Archbishop Joseph Naumann has qualified abortion as the great “moral crisis of our time,” overshadowing immigration, health care, and capital punishment.
While many other moral issues merit attention from the bishops, Naumann said, it would be a mistake to treat them as if they had the same weight, noting that the “vast majority of bishops” understand that abortion is the preeminent moral crisis of our time.
“The church’s leadership in this area is extremely important,” he said.
An article in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend highlighted a growing rift among American bishops regarding what it means to be pro-life, with one more progressive group attempting to expand the concept to include everything from health care to unemployment, while the other more conservative group insists that direct attacks on innocent life — namely abortion and euthanasia — deserve to be in a category by themselves.
Pope John Paul II, who is now considered a saint by the Catholic Church, often underscored the singular evil of abortion. In his 1995 encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae (the Gospel of Life), John Paul employed solemn language in making this distinction: “I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.”
As the bishops assemble in Baltimore on Monday and Tuesday for their annual meeting, one of their tasks will be to elect the new chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities, a decision that will send an important signal concerning which direction the bishops’ conference intends to take.
The nominees for the position are the “prominent liberal” Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago and the conservative Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City (KS).
While both men are opposed to abortion, Cupich would like to see the work of the committee on pro-life activities broadened to address a number of related social justice issues, while Naumann worries that it would be “a real shift to put that all under the pro-life secretariat” and would like to keep the focus on abortion.
As Breitbart News reported at the time, Cardinal Cupich wrote a bizarre op-ed in the Chicago Tribune in August 2015 suggesting that abortion was no worse than many other social ills.
The archbishop wrote that, as appalling as is the idea of “crushing a child’s skull” in abortion, we should be “no less appalled” by problems related to insufficient health care, a broken immigration system, unemployment, or capital punishment.
The article elicited a searing response from Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who denounced attempts to suggest moral equivalency between the intentional destruction of human life through abortion and other social justice issues such as poverty, racism, and unemployment.
In Chaput’s essay, titled “There is no equivalence,” the archbishop stated: “The deliberate killing of innocent life is a uniquely wicked act. No amount of contextualizing or deflecting our attention to other issues can obscure that.”
For his part, Archbishop Naumann has been a leading figure in the bishops’ pro-life efforts and famously warned Catholics against Democratic vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine, calling him a “cafeteria Catholic” for his unwillingness to stand up against abortion.
Naumann said that it was “painful” to listen to Senator Kaine repeat “the same tired and contorted reasoning to profess his personal opposition to abortion while justifying his commitment to keep it legal” in the last vice-presidential debate.
While boasting of his Catholic credentials, Kaine fell back on “all the usual made-for-modern-media sound bites,” the archbishop noted, such as, it is “not proper to impose his religious beliefs upon all Americans” and he “trusts women to make good reproductive choices.”
The archbishop appealed to voters to “be wary of candidates who assume to take upon themselves the role of defining what Catholics believe or should believe.”
Given the stark differences between Archbishop Naumann and Cardinal Cupich, the outcome of this week’s election will offer an important indication regarding the reigning Zeitgeist among the American bishops.
“The election does kind of encapsulate a battle going on in the church,” said Patti Miller, author of Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church.
“It’s a perfect read on this current moment in the church—if people are going to go the John Paul II way or the Pope Francis way,” Miller said.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter Follow @tdwilliamsrome.