WALL STREET JOURNAL
November 26, 2004
WHEN THE FLOCK TAKES THE LEAD
JOHN J. MILLER
“Marriage is an adventure,” G.K. Chesterton once quipped, “like going to war.”
At a conclave in Washington last week, America’s Catholic bishops decided to go to war over marriage — or, more specifically, to open a new front in the culture wars with an initiative promoting wedded bliss and funding anti-divorce programs.
Central to this effort will be a pastoral letter. Although much of it will focus on the importance of marriage as a traditional sacrament, the document is also likely to address marriage as a social institution. That means that it will have a few things to say about the explosive subject of same-sex matrimony.
The bishops certainly aren’t going to come out in favor of it. But that doesn’t mean that their document will please every conservative. Although the bishops have endorsed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, traditionalists have grumbled that their hearts aren’t really in it.
Yet it would be a mistake for conservatives — or liberals — to believe that the bishops will speak decisively for their whole flock. It was 20 years ago this month, in fact, that a group of Catholics issued a powerful counterweight to a pastoral letter, this one on the U.S. economy.
The Lay Commission on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy was the brainchild of William E. Simon, who was secretary of the Treasury in the Nixon and Ford administrations. In the early 1980s, he and many other supporters of Ronald Reagan grew irritated with the bishops for embracing the nuclear-freeze movement. When the bishops announced their intention of making the economy the subject of a new pastoral letter, Mr. Simon suspected that it would include demands for fighting a left-wing War on Poverty that the government couldn’t possibly win.
So Mr. Simon recruited a group of prominent Catholics to present an alternative vision, including Clare Boothe Luce, J. Peter Grace and Al Haig. Mr. Simon’s most important partner was Michael Novak, a neoconservative think-tanker who had already battled the bishops over their foreign-policy recommendations.
The Lay Commission announced its formation in May 1984. Over the next six months, it sponsored six public hearings in three cities. Meanwhile, Mr. Novak wrote a lengthy statement on the compatibility of capitalism and Catholicism. He didn’t call it “libertarian theology,” but the phrase would have come close to its spirit.
A pastoral letter from the bishops is not the moral equivalent of church doctrine, so Messrs. Simon and Novak did not behave as heretics. They actually took much of their inspiration from Vatican II, which had called on members of the laity to draw upon their personal expertise to advise the church.
When the bishops released the first draft of their pastoral letter, in mid-November, their economic advice was exactly as Mr. Simon had feared it would be, calling for limits on personal wealth and the like. Yet the bishops were forced to compete for attention with the Lay Commission, which had issued its own long document just days ahead of them, an intellectual tour de force that showed why opposing minimum-wage increases, for instance, doesn’t require a trip to the confessional.
The bishops never came around to the Lay Commission’s way of thinking, but the final version of their pastoral letter, approved in 1986, contained revisions that might not have occurred but for the intervention of Messrs. Simon and Novak. And the members of the Lay Commission felt more than vindicated when Pope John Paul II released Centesimus Annus, the 1991 encyclical that was widely interpreted as favoring market economics.
It’s anybody’s guess what precisely the new pastoral letter on marriage will say. Conservatives may worry that it won’t go far enough. Liberals may fret that it will go too far. One thing is sure: The first draft probably won’t be ready for about a year, leaving more than enough time for a new lay commission to embark upon its own adventure.
Mr. Miller is a writer for National Review and the co-author of “Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France.”