As a longtime reader and fan of First Things , I have admired Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’ keen insights on any number of issues. He has written convincingly on the necessary role of the Church in society rather than acquiescing to the secularists’ demands for a "Naked Public Square." Therefore it is disappointing that his commentary of July 31 on " A Respectful Word on Episcopal Competence " included both factual errors and mistaken assumptions.
The article failed to mention that Members of Congress had asked to meet with representatives of the bishops’ conference and that the focus of these discussions would be the moral questions of a "responsible transition," a focus that is clear in the complete text of the letters. The article is also inaccurate on three major points.
First, since the focus of the meetings is to explore the moral questions that arise regarding a "responsible transition," the bishops are precisely within their competence to offer guidance. Both letters to Congress note that the bishops have "not taken positions on all of the detailed proposals in [the Iraq Study Group Report]," but rather had noted that "its broad outlines mirror the benchmarks and new approaches that our Conference has advocated in promoting a ‘responsible transition.’" The reason for this is clear. The bishops did not want to move beyond their moral and pastoral competence. Instead, we hope to create conditions in which the essential moral questions regarding the war and its aftermath can be explored. As I said in my letters: "[O]ur nation must have the moral courage to change course in Iraq and to break the policy and political stalemate in Washington so that we can walk a difficult path that does the most good and the least damage in human and moral terms."
Second, the letters to Democrats and Republicans were prepared at around the same time and the letter was delivered to Republicans the next day, not the next week. And this was not a recent attempt to appear bipartisan. On several occasions, we have met with high-level representatives of the Bush administration to share concerns. Since January 2006, our conference has explicitly called on both parties to move beyond partisan rhetoric to assess honestly the situation in Iraq and to pursue bipartisan ways forward in Iraq that meet our essential moral obligations to the Iraqi people and our own nation. In this, our conference had staked out a position that was later shared by the Iraq Study Group, which declared: "Our political leaders must build a bipartisan approach to bring a responsible conclusion to what is now a lengthy and costly war."
Third, the conference consistently and persistently works with Catholics and others of both parties in Congress on the issue of abortion, most recently to defend the Mexico City policy that prohibits foreign aid funding to organizations overseas that promote or perform abortions. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is perhaps the most visible and effective advocate for unborn children, and virtually everyone in Congress is well aware of this fact.
Several factors motivate the conference’s engagement with policymakers on Iraq¯to share the moral criteria of Catholic teaching, to address a pastoral concern that divisive partisanship not cloud our nation’s moral judgment, and to stand with the Holy Father and the Holy See. The current efforts of our conference are anchored firmly within the tradition of our Church.
Our conference’s actions are consistent with those of the Holy See. Let us remember that the late Pope John Paul II sent Cardinal Pio Laghi as his special envoy to meet with the president prior to the war. In a public statement after the meeting, Cardinal Laghi "emphasize[ed] that there is great unity on this grave matter on the part of the Holy See, the Bishops in the United States, and the Church throughout the world." There still is.
As Pope Benedict XVI recently reminded us on July 22, "War, with its aftermath of bereavement and destruction, has always been deemed a disaster in opposition to the plan of God." Our Holy Father also lifted up the example of Pope Benedict XV, who called for an end to the First World War and "pointed out . . . ways to build a just and lasting peace." It is my hope that our bishops’ conference might help forge a dialogue across partisan lines that helps our nation’s leaders explore the complex and morally demanding "ways to build a just and lasting peace" in the face of a long and costly war.
Thomas Wenski is bishop of the Diocese of Orlando and chairman of the USCCB International Policy Committee. Fr. Neuhaus is currently out of the country and may respond to Bishop Wenski’s thoughtful observations upon his return.