American bishops and Ronald Reagan


Catholic bishops share in the charism of infallibility when they speak on faith and morals, in conjunction with the Holy Father. That is part of the magisterium, the teaching authority by which we know the pure truth of the Gospel. That magisterium cannot be broken because it comes from God himself (Mt 16:18).

When they stray from faith and morals, bishops are no more likely to be free from error than any other well-informed people. On many important subjects in the 1970s and '80s, American bishops brought their prestige to bear against many policies Ronald Reagan favored. Some examples of their stances:

1. The American government should not deploy nuclear weapons even if they are possessed for defensive purposes.

2. Firearms in private hands should be strictly regulated, and cheap handguns should be banned.

3. Persons receiving monetary support ("welfare") from the government are entitled to that support, even if they are capable of working.

4. Money spent on national defense should be diverted to "human needs."

Some have suggested that the bishops' decline in influence is because of "the scandal," the reshuffling of predatory homosexual priests. That is a recent development. The main problem is the bishops' concern with being "relevant" and speaking confidently on issues in which they have no particular competence (arms control, economics) and going soft on subjects where they not only have competence, but a divine mandate to explain (contraception, divorce, homosexual behavior).

Much as it pains me to say, where they disagreed, Reagan was mostly right, and the bishops mostly wrong. The bishops don't need better analysts -- they simply need to narrow their focus to the eternal things, and leave petty politics to the politicians.

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I have to agree with you. Reagan was right on these issues. The bishops seemed to be going with the times and with the world. And as usual, the times and the world were wrong, and so were the bishops.

Even with the homosexual scandal (its not a pedophile scandal... most of the victims were teenage boys), the bishops were listening to what the world, in the guise of psychologists and psychiatrists, said to do with those offenders. These are the same pyschologists and psychiatrists who say homosexuality, and transexualism are normal, too. In the case of the scandal, they should have looked to the teachings of the faith, not to what these psychobabblers had to say.

Some of the bishops seem to be growing spines and looking to their responsibilities of being a shepherd. Others still don't get it, and seem almost willful in their desire not to get it.

Like you, G.K., I see things changing for the better, too, but as recently as 2000 the bishops' conference issued this statement:

"However, we believe that in the long run and with few exceptions (i.e., police officers, military use), handguns should be eliminated from our society."

(Footnote 36, found in

Imagine them issuing this statement:

"However, we believe that in the long run and with few exceptions (i.e., severe physical abuse, complete family abandonment), divorce should be eliminated from our society."

Still hard to imagine, eh?

Civilian gun confiscation seems incompatible with Scriptural teaching. God instituted government of men to punish the wicked, not the innocent. It is the innocent who are unjustly treated by gun-confiscation in the name of gun control, for they are left to be defenseless against the depravity of wicked men.

Excellent observations by everyone. I don't think I've seen a better brief summary of Reagan's differences with the US Bishops than yours, Eric. It mirrors excatly how I see the situation.

As a teenager, I wasn't very devout beyond Sunday Mass attendance. But I instinctively knew, by both reason and grace, that Reagan was right on the matters you mention and the US bishops were wrong. Reagan's arms buildup, including nuclear arms, was undertaken primarily upon the expectation that they would not be used.

Deterrence means that you expect *not* to use the weapons in question. But without their presence, a malevolent aggressor (and the Soviet Union could not accurately be thought of as anything else) can be sorely tempted to use his weapons of mass destruction. Reagan had a *grave moral obligation* to build up the US military, nuclear weapons and all, in order to protect the common good.

Again, Reagan was right, and his critics wrong. Part of the reason I lack some Catholics' unwillingness to criticize bad actions or teachings by individual US bishops or the USCCB is that I grew up understanding that they were anything but infallible.

Plus, if you will recall, Reagan HATED nuclear weapons and wanted to find a "trust but verify" sorta way to bilaterally disarm nukes. This is a policy he was able to begin with the START I Treaty, which was backed by the political, technological, and financial resolve to construct the SDI ballistic missile defense system.

Reagan's speeches made abundantly clear he hated the idea of nuclear war and the death and misery that would inevitably happen in its aftermath. That's why he wanted to replace the Mutually Assured Destruction policy with one of strategic missile defense, and what he went from talks on limiting nuclear arms production to reducing nuclear arms stockpiles.

Eric, I really have to smile at the idea of nuclear weapons as defensive weapons. Do you really think it's moral to threaten your neighbor with nuclear destruction?

That's a complex issue, Gordon. It is objectively immoral to target innocent civilian populations for destruction. That's an actual Church teaching. That would seem to preclude the use of big "strategic" nuclear weapons against cities.

But what about the use of strategic nukes against large military targets, like military bases or missile fields? It doesn't seem like that's an illegitimate use.

What about using tactical nuclear weapons to destroy troop formations or concentrations of tanks?

What about using low-yield, bunker-busting nukes to take out underground chemical, biological, or nuclear sites without harming nearby populations?

The total destructive capacity of the U.S. nuclear stockpile dropped by half from the 1950s to the 1980s. The delivery systems had become more accurate, lessening the need for gigantic bombs that destroyed large parts of the landscape. If the Cold War continued, it's possible that missiles could have become accurate enoughto destroy large military facilities without eradicating adjacent cities. Hydrogen bombs don't leave too much radiation behind, so it wouldn't have even rendered the land uninhabitable for more than a few years.

Given all that, yes, I think it is entirely possible to consider nuclear weapons to be defensive. More than anything else, it's the intent of the user that makes it offensive or defensive. NATO nukes were kept to deter Soviet aggression; Soviet nukes were built to threaten Western Europe and Asia.

Has anyone ever read Pius XII on Hiroshima and Nagasaki??

I bet somebody has.

Considering the entire Japanese population -- including women, children, and the elderly -- were being trained to use sharp sticks to kill the invaders when the Americans landed, the distinction between combatant and noncombatant was blurry if not non-existent. That was not the case in the destruction of German cities, where the populace was not being mobilized.

Eric, I don't think you can justify the incredible damage to non-combatants even from tactical nukes -- radiation, mostly (fallout). It's certainly true that some real progress on disarmament was made in the Reagan years (and a lot by the current president, not that anyone seems to notice), but I think it was not at all out of bounds for the bishops to comment on nuclear weapons -- indeed, I think it was their obligation, just as it was for them to comment on the economy.

Do you really want to say that Pope Alexander VI (the Borgia Pope) was infallible on morals? Get a history book now, before you answer.

Somehow in the last 40 years, we've picked up *super-infallibility.* I'm astonished at this.

Catholics need to study more history. The church has guarantees in scripture but they are not this wide-sweeping, trust me or look it up. Bishops are an interesting lot, historically. There have been some real corkers--heck there's been rooms, mobs, crowds of corkers.

Except when the bishops comment on the economy, no one pays attention, because they don't know what they're talking about.

Reagan was very interested in moving beyond mutually assured destruction with nuclear weapons with the SDI. Of course, the bishops had nothing interesting to add to that debate. The credible threat to use nuclear weapons was an integral part of the strategy that contained the Soviet Union until it collapsed. Following the bishops lead in the early eighties would have had disatrous consequences. What ever happened to the threat of nuclear war? It evaporated because the enemy collapsed from internal and external pressures - not because of pious moralizing. Even the use of nuclear weapons falls into the category of prudential judgments.

I don't completely disagree with you, Gordon. The use of nuclear weapons was something the bishops should have commented upon. However, they were calling for unilateral disarmament, more or less, and as Charles points out, that would have meant the Soviet Union would not have collapsed. Nuclear weapons have ceased to be a global threat in large part because we had a convincing storehouse of nuclear weapons. Had the bishops issued a cautionary directive, as they did on the Iraq War, that would have been appropriate, but to put the full moral weight of their offices behind disarmament was imprudent, to be kind.

michigancatholic, I'm aware of Alexander VI's less-than-exemplary life (though did you know he called for reform of the Church, along many of the same lines that Martin Luther proposed several decades later?) You might think about the difference between impeccability and infallibility. The former means "incapable of sinning," which neither Alexander VI nor any other pope can rightly claim. Infallibility is the Holy Spirit guarding against the pope teaching error when he is 1) teaching about faith and morals; 2) speaking from his authority as the Holy Father; and 3) addressing a matter publicly.

There have been a handful of popes who were guilty of grave crimes, but none of them attempted to reverse Catholic doctrine on the moral questions involved. So while Alexander VI might have been unchaste, he did not teach that chastity was no longer a Christian virtue or that fornication was no longer a vice.

As an economist, I am totally in agreement with you on the bishops' errors on economic matters. Though I am no expert on gun rights, what part of the second amendment do the bishops not understand? While there appear to be questions of morality associated with the arms build up and what COULD have occurred, history has proven Reagan right about his arms build-up.

I also would rather see statements such as the one about eliminating divorce, or abortion, etc... Then the bishops would have great credibility.

Unfortunately, Peggy, the bishops, their chancery staffs, and the USCCB, have spent a generation essentially forming themselves to the culture. They have read Vatican II precisely the opposite of what it read. To make "the joy and hope, grief and anguish of the world the joy and hope, grief and anguish of the Church" means to give strong witness of Christ in service to the world, not become like the world.

Also, the Church bureaucracy largely consists of Democrats. They don't talk about this openly, but their statements and perspectives largely reflect the Democratic Party's viewpoints. It's why we get statements trying to equate Democratic platform items with Church teaching, instead of bold teaching about salvation in Christ, personal morality, and healthy family life.

Which is why it's so amusing to read the accusations of poorly-informed journalists that somehow, four diocesan bishops out of 195 calling for refusal of Communion to pro-abortion politicians is somehow "the Church aligning itself with the Republican Party." Even all 195 doing so wouldn't mean that, as there are plenty of pro-abortion Republicans out there, including Catholics like Susan Collins.

Fr. Sirico's famous side-by-side comparison of the USCCB's election-year letter with the Democratic Party Platform in First Things a few years ago was a very accurate and damning article. The USCCB's response in a subsequent issue was utterly unconvincing.

Sometimes the USCCB staff doesn't even bother to conceal their plagiarism of Democratic talking points. They call for "sensible gun laws" in the document I referenced, which is the exact phrase the Dems always use.

Actually, I think the current state of the American Church makes the Borgias look pretty good. Alexander VI knew he was a sinner and I am unaware of any attempt by him to change Church teaching to suit his sins. Now, if only we could send Ceasare to Albany or LA to investigate what is going on . . .

Investigate or root out?

I vote for root out. Don't forget the seminaries while they're at it. Tear gas might be needed.

Speaking of which, there's been talk of another seminary visitation, which was done last in the 1980's. Don't pin too much hope on that. The last one got completely hijacked and produced a whitewash report. Neither Rome nor the USCCB have changed their way of doing things since then, and there's little reason to think another visitation would produce any better results than the last. Vocal public criticism is the only tack that seems to produce results these days.

What? Who?

On life and living in communion with the Catholic Church.

John Schultz

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This page contains a single entry by Eric Johnson published on June 7, 2004 11:24 AM.

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