Interview with Bishop Pierre Dumaine

EARLIER THIS YEAR THIS COLUMN carried the statement drafted last year by Roman Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus and well known evangelical author and reform advocate Charles Colson, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." The statement was published in First Things magazine, which Neuhaus edits, and signed by several dozen Roman Catholic and evangelical leaders, including Dr. Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, host of the widely broadcast "700 Club," and one-time candidate for the Republican nomination for President of the United States.
We asked Bishop Pierre Dumaine of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Jose to respond to the statement, which he did in a recent interview. Born in Kentucky, Bishop Dumaine is the first bishop of the San Jose diocese, having been elevated to that post from auxiliary bishop of the San Francisco Diocese under Archbishop John Quinn, when the San Jose Diocese was formed out of the Archdiocese in 1981. Ordained to the priesthood in 1957, he spent five years in Washington as a student and teacher at Catholic University, after which he was a teacher, then assistant superintendent, and superintendent of Catholic High Schools in San Francisco. He was made auxiliary bishop to Archbishop Quinn in 1978.
We discussed five topics with Bishop Dumaine, which appear below in bold, followed by his comments.

What are the areas of mutual interest or concern between evangelicals and catholics?

I think the statement is very cogent and lays it out very well. The affirmation of the Apostles Creed is the core of our common belief; that's extremely important. And the other (area of mutuality) is the concern to give citizens a Christian conscience and an effective and legitimate voice in the public forum, and to bring religious and moral values to bear on public awareness, public opinion, public policy. And these are all very legitimate. The more activist and contentious Christian spokespersons have become the straw men that the media like to knock down as if that's what it's all about.

The way I've always thought about it is that we cherish in America our First Amendment rights—freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly, but when people try to exercise all three at the same time, they come under fire. When they speak out as representatives of an assembly of believers, exercising their religious freedom and their freedom of speech, people get nervous, maybe because it touches such a potent core.

Those are the two main things—the principle of religious freedom, assembly, and speech, in the public forum and the core of beliefs that we have.

However, the document begins to thin out as we get into public policy issues. It does delineate the doctrinal differences, but in the public forum—the orientation of this document is political as well as doctrinal, and it's hard to know which is primary in the thinking of the signers and the drafters. I don't know whether the names appended are all of the Catholic signers or not. I've never seen a complete list of the signers. And as far as I know the only bishops were O'Connor and Sevilla and Stafford. Sevilla is the auxilliary bishop now in San Francisco. [Editor's note: full names of Catholic bishops signing the document are John Cardinal O'Connor, Archbishop Francis Stafford, and Bishop Carlos Sevilla.]

There will be divergences even in the public policy area and even in certain core issues. I think the congruence between the two is more in the area of personal morality than in what we call the social justice imperatives or social morality. On social ethics we might find more divergence between the two groups.

Why do you think that is?

Well, I guess the flagship of the evangelical presence in public policy is the Christian Coalition, as far as I know. Pat Robertson signed this document too. It suggest that in areas of social welfare, migration, and practical measures to address poverty, racism, affirmative action, all those things, the Catholic bishops, resting on a century of vigorous Catholic social teaching—epitomized by Pope John Paul II, have a pretty clearly delineated agenda and set of principles that don't seem to be congruent with the (principles and agenda of the) Christian Coalition.

Also, the Catholic Church in the United States, and the bishops in particular, have assiduously tried to avoid partisan alliances. Certainly we support legislation that may have been from time to time Democratic-sponsored or Republican-sponsored, but the kind of explicit alliance between a Christian advocacy group and one political party—kind of working inside a political party as a kind of faction of the party—is something that's really repugnant to the Catholic way of approaching things, and I don't know how large of a factor that may become....

I think that Pat Robertson's alliance with the Republican Party is something a lot of evangelicals have trouble with, too.

I understand that he's noticed that he has a couple hundred thousand Catholics affiliated with the Christian Coalition, so now he's trying to set up a distinct unit, and I don't know whether that's advisable even from his point of view.

An individual Catholic aligning himself or herself with the Coalition is something that I wouldn't have any problem with as a bishop—I might have differences with the individual—but a corporate group identified as Catholic is eventually going to feel the tension between the Coalition's agenda and the bishops' agenda on public policy issues. We're not dealing with doctrinal matters; we are dealing with practical issues.

The church's social teaching hasn't been uniformly and universally embraced by the Catholic people—capital punishment, for example. Or even the right of labor to organize or matters of this nature, they wax or wane in the public eye....

It seems a lot of leaders of the conservative movement are Catholic—William Buckley, William Bennett—

And you have Kennedy and Cuomo.... This has perennially been with us, and I don't think for Catholics it creates a problem, but for evangelicals maybe it would. I don't think evangelicals are placed so broadly across the political spectrum, but I may just be ignorant of who's....

I think most evangelicals considered Jimmy Carter an evangelical—. Where do you see these issues, or this kind of statement having application in San Jose?

I think on things like immigration, affirmative action, I don't have any policy or principles that are peculiarly my own. I feel a great sense of solidarity and commitment to the consistent social ethic of the church as it's been articulated by the bishops' conferences.

Of course, we have a state bishops' conference where we try to address state and local issues as they come up. I do try from time to time to communicate with my people on ballot initiatives, pending pieces of legislation or administrative decisions that are being made. And as called for, I think probably very soon I'll encourage people to contact their senators and congressmen about pending immigration legislation.

And this is not idle gesturing, either, on the part of either evangelicals or Catholics. I think the defeat of the welfare cap was influenced by the strong position of a lot of religious organizations including our own. So I take my principles from the body of Catholic doctrine and I take my cue from the bishops' conferences which track these issues and advise us on when intervention is timely.

If you're making statements every day of the week and jumping up and down all the time, sooner or later you have no way to emphasize anything. So I usually ride easy until there's an opportune time when some intervention—some public statement—will have an optimal effect.

As far as alliance with evangelicals, I'm sad to say that except for the American Baptists, my association with evangelicals is almost zero. The American Baptist Church has participated in our ecumenical group, which is mainly what you would call mainline groups—Catholic, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, United Church, Methodist....

And I haven't met any of the (evangelical) pastors...my main contact with the evangelicals is through the Catholics I meet who go to mass early on Sunday or Saturday evening and go to the evangelical church on Sunday morning. They get something there they don't get from us.

It's not just a matter of style. I think, referring back to that affirmation section of the statement, the strength from a Catholic point of view in the evangelicals is their insistence on the name and the person and the power of Jesus. And in our tradition of sacraments we have made sacramental rites somewhat more prominent than the validity of the Word, which is now somewhat more prominent.

So that the name of Jesus and the power of the word are the appeal, and also the lack of ritual restraint and the asserting celebration, singing, and so forth; these are things we can learn from. They're not easily directly adaptable, partially because of the diversity of our communities, some are too small, some are too big. Anyway, I'm digressing.... My contact with the evangelical leadership is almost none.

Have you had contact through the Catholic charismatics—I think there are a lot of friendships among evangelicals and Catholics there....

Yes. There are joint Bible study and charismatic prayer groups. And there all the doctrinal issues are somewhat submerged—to the power of the prayer and the power of the Word.... As a bishop I probably would have some scruples about the traditional soundness of some of the biblical interpretations that are being exchanged, but that's a risk and a divergence that I think is well within the range of Catholic tolerance.

Actually, as you're probably aware, within the Catholic communion we have the whole spectrum of nondoctrinal and even some doctrinal positions that you would characterize as liberal on one end and evangelical on the other. We have our radical right and our very liberal left, and everything in between. We have our activists and we have our reticent people like me.

I gather that you haven't seen much application of "Evangelicals and Catholics Together"?

No, for example in the interfaith coalitions on immigration, I'm not sure if I could identify the evangelical representation there. And whatever position they took on euthanasia, things of that nature, I'm really not aware. I managed to get a joint statement on euthanasia with the rabbis but not with the ministers.

What about abortion activism? That would seem like the strongest area of overlap between evangelicals and Catholics.

That appeared to be one of the main thrusts of the paper, but it was contextualized very carefully there. Oh, yes, I think we're together on that position; I'm not sure that our doctrinal and philosophical and Scriptural rationale is essentially the same, but again, as far as the style of pressing the issue in the public forum, we have the same spectrum of approaches as religious communities in general. And the evangelicals tend to have a larger percentage of the activists.

The issue is so much more complicated and so contentious that we're never going to be able to sort it out.... Everybody agrees that abortion is bad, all across the sprectrum. The confounding of the issue with women's atonomy and rights, debating with the biomedical and scientific community and the legal community about human life, what is a human individual, a human person, and how we identify these....

I don't know whether it will ever be ethically possible or politically expedient to divide the issue in the public forum between very late-term abortions and middle-term abortions, and some of the new techniques that are coming forward that affect only the very earliest days and hours after conception.... And I think maybe the power of our argument may be diminished when we lump all three of those together, and I accept the ethical tradition that unites them, but as a matter of addressing judicial and legislative issues, I don't know whether we're targeting our audiences specifically enough.

The questions are really complex. What it has done has been to raise the whole question of who is a human person—how do we recognize it in law, and how do we recognize it in fact? And as this joint statement points out, we hold these truths, and inalienable rights, and we are all created equal—all these things are up for review now. I'm not sure that we have a public consensus on what those terms mean.

And the consensus seems to shift rather easily depending on who the latest rallying person is; or if there's been a victory on one side, public opinion seems to shift to that side.

And at the same time, most of our social exploitation depends on depersonalizing people we want to do away with, whether the unborn or the aged or comatose, or mass murderers. When we've dehumanized them, then we can do away with them because they're no longer like the rest of us.

Is there a spirit of rapprochement between evangelicals and Catholics in the San Jose Diocese?

I see no contrary signs, but no positive signs, either. I would like to see more co-operation and I haven't found an avenue for taking initiative myself. The one thing that complicates it locally, but most especially internationally, is—I have only sketchy and anecdotal knowledge of it—and it's frankly acknowledged in the statement—and that's the problem of proselytism.

It appears to be more aggressive in many evangelical communities than it is in the Catholic community in general, and targeting—they use an interesting word in saying this—they shouldn't be proselytizing people who are actively affiliated with another communion. That word "actively" is up for interpretation, especially in Mexico or Guatemala, and the political entanglements of both evangelicals and Catholics in Latin America are extraneous and a terrible problem.

But I think there's still a lot of apprehension and distress about the distortion of Catholic belief and practice sometimes in the proselytizing process. The depiction of sacraments, the devotion to saints, the authority of the pope, these things, when they become part of the proselytizing agenda cause trouble. But as I say, I have only anecdotal knowledge of these and can't say that it's pervasive, but it is something that complicates the thinking.

I can have a personal rapprochement with almost anyone, but the more broadly I try to engage the Catholic community, the more troublesome these other issues become as you try to educate your constituency, and I think evangelicals have the same problems. An evangelical minister, broadly and deeply educated in religious traditions, may have one view of the Catholic Church but a large cohort of his churchgoers have been weaned on a totally different view.

Do you see the possibility of alliances between evangelicals and Catholics on issues in this area?

Of course, but we will not be allied across the spectrum on public policy issues. And I think denominational alliances are not possible except maybe on some fundamental issues like abortion and euthanasia—there, we may have more in common with evangelicals than with some of the mainline churches.

Do you see any commonality on "gay" issues?

I think the differences are mainly political, social, and attitudinal. The Catholic statements, including a recent one from the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith, still reckon homosexual activity—all sexual union outside of marriage—as reprehensible. But they maintain the distinction between orientation and behavior, which seems disengenuous or fatuous to a lot of people.

But the same thing would apply to any unmarried heterosexual. Trying to guess, assuming, or guessing what people are actually doing is not good policy. I think the social consequences of the antigay sentiment—discrimination and some of the violence—is something that Christians have to take very seriously.

So I think that the Catholic tradition of recognizing homosexual activity as sinful is compatible with some evangelical sensibilities, but I'm not sure that the social attitudes are comparable, and if it leads to pacifying or downgrading a whole category of human beings, then Catholics are not comfortable with that.

I think the key phrase in [the Catholic position statement on gays] is that people don't choose and can't change their sexual orientation. I think they can within that orientation govern their choices and there is an obligation on the part of believing Catholics to guide their consciences by the teaching of the church.

But the orientation itself is not sinful, and it's not a moral fault to have the orientation. If it's not something that's subject to human control, then it's not something that can be subject to a sinful choice or a virtuous choice.

A complicating factor is that the gay activists on the other end who glorify the behavior and caricature it—they're their own worst enemies sometimes. Also, the manner in which they caricature the Christian faith and practice and so forth...it's a muddle, and the media dote on the most extreme and the most contentious spokesmen and [smiling] we reasonable people are not paid any heed....

The Catholic tradition is foursquare against the civil recognition of gay unions, for the simple reason that our definition of marriage or union is that it's for the sake of children. There are exceptions, of course, where sexual union is possible but having children is not, where the marriage is still recognized, but these are some of the nuances that can be debated back and forth.

The interest of the church and of the evangelicals in maintaining the distinctiveness and the stability and social importance of fruitful, faithful, heterosexual unions is something we have in common. The fundamental Catholic ethic that sexual unions should be permanent, exclusive, and open to new life are all very positive, but are looked upon as unwanted intrusions on the liberty of individuals, and that's a definition of liberty that wants to disregard all moral restraints.

I'd like a review of those guidelines from an evangelical point of view—they're six or seven years old now. And I'd also like to see an evangelical review of the new catechism of the Catholic Church that looks at what we agree on, what's repugnant....

The entire text of "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" can be read in Theophilus & Friends column #15, at r15.htm .

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© 1995 Jon Kennedy