A high-level committee of United States Roman Catholic bishops named this week has the potential for escalating the controversy generated three years ago by the bishops' pastoral letter condemning virtually all forms of nuclear weapons.
Chicago Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin will chair a six-member panel to evaluate the bishops' "conditional moral acceptance" of nuclear deterrence expressed in the 1983 pastoral, in light of the Reagan administration's current defense posture.
In their 1983 pastoral, titled "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response," the bishops held that the possession of nuclear weapons to deter aggression by other nations was only acceptable as long as meaningful efforts for disarmament also were undertaken.
At the bishops' annual meeting in November, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit complained that the present U.S. defense policy does not meet those criteria.
"In the time since we first started working toward a peace pastoral there has been little progress in arms control," Gumbleton said. "In fact, many would judge that this period has been one of the most serious regressions in the history of arms control."
The November bishops' conference approved a resolution by Gumbleton and five other bishops calling for a study of whether current U.S. defense policy meets the criteria set by the bishops for the morality of nuclear deterrence policy.
This week Bishop James W. Malone of Youngstown, president of the U.S. bishops' conference, announced that Bernardin, who had chaired the committee that drafted the 1983 nuclear pastoral, also would head the evaluation committee.
Others on the committee include three of the five members of the committee that drafted the pastoral: Gumbleton, Cardinal John O'Connor of New York and Bishop Daniel P. Reilly of Norwich, Conn.
Archbishop Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles and Archbishop John R. Roach of Minneapolis-St. Paul, a former president of the bishops' conference, also are on the committee.