Did USCCB push back against Vatican on abortion fight emphasis?

The Catholic Church’s fight against abortion has a new leader, and his election may be a signal from American bishops to the Vatican on their intention to hold to a hard-line approach. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops elected Archbishop Joseph Naumann to chair their pro-life committee. The bishops bypassed Cardinal Blase Cupich, which could be seen as a message to Pope Francis — or might just be an endorsement of continuity:


In a move seen as an endorsement of St. John Paul II’s “culture of life” approach, the US bishops on Tuesday elected Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas as chairman of the conference’s committee on pro-life activities. …

Archbishop Naumann won the pro-life committee with 96 votes, or 54 percent. The other candidate, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, garnered 82 votes, or 46 percent. The committee has customarily been overseen by a cardinal.

Archbishop Naumann who was already a member of the pro-life committee, has challenged pro-choice Catholic politicians, spearheaded efforts to restrict abortion in Kansas, and prioritized abortion in his teaching ministry.

Naumann has served for a while in the trenches on the pro-life battle. Besides already serving on the committee, CNA’s Carl Bunderson notes that Naumann has spent most of his ordained life working on grassroots approaches to eliminating abortion. He started off running the pro-life office in his diocese, helping to launch the Project Rachel ministry that helps women heal from abortions they later regret, and has worked on the ground with crisis pregnancy centers, shelters, and placement services. Few American bishops know the issue as well as Naumann, and his election might simply be a recognition of his expertise and credibility.

On the other hand, Bunderson notes that Cardinal Cupich has used the pontiff’s “seamless garment” approach that ties abortion to a number of other social issues — the death penalty and health care, among others — that reduces the emphasis on abortion in practical emphasis. Naumann champions the “culture of life” approach that treats abortion as a unique evil that must be opposed on its own. Both men oppose abortion, and for that matter euthanasia too, but the difference in emphasis is significant and controversial. Naumann wants the focus of the pro-life committee to remain on those two explicit issues, while Cupich would have broadened the focus and necessarily have had less emphasis on any one particular area.


Francis X. Rocca and Ian Lovett report in the Wall Street Journal that the choice is not a coincidence:

Like all the bishops, Archbishop Naumann and Cardinal Cupich are both strong opponents of abortion and euthanasia. Archbishop Naumann said that he would keep the committee focused on those two issues, as it has been in recent years.

Cardinal Cupich, meanwhile, indicated that he would have broadened the committee’s focus to include other issues like the death penalty, health care and poverty—a list more in line with the priorities Pope Francis advocated for.

“It is clear since 2013 that a majority of them sees the message of Francis’ pontificate, esp. on life and marriage, as not adequate for the Catholic Church in the USA,” Massimo Faggioli, a theologian at Villanova, said on Twitter after the vote Tuesday. …

“This is obviously a break with tradition, in that it’s going to someone who’s not a cardinal,” Mr. Schneck. “But I think it’s a very accurate picture of where the U.S. Episcopacy is in relation to the efforts we see coming from Pope Francis and Rome.”

Writing in the Jesuit journal America, Michael O’Loughlin doesn’t see it as a coincidence either:

The pro-life committee race was viewed by some observers as a referendum on how bishops wish to approach in the public square the litany of life issues important to church leaders.

Both prelates oppose abortion, but their leadership in the pro-life area has played out in different ways.

When it comes to life issues, Cardinal Cupich frequently invokes his predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who advocated for a consistent ethic of life that includes abortion and the death penalty but also issues of poverty, gun violence and war. Cardinal Cupich has written that these issues, along with abortion and euthanasia, contribute to society’s “disregard for the value of human life.”

Archbishop Naumann is seen as the more traditional voice on abortion. He cut ties with the Girl Scouts of America after critics accused the organization of promoting abortion rights, and he has said public figures who support abortion rights should not take Communion.


Is this a rebuke to the pontiff? Not directly, no, in part because it’s not a split on doctrine or teachings. Neither Francis nor Cupich want to rethink abortion or euthanasia; in fact, Francis made it clear to a Catholic order in Belgium that they had to stop performing euthanasia or face excommunication. (The Brothers of Charity have defied this order, and have been called to the Vatican to answer to the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith.) This is a difference in emphasis and focus, a policy dispute rather than a fight over the end goals. The bishops agree on abortion and euthanasia, and also agree on the need to work to end poverty, hunger, and the death penalty. They just don’t agree that all of those should be linked to one another in practice.

Don’t let that cloud the importance of strategy, or of the distance between the USCCB and the Vatican on it. I spoke with Francis Rocca about that on my show today, and he reminded me that this might also reflect on justified anger within the USCCB over an article from the Vatican-reviewed La Civiltá Cattolica written by Fr. Antonio Spadaro that accused American bishops of participating in an “ecumenism of hate” in their fight against “abortion, same-sex marriage, [and] religious education in schools.” Archbishop Charles Chaput responded by likening Spadaro to one of Lenin’s “useful idiots,” and argued that Catholics should be working with allies who share common goals in upholding life and religious liberty. That antagonism might have been reflected in today’s vote; if so, that has nothing to do with Cardinal Cupich himself, who was elevated to that status by Pope Francis a year ago.


The Vatican may not appreciate the difference in battlegrounds between Europe and the US, especially when it comes to abortion. Abortion is legal throughout Europe but much more restricted than in the US. The pro-life fight requires much more focus, and that focus has been paying off in both practical and cultural terms since the US church adopted St. John Paul II’s “culture of life” approach. Now is not the time to take the foot off the accelerator, a point with which the USCCB apparently agrees.

Without doubt, the rejection of a cardinal for this post is a significant change, and perhaps even a purposeful reply to Spadaro’s attack and the Vatican’s suggestion to talk about abortion less. Even if it is just a nod to continuity and Naumann’s lifelong leadership in this cause, that still sends a message from the USCCB on the limits of the “seamless garment” approach, at least in the US.

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