On May 3rd 1983, after a two-day meeting in Chicago, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a national pastoral letter on war and peace in the nuclear age. The pastoral bore the title The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and our Response. The bishops approved the final text by 283 votes to 9, setting the seal on a process of preparation which had lasted more than two years and according both the pastoral itself and the drafting committee a high measure of validation.
The process had begun in November 1980 when individual bishops,against the background of a presidential campaign in which the theme of military preparedness had been prominent, requested the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the episcopal conference of the Catholic community in the United States, at its annual meeting, to reexamine its teaching on war and peace. The request met with widespread support and in January 1981 an ad hoc committee chaired by Archbishop Joseph Bernardin began its work.
The committee's process of reflection was characterized by wide- ranging consultations at which theologians and political scientists, peace activists and government officials testified and answered questions. The committee issued drafts of the pastoral letter for their fellow bishops in June 1982, October 1982 and a third in April 1983. Throughout the process the committee's work was subject to the keen interest of lay Catholic opinion, of the Reagan Administration and the media. The committee's work was complemented by a high level of teaching activity by individual bishops, and was affected by the interest of other Catholic hierarchies and by the Holy See itself. This international dimension was most graphically expressed at an 'informal consultation' in Rome in January 1983. The impact of the American pastoral on key elements of NATO strategy was of particular concern to the bishops of West Germany. In the course of 1983 a wide range of episcopal conferences issued statements on war and peace questions.
The issuing of The Challenge of Peace did not mark the end of the American hierarchy's engagement with war and peace. An ad hoc committee was established to promote the pastoral within the church. Subsequently another ad hoc committee was appointed to consider deterrence in the light of the pastoral's teaching.
Chapter Gne of the present study, 'The American Context of the Pastoral', sets the letter in the context of American Catholicism. For the bishops to address Catholics was hardly novel, but here the bishops also address the wider polity of the United States, seeking to create a community of conscience. The chapter sets out in brief the historical development of the Catholic community, then goes on to examine the roots and significance of this teaching initiative in what has been called a 'new moment'.
Chapter Two, 'The Making of a Pastoral Letter', sets out the process of the pastoral's formation and seeks to characterize it as one in which we see not simply the history of a document but signs of a new way for bishops to act as teachers at a national level. It suggests that the process is of intrinsic importance, and that it demonstrates the virtue of a teaching style marked by consultation, convergence and consensus.
Chapter Three, 'The Content of the Pastoral Letter', gives an account of the shape and argument of this very long and complex document, attentive to the sources of tradition on which it drew and to the audiences it sought to address.
Chapter Four, 'Creating a Community of Conscience: the Ecclesial Context' examines the current debate about the teaching mission of the church, and in particular the teaching function of national episcopal conferences, a function which has aroused considerable controversy. It suggests that the American desire to develop a pastoral magisterium offers the whole church a renewed vision of what teaching can be.
In the conclusion we consider what lasting implications and benefits may accrue from the experience of the production and dissemination of the pastoral letter, within the life of the Catholic church, in its relations with other churches, and in its mission to the world.