In an effort to dispel rumors that have been circulating around the Internet this week (including here and here), the Diocese of Spokane has released a statement on its policy for clergy participation in pro-life efforts, specifically 40 Days for Life. In response to reports from several Spokane priests that their bishop had ordered them to refrain from praying in front of Planned Parenthood and from participating in 40 Days for Life vigils in particular, an online petition was launched by the coordinators of Spokane’s 40 Days for Life campaign requesting that bishop reverse this position. More than 500 people signed the petition, including prominent pro-life advocate Abby Johnson.
The diocese’s full statement can be read here. An excerpt (emphasis mine):
When visiting with the presbyterate, the Bishop asked the priests to approach respect life issues as teachers, for that is what they are. Teachers create new openings for learning and reduce obstacles. Their intense passion to share the truth leads them to greater patience and prudence and not frustration with and disdain for students who fail to respond appropriately. Their witness to the faith through teaching becomes all the more powerful when the presbyterate works together in unity and solidarity. …
As for the specific question of the priests’ participation in the 40 Days for Life vigils, the Bishop recognizes that a given priest in good conscience may feel the need to participate in the vigils and he should never be forced to go against a good and informed conscience. The Bishop only asked that all priests prayerfully reflect on what he has told them, commit themselves to making teaching effectively their first priority and keep in mind the irreplaceable power of the witness of their unity with each other.
John Weingarten, co-coordinator of 40 Days for Life Spokane, was dissatisfied with the diocesan statement, saying that it isn’t clear enough about what exactly priests in the diocese may or may not do.
“We need a clear statement from [Bishop Cupich] that priests and seminarians are free to pray at abortion facilities at any time without being disobedient and there will be no repercussions,” Weingarten said. “If he told them they are not to be at these places, but then says they may follow their well-formed consciences, they would be scared to pray at Planned Parenthood.”
A clarifying email from the Diocese of Spokane’s director of communications stated that yes, priests in Spokane may in good conscience participate in 40 Days for Life vigils without being considered disobedient to their ordinary.
What remains unclear is whether the diocese’s official statement is to be taken as a reiteration of Bishop Cupich’s previous comments to his priests—in which case it would seem that not a few of those present misunderstood the bishop’s original message—or if it does in fact constitute an about-face on the question. Either way, it is the case that priests in the diocese may, in fact, participate in 40 Days for Life, if prompted by their consciences to do so.