WASHINGTON — Only days before a close Senate vote is expected, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops have sent a letter to all members of Congress, urging them to reject additional funding for the MX missile.
In the letter, the U.S. Catholic Conference, made up of the church's 285 U.S. bishops, argues that the MX is of dubious military value and will drain away resources needed to feed the hungry.
The letter to every member of the Senate and House opposes expenditure of $1.5 billion for 21 more of the 10-warhead missiles. Key votes in the Senate are scheduled for Tuesday and Thursday.
Reagan Efforts Continue
When asked to comment on the bishops' letter, White House spokesman Robert Sims said President Reagan and his Administration will "just continue to work with Congress" in an effort to win approval of the weapon.
"We do expect it to be a difficult vote," Sims said. "We will continue to make the case to the Congress that this missile, which is already in production, should be continued because of its military value as a replacement for aged missiles and also because a favorable vote by the Congress will demonstrate U.S. resolve, which is important at a time when arms control talks are under way."
The letter, dispatched to Capitol Hill late Friday, was signed by Bishop James W. Malone of Youngstown, Ohio, the president of the conference. The conference distributed the letter to newspapers on the condition that it would be made public in today's editions.
Malone began his letter by saying: "I write as President of the United States Catholic Conference to urge you to vote against funding for the MX missile. The U.S.C.C.'s opposition is based on two considerations: the potentially destabilizing impact of this weapons system on the nuclear arms race and its cost, viewed in light of pressing human needs here and elsewhere in the world."
On military grounds, Malone said: "Simply from the point of view of its relationship to our deterrent posture, we believe the MX should be classified as a 'system of dubious value.' "
Although the influence of the bishops on Capitol Hill, even among Roman Catholic lawmakers, appears to have declined somewhat in recent years, their latest action could tip the scales in what all sides agree is an extremely close vote. Nineteen of the 100 senators and 125 of the 435 House members list their religion as Roman Catholic.
The Associated Press said Saturday that a poll of all 100 senators showed 42 votes for, 42 against and 16 undecided. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), considered one of the Senate's best vote counters, has put the Senate division at 46 to 46, with eight undecided.
Congress last year voted funds for continued production of the missile but, in an unusual compromise, decreed that the money could not be spent unless the action was reaffirmed this year by both the Senate and House. The Senate has scheduled separate votes for Tuesday and Thursday. If either goes against the MX, the 21 missiles will not be produced. If the Administration wins both votes in the Senate, the issue will move to the House for votes tentatively scheduled for March 26.
Malone wrote: "I am aware of the President's position that the MX is part of the U.S. defense posture and negotiating strategy at the Geneva talks. The U.S.C.C. strongly supports the resumption of U.S.-Soviet (arms control) negotiations; as bishops we pray for their successful outcome.
"We do not enter the MX debate to provide new strategic or technical advice," he wrote. "Rather, as our opposition to the MX arises from a prudential but soundly based moral judgment, so our intervention at this time reflects the conviction that key moral values are implicated in the legislative decision which faces you.
"Plainly the United States faces a period of severe budgetary constraints over the next several years," he wrote. "The Federal deficit imposes an obligation, at once fiscal and moral, to scrutinize expenditures with great care . . . Starvation of Ethiopia and grinding poverty in Central America have complex causes, but it is clear that the drama of life and death being played out daily in these and other parts of the world requires sustained humanitarian and economic assistance from the United States."
When asked if the Administration considered the bishops' action in sending the letter improper, Sims said: "The Congress would want everyone's views on this. We have no problem with the bishops presenting their views at this time."
In addition to the letter, the conference made public a statement opposing the MX by Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago.
Poses 'Moral Question'