Pro-life chair vote among those facing bishops

When the U.S. bishops vote for committee chairmen of their national organization, the balloting is typically a staid and gentlemanly affair, arousing little interest on the part of anyone except the bishops themselves — and, truth to tell, perhaps not all of them either.

Not this time.

Meeting in general assembly November 13-14 in Baltimore, the bishops will choose new chairmen of several committees, including their committee on Pro-Life Activities. As always, the process will be staid and gentlemanly. But a lot of people will be watching the outcome with intense interest just the same.

The bishops for years have chosen a cardinal to head the pro-life committee as a sign of the importance of the abortion issue on the agenda of their national organization, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The current chairman is Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York.

The two nominees for the position now are Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas. And the difference between them is such that in choosing between them the bishops will unavoidably be making a statement.

But before getting to that, it’s important to say something else first. It would be not just simplistic but false to suggest or imply that either man is less than opposed to abortion. Cardinal Cupich has often condemned what he calls “the violence of abortion.” Archbishop Naumann refers to it as “killing an innocent human being.”

But there are notable differences of style between the two.

During last year’s presidential campaign, for instance, Archbishop Naumann called Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, a “cafeteria Catholic” who supports the Church’s social welfare agenda while backing his party’s pro-choice position. He urged voters to “be wary of candidates who ... take upon themselves the role of defining what Catholics believe or should believe.”

This September, by contrast, Cardinal Cupich took a different tack after Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, signed bill expanding tax-funded abortion despite having promised earlier to veto it. The cardinal called it a “disappointing day” but said he would continue to try to work with Rauner on issues. “I’ve never felt a good tactic is to close the door on discussion,” he told the Chicago Tribune.

Bishops’ elections do not involve politicking or attack ads, but this is not to say the bishops don’t discuss candidates privately among themselves. In the present instance, they know at least as well as anybody else that Cardinal Cupich was Pope Francis’ hand-picked choice to head the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Nor are they unaware that the cardinal is an enthusiastic supporter of the “consistent ethic of life” identified with the late Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin, a predecessor of his as archbishop of Chicago who died in 1996.

In an article published last May in the liberal lay-edited Catholic magazine Commonweal, Cardinal Cupich wrote this of Cardinal Bernardin and the consistent ethic, which links abortion to other life-related issues like capital punishment, social justice and peace:

“Some unfairly charged that his approach ended up making all life issues morally equivalent. Others suggested that the consistent ethic of life diminishes a commitment to resist abortion. He disagreed, and so do I. A full and consistent commitment to human life and dignity and to solidarity will enhance, not diminish, our defense of children and women victimized by the violence of abortion. As Pope Francis said, ‘It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.’”

It should be an interesting election.

Russell Shaw is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.