Changing Witness: Catholic Bishops and Public Policy, 1917-1994

By Boyea, Earl | The Catholic Historical Review, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Changing Witness: Catholic Bishops and Public Policy, 1917-1994


Boyea, Earl, The Catholic Historical Review


Changing Witness: Catholic Bishops and Public Policy, 1917-1994. By Michael Warner. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wiliam B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1995. Pp. xviii, 202. $20.00 paperback.)

There is a conspiracy. Without using this word, Warner so describes the change which took place after the Second Vatican Council in the content and style of the American Bishops' statements: the activity of a cabal of elite leaders in the episcopal conference.

This is not a history of the National Catholic Welfare Conference or its 1966 successor, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. Rather it is, as he describes it, an "interpretive essay." This frees Warner, in 170 pages of text, to draw sweeping conclusions without delving into the detail of the conference's past.

Warner focuses on the two recent episcopal statements on the economy and on war and peace. In the 1930's he finds episcopal social teachings very much in line with Roman Thomism and the organic guild system outlook of papal social encyclicals. He notes the shift at the Second Vatican Council from natural law to a biblical ethics as a foundation for social teaching. Phenomenology also weakened Thomism's grasp on the council and allowed the Americans' social thinking to shift more toward political and pragmatic theology, one which suddenly favored state intervention, social salvation, and lobbying by the bishops in very particular aspects of legislation. He notes that the council, to the contrary, taught that this was the arena of the laity, not of the clergy.

Warner explains that this change was the deliberate agenda of a new group of leaders in the bishops' conference after its reorganization into the NCCB/USCC in 1966.

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