USCC Watch: Strange, Cruel Mercy

The Brookline incident, in which two abortion clinic receptionists were killed by a man who had disrupted a Christmas Eve Mass a week earlier, inspired a full-scale media attack on the Catholic Church. Editorial cartoons seethed with rage at the Church for calling abortion “murder,” accusing Catholic pro-lifers of promoting attitudes of violence. Cardinal O’Connor and others attempted, with little success, to re-focus attention on the enormity of the routine violence going on inside the clinics.

Almost immediately a full page Planned Parenthood ad appeared in the New York Times charging the Catholic Church with creating a rhetorical climate which incites lethal acts of violence. Hardly surprising. But the Times evidently had a real crisis of conscience about printing in response a pro-life ad, sponsored by the USCC, according to Gail Quinn, executive director of the NCCB Secretariat for Pro-life Activities. The $69,000 check from the Knights of Columbus to pay for the ad apparently helped the NYT overcome its own principles, and it did appear.

Two weeks after the Brookline shootings, the CBS television show, “60 Minutes,” focused on the militantly pro-abortion “Catholics For a Free Choice” and the notoriously Church-bashing “Call to Action” crowd. The show featured Francis Kissling of CFFC, and Edwina Gateley of CTA, keynote speaker at the ecumenical student conference in St. Louis reported in the February edition of this column. The show’s host, Mike Wallace, also invited two of the most articulate, attractive, and orthodox Catholics on the East Coast, George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Mary Ann Glendon, of Harvard Law School, to “reflect” on the videotapes of the CFFC and CTA for the show. Their commentary, however wound up on the cutting room floor. They were too rational, too articulate, to fit with the other groups, or so they were told. Wallace did not offer to do another show featuring normal, more obedient Catholics.

A fresh barrage of media attacks on the Church followed in mid-January, even amidst the reports of the cheering throngs (and a few angry Buddhists) who greeted Pope John Paul II during his visit to southeast Asia. The excuse? The Vatican Congregation for Bishops, headed by Cardinal Arinze, finally dismissed from his diocese Bishop Jean Gaillot, a recalcitrant French bishop notorious for his brazen public dissent from the Church’s moral teachings, especially on homosexuality, birth-control, and abortion. He had persistently scandalized and embarrassed the Church, including an appearance in a “raunchy” French magazine, and had ignored repeated ecclesial warnings even from the French bishops’ conference. Bishop Gaillot, thus, became the first Catholic bishop within memory to be sacked for dissent.

French newspapers promptly opened fire, calling the Church “totalitarian” and predicted that a major split within the French Church would result. American media followed suit. A number of French bishops (including several cardinals) supported Gaillot. Predictably, dissident theologian Hans Kiing rushed in to fire a few shots, demanding Gaillot’s reinstatement. Although Gaillot’s supporters confidently predicted 50,000 would attend his farewell Mass as Bishop of Evreux, only enough showed up to embarrass the Church. Every effort was made to discredit and traumatize Vatican officials, who had genuinely exercised almost inexhaustible patience with Gaillot. Catholics who welcomed the Church’s action were not interviewed.

The actual circumstances of the Gaillot case seemed irrelevant to many journalists. In fact, there often seems to be a deliberate effort to conceal or distort the truth by selective reporting. The objective of such manipulation of the facts in this case was clearly to frighten off Vatican authorities who might otherwise exercise similar disciplinary measures in other parts of the world where prominent Catholics show public contempt for Church teaching. Scare tactics like these are familiar to anyone who has ever watched a gang of schoolyard bullies intimidate a teacher. Concessions, compromises, and conciliatory gestures by the teacher are perceived as weakness — and the bullies quickly move in for the kill.

Dire predictions also appeared in the press that Bishop Gaillot’s “new celebrity status” would have the effect of allowing “his voice to be heard even more widely” — another scare tactic aimed at making Vatican authorities repent for their action and scurry under cover. Similar predictions were made about Matthew Fox. In fact, Fox, now an Episcopalian, virtually disappeared from public view soon after he was dismissed from the Dominican Order and voluntarily left the Catholic Church. If he were not still teaching his pantheistic “Creation Spirituality” at a Catholic university, chances are that he would have vanished altogether. It is simply necessary to be a Catholic in good standing — preferably a Catholic priest or bishop in good standing — in order to be of any use as a weapon against the Church. Unfortunately for the Church, some prominent dissenting Catholics know this all too well. If asked why they do not leave a Church whose essential beliefs they reject, the usual response is that they “love” the Church, “We ARE the Church,” or, in the case of one American bishop who, when asked why he did not perform a marriage ceremony for homosexuals, replied “I have to remain a bishop in order to change the Church.”

The treatment of Catholics and Catholic issues in the secular media in recent weeks raises some interesting questions about what contemporary journalists understand about journalistic integrity and the media’s obligation to be honest, objective, and fair. But should we hold the secular media to a higher standard than the Catholic press? Should we expect the secular media to be friendly, or even reasonably fair, when some prominent Catholic publications match them blow for blow in their relentless battering of the Church?

The flagship among Catholic publications of this editorial persuasion is, of course, the National Catholic Reporter. A remarkable opinion piece on the Susan Smith case appeared in the Dec. 2 issue, written by a Massachusetts woman identified only as Donna Schaper.

We have a cat named Hudson who killed her litter last month. She’d had a litter in the spring and enjoyed herself immensely. When the second litter came in the fall, she refused to care for it. Often animal mothers and human mothers who refuse care know exactly what they’re doing. They are acknowledging their own limitations. . . . While not arguing for virtue in infanticide, I have to argue at least the plausibility of withdrawing maternal care.

Susan Smith was making an announcement: She couldn’t care for her children. Instead of making their lives permanently miserable, she drowned them. There is a strange, cruel mercy in her act. . . . Motherhood has always been a direct threat to the life of the mother. . . . Having a child is not an act of harmony but an act of conflict. Our life becomes a contest with their lives. Susan Smith, like an adolescent cat, walked up to the brink of her own limitation and shook hands with it. God save her soul. She is still one of us.

In an NCR editorial on the Brookline incident, “Church Must Rescue Those Adrift in Life” (Jan. 27), the author, identified as a “bishop” of the United Church of Christ, notes the differing opinions of Cardinals Law and O’Connor on the matter of peaceful demonstrations at abortion clinics, and, wagging a long verbal finger at these prelates and at the Catholic Church, says that both are focusing on the wrong issue:

It is for bishops like me to pay more attention to the lack of moral resources in America. More and more Americans take the quick fix of the abortion and the quick fix of the gun. Why? Because they simply don’t see another way out.

When bishops differ, we might do well to look toward non-violent church-raising. The Roman Catholic Church has failed to teach its people the goodness of life. Some, even if not Catholic, are using violence to promote life. Many young, poor girls feel the best way to find a life is to ruin it by having a baby.

The author, of this highly unecumenical bit of verbal violence aimed at Catholic bishops by a “bishop” of another denomination in the pages of a Catholic publication is — you guessed it — Donna Schaper.

Some Catholics apparently have convinced themselves that the world would be a better place if the Catholic Church — along with her uncomfortable moral teachings and all those who affirm them — were to suffer from a fatal “strange, cruel mercy.”


  • 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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