Abortion Obsessed Catholic Bishops Betray Pope Francis – and Jesus

It seems the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) can’t stop embarrassing itself.

No, I’m not referring this time to its incompetent mishandling and scandalous coverups of priest pedophiles. (By rights, those disgraces should themselves deprive the Conference of ALL claims to speak authoritatively on ANY matter having to do with sex.)

 instead, I’m talking about the latest manifestation of the USCCB’s obsession with abortion.

As if we needed a reminder, its fixation with the matter came under harsh spotlight on June 18th when an overwhelming majority of the Bishops’ Conference decided to proceed with drafting a document whose bottom line would have them refusing communion to Joe Biden (and by extension to other pro-choice Catholic politicians).

The whole affair made evident first of all that the bishops are pronouncing on an issue far beyond their ken. Secondly, their action flies in the face of position adopted by Pope Francis himself. Thirdly, it aligns the bishops with the most extreme faction of the Republican Party. And finally, it is quite unbiblical and contradicts the teachings of Jesus and his expression of the Judeo-Christian prophetic tradition.

For thinking Catholics, all four points should be quite embarrassing. For others, it’s just one more reason to write off the Church as completely irrelevant.   

Unsubstantiated Obsession with Abortion

The evident purpose of the Conference’s strategy is to advance repeal of Roe v Wade as if it were morally self-evident that (as they say) “abortion is murder.”

Of course, no such self-evidence exists. This is because the question of abortion’s morality turns on the issue of when specifically personal human life begins. And NO ONE knows for sure the answer to that question. Even the seminal Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) thought that personal life (“ensoulment”) for males began 40 days after conception and for females 80 days after conception. The church operated on that assumption for centuries.

Moreover, other religions variously identify the beginnings of personal life with the moment of quickening (usually 17-20 weeks after conception), with viability outside the womb, with actual emergence from the womb, or even (as with some Native Americans) with the “painting” of the child to distinguish it from the animals. 

In view of such variation, to impose a single religion’s answer to the crucial question about the beginning of personal life disrespects those of other faiths and of no faith at all. It is therefore to violate the Constitution’s First Amendment which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .”

(And, by the way, the USCCB’s extreme position that specifically personal life begins when sperm fertilizes egg contradicts the “practice” of Nature itself. It ignores the fact that literally countless such fertilizations end in spontaneous abortions – suggesting that Nature itself (God?)  is unconcerned with the issue.)

A Rejection of Pope Francis

The Catholic Bishops’ ham-handed power play also flies in the face of gentle advice from Pope Francis. Instead of confrontation and effective excommunication, the Pope urged “extensive and serene dialogue.”

The Conference position also contrasted sharply with Francis’ allies like Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich and San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy. Both urged adoption of the pope’s approach, which McElroy described as speaking to Mr. Biden “in his humanity” and as “a man of Catholic faith striving to serve his nation and his God.” McElroy recommended encouragement of “our new President: by entering into a relationship of dialogue, not judgment; collaboration, not isolation; truth in charity, not harshness.”

However, USCCB disagreement with Francis goes much further. It is not simply an internecine squabble about arcane Catholic issues. Identifying abortion as “the preeminent priority” of the bishops’ conference highlights disagreement at the highest level of the Catholic Church about the essence of the faith. For Francis, the Church’s preeminent priority is social justice and a radical concern for “the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged.”  His pro-life commitments extend far beyond abortion to climate justice, elimination of capital punishment, renunciation of war, and welcoming of immigrants.

Of course, all such concerns are rejected by Republican extremists with whom the USCCB ends up aligning itself.

Alignment with Extremists

Such alignment was noted recently by Washington Post opinion columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. Dionne pointed to a relevant Pew Research survey of last spring. It showed that even 44% of Republican Catholics agree with the 67% of American Catholics in general that Biden should be allowed to receive communion.

This means that in adopting their position on weaponizing communion, the U.S. bishops are identifying themselves with the most conservative elements of the Republican Party which, of course, has also made abortion a key culture wars issue.

This alignment means supporting election of Republicans whose climate change denial ends up favoring omnicide while claiming to prioritize unborn human life.

Moreover, Dionne correctly observes that the bishops’ position is an outlier in the Catholic world itself. Almost nowhere else is the abortion issue given the preeminence claimed by the USCCB. Its position would be unthinkable in most of Europe and Latin America.

Unbiblical Obsession with Abortion

Even though women have always practiced abortion, the Bible shows no concern for the issue; it is mentioned nowhere in its pages. Therefore, to make it the church’s “preeminent priority” over those articulated by the pope is questionable at the very least.

Moreover, seeking to remedy the practice of abortion by imposition of law flies in the face of the habitual antinomian postures of both Jesus and St. Paul. Neither was friendly towards legal statutes and their enforcers. Jesus routinely disobeyed Judaism’s most sacred (Sabbath) law. He famously asserted his indisputably humanist position that “The sabbath was made for human beings; human beings were not made for the sabbath” (Mark 2: 27).

For his part, Paul was so liberal in his interpretation of Jewish Testament law that he set it aside entirely – including dietary restrictions and even circumcision. It was futile, he said, to seek salvation in law – even in God’s law (e.g., Romans 7: 13-24).

By adopting such positions, both Jesus and Paul seemed to recognize that complicated issues of personal morality cannot be effectively imposed by law, force, or sanctions. Thus, the two most prominent foci of Christian Testament texts implicitly acknowledged the truism that human laws generally favor those who made them, viz., the wealthy and powerful – usually elderly males (and in our case, specifically white old men). Meanwhile, they militate against the interests of those without power or wealth and (in the case of abortion) seem to represent one more way of controlling women.

This is especially vexing for women, since the planet’s female citizens have had virtually no determining input regarding the content of laws that govern their reproductive processes.

The bottom line here is that law has no salvific power for friends of women or followers of Jesus.

Conclusion

Does any of this mean that church leaders should abandon the abortion issue? Not really.

It does however mean that leadership should recognize the fact that Roe v. Wade represents a reasonable resolution of the abortion question in a pluralistic society. It is an imperfect but even-handed compromise in a culture divided on fundamental questions concerning the beginnings of personal human life. It is reasonable that during the first trimester of pregnancy, the pregnant woman may herself decide about the termination of her pregnancy without legal consultation; that during the second trimester the state may regulate abortion to protect the health of its pregnant citizens, and that during the final three months of pregnancy, the state (in recognition of its obligation to protect the unborn) can accordingly forbid or otherwise condition pregnancy termination.

Meanwhile, the bishops and others seeking to lessen the number of abortions should use their influence to foster a welcoming atmosphere for all children. This would entail supporting measures that (among others) provide otherwise reluctant parents with:

  • The good example of Catholic practice
  • Preemptive sex education
  • Extensive prenatal care
  • Postpartum parental leave
  • Affordable childcare
  • Adequately paid jobs
  • Dignified housing
  • Safe abortion facilities

Only by adopting such pro-life positions can the USCCB hope to overcome the embarrassment that its patriarchal, legalistic and unbiblical alignment with the Republican Party has brought upon it and upon all Roman Catholics.

Billionaires Threaten a Hostile Takeover of the Catholic Church

Readings for 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JER 17:5-8; PS 1: 1-5; I COR 15: 12, 16-20; LK 6: 17, 20-21;

There’s a plot going on to neutralize Pope Francis. Even worse, it’s about neutralizing Jesus and his “preferential option for the poor” that has dominated our liturgical readings for the past several weeks.

This week’s readings are no exception. In fact, in today’s Gospel selection, that option for the poor receives its starkest expression so far. There, Luke the evangelist has Jesus say clearly that the poor are the object of God’s special favor, while the rich are not. In Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks frankly: “You poor are blessed.” He tells the rich just as clearly, “you are cursed.” And he does so for no other apparent reason than that the objects of Jesus’ blessing and cursing are poor and rich respectively.

Before I get to that, let me say a word about the plot I just mentioned.

What I’m talking about was reported in January’s Sojourner’s Magazine – the progressive Christian Evangelical monthly published by Jim Wallis. It all appeared there in a piece authored by Tom Roberts, the executive editor of the National Catholic Reporter. The article was entitled “How Right-Wing Billionaires Are Attempting a Hostile Takeover of the Catholic Church.”

There, Roberts described an aggressive project to establish what I would call an ecclesiastical “shadow administration” bent on usurping the authority of the church’s U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The undertaking is “financed by the Koch brothers, by Domino Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan, and a slew of other billionaires linked to the Knights of Columbus and conservative Catholic Cardinals – all of whom enjoy favor with Breitbart’s Steve Bannon and the Trump administration.

Seeking to replicate the rise of the Evangelical right in the 1980s, the group advocates a Catholic version of the prosperity gospel described by Roberts as “a hybrid of traditional pieties wrapped in American-style excess and positioned most conspicuously in service of free-market capitalism.” It is “. . . ‘in your face Catholicism’ . . . often expressed amid multi-course meals followed by wine and cigar receptions, private cocktail parties for the especially privileged, traditional Catholic devotionals, Mass said in Latin for those so inclined, ‘patriotic rosary’ sessions that include readings from George Washington and Robert E. Lee, and the occasional break for a round of golf.”

Doctrinally, the goal is to bury more deeply than ever what many have called “the best kept secret of the Catholic Church,” viz. its progressive social teachings. Since Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, those teachings have repeatedly criticized the abuses of both capitalism and socialism while advocating workers’ rights, labor unions, fair wages, social security, and (especially with Pope Francis) care for the earth in the face of human-caused climate chaos.

The billionaire cabal in question finds especially offensive not just Francis’ emphasis on social justice themes, but the 1983 pastoral by the USCCB questioning the morality of modern warfare and of nuclear weapons. They resent above all the bishops’ 1986 letter entitled “Economic Justice for All” which disagreed specifically with the economic policies of the group’s great hero, Ronald Reagan.

In place of such teachings, the billionaires in question think that the Catholic social narrative should focus exclusively on sexual issues: abortion, contraception, gay rights, and the rights of divorced and remarried people within the Catholic Church. They want the church to be more celebratory of individualism, entrepreneurship, and of free market fixes for society’s problems. Their goal is to shrink government in general and diminish its services to the poor and marginalized in particular.

Doesn’t that sound completely like the Republican agenda?

And with the Catholic Church currently weakened and reeling from its sex-abuse scandals, the billionaire conspirators are convinced that the time is completely ripe for their hostile takeover.

But could anything be further from the teachings of Jesus which a few weeks ago, our Gospel reading summarized as “good news to the poor?”

There, Jesus announced his program with the following words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

This was a proclamation of a new order (what Jesus called “the Kingdom of God”) directed towards improving the lot of the poor, the imprisoned, the ill and oppressed. It was the proclamation of the Jewish “Jubilee Year,” where debts would be forgiven, slaves freed, and wealth redistributed.

Now in today’s Gospel reading, the Master expresses the same sentiment, only this time in even a more in-your-face manner. Here, it’s worth quoting the words Luke attributes to Jesus.

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man . . .
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false
prophets in this way.”

Shocking words – all of them, don’t you agree? They are part of the great reversal in the new order proclaimed by Jesus. There, the values of the world will be turned on their heads. The poor will be in charge. They will have food to eat. Laughter will replace their tears.

But the rich will experience great misery (woe).  That’s because they have been led astray by false prophets like those cardinals participating in the billionaire hostile takeover of the Catholic Church. Those fake prophets console the super-rich with honeyed words about their specialness

But according to Luke’s Jesus, the rich may be enjoying those multi-course meals, private cocktail parties, cigar receptions and rounds of golf now. But when the Kingdom’s new order comes, they will find themselves hungry. They may be laughing now, but then they will weep and cry. Their false prophets may praise them now but come the new order, the wealthy will be cursed as the most wretched of men.

Obviously, Jesus’ teaching contradicts our culture’s worship of the rich. We think of the rich as heroic entrepreneurs. Jesus sees them as worthless wretches. We see the poor as losers. Jesus sees them as objects of God’s special favor.

In other words, Jesus turns our thinking upside down. As Marianne Williamson puts it: Jesus’ truth (God’s truth) is 180 degrees opposed to what our culture values and teaches.

That realization should be Christians’ fundamental guide in reading the news and thinking about world events. It should be the confident guide of our activist efforts.

Everything is the opposite of what our culture claims!