“Episcopal conferences were not instituted for the pastoral government of a nation, nor to substitute (for) the diocesan bishops as a kind of superior or parallel government….”
– Vatican working paper, Apostolos Suos, 1988

How did the California bishops promote the Christian vision in public life before the setting up of the bureaucracy known as the California Catholic Conference of Bishops? The conference, sometimes called the CCC, was established in 1971 or 1972, depending on the source. But Catholic bishops had been active politically in the state for some time.

Three political battles in the 1950s and 1960s help tell the story.

1. Taxation of Catholic schools, 1953-1958 Since 1879, when the California constitution was revised, religious schools were not exempt from paying taxes. In the case of the Los Angeles archdiocese, which was the fastest-growing see the in the U.S. after 1948, Archbishop James Francis McIntyre saw the tax burden tripling. In March, 1951 under McIntyre’s influence, 57 of the 80 members of the California Assembly co-authored a bill exempting from taxation private non-profit elementary and high schools including those operated by religious organizations. It passed both houses. According to McIntyre’s biography by Monsignor Francis Weber, the archbishop “personally or through an agent contacted every single legislator.” Governor Earl Warren signed the bill on May 3, 1951.

A group called the California Taxpayers Alliance succeeded in forcing a referendum (requiring a vote of the people on a law passed by the legislature and signed by the governor) on the school tax exemption bill for the ballot of November, 1952. The alliance was soon joined by the Scottish Rite Masons and the National Educational Association.  The referendum was called Proposition 3.

According to Weber, “McIntyre left nothing to chance. Though he deputized Auxiliary Bishop McGucken to look after day-to-day activities, he personally put in place an organizational structure that eventually touched the lives of Californians as nothing had before…. The archbishop himself contacted dozens of pivotal persons. After finding their phone numbers, he would call and ask for an appointment. He was only turned down once and that by a person who refused to believe that it was the archbishop on the phone….

A Speakers’ Bureau was set up by the Archdiocesan Union of Holy Name Societies; a series of outdoor billboards was placed at strategic places, and mailings were sent to hundreds of thousands of homes…. Against the advice of every one of his counselors, McIntyre called Judge William Hervy, the admitted ‘boss’ of the Scottish Rite Masons in Los Angeles and asked for a meeting. He asked Hervy ‘if he had any suggestions in the way of keeping the referendum from becoming a religious issue….’”

The vote in November was close – 2,441,005 Yes votes on Proposition 3 (in favor of keeping the tax exemption for religious schools) to 2,363,528 No votes.

Catholic school opponents did not give up. After court challenges to the tax exemption did not work, a group called Californians for Public Schools filed an initiative, which went on the ballot in November, 1958. Cardinal McIntyre and his allies went to work again. Monsignor William North, who was put in charge of archdiocesan efforts, issued a 76-page speakers manual. McIntyre sent a personal letter and fact sheet to thousands of people and a series of letters to local priests to keep them aware of the campaign. Proposition 16, as the measure against religious school tax exemption was called, went down 2-1.

2. The Fair Housing Act, 1964. Proposition 14 was a California state proposition to nullify the Rumford Fair Housing Act, which provided that landlords could not deny housing because of ethnicity, sex, marital status, physical handicap or familial status. Nine of California’s 14 total number of bishops, including Cardinal McIntyre of Los Angeles, made no commitment on Proposition 14; five bishops openly urged a No vote, including the ordinaries of San Francisco, Oakland, Stockton, Sacramento, and Santa Rosa. Proposition 14 passed by a margin of almost two to one.

According to Monsignor Weber, “when asked whether it was hypocritical for the Church to bring political pressure to protect the right to life while refusing to take a stand on such issues as the Rumford Fair Housing Act, the cardinal had his secretary point out ‘the vast difference between the taking of an innocent life and the sagacity of a political action of undetermined principle.’”

3. The Therapeutic Abortion Act, 1967. State Senator Anthony Beilenson introduced the Therapeutic Abortion Act in 1967 to allow abortions in cases of rape, incest or when a doctor deemed the birth was likely to impair the physical or mental health of the mother or when there was “substantial risk” that the child would be deformed.

According to Lou Cannon’s Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power, the Catholic Church worked hard against the bill. Cannon quoted the San Francisco Examiner: “’Most of the incoming mail at the capitol was inspired by Catholic priests who asked, from their pulpits, that their parishioners write to legislators urging defeat of the bill. In many cases pre-printed envelopes and other aids were provided.’” Cannon cited state senator George Danielson, a Los Angeles Democrat, who “announced he was reluctantly voting against the abortion bill. ‘I just can’t go against 5,000 votes from my district.’”

When the bill was heard before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Bishop Alden Bell of Sacramento said it sanctioned legalized murder. “The unborn child, however brief its existence, is clearly identified by science even in embryonic form as belonging to the human family….It has the right to live.”

Governor Reagan himself was conflicted. He spoke with Cardinal McIntyre at a weekend meeting in Los Angeles arranged by his old campaign firm, Spencer-Roberts, who had been hired by the Catholic Church to lobby against the bill.

He asked his longtime adviser and Cabinet secretary Bill Clark — a devout Catholic who had contemplated the priesthood — for counsel. “Bill, I’ve got to know more — theologically, philosophically, medically.”

After the bill passed the Senate, the Catholic Church’s lobbyist, William Burke, conferred with Stu Spencer and Reagan aide Phil Battaglia, and Reagan discovered new loopholes. But Reagan finally capitulated to Republican pro-abortion pressure and signed the bill.

According to Lou Cannon, “In his heart Reagan agreed with Cardinal McIntyre, not Dr. Davis (Nancy Reagan’s pro-abortion father) and he really wanted to veto the Therapeutic Abortion Act. Instead he subordinated his personal feelings to the commitment he had made to Republican legislators to sign the bill….Reagan [told me] he would never have signed the bill if he had been more experienced as governor.”

According to the Cardinal McIntyre biographer Monsignor Weber, the cardinal did not sit still during the time leading up to Reagan’s decision. McIntyre wrote letters to the clergy, wrote articles in the Tidings (the archdiocesan paper), sponsored the establishment of a Right-to-Life League, urged a letter-writing campaign, contacted George Hearst to get support of the L.A. Herald-Examiner after the L.A. Times endorsed the abortion bill, contacted individual members of the legislature,  and enlisted larger Catholic organizations to lobby the governor.

McIntyre wrote the legislators that “no man has the right to legislate the taking of life, and particularly of the innocent and unborn…[such an action] resembles the action of Herod and the Holy Innocents in the Sacred Scriptures.”

Next week: Part 2 – The gay agenda, euthanasia, abortion