Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
On Tuesday the U.S. bishops will elect the new chair of their Pro-life Activities Committee, and the outcome of this closely-watched contest serves as a “barometer of support for Pope Francis among the American hierarchy,” according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.
The contest pits Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago against Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas.
“The outcome, church officials and observers said, will be an indication of the pope’s ability to point the U.S. church—one of the largest and wealthiest communities of Catholics in the world—in the direction he intends,” said the Journal.
“It will also suggest what role the church might play in upcoming political battles in the U.S.”
Cardinal Blase Cupich
Cardinal Cupich was appointed archbishop of Chicago by Pope Francis, and is widely viewed as a Church progressive in the mold of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the Chicago archbishop who articulated and promoted a “seamless garment” strategy that gave equal weight to pro-life values and economic-justice concerns.
Cupich is perhaps best known for his advocacy on immigration issues.
During an exclusive Nov. 3 television interview on Chicago’s ABC affiliate, he highlighted several concerns, including gun violence, the stigmatizing of refugees, and the possibility of giving women a greater voice in Church affairs and parish ministry. He did not raise the issue of abortion.
Over the past year, however, he spoke out on this issue, as the Illinois legislature debated a bill that expanded taxpayer-funded abortion coverage.
“Abortion is a controversial issue in this country, but using public money to provide abortions should not be,” the cardinal said April 19 in a statement reacting to the proposed state legislation.
“The federal government prohibits the practice, and polls show a substantial segment of the American public reject it.”
Cardinal Cupich thanked Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner—a Republican and a political ally on school choice issues—for pledging to veto the bill. But he did not explain Church teaching, and seemed eager to move on to more urgent problems.
“I pray that this divisive issue will be put behind us and our government officials will now concentrate on the many difficult challenges facing Illinois,” he said.
In September, when Rauner broke his promise and signed the bill, the cardinal had sharp words.
“He broke his word to the people, especially those who have continued to speak on behalf of the vulnerable child in the womb," Cardinal Cupich told the Chicago Tribune in September.
And previously, in the wake of the Center for Medical Progress' shocking videos that appeared to show Planned Parenthood staff casually discussing the process of securing fetal body parts to be used in medical research, Cardinal Cupich strongly condemned such actions. But as has often been the case, his comments left many pro-lifers with the impression that he was uncomfortable with addressing the intrinsic evil of abortion and sought to broaden the discussion to other matters.
“This newest evidence about the disregard for the value of human life also offers the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment as a nation to a consistent ethic of life,” he wrote in a 2015 column for the Chicago Tribune.
"While commerce in the remains of defenseless children is particularly repulsive, we should be no less appalled by the indifference toward the thousands of people who die daily for lack of decent medical care; who are denied rights by a broken immigration system and by racism; who suffer in hunger, joblessness and want...."
Before Pope Francis named him archbishop of Chicago, and while he still led the Spokane Diocese, Cupich’s policy of instructing priests not to join prayer vigils and protests at abortion facilities drew criticism from pro-life activists.
During the Sept. 20, 2014, news conference, the archbishop-designate was asked to explain his views about protests at abortion businesses. He replied that he has “always supported the rights of people to express themselves, particularly with regard to important issues of the day.”
Archbishop Joseph Naumann
Archbishop Naumannis is widely viewed as a strong and reliable defender of the unborn. He is already member of the Pro-life Activities Committee, now headed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.
The Kansas City archbishop has tangled with self-identified Catholic politicians who back abortion rights, like Kathleen Sebelius, the former Kansas governor and Obama’s first Health and Human Services Secretary, and Sen. Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate in the 2016 presidential election.
In 2008, the Kansas City archbishop publicly requested that then-Governor Sebelius refrain from receiving the Holy Eucharist because of the scandal of her support for abortion.
The following year, Sec. Sebelius told the Washington Post that being banned from receiving Communion was “one of the most painful experiences of my life.” She described herself as a “firm believer in the separation of Church and state, and I feel that my actions as a parishioner are different than my actions as a public official and that the people who elected me in Kansas had a right to expect me to uphold their rights and their beliefs even if they did not have the same religious beliefs that I had.”
Archbishop Naumann responded, “Secretary Sebelius misrepresents the issue by her attempt to invoke separation of Church and state. At no time did I ask her not to execute her oath of office.”
In October 2016, as Kaine presented himself as a committed Catholic, Archbishop Naumann published a column in his diocesan newspaper that squarely addressed the inconsistencies of the senator’s position.
Kaine had said his faith inspired his concern for the poor and his opposition to capital punishment. But the senator said he could not take a position on abortion, as many Americans did not agree on when human life begins, and he could not impose his religious beliefs on others.
Naumann strongly disagreed: “It is difficult to imagine that Senator Kaine has not seen the ultrasound images of his children and grandchildren when they were in their mother’s womb."
“If he knows these truths of biology, why would he believe that anyone has the right to authorize the killing of an unborn human being?” asked Archbishop Naumann.
“This is where the reproductive choice euphemism breaks apart,” he said. “Does anyone really have the choice to end another human being’s life?”
The clarity and consistency of Archbishop Naumann’s pro-life activism will likely make him the front-runner in the election for a new chair of the Pro-life Activities Committee. And given the strength of his legacy, Church insiders would strongly challenge the Journal story’s first point: That Cupich’s defeat should be seen as a rebuke to the Pope.
Seamless Garment Redux?
However, the Journal’s article correctly stated that the election will signal the bishops’ goals for pro-life engagement at a time when domestic politics and Church affairs have become more complicated and difficult to navigate.
The Journal also suggested that many U.S. bishops may want to keep Trump at arm’s length, and thus opt for the “Seamless Garment” message that Cupich represents. It is not entirely clear how Cupich, if elected, would shift the bishops' approach, but it seems likely that he would broaden the committee's agenda to move well beyond issues like legal abortion, euthanasia, and stem-cell research.
That said, when progressive-minded bishops have sought to revive support for Bernardin’s strategy at recent conference meetings, they have provoked more pushback than support from their peers. And that is because the defense of the unborn child, and the clear articulation of Church teaching on the intrinsic evil of abortion remain central concerns of the conference leadership.
Those who want the bishops to back away from their pro-life commitments should take a few moments to read Maggie Gallagher and Frank Cannon’s recent column in First Things. They present a strong case for a muscular and sustained defense of the unborn child’s right to life in the public square.
This is important guidance for Republican politicians who might be tempted to backpedal. But it is also relevant for Church leaders who find our nation’s increasingly complex political landscape difficult to navigate.
“Politics allows the American people to give public form to what they believe to be true, good, and important; it is also the main way Americans decide which views are ‘within the pale’ and which are beyond it,” write Gallagher and Cannon.
“When an idea or issue drops out of politics, therefore, progressives can easily stigmatize it as outside the mainstream, extremist, and intolerable, effectively ending conversation.”
That's precisely what happened when the GOP retreated from its defense of marriage as a union of one man and one woman. It could happen again, if support for the pro-life causes wilts.
After the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion more than a half-century ago, the U.S. bishops quickly emerged as the intellectual and moral leaders of the pro-life movement. Today, as they choose a new leader for their pro-life initiatives, Gallagher and Cannon offer a timely reminder of the stakes involved.
The American hierarchy can't falter now.