Politics and the U.S. Catholic Bishops
With encouragement from the Second Vatican Council, and bolstered by the election of John F. Kennedy as America's first Catholic president, American Catholic bishops have become increasingly active politically. Through the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), American prelates have taken positions on a variety of public policy issues as they have sought to influence political debate. With their highly publicized pastoral letters, "The Challenge of Peace" and "Economic Justice for All," Catholic bishops reached center stage as political-religious leaders. 1 But critics of the bishops' conference, pressure from the Vatican, and division within the hierarchy itself cast a cloud of uncertainty over the future direction of the bishops' political involvement.
Activities at the NCCB are under attack from many fronts. The bishops' policy recommendations are questioned and their political expertise is challenged. 2 Francis Winters discounts the bishops' contribution to the nuclear weapons debate, asserting that "all the critics regard the teaching of the pastoral letter, which condemns all militarily meaningful use of the nuclear arsenal, as an anachronistic exercise in the nuclear age." 3 Dinesh D'Souza claims that "interviews with . . . bishops suggest that they know little or nothing about the ideas and proposals to which they are putting their signature and lending their religious authority." 4 Though endorsed by the Second Vatican Council, theologians debate the degree to which national conferences of bishops carry teaching authority. 5 And critics in Rome have expressed concern over the Americans' actions. 6