the arm of government to do the job on the other. Nowhere do the U.S. bishops call on the “federal government to reengineer society.” Rather, Hudson is dishonestly perpetuating his myth that the U.S. bishops aligned themselves with the Democratic Party and, ispo facto, sought solutions to religious and moral dilemmas through government intervention.

It seems to me that despite his claim that “whatever form of conservativism I possess was not shaped directly by politics” (p. xix), Hudson fundamentally lacks the ability to distinguish between Catholic social teaching and the American political matrix. This would go far in explaining both his relentless criticism of the U.S. bishops, his preoccupation with betrothing the Religious Right with doctrinal orthodoxy, and his deep seeded desire to truncate the Catholic ethic of life to a form that resembles the pro-life platform of the Evangelicals of the Religious Right (hence, I claim that Hudson refracts Catholic teaching through the Evangelical prism). Consider Hudson’s depiction of the U.S. bishops’ drift away from the pro-life movement:

The representation of the faith by the Conference in the late ’70s was replaced with a social service and civil rights mission. The Conference contributed to the public misperception that pro-lifers were not active in feeding, clothing, and educating the poor. That being pro-life was represented, in and of itself, as a dereliction of Catholic duty made it possible to depict pro-lifers as “sinful.” The USCCB began a crusade to make the catechetical and scriptural teachings on the sanctity of life a political and in fact “Republican” issue that should be alienated from Catholic theology and academics. (Hudson, 18)

In spite of Bernardin’s intentions, the broadening of the pro-life position enabled the Catholic Conferences to back away from the abortion issue and distance themselves from pro-life activists who were demanding more action from the bishops.

The American bishops, who truly can be credited for helping to lead the pro-life movement after Roe v. Wade, gradually withdrew from grassroots involvement to attend to what they considered larger matters. (Hudson, 22)

Of course, the notion that the U.S. bishops painted being “pro-life” in the Religious Right sense “sinful” is ridiculous, unwarranted, and uncharitable. What a serious charge accompanied by such superficial reasoning. Here Hudson sets up the U.S. bishops of the ’70s and ’80s against the pro-life movement in an attempt to consolidate his opinion that they were liberal Democrats. Of course, nothing is further than the truth.

In 1974, the U.S. bishops widely circulated and promoted the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s “Declaration on Procured Abortion.” In 1984, the NCCB issued its “Guidelines for Legislation on Life-Sustaining Treatment.” In 1985 came its “Statement on Uniform Rights of the Terminally Ill Act.” In 1989–the first year of Republican George H.W. Bush’s presidency–the U.S. bishops released their “Resolution on Abortion,” which highlights the legal dimensions and ramifications of abortion-on-demand in the United States. These were pivotal documents, showing the NCCB and USCC to be stalwart defenders of life from the time of Roe v. Wade through the presidency of the first Bush. Hudson either ignores or is ignorant of the existence of these documents, which raises serious quesitons about his aptitude in judging the efforts of the Catholic Church in the pro-life cause.

Perhaps the most absurd claim levelled by Hudson in the first 100 pages of his book is this little gem:

The new Bishops Conference and especially the staffers at the U.S. Conference didn’t have much time for Aquinas, Leo XIII, or his magisterial encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891). The U.S. Catholic Church was, at this moment, looking only ahead, not backward. It was enveloped in a progressive, sometimes revolutionary mood following Vatican II. (Hudson, 19)

I think there is a lot going on here in Hudson’s head that is not fully thought through. For instance, is Rerum Novarum–the Magna Carta of Catholic Social Teaching– a Thomist document? I think Hudson, perhaps in haste, wrote this passage in light of Pope Leo XIII’s mission to revitalize Thomistic studies in the seminaries with his 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris. Perhaps taking for granted Pope Leo XIII’s affinity for Thomism, Hudson assumed (wrongly) that Rerum Novarum would bear a distinctively Thomistic stamp. This is not to say that Rerum Novarum is incompatible with Thomism, but it is to say that it marked a watershed moment in the Catholic Church were modern social doctrine was first conceived. Rerum Novarum is a document that confronts modern issues in labor, politics, and society–issues taken up resiliently by the NCBB and USCC throughout the ’60s, ’70’s, ’80’s, and even today.

Perhaps the most forceful and enlightened statement by the NCBB was the 1986 pastor letter “Economic Justice for All,” which drank deeply of the encyclical tradition. Hudson refers to this letter as one of two that attacked the Reagan Administration (“The Bishops Conference would find out that Reagan Democrats could not be won back to the Democratic Party with liberal pastorals on peace and economic justice” [Hudson, 25]) Hudson’s reckless claim that the NCCB “didn’t have much time” for Rerum Novarum is either a lie or an outright display of ignorance. “Economic Justice for All” quotes Rerum Novarum directly a number of times, relying upon the encyclical at its most critical points:

And beginning with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, down to the writings and speeches of John Paul II, the popes have more systematically addressed the rapid change of modern society in a series of social encyclicals. These teachings of the modern popes and of the Second Vatican Council are especially significant for efforts to respond to the problems facing society today. (no. 59)

Because work is this important, people have a right to employment. In return for their labor, workers have a right to wages and other benefits sufficient to sustain life in dignity. As Pope Leo XIII stated, every working person has “the right of securing things to sustain life”. The way power is distributed in a free market economy frequently gives employers greater bargaining power than employees in the negotiation of labor contracts. Such unequal power may press workers into a choice between an inadequate wage or no wage at all. But justice, not charity, demands certain minimum wage guarantees. The provision of wages and other benefits sufficient to support a family in dignity is a basic necessity to prevent this exploitation of workers. The dignity of workers also requires adequate health care, security for old age or disability, unemployment compensation, healthful working conditions, weekly rest, periodic holidays for recreation and leisure, and reasonable security against arbitrary dismissal. These provisions are all essential if workers are to be treated as persons rather than simply a “factor of production.” (no. 103)

Recent experience has shown that both labor and management suffer when the adversarial relationship between them becomes extreme. As Pope Leo XIII stated, “Each needs the other completely: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital”. The organization of firms should reflect and enhance this mutual partnership. In particular, the development of work patterns for men and women that are more supportive of family life will benefit both employees and the enterprises they work for. (no. 299)

In Rerum Novarum Pope Leo XIII set down the basic norm that determines when government intervention is called for: “If, therefore, any injury has been done to or threatens either the common good or the interests of individual groups, which injury cannot in any other way be repaired or prevented, it is necessary for public authority to intervene” Rerum Novarum, 52. (fn 74)

“Economic Justice for All” is also saturated with the social teachings of Popes Pius XI, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II. So much for Hudson’s attempt to create an abyss between the mind of the NCCB and those of the popes.

So the question is: How is that the Deal Hudson is so blatantly in error when it comes to the activities and statements of the U.S. bishops during the ’70s and ’80s? First, I think a lot has to do with the fact that Hudson was not Catholic during these tumultuous decades. His understanding of the realities of American Catholicism during this period is largely borrowed from others, and his sources are certainly not the most objective (Paul Weyrich, Phyllis Schlafly, Michael Warner).

Second, I do not really believe that Hudson understands Catholic pro-life teaching. Like so many other conservative Catholics, Hudson substitutes the restricted Religious Right version of “pro-life,” which takes abortion and euthanasia as the only real pro-life issues, for the authenticly Catholic one. Hence, you will find no official Catholic doctrinal statement that extracts abortion from other life issues such as the death penalty and war. From Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae to Pope Benedict XVI’s public works, life’s dignity is never on hiatus at any stage or circumstance.

Third, Hudson seems to be disenchanted on account of the U.S. bishops’ choice not to become part of or support the Religious Right, which lined itself up with the Republican Party in the late ’70s, early ’80s. On account of its political neutrality and Hudson’s tendency to conflate social doctrine with political allegience, he appears unable to think past “you’re either for us or you’re against us.” Thus, in Hudson’s odd logic, the U.S. bishops looked awfully liberal and Democratic because of the breadth of issues they addressed and their refusal to grant a privileged place to those Catholics who locked arms with Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Ed McAteer. Consequently, the inherently Catholic themes in the NCCB and USCC statements on war, peace, economics, and social structures were mistaken as liberal, Democratic (and, therefore, anti-Reagan) because they are so alien to Hudson’s politico-religious fusionism.

After work today I’ll read the second third of the book. Perhaps things will get better from here.


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