By Christopher White
As the U.S. bishops meet in Baltimore this week, one of the most closely-watched elections will be for the head of the pro-life committee, as its outcome likely will be viewed as a bellwether for the direction of the conference as a whole.
Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago will be up against Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, a contrast in both style and substance as to how the Church engages on the pro-life front in the era of Pope Francis and President Donald Trump.
Cardinal Cupich is largely representative of the consistent ethic of life caucus within the conference, which attempts to connect the dots between debates over abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, and the range of issues that are typically categorized as life issues.
Such an approach traces its roots to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin who in the 1980s famously argued for a “seamless garment” of life. During the 1990s and 2000s, this view largely found itself as the minority view within the conference.
However, under Francis, it’s been making a comeback. Most notably, in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, Francis argued for a philosophy that evidences how “everything is connected.”
Archbishop Naumann, on the other hand, is from the mold of the more traditional pro-life school, with an elevated focus on the issue of abortion. This approach has largely been reflective of the conference’s broader engagement in pro-life political and cultural spheres, which has given the issue of abortion a heightened significance within the conference.
In August 2015, when Planned Parenthood came under national scrutiny for its buying and selling of tissue from abortions, Cardinal Cupich took to the pages of the Chicago Tribune to reflect upon what this national scandal could mean for both the abortion debates and beyond.
He condemned the activity of Planned Parenthood and a culture that has “so muted the humanity of the unborn child that some consider it quite acceptable to speak freely of crushing a child’s skull to preserve valuable body parts and to have that discussion over lunch.”
Yet he also attempted to use the occasion to make a broader appeal.
“This newest evidence about the disregard for the value of human life also offers the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment as a nation to a consistent ethic of life,” he wrote.
“While commerce in the remains of defenseless children is particularly repulsive, we should be no less appalled by the indifference toward the thousands of people who die daily for lack of decent medical care; who are denied rights by a broken immigration system and by racism; who suffer in hunger, joblessness and want; who pay the price of violence in gun-saturated neighborhoods; or who are executed by the state in the name of justice,” Cardinal Cupich argued.
Meanwhile, Archbishop Naumann made headlines in May of this year when he announced that the parishes in his diocese would no longer host the Girl Scouts because of their affiliation with Planned Parenthood.
In an interview at the time, he said, “The issues that pertain to family life, to marriage, to the dignity and sanctity of human life, do have a priority in our Catholic social teaching. Those are kind of foundational issues for us… I would say, however, in terms of the magnitude of things, abortion is a much more important issue, simply because of the sheer number of innocent lives that are taken every year in our culture.”
Archbishop Naumann’s approach is largely marked by standing as a counter-cultural witness and a belief that a culture that fails to recognize the humanity of the unborn child is the greatest tragedy facing the world today.
During the 2016 presidential election, the Archbishop took to the pages of his archdiocesan newspaper, The Leaven, to call out then-Vice Presidential candidate Senator Tim Kaine, a Catholic, for being personally opposed to abortion, yet failing to maintain those convictions in the political realm.
“If he knows these truths of biology, why would he believe that anyone has the right to authorize the killing of an unborn human being? This is where the reproductive choice euphemism breaks apart,” Archbishop Naumann wrote. “Does anyone really have the choice to end another human being’s life? Our choices end where another individual’s more fundamental rights begin.”
Cardinl Cupich, however, seems to prefer a disposition that favors finding areas of commonality and incremental bridge building.
In September, he partnered successfully with Illinois’s Republican Governor Bruce Rauner to pass an education-funding bill that allows for tax credits to be applied toward Catholic institutions and thus expanding school choice in the state, widely heralded as an unlikely success in the Democratic controlled state legislature.
A few weeks later, however, that relationship was strained when Gov. Rauner signed into law a bill that expands taxpayer funding for abortion. The governor had previously promised that he would veto the bill.
“He did break his word. He broke his word to the people, especially those who have continued to speak on behalf of the vulnerable child in the womb,” Cardinal Cupich told the Chicago Tribune in September.
Given the significance of the pro-life committee within the conference, the chairman has traditionally been a Cardinal.
Should the conference fail to select Cardinal Cupich as its next head, it will likely be viewed as an effort to quell the resurrection of the consistent life ethic approach – a decision that will reveal not merely where the bishops stand on pro-life policy, but more broadly, how they understand the “Francis effect” in action.