Bishops Take a Swing


June 1, 1996

Catholics cheered when the U.S. cardinals, in a rare move, unanimously condemned President Clinton’s veto of the partial-birth abortion bill. This legislation would have made it illegal to suck out the brains of the most defenseless and vulnerable members of the human family during the actual process of birth, a procedure that causes a nearly universal shudder. Implicit in the cardinals’ message was that no one, no matter how powerful—not even the President of the United States—is allowed to condone or permit such hideous slaughter.

As Catholic bishops, they spoke firmly against this outrage—and received surprising support from some politically liberal Catholics who are usually quick to criticize the Catholic hierarchy. Columnist Mary McGrory reported the general dismay at a party for Commonweal. “We thought he meant it when he said ‘safe, legal and rare,”‘ she wrote. It was refreshing to hear that they felt betrayed, not by the Church, as usual, but by their own boy in the White House.

A Protestant friend, while applauding the cardinals and commenting that Catholics have led the way for others on the life issues, wondered if they would have spoken so firmly if the president were a Catholic. If they did, he asked, would they, like their brother bishop in Lincoln, Nebraska, have been publicly vilified by their fellow churchmen as he was? Would they have been called “rogue bishops” by Father Thomas Reese, S.J., a favorite media source for Catholic opinion? Would the cardinals have been ridiculed by Catholic columnists like Tom Fox of the National Catholic Reporter, or called “extremist” by the spokesman for the Pittsburgh diocese?

What is the difference between the cardinals’ statement and Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz’s warning to Catholics in the Diocese of Lincoln?

Bishop Bruskewitz said Catholics in his diocese were “interdicted” from membership in specific organizations, including some that exist for no other purpose than to promote rights to all forms of abortion, including the visibly horrible partial-birth kind. Planned Parenthood’s ghastly population programs have been inflicted on the entire world. Catholics for a Free Choice vigorously promotes abortion rights, and, like other progressive Catholic groups that do not make abortion advocacy their only objective (Call to Action, for example), has for years demanded radical changes in the Church’s teaching particularly in matters of sexual morality, including abortion, while exhibiting a willful deafness to the suffering of tortured and dismembered children whose cries are muffled only because they are still within their mothers’ wombs.

Bishop Bruskewitz said that a person cannot be a member of these organizations and also be a member in good standing in the Catholic Church. That is what “excommunication” means. Similarly, the cardinals’ message is that the shocking disregard for human life reflected in the president’s veto is intolerable. This surely implies the same interdict for Catholic abortion advocates. Yet no columnist complained that the cardinals were excommunicating pro-abortion Catholics. Why not?

The difference between the statements of Bishop Bruskewitz and the cardinals is that the latter does not, in fact, draw out the full implication of its message for Catholics. The cardinals issued a general statement of disapproval. And general statements, because they do not involve corrective action or explicitly warn people of the inevitable spiritual consequences of their immoral acts, are easily ignored. It seems unlikely, for example, that Catholic politicians like Vermont’s notoriously pro-abortion Senator Patrick Leahy, will consider themselves excommunicated by the cardinals’ statement.

But perhaps it does presage a new direction for the American bishops. Cardinal Bernard Law, in a recent address at Assumption College, said that Catholic politicians who find themselves unable to follow their consciences in the exercise of political office should resign. The Boston cardinal’s strongly worded message clearly implies that Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, a Catholic who maintains that he is “personally opposed” to abortion, but does not vote accordingly, should resign from his office.

For Catholic and non-Catholic pro-life Americans, strong public statements by members of the heirarchy are a welcome reassurance that the Catholic Church in the U.S. remains committed to the essential moral principles of the Church in the present “culture wars.” But if any Church leader unequivocally states the full implications of Catholic teaching for his own diocese, as Bishop Bruskewitz has, he can expect to suffer the same vilification in the press—and the same gratitude of those Catholics who filled the Lincoln bishop’s office with flowers and letters.


  • Helen Hull Hitchcock

    Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and six grandchildren, and live in St. Louis.

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