• The election of Archbishop Joseph Naumann as chairman of the USCCB’s committee on pro-life activities has caused some ripples, to put it mildly. It has also revealed that some progressive Catholics actually do care deeply about tradition—that is, USCCB tradition, not Church Tradition—as evidenced by this bit of, um, measured, incisive analysis by Michael Sean Winters:
The U.S. bishops broke tradition this morning selecting Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, to serve as chairman of the Pro-Life Activities Committee. He defeated Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago on a vote of 96 to 82. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this amounted to the bishops giving the middle finger to Pope Francis.
Goodness. Bitter much? Not surprisingly, Winters—who brings to Catholic punditry all the gifts and talents that Dan Brown brings to “thrillers” starring symbologists—goes simplistic after going apoplectic:
The contrast between the two candidates for chair of the Pro-Life Activities Committee was the starkest of the choices the bishops faced. Naumann and Cupich are both representative of the two divergent understandings of how the church should interact with the ambient culture. Naumann is a culture warrior. Cupich champions engagement and dialogue.
Naumann, according to Winters, “politicizes” the Faith, as evidenced by the Archbishop letting it be known, in 2008, that then Gov. Kathleen Sebelius should not present herself for Communion because of her proud, unflinching, and unapologetic pro-abort stance. And, “Naumann also ordered his parishes to cease hosting Girl Scout troops over concerns they were somehow involved with Planned Parenthood”—the “somehow involved” referring, apparently, to the Girl Scouts diving deep into the waters of lefty, trendy ideological vapidity. Naumann, sniffs Winters, “is not exactly a poster child for the culture of encounter.” Perhaps because the Archbishop can tell the difference between encounter and capitulation?
• Which brings us to Cardinal Cupich, whose resume consists of an impressive rise up the ranks and, really, little else. “Cupich,” writes Winters, “on the other hand, has openly embraced the consistent ethic of life approach first introduced by his predecessor Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.” In fact, from all accounts, that’s about the only thing Cupich wishes to do; it was addressed two years ago in this CWR piece by Samuel Gregg, who wrote:
Right from the beginning, forceful criticisms were made of the consistent ethic position (often described as the “seamless garment”). One was that it would inadvertently help provide “cover” for Catholic politicians who supported legalized abortion. Cardinal Bernardin himself lamented in a 1988 National Catholic Register interview that “I know that some people on the left, if I may use that term, have used the consistent ethic to give the impression that the abortion issue is not all that important any more, that you should be against abortion in a general way but that there are more important issues, so don’t hold anyone’s feet to the fire just on abortion. That is a misuse of the consistent ethic, and I deplore it.”
Ten years later, the United States Catholic Conference’s document Living the Gospel of Life also criticized those who had used the consistent ethic to relativize the killing of unborn human beings by making it just one of a laundry list of concerns.
In a way, however, the political fallout from the consistent ethic distracted attention from significant ambiguities that characterized important aspects of the seamless garment’s theological and philosophical apparatus. In light of what seem to be efforts to revive this approach as a way for Catholics and, more particularly, Catholic bishops to engage in public policy debates, it’s worth revisiting these problems.
Do read the entire article. My point here is that Bernardin’s approach, however well-intentioned, was a failure in more than one way (mostly, it seems, because it was so easy to misrepresent and misuse).
• Perhaps Winters was upset with this sort of rhetoric:
Not all values, however, are of equal weight. Some are more fundamental than others. … I wish to emphasize that no earthly value is more fundamental than human life itself. Human life is the condition for enjoying freedom and all other values. Consequently, if one must choose between protecting or serving lesser human values that depend upon life for their existence and life itself, human life must take precedence.
Oh, wait: that was an actual quote from Cardinal Bernardin. Go figure.
Okay, where was I?
• Here’s my main point: both Naumann and Cupich have spoken against abortion. But while Naumann has shown that he is a warrior and a leader—who can also dialogue when the moment calls for dialogue—it’s not evident at all that Cupich, however much he “champions engagement and dialogue”, would ever really do battle for the prolife cause. I do think it’s that simple. Cupich talks a great deal about dialogue. Fine. But he does not have the tried and true record of Naumann when it comes to actively and consistently fighting for life and working against abortion.
• Still, there have been a number of folks “shocked” by Naumann’s election. For instance, Rocco Palmo declared:
In genuine shocker, Kansas City’s +Naumann upends USCCB tradition by taking Pro-Life chair over Chicago’s Card Cupich on 96-82 margin
— Rocco Palmo (@roccopalmo) November 14, 2017
The shocker, again, is that the USCCB broke its ancient tradition (of four decades!) of electing a Cardinal to the position.
But, really, this was not a shocker. If there was any sort of surprise, it’s that Cupich garnered 82 votes. But, then, there were 34 bishops who abstained from voting, which means that 130 out of 212 bishops did not vote for Cupich. That can be sliced, diced, and parsed a number of ways; however, anyone who has been paying attention to the American bishops in recent years know that they are going to go with a more proven candidate with a “rubber meets the road” record.
• Theologian Massimo Faggioli, who is becoming something of the Richard McBrien of his generation (minus the collar), lamented:
The US bishops have obviously the right to elect whomever they want as head of committees. But 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 (@MassimoFaggioli) November 14, 2017
• Meanwhile, Christopher White of Crux also viewed the choice of Naumann as “surprising”, stating:
The results will likely be viewed by many that the “Francis effect” has yet to take hold fully of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a rejection of the “consistent ethic of life” methodology, promoted by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who served as Archbishop of Chicago in the 1980s and ’90s.
(Once again, why so surprised? More on that in a moment.) And The Wall Street Journal also interpreted the results as a push against the Francis effect: “U.S. Catholic Leaders Signal Resistance to Pope’s Agenda”.
• But George Weigel, at National Review Online, is having none of it:
The so-called Francis effect is a media concoction that is difficult to define. But if it means anything, it means a Catholic Church that embraces what Pope Francis calls “collegiality” and “synodality.” In choosing Naumann over Cupich — and in breaking 40 years of precedent by naming someone other than a cardinal to chair the conference’s pro-life committee — the bishops in fact embraced both of those principles, rather than rejecting them. It would be helpful if the herd of independent minds would recognize that, instead of repeating its mistakes ad infinitum (and ad nauseam).
For while it’s not entirely clear what the pope means by “synodality,” he at least means that he wants a Catholicism that trusts local churches to know their own ecclesial experience and to craft approaches to mission, evangelization, and public witness that reflect that knowledge. That is what the U.S. bishops did in choosing as their pro-life committee’s chairman Archbishop Naumann — who displayed great pastoral skill and courage in dealing with the pro-“choice” governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius, prior to her becoming secretary of heath and human services in the Obama administration. Moreover, like his brother bishops, Archbishop Naumann knows that the pro-life cause embraces issues other than abortion, just as he knows that work for legal protection for the unborn must be complemented by effective action on behalf of women caught in the dilemma of unwanted pregnancy.
But Naumann also knows that the current American abortion regime has seriously eroded our national political culture and warped our national politics, and that these facts of public life cannot be ignored in deference to certain partisan sensibilities or other issues. That is something that the majority of the body of bishops also knows, and that helps explain Naumann’s victory. Far from being some sort of act of disrespect to the pope, a vote for Archbishop Naumann was a vote to affirm the bishops’ broad-gauged pro-life position, which has developed “synodally” over time, while privileging several of the life issues — abortion, to be sure, and, increasingly, euthanasia — rather than muting those issues for the sake of others.
And: “Those who insisted that the Cupich–Naumann election was a referendum on the current pontificate were wrong to do so before the vote, and they were wrong to spin the vote’s results in the same direction. If they would bring themselves to recognize that, perhaps they’d see some real synodality and some real collegiality at work among the U.S. bishops. And that might help wean them from promoting simulacra of synodality and collegiality in the name of a very un-Catholic notion of papal autocracy.”
• I’m quite sympathetic to Weigel’s argument here, and he surely has far more direct knowledge of the ins-and-outs, the players, and the dynamics. However, it seems fairly clear, just from the vote alone, that there exists a serious divide among the bishops. That is, arguably, somewhat natural and hardly unique. The entire matter raises some “what if?” questions for me: What if Cupich was a more likable candidate (it’s not much of a secret that he’s not a favorite among many of the bishops)? What if Cupich had accomplished a bit more than rise from Rapid City to Chicago on the basis of, well, what?
• Another question: why did many assume—and they surely assumed, based on what I’ve seen on Twitter and in various reports—that Cupich would win? The answer, apparently, is that Cupich is “America’s Pope Francis” (as he was dubbed by a CBS reporter after being named to Chicago) and that his oft-stated goal of being just like Francis would not only be enough, but would make him the obvious choice. This perspective overlooks a couple of things: first, saying that you want to be like Pope Francis is fine, but it’s not an accomplishment by any means; secondly, as noted, Naumann is a proven prolife leader (and warrior), while Cupich simply isn’t; third, Cupich doesn’t just lack the results, he doesn’t possess the sort of gravitas, charisma, and intangibles that would attract those “on the fence”. And perhaps there was also a bit of “echo chamber” effect in play as well; after all, Cupich gets plenty of media attention, but how much does that matter to the various bishops?
• As a quick aside, it’s still worth pondering what a “Francis bishop” is, especially since the image presented of Cupich and some of the “on the ground” reality do not mix well, as I described in my February 2015 piece on Cupich’s nearly disastrous time in Spokane.
• The Chicago Tribune headline shouts: “Cupich suffers rare political defeat at hands of fellow U.S. bishops”, and the story includes this: “Cardinal Blase Cupich has often been praised for his political savvy since he was installed in Chicago by Pope Francis.” Is that simply the perspective of the secular media? Or is there something to it? A big clue can be found in the Statement released by Cardinal Cupich following the shooting at a church in Sutherland, Texas; it included the following:
We must recognize that the factors that produce these tragedies will not change unless we take direct action to change them.
Comprehensive national gun control policies will not prevent every shooting but it will prevent some.
Access to mental health care — in legislation founded on the principle that health care is a right not a privilege — will not prevent every shooting but it will prevent some and will mean we will have fewer podium speeches about our thoughts and prayers.
Let it be our firm resolve to act and to advocate and to end this hideous blot upon our nation.
The Statement includes no mention of God, Jesus Christ, the reality of evil, salvation, mercy, hope, truth, or anything else; it could have been released by a politician or activist. And that, alas, is par for the course. A few years ago, while in Spokane, I heard Archbishop Cupich being interviewed on a local station about immigration reform. In twenty minutes or so he said nothing that was Catholic or related to anything taught by the Church; it was all political talk.
• So, was the vote a slap at Pope Francis? I think that is a political reading of a vote that was not very political. In other words, folks (such as Winters) who see everything in terms of politics are always ascribing political motivations while insisting they are above politics. It’s not convincing. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
• Besides, as Weigel rightly notes, the U.S. bishops understand the situation here far better than Francis. To think otherwise is laughable.
• Which brings me, in conclusion, to a recent First Things piece—subtitled “Bourgeois Religion”—by R.R. Reno, which includes a startling but on the mark series of observations about Pope Francis the Church today:
Ask Cardinal Blase Cupich if sodomy is a sin, and in all likelihood he will start talking mumbo-jumbo about conscience and then say something about the Church’s emphasis on mercy. The Holy Father himself famously replied to a similar question with the memorable (and misleading) paraphrase of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, “Who am I to judge?” One of Pope Francis’s close associates, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, told a colloquium at Boston College on Catholic teaching regarding marriage, sex, and the family, “It is no longer possible to judge people on the basis of a norm that stands above all.” I could add many more instances, but we know the routine: conscience, accompaniment, the “ladder of love,” etc., etc. That’s Welby’s answer with a more elaborate apparatus—and without his honesty.
The Catholic Church’s retreat from anything resembling clarity about sexual morality does not surprise me. It’s been a long time coming. Catholicism and other forms of establishment Christianity in the West tend to take the form of bourgeois religion. That term denotes the fusion of church culture with the moral consensus held by the good, respectable people who set the tone for society as a whole. In the aftermath of the sexual revolution, that consensus shifted. …
Given the inconvenience of the Catholic commitment to moral truth, the approach has been to remain silent. Insofar as bishops and cardinals have spoken about sex, it has almost always been to qualify and soften the Church’s moral voice. The strategy was one of careful retreat. The enduring hope has been to find a way to moderate the obvious clash between what the Church teaches and the bourgeois consensus about sex.
It has become apparent that Pope Francis wants to make this retreat more explicit. For this reason, I have given up trying to keep track of controversies surrounding Amoris Laetitia. The details don’t matter. Pope Francis and his closest associates have no interest in the sacramental coherence of their positions on matters such as divorce and remarriage, nor do they care one whit about defending the logic of the arguments they put forward. I admire those who have explained the limits that the rich tradition of Catholic sacramental and moral teaching places on our interpretation of Amoris Laetitia. This is important work. But it has little bearing on the near-term outcome of this controversy. Pope Francis and his associates want to sign a peace treaty with the sexual revolution. They will use whatever arguments and rhetoric are necessary to achieve this goal. …
This papacy’s goal of aligning the Catholic Church with the bourgeois consensus has other dimensions that show how unprincipled this process will be. Euthanasia is not something our bourgeois consensus wishes to endorse, at least not enthusiastically. Most good and responsible people have misgivings. They recognize the dangers it poses to the weak and vulnerable. But they believe that intelligent, self-possessed people like them ought to have the option of doctor-assisted suicide, at least in some cases. The general tone of the Francis papacy thus encourages bishops to mirror this position. Doctor-assisted suicide is not OK, exactly, but it is OK-ish. It falls under the rubric of “accompaniment,” which means saying “no” without saying “no,” which is a way of saying “yes” without saying “yes.”
This papacy is not hard to figure out. Pope Francis and his associates echo the pieties and self-complimenting utopianism of progressives. That’s not surprising. The Jesuit charism is multifaceted and powerful. I count myself among those profoundly influenced by the spiritual genius of St. Ignatius. Yet there’s no disputing that for centuries Jesuits have shown great talent in adjusting the gospel to suit the powerful. And so, I think the European establishment can count on the Vatican to denounce the populism currently threatening its hold on power. I predict that this papacy will be a great defender of migrants and refugees—until political pressures on the European ruling class become so great that it shifts and becomes more “realistic,” at which point the Vatican will shift as well. What is presently denounced will be permitted; what is presently permitted will be denounced.
Adjustment, trimming of sails, and accommodation are inevitable. The Catholic Church is not set up to be countercultural. Catholicism, at least in the West, has establishment in its DNA. But this papacy is uniquely invertebrate. I can identify no consistent theological structure other than a vague Rahnerianism and post–Vatican II sign-of-the-times temporizing. This makes Francis a purely political pope, or at least very nearly so. No doubt he has an evangelical heart. But ever the Jesuit, he seems to regard every aspect of the Church’s tradition as a plastic instrument to be stiffened here or relaxed there in accord with ever-changing pastoral judgments.
Harsh? Yes. Unfair? I don’t think so. And it helps explain a few things about the Naumann-Cupich election. And, in doing so, I suggest what transpired today was a step in the right direction.
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