Archbishop Naumann’s election: a relief, not a victory

Archbishop Naumann’s election: a relief, not a victory

By Phil Lawler | Nov 15, 2017

Pro-life Catholics across America are celebrating today, over the selection of Archbishop Joseph Naumann to chair the pro-life committee of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). While I join in the celebration, I want to put things in perspective.

Archbishop Naumann is an excellent choice—the obvious choice, really—for the pro-life leadership. He has been a powerful voice in support of the right to life. He has been particularly pointed in his insistence that politicians who identify themselves as Catholics should be held to the moral standards set by their Church. Archbishop Naumann will undoubtedly be a strong spokesman for the bishops’ pro-life efforts.

Still, the election of a strong chairman—of the candidate who was clearly most qualified for the post—does not represent a major gain for the pro-life movement. Viewed from the outside, the efforts of the bishops’ pro-life committee have been remarkably consistent over the past 40 years, under the leadership of many different chairmen. Year after year the committee has issued solid statements affirming the right to life. Yet the scourge of abortion—and the scandal of Catholic politicians who endose the killing—has continued.

Can you name the current chairman of the committee, whom Archbishop Naumann will replace? Or the chairman before that? Did you notice any difference in their approaches? Under Archbishop Naumann’s leadership, the bishops’ committee may take somewhat stronger public stands. But we should not expect any dramatic change.

So why are we celebrating Archbishop Naumann’s election? Because his rival in the Tuesday election, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, would have brought radical change to the bishops’ committee.

Cardinal Cupich represents the extreme liberal wing of the American episcopate, particularly on questions involving the defense of life. He has discouraged priests from participating in the 40 Days for Life campaign; he has pointedly declined to say that politicians who advocate legal abortion on demand should not receive the Eucharist. He is an outspoken advocate of the “seamless garment” approach, arguing that abortion is just one issue—along with poverty programs, gun control, immigration, the death penalty, and the environment—that should be examined by Catholic voters. A pro-life committee chaired by Cardinal Cupich would undoubtedly have changed the tone and even the substance of the American bishops’ messages.

For many years now, pro-life Catholics have been appalled by the facile arguments of public figures who claim to be “personally” opposed to abortion, yet vote consistently to protect and subsidize the practice. The myth of the “pro-choice Catholic” has survived despite its incoherence. But in the frustrating public debates on this question, at least pro-life Catholics have been able to cite the consistent support of the USCCB pro-life committee, whose public statements have always rejected the “personally opposed, but” canard. With Cardinal Cupich heading the committee, that support would likely have vanished; pro-life Catholics would have been stripped of their episcopal support, striving against the odds to bring the American public to a conclusion that their own Church leaders avoided.

It is no coincidence that the most enthusiastic supporters of Cardinal Cupich’s candidacy tried to portray the Tuesday vote as a test of support for Pope Francis. It is true that the Holy Father hand-picked Cupich for Chicago, quickly awarded him a cardinal’s red hat, and placed him on the influential Vatican dicastery that selects new bishops. But the suggestion that a vote against Cardinal Cupich was an act of disloyalty to the Pontiff was absurd. Pope Francis himself has argued that national bishops’ conferences should be free to set their own policies within their own spheres of responsibility—as, in this case, the American bishops always have.

So, yes; there is cause for celebration in Archbishop Naumann’s election. But it is the celebration of a danger averted, more than of a victory achieved.

There is a certain irony in this victory, too. While pro-life Americans have frequently looked to the USCCB committee for support, orthodox Catholics have just as often looked to Rome for support in debates about Church doctrine. Often we have looked to statements by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI for clarity that we could not find in the statements of our own bishops. Now that situation has been reversed; we look to the American hierarchy for consistency, to counteract the bewildering signals coming from Rome during the current pontificate.

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