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How the Bishops Found Their Voice Print E-mail
By Austin Ruse   
Friday, 10 October 2008

What a difference four years make. In 2004 a small number of bishops publicly criticized the pro-abortion position of the Democrat running for president. This election year, they have grown to a large and lusty choir taking strong public stands against the pro-abortion politics of the Democratic ticket and their loudest supporters. Why such a difference from 2004 to now?

Late in 2003, when John Kerry’s candidacy was looking possible, the Democratic-leaning members of the American episcopacy faced a daunting conundrum. Here was the first Catholic candidate for president in a generation: a "good Democrat" who just happened to be bad on abortion, but also a candidate sure to inflame the ire of some bishops and many of the faithful. What to do?

Seemingly out of nowhere, a new group was formed, the "Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians," to develop guidelines on how the bishops should respond to Catholic politicians who defy Church doctrine – including the question of withholding Communion and more.

Some reports at the time said the task force was a response to the Vatican’s doctrinal note on Catholics in political life a year before. But this now appears naïve. The reality seems to be that it was established to address the looming question of how the bishops would deal with a Kerry candidacy. Or rather, not deal with it.

The task force came into being at the request of Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, then Archbishop of Washington, DC, and was approved by the Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Having initiated the idea, McCarrick was the obvious person to run it.

The first observable effect of the task force was to silence the staff of the USCCB Pro-Life Secretariat. My wife was the principal public spokesman for that office at the time. She was told not to answer any questions about Kerry and abortion in light of the task force.

Less easy to gauge was the effect of the task force on bishops’ willingness to speak out. Were they also made to understand that they should hold their tongues in deference to the official group and the guidelines they produced?

And when would the task force issue its guidelines? It became clear that the guidelines would not be issued until after the election – long after they could have any bearing on the candidacy of the first pro-abortion Catholic in American history to run for president.

Was it Cardinal McCarrick’s purpose to establish a study group in order to bury the problem until after the election? It’s impossible to know, but we can consider the effects of his actions: the task force was established at his request, the Pro-Life Secretariat was silenced on the most pressing pro-life issue of the time, the bishops in large part stayed mum likely in deference to the ongoing study, a study which was timed not to end until well past the election.

We know now that things spun out of control. While Cardinal McCarrick’s final report was scheduled for after the election, the bishops held one of their twice-annual meetings in Colorado that June and two unusual things happened: the mostly liberal lay staff was booted out of the meeting so that the bishops could talk without their influence, and Cardinal McCarrick delivered “interim reflections” of the task force.

He warned against denying anyone the Eucharist, and he claimed that “Vatican officials” also “advised caution,” and concluded that, “The task force does not advocate the denial of Communion to Catholic politicians.”

Yet several days later the actual memorandum from Cardinal Ratzinger to Cardinal McCarrick was leaked to the press, showing that Ratzinger had said, in fact, that pro-abortion Catholic politicians “must” be refused Communion after proper counseling and obstinate persistence in defying Church teaching. Ultimately, the bishops as a body produced a document leaving the matter to the discretion of each bishop in his own diocese.

This is old news, but sheds new light on the current debate. This year there is no McCarrick Committee keeping the conversation sotto voce among an elite few. And this year the bishops are thundering. It is not just the heroic few – Chaput, Burke, and a few others – who were willing to suffer criticism in 2004. Now it is a whole bunch of them, more than thirty at this point. Moreover, the list includes those – like Edward Cardinal Egan of New York and McCarrick's successor Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington DC – who have tended to work quietly behind the scenes in the past.

Other things have changed. In years past, the partisan and the timid seemed to put a damper on an enthusiastic pro-life message coming out of the USCCB and from individual bishops. Some of them are gone, including Democrat Frank Monaghan who for thirty years ran the bishops’ governmental lobby shop. Gone also is Mark Chopko, the general counsel who regularly frightened pro-life Bishops with the IRS boogeyman.

And here we are four years later. McCarrick is largely quiet. The timid and the partisan, some of them anyway, are gone. A pro-abortion Catholic is running for Vice-President and the bishops have found their voice. Isn't it glorious!

Austin Ruse is president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a New York and Washington DC-based research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. He welcomes comments below and also at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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Comments (14)Add Comment
Too little, too late
written by Michael Liccione, October 10, 2008
If McCarrick hadn't messed up in '04, we'd probably have a lot more than 30 bishops doing what's necessary now. Unfortunately, the economy now has center stage in this election. That favors Obama. The meltdown is due to the country's living beyond its means--i.e., to rampant materialism. As I've argued at my blog, American Catholics are complicit in that. Satan is smarter than we are.
written by James the Least, October 10, 2008
I don't think the McCarrick Committee, nor its lack of influence this time around, is the entire answer to the question, "Why now?" Far more interesting and valuable for Catholics would be the answer to the question, "Why has this taken forty years?"
written by Liz, October 10, 2008
Shortly after the papal visit this past spring, Robert Novak, a convert, wrote a column asking why people like Pelosi were receiving communion in light of her stance on abortion - frankly I feel Mr. Novak lit the fire under these bishops - until then, little had been said. Mr. Novak should be applauded for his courage to make this issue a "national" issue for all Catholics - he asked the question we were all thinking and did so in a public forum.
Humanae Vitae started it
written by TommyMagnus, October 11, 2008
If you recall, Humanae Vitae informs the bishops that it is their MOST urgent task to teach the faithful about the Churchs understanding of sex and family. I find it no surprise that the bishops that pay attention to that charge are also the one's who have no issue calling the laity to task - especially if they are a pro abortion politician.
Any thoughts on the correlation?
Acting with Prudence
written by Mark Ugolini, October 11, 2008
One valuable thing I see in the bishops becoming so vocal is that pro-lifers will have a very visible advocate. With the Church at their side, more people will may feel comfortable taking a stand.

HOWEVER, I worry that that the Church will appear overly political as per comments by Burke and the bishop of Scranton. The Church in Spain suffered a horrendous backlash when it appeared to side with Franco. Could the American Church be setting itself up for a similar blowback?
written by Paul Evans, October 12, 2008
Good on the Bishops for reaffirming the Catholic identity. How we have needed the same in Australia (though our strong Bishops are trying). The faithful (and not so faithful) have been fed a diet of timidity for so long that for many, the true Catholic truth has become blurred. Then, when you come to a vote (e.g that for unregulated abortion, partial birth abortion and compulsory referral for abortion for doctors 2 days ago) many Catholics are in a relativism induced coma and the bill passes.
written by Doug Childs, October 12, 2008
Great...the conspicuous silence for the past couple of decades has raised a generation of apathetic Catholics. Will there be enough time and enough Bishops left to do the job of repairing the damage done? In this case...the Church in America deserves what it gets.
written by Dan McNeill, October 12, 2008
One of your respondents asked the question, why now, after forty years. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger called those years "catastrophic", when a secularized gospel brought about a worldly laity and a clerical scandal which has rocked the Church. We still have worldy bishops with us like Cardinal McCarrick whose perfidious action in hiding the Ratzinger document destroyed any chance of the bishops presenting a united front to protect the Eucharist against desecration. But we've turned the corner.
written by Doug Sirman, October 13, 2008
Wow. Approximately 15% of American Bishops have a pair. How Inspiring. No really, I mean it. Stop laughing.
written by Stacie Adams, October 13, 2008
I shame those bishops for focusing so heavily on the only topic Republicans are "right" on when it comes to Catholic doctrine. Are we the "faithful" so blinded this abortion issue that every other human issue goes by the wayside? Abortion is abhorrant. But so is capital punishment, being involved in an unjust war, excessive greed and thousands of BORN children suffering without proper healthcare. Why aren't the bishops raising their voices and educating their flocks on these issues too?
Who is really blind?
written by TommyMagnus, October 14, 2008
Stacie: It isn't that they are focusing on the rightness of a party on one issue. What the bishops are finally doing is calling for an adherence to a fundamental principle that is often overlooked by certain "Catholic" politicians. And it isn't that we are blinded by the abortion issue, rather, some are so morally blind they can't see the abomination that abortion is. Luckily, the bishops are trying to give sight to those who neglect this absolutely fundamental issue.
written by Fr. Chris, October 15, 2008
Stacie: the consistent ethic of life requires first to pass the test on abortion/euthanasia. If a candidate can't pass that test, their "rightness" on any other issue of life and dignity is rendered suspect. If you don't have the right to life, you don't have the right to health care, or a peaceful world, or merciful treatment for the guilty. Don't weigh all moral issues equally!
written by Militia Christi, October 17, 2008
Abortion is not a sigle issue. It is a foundational issue upon which all other issues are built. Get this one wrong and the rest falls like a house of cards. Period.
written by Kathy Tercheck, October 21, 2008
I have been involved in the pro-life movement since 1970. We in our county Pregnancy Helpline which was instituted at the very beginning. In early 1970, we recognized the need to help those who were suffering from post-traumatic abortion. The Diocese of Lansing implemented the Project Rachel program, which invites woman to the healing love and forgiveness of Jesus. We recognized at the onset that we would have to offer an alternative to those seeking abortion, and healing and forgiveness.

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