People are so inconsistent. Three years ago, Bishop Blase Cupich, then-ordinary of Rapid City, SD, wrote an article for America Magazine designed to help voters sort through the morass of conflicting opinions about the duties of a Catholic citizen in the voting booth. In it, he penned this marvelous paragraph: “In the early 1960’s one bishop, Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans, excommunicated outspoken opponents of his plans to desegregate the archdiocesan schools, including a powerful local politician. In this he received the support of the Holy See whose spokesman, as reported by The New York Times, said that ‘any Catholic unwilling to admit the fundamental equality of all human beings...proclaims that he is not a Catholic.’”[i]
Given the context of recent elections, it’s tempting to apply the Bishop’s thought to the civil rights issue of our times: abortion. It could just as truthfully be said of Catholic pro-abortion politicians as of Catholic racist politicians: “any Catholic unwilling to admit the fundamental equality of all human beings...proclaims that he is not a Catholic.”
One expects the rest of the article to either explain a warning of excommunication to all such politicians in the diocese (there is no warning) or to expound on the evils of depersonalizing a child in the womb and the moral claim of abortion on the Catholic voter (there is neither point to be made).
Rather, the Bishop – primarily concerned about the evil of racism – cautions that “Voting for a candidate solely because of that candidate’s support for abortion or against him or her solely on the basis of his or her race is to promote an intrinsic evil. To do so consciously is indeed sinful. That is behavior incompatible with being a Christian. To allow racism to reign in our hearts and to determine our choice in this solemn moment for our nation is to cooperate with one of the great evils that has afflicted our society.”
Now, Bishop Cupich has confronted pro-abortion politicians. In 2002, when Senator Tom Daschle “wrote a letter encouraging financial contributions to the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, NARAL, specifically as a means of helping it support the election of candidates with pro-abortion positions,” the Bishop understood that the senator had not only aligned himself with the pro-abortion position of NARAL but “he has also made abortion THE issue of this year’s campaign.”
This “crossed the line and I cannot let it go unanswered,” Bishop Cupich wrote.
In response, he issued a statement to be read at all Sunday Masses in his diocese, explaining what Senator Daschle had done, reiterating the Church’s position about “the dignity of the human person: bringing human life safely into the world and protecting it until natural death” as well as a host of other related concerns, and urging his listeners to vote.[ii]
But confronting a pro-abortion politician and excommunicating one – despite Bishop Cupich’s admiration for Archbishop Rummel’s stance – are different matters. During the 2008 US Catholic Bishops’ annual fall conference, a heated discussion about abortion and pro-abortion politics came back to the parallels between this issue and the problem of racism faced by previous generations. “’At some point this conference will have to address its reticence to speak to Catholic politicians who are not just reluctant, but stridently anti-life,’ said Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Martino argued that in an earlier era, when some Catholic politicians supported racist laws, Catholic bishops of the time ‘spoke strongly and took canonical measures against them.’”
Bishop Cupich’s published contribution to the discussion was: “A prophecy of denunciation quickly wears thin….We need a prophecy of solidarity with the communities we serve and the nation we live in, which needs healing. We must be, and be seen to be, caring pastors as well as faithful teachers.”[iii]
Why does the depersonalization of infants in utero call for a substantially different response than was appropriate when American society depersonalized darker-skinned people?
Bishop Cupich now leads the Diocese of Spokane, Washington. Today’s news brought the startling story that he told his priests and seminarians at a diocesan meeting[iv] that they cannot pray outside of Planned Parenthood, promote or organize peaceful protest outside Planned Parenthood in their parishes (naming 40 Days for Life specifically), or allow pro-life material to be distributed in their parishes unless it is published by the Washington State Conference of Catholic Bishops or the USCCB (which does support 40 Days for Life). “The reason he gave for his decision is that he does not want his priests being identified with ‘extreme’ pro-life persons”[v] such as those who “demonstrate with large, graphic photos of aborted babies.”[vi]
One doesn’t question the Bishop’s commitment to Church teaching but such judgments are confounding. Is the fetus a person or not? Was Jesus, the Man-God present in the world from the moment of the Annunciation or not until the Nativity? If the answer is “yes,” then the consistent position is that excommunication of public Catholic opponents – a “prophecy of denunciation,” if you will – is imperative, just as it was when the depersonalization was a matter of race. If the answer is “yes,” then the consistent position is that peaceful public witness – today’s abolition movement – against abortion is imperative.
But consistent people are rare.
Stephanie Block is a Spero columnist. She edits the Los Pequenos newspaper of New Mexico and is a member of the Catholic Media Coalition.
[i] Blase Cupich, “Racism and the Election,” America Magazine, 10-27-08. Blase Cupich was Bishop of Rapid City, S.D at the time of this writing.
[ii] Statement by Bishop Blase Cupich read at masses in the Diocese of Rapid City during the weekend of
November 2-3, 2002.
[iii] John L. Allen, Jr., “Bishops in agreement - and not in agreement - on abortion,” National Catholic Reporter, 11-12-08.
[iv] September 2011
[v] Mark Shea, “I don't get Bp. Cupich,” Catholic and Enjoying It! Blog, 9-14-11.
[vi] Mary L. Harrell, “The Bishop and the pro-life brouhaha,” The Domestic Apologist blog, 9-12-11. Harrell also reports that all pro-life political material be restricted from distribution in parishes.