The Bishops, the Pro-Life Cause, and Pope Francis

Pope Francis attends World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, in 2016. (Reuters photo: David W. Cerny)
Getting the story straight, for a change

An awful lot of rubbish ricocheted around the media-blogosphere echo chamber before and after the November 14 vote for chairman of the pro-life committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in which the contestants were Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan. In the event, Archbishop Naumann won, by a vote of 96 to 82 (with 34 mysterious abstentions). Both before the vote and after, outlets from the Wall Street Journal to the online news service Crux to the online gossip column Whispers in the Loggia vied to lead the pack in portraying the Cupich–Naumann contest as a kind of referendum on Pope Francis among the American bishops: Have the bishops caught up yet with the “Francis effect” (said to be embodied by Cardinal Cupich)? And if not, why not?

Blah, blah, and blah.

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.

As for “collegiality,” well, that has an affective dimension, and the November 14 vote was a vote of respect for a longtime pro-life veteran who did serious grassroots pro-life work before becoming a bishop — a man whose election would, the bishops knew, cheer pro-life activists throughout the Church and encourage them in their work, which is showing signs of bearing real fruit. Does the echo chamber imagine that Pope Francis wants to discourage those activists? Does the echo chamber believe that the pope is not pro-life, even after his many condemnations of the abortion culture and the damage it does to what he rightly calls “human ecology”?

Those who insisted that the Cupich–Naumann election was a referendum on the current pontificate were wrong, and they were wrong to spin the vote’s results in the same direction.

The pre- and post-vote commentary on the Cupich–Naumann vote also got sucked into the weird authoritarianism that is reasserting itself on the Catholic Left, according to which the pope is the equivalent of the old Russian czar: an autocrat responsible to no one or anything, whose every wish is to be taken as a command without question or discussion. But this is never how the Catholic Church has understood the papacy, as any careful reading of the debates at both Vatican I and Vatican II will attest.

There are few episcopates in the world more loyal to Rome or more deferential to legitimate papal prerogative than the American bishops. Yet over the past 20 years or so the U.S. bishops have gained a new confidence in their own understanding of the American way of being what Pope Francis calls a “church permanently in mission.” A good example of that can be found in Unleash the Gospel, the June pastoral letter of the newly elected secretary of the bishops’ conference, Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit. Have any of the men whom the herd of independent minds frequently mention as “Francis effect” bishops in the United States (and elsewhere) produced such a striking pastoral letter, after such a thoroughly synodal and collegial process as what unfolded in Detroit under Archbishop Vigneron’s leadership? If so, please bring it to our attention.

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.


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George Weigel — George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center

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