Desperately Seeking the Mainline?
Roman Catholic Bishops & the National Council of Churches
by Mark Tooley
In November 1998, for the second year in a row, a representative from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops delivered formal greetings to the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches (NCC).
Bishop Timothy Joseph, a retired auxiliary bishop from Chicago, said his fellow bishops had so appreciated the visit by NCC officers to the Catholic bishops’ meeting in 1997 that they suggested the two bodies now exchange greetings every year.
Bishop Joseph told the NCC that Catholic bishops are “happy” about the continuing Catholic “collaboration” with the mostly Protestant NCC. In another symbol of that cooperation, the NCC’s next president, former US Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, will be installed into his new office at a service at the Catholic cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio, in November.
The courtesies exchanged between the NCC and the Catholic bishops represent a deeper and growing cooperation between the New York-based NCC and the staff of the Washington-based United States Catholic Conference (USCC), which is supposed to implement the policies of the Catholic bishops.
From environmentalism to welfare reform, from racial justice to demands for political “civility,” the NCC and the USCC find themselves working increasingly in tandem. The cooperation between American Catholicism’s public policy arm and the NCC might have been understandable 30 or 40 years ago, when the NCC still could claim to speak for America’s Protestant majority and was a serious player in the arenas of civil rights and foreign policy.
Today, the NCC is a shadow of its former self. Fewer than one third of America’s church members belong to NCC denominations, whose flagship churches (United Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians) have suffered steep decline. And even among its own claimed constituency, the NCC bureaucracy is largely irrelevant. Mainline (or oldline) Protestants continue to vote and express their faith in ways very much at odds with their denominational representatives in the NCC.
So why the enhanced Catholic cooperation with an NCC that often lacks respect even among its secular left friends? Why is the USCC not instead seeking common ground with more robust Christian bodies such as the Southern Baptist Convention (America’s largest Protestant group), the National Association of Evangelicals, or the Pentecostal community? Why little to no cooperation with groups such as Focus on the Family, American Family Association, Family Research Council, or even the Christian Coalition? These groups are closer to Catholic teaching on moral and cultural issues, and they flex more political muscle than the NCC of today.
The answer would seem to be that the USCC staff prefers the left-leaning economic and foreign policy views of the NCC to the social and theological conservatism of the Christian Right. USCC personnel are supposed to represent America’s nearly 400 active and retired Catholic bishops. Not content with the already liberal-leaning statements by their bishops on disarmament, health care, and welfare, the staff has employed ecumenical cooperation with the NCC to justify policies even further to the left.
Meanwhile, social issues involving abortion, homosexuality, and pornography are often downplayed by the USCC so as not to disrupt its relations with the NCC. As Michael Warner writes in Changing Witness: Catholic Bishops and Public Policy 1917–1994, many on the USCC staff despair of winning the struggle against abortion and feel that it is a needless obstacle to ecumenical cooperation.
The growing USCC-NCC alliance could play out in one of two directions. As the public policy voice for one leg in America’s religious triad of Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, and Catholics, the USCC may, in tilting towards the NCC, create a permanent alliance that resuscitates the Religious Left and counteracts surging evangelical influence. Liberal Protestant spokesmen certainly hope so, and they increasingly cite USCC support when their theological orthodoxy or political temperance is questioned by conservative critics.
But more likely, USCC favoritism towards the expiring bureaucracies of liberal Protestantism has signaled a decline in the USCC’s own relevance to the Catholic Church and its political engagement in America. As Catholic laity and clergy more closely examine their Church’s public policy arm, they may realize that a USCC-NCC alliance does not represent the mainstreaming of American Catholicism into American culture.
Instead, the alliance points to a dangerous compromise with America’s decadent popular culture, one of whose chief causes was the collapse of a vibrant Christian orthodoxy within the mainline churches. Is the NCC, with its emphasis on liberal social action as opposed to sound (and in its view, divisive) theology, an example that American Catholics wish their own church curia to follow?
Consultation between the NCC and USCC has existed for decades, with the NCC long harboring hopes for full Catholic participation as a member church. Some overt cooperation between the NCC and USCC occurred during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. But formal cooperation in recent years did not begin until 1993, when the USCC joined with the NCC and the Synagogue Council of America in “A Call to the Common Ground for the Common Good.”
Although lacking specific policy proposals, the call sought to start a “fresh debate over the renewal of the general welfare,” which it linked to a government guarantee of minimum living standards and health care for all persons. Popularly acclaimed as a moral counter-force to the Religious Right by the religious “mainstream,” the document focused on the “option for the poor,” whose material plight is a “crucial moral test” for the nation. Food stamps, Medicare, and Medicaid were defended as vital pillars of America’s moral legitimacy.
Spiritual and moral problems received scant attention in the document. Abortion was unmentioned. So too were the decline of the two-parent family, pornography, homosexuality, illegal narcotics, crime, and other issues that most American Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, might list as they ponder their country’s social ills.
“Our national social deficits are as important as our fiscal deficits,” declared NCC General Secretary Joan Brown Campbell, who not atypically served as the main spokesman. “The issue before us is: whence comes the moral voice to raise with equal passion the issue of the social deficit?” Then USCC general secretary Robert Lynch acclaimed the call as “a wonderful first step” and a “love letter from your general secretaries” to the 100 million church members that the NCC and the USCC ostensibly represent.
Similar cooperation was repeated when the USCC joined the NCC and 300 other nonprofit, mostly liberal advocacy groups in opposing Representative Ernest Istook’s proposed bill in 1995 to limit the lobbying activity of charitable groups that receive federal funding. In so doing, the USCC tacitly agreed with the NCC that church charities should depend on federal funding, even at the price of abandoning their original evangelistic purposes. Correspondingly, Catholic Charities has compromised itself to gain federal dollars to no less an extent than the NCC’s Church World Service.
Throughout the final years of the cold war, the NCC adamantly opposed US military and diplomatic efforts to counter Soviet expansionism. Direct US military intervention, from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf, was vociferously denounced. The USCC was more restrained on these issues. But with the cold war’s end, the NCC and USCC have found common ground in endorsing US military multilateral efforts in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. In late 1995, the USCC joined with the presidents of the NCC and the American Muslim Council to endorse the dispatch of US troops to Bosnia.
In July 1996, as Congress was on the verge of passing landmark welfare reform legislation, USCC Secretary for Social Development and World Peace John Carr joined with NCC General Secretary Joan Campbell at a joint press conference to denounce the action, with the hope of persuading President Clinton to veto it. “This bill is . . . a bunch of soundbites thrown together as a piece of legislation,” complained Carr. “It reflects the needs of politicians rather than the needs of the poor.” He alleged that the bill would “destroy the national safety net.”
Campbell agreed, warning that the legislation would violate “the moral vision that has led us to craft a society committed to providing for and protecting the poor, the vulnerable, the children, the elderly, the strangers in our midst.”
In the midst of the 1996 presidential campaign, Campbell joined with the USCC’s Dennis Schnurr and the National Council of Synagogues in issuing “An Interfaith Call for Civility in Public Life.” “We regret the empty rhetoric, polarizing tactics, misleading advertisements and dirty tricks that weaken our democracy and breed contempt for the political process,” it opined. “These tactics contradict the values of love and respect that lie at the core of all religious faith.”
The call closely mirrored a “Pledge of Civility” promoted by the left-leaning Interfaith Alliance, whose leaders include Campbell and radical Catholic bishops such as Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit. Both the pledge and the call were barely transparent criticisms of conservative, especially Christian Right, efforts to focus on President Clinton’s personal character and, more broadly, to highlight social issues such as abortion and homosexuality. Campbell in fact used the press conference with Schnurr to criticize welfare reform and the campaign tactics of the Christian Coalition.
More tangible cooperation between the NCC and USCC occurred on the issue of black church arsons in 1996, when the nation was persuaded by an NCC media campaign that black churches were the targets of a countrywide racist campaign of incendiary assault. Later and more responsible media examination revealed a complete lack of evidence that black churches were any more vulnerable to arson than white churches.
But the USCC quickly became a participating partner in the NCC’s Burned Churches Fund, which collected money for church reconstruction. But much of the largesse went towards the NCC’s programmatic attack upon the “root causes” of racism, which the NCC defined as any vigorous affirmation of conservative political positions. Those “root causes” included not only opposition to affirmative action, but also support for welfare reform, California’s Proposition 187, three-strikes-and-you’re-out legislation, the Contract With America, and the Republican congressional victory of 1994.
Incredibly, the administrator of the Burned Churches Fund was Don Rojas, a former propaganda officer for the Castro regime, the Maurice Bishop dictatorship of Grenada, and a Soviet front group for journalists in Cold War Czechoslovakia. In the face of criticism, the NCC defended Rojas as a practicing Catholic with a proud history of fighting racism.
The USCC affirmed that no USCC money for the NCC fund went to anything but direct church reconstruction. But at the very least, USCC contributions were liberating other dollars for the NCC’s radical racial justice agenda. And USCC participation in the Burned Churches Fund was advertised in promotional, full-page newspaper ads in large cities across America.
USCC support has also been highlighted in the NCC-created National Religious Partnership for the Environment, a campaign founded in 1993 with help from Al Gore and Carl Sagan to gather religious support for environmental causes. The partnership aims to warn 100 million church members about the perceived dangers of global warming and environmental racism.
The participating Christian organizations insist that pantheism and Gaia worship play no part in the partnership’s worldview. But the partnership is headquartered in the “green” Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, which is notorious for its Gaia mass and worship of ecologically friendly pagan deities, such as Ra the Egyptian Sun God. The partnership is run by Paul Gorman, a former public relations officer for the cathedral. And the partnership’s chair is Roger Morton, the cathedral’s former dean.
Conservative Evangelicals, such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention, have refused to join the partnership. But the USCC has not been deterred. “We see caring for God’s creation as a matter of religious conviction,” explained Bishop William Skylstad of the USCC at a partnership press conference earlier this year in Washington that also included the NCC’s Joan Campbell.
“We hope this is a new moment when caring for the environment, caring for the human community and caring for the poor become the common measures for the moral health of our society,” Skylstad optimistically offered. The USCC study materials on the environment are not themselves theologically offensive, although they are bland and repeat the questionable assumptions of secular environmentalism. Unlike the separate NCC materials, they commendably cite unborn children as a part of creation that deserves defense.
At least one liberal Protestant participant in the green partnership has defended his involvement by citing USCC support. “Surely you don’t suggest that the Catholic bishops have fallen for Gaia worship,” he asked sarcastically. Of course, no one has. But the staff of the USCC, with the seeming acquiescence of the bishops, has increasingly given cover to the NCC and its allies from the Religious Left by providing a fig leaf of Catholic propriety.
To be fair, the United States Catholic Conference does not march in lockstep with the NCC. On Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status for China, the USCC joined in a press conference with the Family Research Council. Of course, this issue divided both left and right. Even within the NCC, which normally declines to criticize Beijing, some denominational officials opposed MFN because of their own historic ties with labor unions opposed to free trade. The United Methodist lobby office, in opposing MFN, cited Chinese persecution of Tibetan Buddhists, without mentioning the plight of Christians.
In support of proposed legislation last year to curtail US aid for governments that countenance Christian persecution, the USCC has worked with conservative evangelical groups. The USCC’s pro-life office cooperates with the Southern Baptists and other anti-abortion religious forces, of which the NCC is certainly not one. And overall, USCC statements are more moderate and more thoughtful than the typical NCC reflexive jump to the furthest possible left position.
Still, the overall drift of USCC maneuverings in Washington is leftward. And cooperation with the NCC and secular religious groups arouses more high-profile activity and enthusiasm than do the USCC’s more conservative coalitions on abortion or pornography. For the USCC, the Christian Right is noticeably a less sought after ally than the Religious Left.
The USCC’s propensity for political pontificating, cozy alliances with the secular left, and preference for social justice issues over traditional Christian moral issues all follow an eerie pattern familiar to mainline Protestants. The NCC is not an example to follow for any church body wanting to sustain effective political influence, much less one that desires firm roots in the historic teachings of Christianity. Catholics concerned about their Church’s public policy apparatus in the nation’s capital should beware.
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“Desperately Seeking the Mainline?” first appeared in the March/April 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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