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The Power of the Cross

America’s Roman Catholic Church takes on the Pentagon

Three, crosses, sunrise

Three crosses in a sunrise.


On a cold and foggy evening last winter, the bishop of Richmond left his office near the cathedral downtown and drove far into the southern suburbs to the Church of the Epiphany, where he would deliver one of his peace talks.

For the past year and a half, this routine has made the Right Reverend Walter Sullivan mildly notorious — dangerous, his critics say. He has traveled around the vast territory of his diocese to explain the Catholic Church’s new thinking on the immorality of nuclear arms. Sullivan’s diocese covers the southern half of Virginia, one of the most conservative areas of America. His flock of 115,000 Roman Catholics is small, compared to the big-city dioceses of the North, but it includes a disproportionate share of military families — sailors and shipyard workers at Norfolk and Newport News; soldiers at Fort Monroe, the army’s training-and-doctrine center; airmen at Langley Air Force Base, home of the tactical air command; even CIA spies in training at Camp Peary.

Wherever he goes, the bishop of Richmond delivers an uncompromising message: “I cannot identify Jesus with violence, war, hatred or the nuclear bomb. The bomb is the ultimate antichrist, the obscene god of death.”

* * *

Strong words, especially for Catholics in Southside Virginia. But Walter Sullivan’s is just one profound voice in a deep rumbling that is going through the Catholic Church in America. Despite threats, insults and intense lobbying from the Reagan administration, nearly all of the nation’s 285 bishops are expected next month to formally endorse a controversial “pastoral letter” on war and peace — a document that raises the moral issues of the arms race in such a direct and logical manner that no American can easily evade them. A long and terrible argument is about to begin, as Americans start to grapple with what these Catholic clerics are saying. It will be one of those great watersheds of U.S. political life in which old stereotypes will be shattered and the basic terms of public debate will be changed.

Outsiders who are used to thinking of the Catholic hierarchy as a citadel of the conservative past — graying, black-frocked old men who wave the flag and preach against sex — will have to reexamine their presumptions and prejudices. And Catholics themselves will find their metamorphosing church in conflict with their own pasts, when parochial schools taught them that “God and country” were arm in arm, when their church leaders rallied the faithful for Cold War conflict and bloodshed in Indochina.

The bishops’ pastoral letter effectively puts the Catholic hierarchy in opposition to our government’s longstanding approach to nuclear strategies. And the Reagan hawks—who have, of late, invoked the name of Jesus to defend their Pentagon budget—are right to be alarmed: what these bishops are really launching is a great national teach-in—with study groups organized in every one of the 18,000 parishes in America, in which citizens will be asked to look at the facts of our nuclear dilemma, not just meekly accept the state’s, the administration’s, rhetoric of fear. In my experience, whenever honest citizens closely examine the real issues concerning nuclear arms, most of them come away realizing that government policies are not reassuring or protective but insane and threatening.

There is another, deeper reason why this change in the Catholic Church is so significant. Nearly everyone, after all, worries about the bomb. Fear of the ultimate holocaust is an easy sentiment to exploit; nobody wants to be incinerated. But the Catholic bishops are posing tougher, more troubling questions: Are Christians personally responsible for averting that terrible outcome? Are Americans morally compelled to confront their government’s lunacy?

Father Timothy Healy, the Jesuit scholar who is president of Georgetown University, explained the reasoning this way: “There is a deep worry in the body of the church, and it’s a worry that expresses itself politically. The worry is not, ‘Am I going to get killed?’ but, ‘Am I going to do evil?'”

* * *

When Bishop Sullivan arrived at the Church of the Epiphany, about 60 parishioners were gathered. Nestled in the trees of a classy rural subdivision of large homes, Epiphany is one of those new and modern churches with a sanctuary designed for light and openness, with richly polished wood paneling and striking brickwork. In his audience that night were Catholics who had made it — managers, professionals, engineers and businessmen, who represent the suburban ideal of middle-class prosperity.

For an hour or so, they listened politely. Bishop Sullivan took them through the moral logic of his position. Since the time of Saint Augustine in the fourth century, he explained, the Catholic Church has lent moral sanction to “just wars” in defense of the innocent. But nuclear weapons violate the basic conditions of that approval. The mass killings caused by any nuclear exchange would be disproportionate to the limited objectives for which the nuclear weapons would be employed. The gross evil of nuclear destruction, in other words, obliterates the traditional — indeed, church-condoned — rationale for military conflict.

“The bomb is not foretold in the Scriptures,” Sullivan intoned. “This is not Armageddon. Nor can we blasphemously say, ‘God will never let this happen.’ If and when the bomb is dropped, don’t blame God. The choice is ours.”

Sullivan, a loose and shaggy man in his early fifties, rambled on with deceptive meekness. Not at all like those imposing clerics in the movies, Sullivan seems too relaxed for the august trappings of his office, the miter and crosier; at the Church of the Epiphany, he wore a sweater with his clerical collar. His talk is cluttered with verbal mannerisms — “oh, sure” and “you know” and “golly” — that suggest a fuzzy desire to be agreeable. A nice man, in other words, who may seem too nice to be dwelling on hardball politics. But superficial manners may deceive.

On a national level, Sullivan typifies the vanguard of Catholic bishops. He is among the 60 to 80 American “peace bishops” identified with Pax Christi — the international Catholic peace activist organization — who are slowly but inexorably pulling the church their way. While many of these bishops embrace a host of liberal causes beyond the nuclear issue, Sullivan has gone further than most. In his own diocese, he has been caricatured by his critics as a “with it” churchman, tripping eagerly from one hot cause to another. One month, he condemns strip-mining in Appalachia; next, it is the violence of high school football. He endorses the ERA and prison reform and the textiles workers’ boycott of J.P. Stevens. He comes out against test-tube babies and capital punishment and civil-defense shelters in church buildings. Even sympathetic priests who serve under him sometimes ask themselves: what next from the bishop?

“We need to challenge the moral legitimacy of the strategy of deterrence,” Sullivan warned his audience. “The U.S. has every intention to use its nuclear weapons, the so-called first-use policy. The intention to use the nuclear weapon is, of itself, immoral and must be condemned.”

The bishops’ pastoral letter, Sullivan went on to say, tolerates the continuing existence of nuclear arsenals and their evil doctrines only so long as continuing progress is being made toward genuine disarmament. This means, among other things, that the bishops oppose deployment of new weapons like the MX missile, which the Reagan administration wishes to build. They support the concept of a bilateral nuclear freeze as a first step toward reversing the arms race.

“I am very hopeful,” Sullivan concluded. “I’m sure the spirit of God is calling us to look at this problem in a whole new way.”

Most of the parishioners at Epiphany had not yet heard that call. What followed was an extraordinary confrontation between a spiritual leader who preaches disturbing truths and followers who did not wish to hear them. The dialogue demonstrated, among other things, that beneath this bishop’s casual appearance is a moral toughness totally at odds with the lampooners’ image of the trendy cleric.

“If we don’t build up our arms,” a middle-aged man began, “wouldn’t the other side go ahead with theirs?” This question was on everyone’s mind. “Wouldn’t that automatically bring on war?” the man went on. “The number one issue is: what about the Russians?”

“You might as well hear this,” Sullivan responded somberly. “Our image in the world is not the peacekeeper, as Ronald Reagan says. Our image is frightening.”

“Russian propaganda!” an elderly man yelled.

“I don’t think that’s just Russian propaganda,” the bishop shot back. “They’ve got plenty of reasons to be scared.”

After that opening, this Christian dialogue on peace turned bellicose indeed.

* * *

Georgetown University’s Father Healy, a savvy student of American politics, discussed the matter with his usual directness: “Roman Catholics have always been more American than George Washington. The reason for this is that you WASPs were always telling us that we weren’t really American. I don’t think Roman Catholics feel that very much anymore. We are now the largest sect represented in politics. There are 141 Catholics in Congress, 48 of them from Jesuit colleges, 16 of them from Georgetown. We don’t really feel that excluded.”

It has been a long haul. It is difficult to remember now, but for more than a hundred years, anti-Catholicism was one of the most virulent themes of political demagogy, espoused by the Know-Nothings and the Klan fundamentalists, who directed prejudice and violence at the streams of immigrants from Europe. To put a Catholic candidate on the ticket, even the Democratic ticket, was once regarded as a risky step. In that hostile society, the Catholic Church provided comfort and security for millions of struggling families who wanted desperately to prosper in this new country and to become “real Americans.”

“Catholics are super-patriots,” Bishop Sullivan says. “It’s their very upbringing. It comes out of the immigrant stage of having to identify with Americanism — the need to be accepted, not as a foreigner but as an American.” The Catholic hierarchy shared that aspiration, and American cardinals and bishops were leading rhetoricians against the “Communist threat.”

That legacy endures, of course, among millions of Catholics and a shrinking number of right-wing prelates. But it obscures the profound changes of the last 20 years, like the reforms launched by the Vatican II Council in 1962 and the changes Catholics have experienced in economic status, politics and, yes, personal liberation. The old stereotype of the conservative, ethnic Catholic who is unquestioningly pro-military, whose patriotism has been successfully manipulated by a generation of Cold War politicians, no longer fits. For the majority of Catholics, it is flat wrong.

Politically, the watershed came in 1960 with the election of John Kennedy, the first Catholic president, which pretty much buried anti-Catholicism as a marketable poison in American politics. Meanwhile, the immigrants’ economic insecurities dissipated as Catholic families were prospering. Next to Jews, Irish Catholics are today the most successful ethnic group in America, far above the national income average.

But the Catholic Church, unlike most Protestant denominations, is still taking in new immigrants at the bottom of the economic ladder — the millions of Mexican-Americans and other hyphenated-American Hispanics. The 50 million Catholics are 25 percent of the population, and they include every class and interest.

Therefore, it no longer makes much sense for politicians to talk about the “Catholic vote” as a distinct sector of the national electorate. Now, the Catholic vote is probably more “American” than any other bloc, because the sum of Catholic sentiment accurately reflects the center of American public opinion.

In that regard, some of the right-wing hawks in the Reagan administration are in for a nasty surprise. They have been browbeating the bishops, trying to make them back off their pastoral letter on nukes, claiming that the hierarchy is out of step with its flock. But the bishops can read the polls, too, and they know the Reaganites are wrong. For instance, a bilateral nuclear freeze — a principal plank in the bishops’ position — has overwhelming support from Catholics (82 percent favor it), even more than from non-Catholics (76 percent). On a more controversial question, the total abolition of all nuclear arms, 50 percent of Catholics support the idea, and 42 percent oppose it, while non-Catholics are more evenly divided, 46 percent versus 44 percent.

On a wide spectrum of issues, Catholics are not that different, politically, from Protestants. They are marginally more liberal, but perhaps not as liberal as they once were, when most were poor. According to Gallup, 29 percent of Catholics polled rank themselves as left of center, as opposed to 26 percent of Protestants polled. And when Gallup asked voters if they want the government to spend more money on social programs, 56 percent of the Catholics said yes, 43 percent, no. Forty-three percent of the Protestants said yes, while 54 percent said no.

These hard facts, however, do not begin to convey the invigorating ferment made possible by the Vatican II reforms. While media attention has focused on the declining attendance at Mass and the departure of nuns and priests, Catholics themselves have been debating the fundamental tenets of their creed: What does it mean to be a Catholic? Is it merely something inherited from your parents that requires regular churchgoing and confession? Or does Christian faith demand a more open expression in the real world? While not precisely analogous to the evangelicals’ “born again” concept, the “intentional Catholic” is the voguish term for one who reaches faith through personal commitment and realizes this faith through action.”

For the post-ghetto generation, there is a whole new sense of what being Catholic means, what it demands from the individual,” says Arthur Jones, former editor of The National Catholic Reporter and a journalist who has been covering these changes for many years. For many middle-class Catholics, this means working weekends in charitable social programs, like soup kitchens for the poor. For others, it translates into participation in the nuclear-freeze campaign. It might be said that the bishops, with their pastoral letter, are inventing new ways to be Catholic.

The irony of this political greening is its rooting in what is perceived as a right-wing cause: the abortion issue. Catholic opinion, among both laity and clergy, was galvanized by the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision that legalized abortion. With the state having tacitly condoned an action completely antithetical to the Catholic religion, America’s bishops staked out a confrontational stance, even endorsing civil disobedience. Yet, instead of the anti-Catholic backlash that the church might have encountered a generation earlier, the bishops found that their new political activism was accepted as both predictable and legitimate—and it led into other issues. What did it mean to be pro-life when the world was threatened by nuclear holocaust?

Georgetown’s Father Healy explains: “Having taken a strong position on abortion, the bishops’ own constituencies started saying to them, ‘How come you are so exercised about fetal life, when one bomb will wipe out 10 million people in an instant? Why aren’t you talking about that?'”

Good questions. In their cautious, methodical way, the bishops began the theological studies that ultimately led to their pastoral letter. “If that abortion issue had not been here,” Bishop Sullivan reflects, “I’m not so sure the bishops would be all that involved politically on the peace question. That’s why we got involved in capital punishment, euthanasia and other issues — in other words, the whole pro-life thrust. To be morally consistent, we had to address the war question.”

The bishops began their formal inquiry in 1980, just before Reagan and his bunch came along. The administration’s saber-rattling rhetoric merely confirmed for the bishops that this was a moral question they couldn’t duck.

Had the antinuke issue been confined to just a handful of bishops with smaller dioceses — like Bishop Leroy Mattiesen of San Antonio, who urged his flock not to work in the local bomb factory, or Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle, who denounced the local Trident submarine base as a contemporary Auschwitz — it would be a matter of interest, but of little note.

But the main body of the Catholic hierarchy, the center that speaks for the huge Catholic populations in our major cities, is moving in the same direction as the “peace bishops.” The clerics who have real clout in church politics — with a few exceptions, like Terence Cardinal Cooke of New York and Archbishop Philip Hannan of New Orleans — are solidly committed to the pastoral letter. Such cardinals and bishops as Krol of Philadelphia, Bernardin of Chicago, Quinn of San Francisco, Borders of Baltimore, McCarthy of Miami, Gerety of Newark, Roach of Minneapolis and Hickey of Washington are all attesting to the immorality of the arms race.

The Reagan administration had hoped that the Vatican would put a stop to this business before it got dangerous. The White House even dispatched General Vernon Walters, former deputy director of the CIA and himself a good Catholic, to lobby at the Vatican. Pope John Paul II, after all, is a stalwart anti-Communist, but the Reaganites misread his sentiments on nukes. In fact, this year, the pope elevated the man most responsible for drafting the pastoral letter, Archbishop Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, to the College of Cardinals — a clear signal to Catholic clergy everywhere that the Vatican does not disapprove of what the American bishops are doing.

How deep does this current of change run among Catholics? No one can say for certain, but Father Healy thinks it is firmly entrenched. “Let me put it in strictly Catholic terms,” he says. “I have suspected that what is at work here is the Holy Spirit. And the evidence will be that the bishops will not stand alone. They are developing the ground on which the church will stand. … If they are, God help the politicians, because trying to stand up to this will be like standing up to a tidal wave.”

* * *

“I’m not soft on Communism or anything like that,” Bishop Sullivan protested plaintively to those gathered at the Church of the Epiphany. “The Russians are human beings. They want to live. They don’t want a nuclear holocaust. One of the mistakes we make is that we dehumanize the enemy: ‘They’re all idiots, crazy.'”

The bishop was embattled, surrounded by righteous challenges. A young man shouted that the pastoral letter was pointless unless endorsed by both the Russians and the Americans. “I don’t want to be disrespectful, Bishop, but you still haven’t answered this question.” Others at the peace talk murmured their agreement.

“Let’s stop talking about what the enemy will do and start talking about what we will do,” Sullivan insisted. “I’m convinced we are headed toward a nuclear holocaust unless we do something to stop it.”

An elderly man jumped in with a different line of attack: “I think the bishops have destroyed their credibility, their value. We look to them for our moral values, not for our national security. We have leaders for that.”

“Do you see the moral dimensions?” Sullivan replied.

“Absolutely. But it doesn’t take priority over survival.”

“The moral issue is what the bishops are addressing,” Sullivan answered.

The dialogue turned hostile. The initial deference vanished, and the group was directing its resentment not at the Russians but at their own spiritual leader and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Sullivan invoked Pope John Paul II’s pronouncements on the evil of the arms race. Somebody even asked if the pope is a military strategist.

Finally, a young parishioner charged that the peace movement is being manipulated by Soviet agents. It’s true, another said, citing Reader’s Digest and Ronald Reagan as authorities.

“I was with 850,000 people at the peace march in New York, and I didn’t find any Communists,” Sullivan said. “You’re saying that I’m being influenced by the Communists?” An uproar drowned him out.

“You don’t even know you’re being influenced!” an angry voice shouted.

The bishop stood his ground, remarkably calm. He challenged them all to read and study, as he had done, before they dismissed his teaching. “I don’t think the bishops of the United States are a bunch of idiots,” he observed dryly. The nuclear arms race is morally debilitating right now because it destroys young people’s faith in the future, because it raises up a false god of total mass destruction.

“People ask, ‘Why don’t young people get married and have children? Why don’t they care?'” the bishop continued. “Well, folks, as far as they’re concerned, there is no tomorrow.”

Groans of disbelief from the audience.

“Russia wants a war!” one woman insisted.

“How do you know Russia wants a war?” the bishop replied evenly.

“Oh, come on, Bishop.”

* * *

The son of a dentist, Walter Sullivan was just 13, devout and idealistic, when he left his home in Washington D.C. and went off to Saint Charles seminary in Baltimore to study for the priesthood. That was in 1942, and during the next 11 years — encompassing everything from the conclusion of World War II and the atomic bomb at Hiroshima to the beginning of the Cold War — he was largely cut off from the outside world. In those days, they were not allowed to read newspapers at the seminary.

“It was kind of a vacuum,” he remembers. “I have to go back and look at those pictorial history books to remember what happened. It was not a part of our consciousness.”

Twenty years later, by the time he was installed as the bishop of Richmond, Sullivan had undergone a radical transformation. From cloistered studies, he went out into the world and discovered its turmoil and suffering. As he rose from parish priest up the ladder of church offices, he became a social activist, an advocate for the poor and minorities and an organizer for peace. On his installation day in 1974, the new bishop took his vows in the cathedral, but he also sponsored a “people’s picnic” in an adjoining park to celebrate the event. Folk musicians sang “Right On, Jesus,” and parishioners munched on hot dogs as they lined up to meet the new bishop. In another symbolic gesture, Sullivan celebrated Mass with charismatic Catholics, wearing a vestment appliquéd in orange and yellow with the words “Spread a Little Sunshine.”

Sullivan’s shift, in fact, closely paralleled what has happened to the Catholic Church itself. In 1963, at the Vatican II conference, Pope John XXIII “opened the windows” and launched wholesale revisions in the church’s bylaws. The Latin Mass was translated. Marriage laws were liberalized. The internal dialogue of church affairs was democratized, with priests’ councils and parish councils for the laity. Ecumenical relations with Protestants and Jews were encouraged. Lay Catholics were freed to participate more directly in church matters: nuns and priests were freed to plunge into such issues as social justice and peace.

“My activity is very much the result of putting flesh and bones on the ideas of Vatican II,” Bishop Sullivan explains. “In my early years as a priest, it never occurred to me to be involved in community affairs, just as, before that, I was never concerned with ecumenical things.”

But he didn’t change overnight by edict from Rome, nor did he discover social issues by intellectual devotion. He learned from direct involvement, personal episodes that opened his eyes. “An experience hits,” he says, “where you’ve got to move ahead. You’ve got to make a decision one way or the other.”

In the Sixties, when Sullivan had become chancellor of the Richmond diocese, an Office of Social Ministry was opened, and a young Trinitarian nun, Sister Mary Thomasine, was hired to work on race relations and poverty. Richmond was a center of resistance to integration, and its white establishment was especially hostile to the antipoverty crusade launched by the federal government. “She used to come to me and tell me all of the difficulties she had, and at first, I didn’t believe her,” Sullivan remembers. But after he plunged into housing and food programs, welfare-rights organizing and civil-rights campaigns, his idealism was shaken by the resistance these good works encountered. “I had just presumed for all these years that this was how most people acted, that they were concerned for the poor. It was a shock.”

As he learned more about these cruel realities, Sullivan also discovered something about his own limitations — and the church’s. “I used to take food baskets every Thanksgiving and Christmas and put them on people’s porches. It was in that process that I realized I didn’t know the people inside the houses. I was feeding them anonymously and, in a sense, not with dignity.”

That led him toward a deeper analysis of poverty and the financial interests that create it. But it also brought him closer to poor people. One summer, when he was integrating a black parish with a white one, he went door-to-door in the black community and got to know the people behind those doors. “I began to get an understanding of powerlessness,” he says. A decade later, when black voters won majority control of the Richmond city council, Sullivan was the only white citizen invited to participate in their victory celebration.

But Sullivan’s great turnaround occurred during the Vietnam War. Catholics, like everyone else, argued fiercely among themselves over the war. Their battles were spurred, in particular, by the issues raised by the Reverend Daniel Berrigan and his brother Philip, two Jesuits who endured trial and imprisonment as a spiritual protest. The Berrigans were shunned and denounced by the church hierarchy. And Walter Sullivan stayed silent. He wasn’t hostile to their cause, just uncommitted. “I was passive in my peacemaking,” he confesses. “I was so passive, I was asleep.”

But by 1971, after he had become auxiliary bishop, the war found him. In a suburban Richmond parish, Father Robert Quirin, a young priest in Sullivan’s diocese, was mounting a lonely campaign against the war. He preached against it from the pulpit. He flew the American flag upside down outside his church on Moratorium Day. In response, his parish council put him “on trial” for three months. Also, the Internal Revenue Service seized the priest’s car because he refused to pay “war taxes.” The IRS went to Bishop Sullivan and asked him to order Quirin to pay up: wouldn’t the church be embarrassed if the IRS auctioned off a priest’s car? Sullivan stood with the priest.

Sullivan also encountered good Catholics who were going to prison because they believed the war was immoral. A local boy named Timothy Kendall, whom Sullivan knew personally, was in Allenwood federal prison as a draft resister. The bishop went to visit him there and was struck by the hostility of the prison guards and the serenity of their young ward.

That summer, he took what he thought was a modest step toward involvement. And he was jarred awake. Before the Knights of Columbus, the bishop gave a mild speech on the subject of peace, urging his audience to keep an open mind and listen to dissent. His talk unleashed a terrible animosity. “I was bombarded by participants coming up to me in anger, just complete anger,” he recalls. But the last person who approached him was a marine sergeant. The sergeant’s son was fleeing to Canada the next day, and the father was in anguish, trying to decide whether or not to disown him. “He thanked me,” Sullivan explains, “for saving his son. For him.”

That moment was the real beginning of Bishop Sullivan’s personal activism against the war, and he became more outspoken over the next decade, and more provocative. In 1975, he joined the national board of Pax Christi. In 1978, he came out against the SALT II Treaty, recognizing it as a sham that would not stop the arms race. He financed a “peace center” in Richmond for activists of all faiths. And in 1981, he launched his now regular peace talks with a speech in Virginia Beach, the heart of his military population.

The essential point about this bishop’s political education, I think, is that it was slow, gradual and deeply rooted in direct experiences. This process of conviction makes it highly unlikely that “peace bishops,” like Sullivan, are going to back off when they encounter controversy or political pressure from Washington. They have already felt the heat.

* * *

For a moment, the raised voices subsided in exhaustion. The earnest Catholics at the Church of the Epiphany had hurled every argument and accusation at their bishop, yet he stuck stubbornly to his moral challenge. At last, a well-dressed businessman named Sam raised his hand to speak. Sam is a leading layman in the diocese, one who has worked closely with the bishop on many projects.

“I have trouble speaking,” he said, “because you know I love you. But …”

“But,” the Bishop repeated, smiling. Everyone laughed.

“But the last couple of years, I’ve been concerned about the direction you’re going,” Sam said. “You say you’re speaking as an individual, but you are the bishop of Richmond. You say you’re not for unilateral disarmament, yet the positions you take are leading in that direction. Do you really think that if we laid down all our arms, the Russians would somehow lay down theirs?”

Once more, the bishop patiently explained himself. He supports the idea of a nuclear freeze by both sides. But, he said, in the long history of the arms race, it is the U.S., not the Soviet Union, that has introduced each generation of new weaponry. Unless the U.S. is willing to change, there is no hope that the Soviets will.

“That’s a military opinion,” Sam snapped, his voice heating up. “You say they are catching up. Many people would say they’re ahead. But I think it’s out of your field for you to decide that.”

“I’m not deciding anything,” the bishop said softly.

“My government tells me — people who I think have a great deal more information than you do — that we’re not on parity, and that’s why they’re for the freeze.”

“And you believe them?” the bishop asked.

“I do. Why should I believe you?”

That question went to the heart of the matter: whom should Catholics believe — their church or their government? These good Catholics had been raised to believe that God and country were united in a common struggle for good; now they felt betrayed. Their bishop was trying to tell them that true Christians must put themselves in opposition to their own government. A most subversive thought.

“I’m sorry,” Sullivan said at last, “but I just cannot equate Jesus with a nuclear bomb.”

“Nobody can,” someone said.

“Well, then,” the bishop said gravely, “we either follow the way of Christ or the U.S. government.”

The audience exploded. So did Sam.

“Unfortunately, Bishop, much of what you’ve said in the last couple of years is just in that tone. The U.S. is a great country.”

“And a Christian country!” a bald man chimed in.

“Do you really think America is a Christian nation?” the bishop asked, stoking their outrage. A nation that sanctions 3 million abortions a year? That allows poverty and hunger amid affluence? That threatens world destruction as its strategy for national defense?

More shouts. Another round of denials. The bishop seemed unperturbed, even pleased.

“I don’t have any problem in saying that we see things differently,” Sullivan concluded. “The important thing is to discuss it. What I have tried to share with you is the direction the Catholic Church is going.”

“Father, one point,” a young man snapped. “We are the church — right here. I think we are going to have a lot more to do with where the church goes than you will.”

That sounded like the ultimate affront, but it’s one that Catholic clerics have grown used to hearing. As lay Catholics have taken a greater role in church affairs and clergy have moved more directly into secular matters, every argument eventually revolves around those questions: who is the church, and who will lead it?

Bishop Sullivan peered over his glasses and glared at the young man. “It might surprise you to know where Catholics stand on this issue,” the bishop said.

As a modern cleric, familiar with contemporary techniques of leadership, the bishop of Richmond has taken a scientific survey of Catholic opinion in his diocese. His poll shows that the doubting parishioners at Epiphany are not the voice of the majority, even in this very conservative part of America. Forty-seven percent of the Catholics polled support Bishop Sullivan’s strong advocacy of nuclear disarmament; 35 percent disagree with him, and the rest are undecided.

When the bishop related these figures, it stopped the dialogue cold. A young mother rose to offer a final grace note, implicitly rebuking those who had attacked the bishop. “Since when is morality decided by a majority vote anyway?” the woman asked. “Jesus was in the minority. He walked alone. We should all try to look into our hearts and decide what’s wrong.”

Afterward, some came up a bit sheepishly to congratulate the bishop for his courage, though not for his convictions. In that moment, I realized what a tough character this man is: He refused to tell his flock what they desperately wanted to hear — that God is on America’s side in the nuclear-arms race.

With a provocative grin, Bishop Sullivan reminded them of what Thomas Aquinas once said: “Anger is the first step to courage.” The bishop left smiling, pleased with what he had wrought.

* * *

Father Mike Schmied, president of the priests’ council in the Richmond diocese, is totally sympathetic with his provocative bishop but is also clear-eyed about the risks. Bishop Sullivan is “ahead of most of the priests, and the tension is whether he gets too far out ahead,” Schmied explained. “He’s not pastoring a church, and some priests throw that up at him. He can go out and give his peace talks, but we’ve got to deal with the membership every week. He is charting a difficult course. It’s painful at times, but he’s right.”

In the new language of the church, Sullivan’s objective — and that of the other bishops, too — is not just “edicting,” as they call it, but “dialoguing.” Yes, Catholic clerics have been touched by the age of “transactional analysis” and “human potential,” and they, too, are susceptible to a churchly version of psychobabble. The big word in their new vocabulary, however, is one of the oldest in the Christian faith: witnessing.

For the newer, younger bishops, like Sullivan, that word expresses a crucial redefinition of what their job involves. Earlier generations of bishops built schools, hospitals and orphanages, brokered arrangements with the local political powers, defended the faithful against hostile forces. The new bishops, picking up on the example of their Latin American brethren, believe they must “witness” against evil, whether the evil is capitalist exploitation or the moral degradation of the arms race. One of the role models for this new generation of clerics was the archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero. A simply educated peasant priest who spoke out against social injustice in his land, Romero was assassinated in 1980 while saying Mass at his cathedral’s altar.

“This doesn’t mean the American bishops think they are going to be gunned down in the streets,” says Arthur Jones of The Catholic Reporter. “It means they are coming around quickly to speaking out on what they really believe — no matter what.”

Non-Catholics still have difficulty grasping this new dimension in the Catholic hierarchy, especially when they keep seeing the pope scold clerics for getting involved in politics. Won’t Rome sooner or later put its foot down? No, the activists explain. What the pope has been ordering nuns and priests to do is widely misunderstood. He is telling them not to enter the service of governments or political parties — whether they are priests elected to the U.S. Congress or appointed to the Sandinista cabinet in Nicaragua — because partisan attachments limit their ability to speak the truth. But the pope isn’t saying that they must stay out of secular political issues — his own sermons affronted the military governments in Central America and Poland.

Indeed, though things change slowly in the Roman Catholic Church, they rarely change by accident. Throughout the 1970s, with virtually no secular attention, the Vatican was appointing new, young bishops in America, priests who were forged in the ferment of the Sixties and saw their high office in new terms. One of the secret heroes of activist Catholics was a Belgian lawyer, Archbishop Jean Jadot, who served for many years as apostolic delegate in Washington. Jadot forwarded the promotion lists to Rome, in effect, picking the bishops. With few exceptions, he picked progressives. We now see the results. But, given the internal dynamics of church politics, Jadot’s recommendations would not have been executed if he had been out of step with what the Vatican wanted.

* * *

On a warm evening at the edge of spring, Father Daniel Berrigan came to Richmond and spoke before several hundred peace activists. His message was as thorny and uncompromising as it was in 1968, when he and his associates poured blood on the draft records at Catonsville, Maryland. He was arrested for it, and thus began his long career of civil disobedience. His face looks as if it has absorbed every night in prison. But Berrigan’s status is different these days.

Then, he was a pariah, shunned by respectable clerics; now, he is honored as a prophet.

“Two structures are being destroyed by the nuclear reality,” Berrigan told the Richmond activists, “the old church and the old state. I declare them dead. Each is ridden with idolatry for property and disregard for human life.”

As usual, Berrigan’s prophecy is a bit premature. Yet some earnest Catholics, like Walter Sullivan, really do believe that someday their church will become a “peace church,” like the Quakers’. Not necessarily pacifistic, like the early Christians’, but at least struggling militantly against what Berrigan calls “the death-dealing state.” Practical-minded people may dismiss his predictions, but who could have anticipated that the Catholic bishops would ever declare themselves in league with Daniel Berrigan?

After his speech, Berrigan joined the bishop and a small group of the faithful at the rectory for drinks. Bishop Sullivan was feeling down. In the last three months, the opposition had become more vocal, more vicious in its attacks on him. (This was the “pain” that Father Schmied had mentioned: spiritual leaders suffer, too.) Father Berrigan comforted him. In fact, as they talked, the two priests seemed to comfort each other.

Sullivan told about a parish meeting in Virginia Beach in which he was assailed. “One guy got up and said, ‘I salute the American flag, and I’m proud of it,’ and there were 40 people on their feet cheering. I said, ‘If I declared that I believe in Jesus, would you respond like that?'”

“There’s bound to be anger,” Berrigan said gently. “They’re not used to hearing this from the church. They feel a sense of betrayal.”

“But there is so much anger out there,” Sullivan said, shaking his head. “How do you reach them when they won’t listen?”

“Do you expect them to like you?” Berrigan said, teasing a smile from the bishop. “Of course they are mad. But a lot of the wild talk is a cover for change. Our experience is that anger is necessary before there is real change. They’re used to being good, obedient Catholics. Now they are fighting with their own bishops.”

Sullivan nodded. He already knew this, but it was nice to be reminded by someone who had endured much more abuse and loneliness as a peacemaker. In fact, some priests believe the most significant passage in the new pastoral letter is not on “just war” theology or nuclear strategy, but the section on conscience, which calls on “convinced Christians” to act directly in support of their faith. Convinced Christians, it observes, are a minority in every nation, including this one.

“To embark on the road to discipleship is to dispose oneself for a share in the cross. To be a Christian, according to the New Testament, is not simply to believe with one’s mind, it is to become a doer of the Word, a wayfarer with Jesus. And this means that we never expect full success within history; rather, we even regard the path of persecution and the possibility of martyrdom as normal.”

What do they mean by “a share in the cross?” The answer is really mystical, an article of faith. It is an understanding that the mystery of Christ’s sacrificial crucifixion contains a paradoxical lesson on power. “The power of the cross,” a phrase they often invoke, means that if one turns away from the worldly uses of power and accepts suffering, one gains access to a far greater source of power, the force of redemptive love, which can embrace and overwhelm one’s enemies. The idea is not so different, really, from what Gandhi taught about nonviolence or what Martin Luther King practiced. And these convinced Christians really believe in it. When conservative critics revile them, their resolve is strengthened. Indeed, it fulfills their idea of what real Christians must expect.

“To me,” said Bishop Sullivan, “the power of the cross is the witness to nonviolence. Jesus, the innocent one, offered his life. That was the example for the Christian. It is far superior to offer one’s life than to take the life of another. Out of that comes redemption and healing and salvation.”

This is strong stuff, but the bishop of Richmond is a very tough character.

In This Article: Catholic Church, Coverwall


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