Analysis: The USCCB ‘abortion debate,’ and what came after

Baltimore, Md., Nov 14, 2019 / 05:45 pm (CNA).- On Tuesday, 69 U.S. bishops voted against the inclusion of a paragraph in a letter they plan to soon publish. Within hours, a conservative social media figure said those bishops “are not Catholic,” and ignited an online firestorm. Here’s how that happened:

The bishops were at the fall meeting of their episcopal conference, discussing proposed amendments to a short letter they intend to issue, as a supplement to “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” their 2015 document on voting and public life.

On Monday Nov. 11, the bishops had been given the opportunity to review a draft text of the letter and propose changes. They had several hours to submit written amendments, which would be debated Nov. 12, before a vote on the entire letter.

Cardinal Blase Cupich proposed an amendment.

Cupich proposed to add into the letter paragraph 101 of Pope Francis’ 2018 Gaudete ex esultate. The paragraph cautions against those who would relativize “the social engagement of others,” or act as if “the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend.”

The cardinal said in his proposal that he wished to add the text because “the draft proposed wording citing this paragraph omits ‘equally sacred’ from the start of that list of important concerns, defacing the point the pope was making, which is obviously that ‘defense of the unborn is not ‘the only thing that counts.’”

Led by Archbishop Jose Gomez, the letter’s drafting committee reviewed the Cupich proposal, along with dozens of other amendment proposals, on the evening of Nov. 11, before presenting them the next day alongside recommendations about their adoption.

On the Cupich amendment, the committee asked the bishops to accept a compromise recommendation, namely, to include the phrase “equally sacred,” but not the entire paragraph Cupich proposed. The committee said the whole paragraph would add length to a letter already three pages long, but it encouraged adding the phrase Cupich said he wanted.

On Tuesday, Cupich rose to ask for a reconsideration of that recommendation. He said he appreciated the desire for brevity, but he wanted the whole paragraph.

From his view, the proposed paragraph contains “all of the elements in the call to holiness that we are to exercise as faithful citizens. He speaks about the need to make sure we avoid those kinds of ideological frameworks that our society today is so paralyzed in our political discourse by, but also, he wants to make sure…that not only do we avoid that, but we engage one another and he also makes sure that we do not make one issue that a political party or group puts forward to the point where we’re going to ignore all the rest of them.”

Bishop Frank Dewane said the committee had tried to accommodate the cardinal’s request, and suggested he could add even more additional language into the text as a compromise.

Cupich was not interested in that suggestion.

“I appreciate that attempt at accommodation. My point is that this is the magisterial teaching of Pope Francis put in a very succinct way, and I think we can all benefit from it as we speak to our people about issues…so I would still like to have the entire paragraph,” he said.

Gomez asked the body of bishops to debate and vote on the point in question: Should the committee summarize the pope’s text, or include the entire paragraph Cupich had mentioned?

The disagreement was not, at that point, perceived to be a matter of doctrinal debate.

To be sure, some bishops have suggested that Cupich wanted to include the full text to advance his commitment to a “seamless garment” vision of social justice, and to dilute the text’s prioritization of the fight against abortion. Others, though, noted that Cupich has a regular habit of calling for greater use of the pope’s texts in conference documents; one bishop called this habit “obsequious.”

But several others, even some who regularly disagree with Cupich on serious doctrinal matters, took the suggestion at face value, telling CNA they thought the amendment was a good idea.

Up to that point, the question was about whether to include a text or to summarize that text. No one who had spoken disagreed with the substance of the paragraph; their conversation had been about how best to present it.

As the debate began, Bishop Robert McElroy rose to speak first. He said he supported Cardinal Cupich’s amendment for the reasons already stated, and because of his objection to a line in the bishops’ letter which said “the threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself.”

McElroy called that line “at least discordant” with the pope’s teachings, though he did not explain himself directly, or address repeated condemnations of abortion from Pope Francis.

The “preeminent quote,” McElroy did say, would be used to undermine what he understood the pope’s point to be in the paragraph suggested by Cupich.

“So either we should get rid of ‘preeminent,’ or, if we’re going to keep ‘preeminent’ in there, let’s at least give the pope a fighting chance with his view, to keep that whole paragraph in there, because that’s where he articulates his vision of this very controversial question.”

“It is not Catholic that abortion is the preeminent issue that we face as a world in Catholic social teaching. It is not. For us to say that, particularly when we omit the pope’s articulation of this question, I think is a grave disservice of our people…so either we shouldn’t have preeminent in there, or we should have the pope’s full paragraph where he lays out his vision of this same question, delicately balancing all of it in the words he does,” McElroy said.

Many bishops looked shocked by McElroy’s words.

The draft language McElroy objected to, that abortion “remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself” came from an amendment proposed by Archbishop Joseph Naumann. Any bishop had been free to stand and ask that it be given separate consideration, rather than be passed on a consent agenda. That was exactly what Cupich had done with his proposed amendment, and McElroy had been free to do the same.

But for some reason McElroy had not asked for debate on the Naumann “preeminent priority” amendment. Instead, the bishop made his objection to the language a kind of diversion from the Cupich amendment that was then on the table.

In short, McElroy’s objection to “preeminent priority” was not formally manifested according to the rules of order, even though it could have been. The motion on the table was still about the Cupich amendment.

After McElroy spoke, Bishop Joseph Strickland was given the floor.

“I absolutely think ‘preeminent’ needs to stay,” Strickland said.

The bishop seemed to think that McElroy had changed the matter up for debate. Some journalists suggested he had gotten confused. Although he made his point plainly, “preeminent” was not up for debate, there was no formal question of taking it out.

Strickland has been lauded by some Catholics for the courage he is thought to have shown by his remark. But whatever his reasoning, the bishop contributed to McElroy’s diversion: he weighed in on a debate the body wasn’t actually having. And it was not the first time at the meeting that Strickland seemed to be out of step with the conversation.

On Monday morning, as they got underway, the bishops were asked to approve their meeting’s agenda, a standard part of the rules of order. Bishop Earl Boyea made a motion that an update on the Vatican’s McCarrick investigation be added to the agenda. Strickland seconded that motion. The bishops voted and Boyea’s motion, seconded by Strickland, passed by a voice vote.

Immediately after that vote, Strickland asked for the floor and was recognized.

“I echo the request for the investigation of the report on McCarrick,” Strickland said, before proposing that “future agendas” include a section “to address the questions of guarding the deposit of faith,” though the bishop did not specify what exactly he meant.

Strickland’s “echo” seemed out of place: He stood, it seemed, to “echo” a motion that he himself had already seconded, and that had already passed the entire assembly of bishops. In the press gallery, journalists asked one another whether the bishop understood that the idea had just passed, after he personally seconded it.

On Tuesday, it was Archbishop Charles Chaput who got the debate on the Cupich amendment back on track. He spoke after Strickland.

“I am certainly not against quoting the Holy Father’s statement,” Chaput said.

“I think it’s a beautiful statement, I believe it,” the archbishop added, weighing in on the motion on the floor.

Chaput then turned his attention to McElroy’s remarks. He did not address the question of whether “preeminent” ought to remain in the document. But he did address, forcefully, the argument McElroy used to support the Cupich amendment.

“I am against anyone stating that our saying [abortion] is ‘preeminent’ is contrary to the teaching of the pope. Because that isn’t true. It sets an artificial battle between the bishops’ conference of the United States and the Holy Father which isn’t true. So I don’t like the argument Bishop McElroy used. It isn’t true.”

“We do support the Holy Father completely, what he said is true, but I think it has been very clearly the articulated opinion of the bishops’ conference for many years that pro-life is still the preeminent issue. It doesn’t mean the others aren’t equal in dignity, it’s just time, in the certain circumstances of our Church, in the United States,” Chaput said.

The bishops applauded Chaput.

An analysis of Chaput’s remarks suggests two things: that he might have been favor of Cupich’s amendment, of which he said he was “not against;” and that he opposed the argument used by McElroy to support that amendment.

After Chaput, Gomez said the committee preferred to leave the long quote out, mentioned that a reference to the full text was made in a footnote, said the committee was “called to have a brief document,” and called for a vote.

By a vote of 143-69, the bishops chose the committee’s summarized text over Cupich’s preference for a long excerpt from Pope Francis.

Some bishops might have thought, as Strickland did, that the vote was on “preeminence.” Some might have thought it was a vote on McElroy and Chaput’s divide over Catholic social teaching. But the question was explained to them immediately before they voted; it seems likely most bishops understood what they were being asked.

Based upon his own remarks, it is reasonable to conclude that Chaput himself may well have voted in favor of including the whole text, which he called “beautiful,” even while he strongly disagreed with McElroy on the reasons to vote for it.

Shortly after the vote, Strickland weighed in again, this time by tweet. “Thank God the USCCB voted to uphold the preeminence of the Sanctity of the life of the unborn.  It is sad that 69 voted no,” he tweeted.

Strickland’s tweet went viral. It was an incorrect interpretation of the vote, based upon the bishop’s apparent belief that the language of preeminence was on the ballot. Not to belabor a point, but it never was.

A half hour after Strickland tweeted, a conservative YouTube commentator named Taylor Marshall retweeted the bishop’s text, adding his own brief comment: “69 USA bishops voted ‘no,’ which means 69 USA bishops are not Catholic.”

That tweet, like Strickland’s, took off into the ether of social media, and soon more voices weighed in, accusing bishops of heresy and spinelessness.

The vote was over whether bishops should quote a long paragraph, or summarize it. For that, bishops were accused of heresy.

On Nov. 14, Strickland weighed back in, tweeting about “the hard data that approx 1/3 of the bishops voted against the language of ‘preeminence.’”

“I pray for unity, Guarding the Deposit of Faith with Pope Francis,” he added.

By his own tweeted admission, the bishop who sparked an online backlash that ended with bishops being called heretics did not know what they had actually voted about.

The consequence of that backlash is that some Catholics may needlessly lose trust in their bishops, and lose confidence in the claims of the Catholic Church.

The U.S. bishops face a serious divide over their understanding of Pope Francis, occasioned by a small number who seem to have positioned themselves as the pope’s authoritative interpreters. It seems clear that divide may well boil to a head.

But the bishops are also divided by what seems to be a hermeneutic of suspicion, which allows some among their number to accuse others of voting against the dignity of human life, even when that misrepresents what’s actually happened.

The bishops are in danger of the kind of partisanship that could lead them to reflexively oppose those with a different viewpoint, rather than doing the hard work of listening carefully, condemning what is false while seeking unity whenever possible. That kind of partisanship would inevitably heighten disunity among practicing Catholics.

Bishops like Chaput and the late Cardinal Francis George, who sought unity with brother bishops even amid real disagreement, are often hailed as models for a conference that could address serious issues with an authentic spirit of fraternity. But whether those models will be heeded by future generations of leaders remains to be seen.

Praying for unity is important. So is the virtue which leads to it. In the social media era, bishops can feed the polarization and nastiness of hot-take culture, even inadvertently. Charity and prudence, especially amid disagreement, must be “preeminent priorities” of the apostles, if Christ’s Church is to live in unity.

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