Appeasement or Courageous Engagement?

By Phil Sevilla

On August 26, the theologically dissident (and therefore misnamed) National Catholic Reporter  published an interview conducted on August 12 with Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe. The National Catholic Reporter should not be confused with the National Catholic Register, where news and views more in keeping with Catholic thought and doctrine can be a legitimate source of information for faithful Catholics.

Why did Archbishop Sheehan choose to elaborate his views in a discredited and untrustworthy publication like the Reporter?

According to the Reporter, Archbishop Sheehan believes a majority of U.S. bishops disagree with the “loud tactics of some of their peers.” Who are these “peers” whose actions the archbishop deplores as a “hysterical reaction”? Highly respected American prelates who spoke up to oppose President Obama’s invitation to speak at the University of Notre Dame. Actually, over 80 bishops condemned the Obama-at-Notre Dame love fest that occurred in June. This number is hardly a small minority of bishops. Archbishop Sheehan disclosed that he spoke up strongly against the condemnation of Notre Dame at the last U.S. bishops’ meeting in San Antonio.

The archbishop is on the wrong side of history. In 1941, Bishop Clement-August von Galen was among the minority of German prelates who were speaking out against National Socialist (more commonly known as Nazi) policies. During the time of the Arian heresy in the fourth century, Saint Athanasius and a minority of Catholic bishops stood firm against the majority who went Arian. History shows being part of the majority doesn’t always mean you’re on the right side.

In his interview, Archbishop Sheehan spoke several times of differences on a “single issue,” defending Notre Dame and criticizing his fellow bishops who spoke out against Obama’s invitation. Let us be clear that the murder of countless preborn children is the “single issue” Archbishop Sheehan thinks we need to be more tolerant about in dealing with this newly elected president.

If anyone reading this article believes that making nice with Barack Obama, his senior appointees and nominees, including Kathleen Sebelius, Hillary Clinton, John Holdren, Janet Napolitano, Sonia Sotomayor and Eric Holder, as well as Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, will change hearts and minds and cause these administration, legislative and judicial officials to defend the traditional family, the consciences of pro-life and pro-family medical providers, the rights of pastors to speak publicly, and the sanctity of the human person from creation to death, please raise your right hand.
Cardinal Bernardin’s ‘seamless garment’

Father Michael Sheehan, previously bishop of Lubbock, Texas, learned at the feet of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who, the archbishop acknowledges, “taught me how to collaborate, how to consult.” Father Paul Marx, the great pro-life leader hailed by Pope John Paul II as the “apostle of life,” wrote that Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless garment” philosophy, enunciated in his 1983 speech at Fordham University, when he suggested that abortion could be equated with poverty, capital punishment and  many other social problems, greatly undermined the pro-life movement [Fr. Paul Marx, Faithful for Life, p. 162].

According to the June 2000 issue of the Roman Catholic Witness, “Bernardin gave Catholic pro-abortion politicians cover by suggesting to Catholic voters that they could weigh the candidate’s negative voting record on overturning Roe v. Wade with a positive vote on passing a minimum wage law or outlawing capital punishment.” Bernardin’s shadow today still clouds the hearts and minds of many American priests, some chosen over the past 25-plus years to be bishops in American dioceses.

According to the late Monsignor George Kelly, in his book chronicling the deep divide within the American episcopacy (Inside my Father’s House, 1989), as late as 1987, Cardinal Bernardin was rejecting political candidates' stance on child murder through abortion as a litmus test for voting.

Cardinal Bernardin was wrong on a lot of other issues as well.

In 1988, he approved The Many Faces of AIDS: A Gospel Response, a document issued by the U.S. bishops, which promoted the acceptability of condoms to counter AIDS. In 1985, during his watch as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Pro-Life Activities Committee, the bishops sent an amicus curiae brief to the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledging that abortion was accepted constitutional law (Roe vs. Wade). Bernardin engineered this at the same time the Reagan administration was asking the Supreme Court to reverse itself.

Bernardin chaired a bishops’ committee that drafted a pastoral letter on the moral and religious dimensions of war. Its published document, The Challenge of Peace (1983) was skewed from the beginning towards pacifism and against American defense strategy. It was bad theology, according to Monsignor Kelly, and contradicted Pope John Paul II’s 1982 statements at the United Nations indicating that deterrence was morally acceptable "in current conditions." 

Mutual deception and a crisis in authority

The Roman Catholic Witness also reported,

Towards the end of his life, this Machiavellian prince of the Church attempted to provide cover to dissenting voices in the Church by starting a new project, “Catholic Common Ground.” His brother Cardinals derailed it quickly, stressing that the Church already has common ground found in Scripture and Tradition, guided by the Magisterium and that truth and dissent from truth are not equal partners in ecclesial dialogue. Dialogue as a way to mediate between truth and dissent is mutual deception. 

Father Michael Sheehan was an aide to Cardinal Bernardin. The cardinal arrived in Washington to make the formidable bureaucracy of the U.S. bishops’ conference independent of the Vatican. Bernardin’s role in creating a crisis in authority between the American bishops and the pope is well known. It is interesting to note that the present occupant of the White House spoke glowingly of Bernardin in his speech at Notre Dame. Bernardin, the consummate Chicago wheeler-dealer, compromiser and fixer fits Obama’s vision of an American Catholic bishop. Is the flawed Bernardin model of ecclesiastical leadership the road Archbishop Sheehan and other American prelates hope to follow?

Archbishop Sheehan and Governor Richardson

Archbishop Sheehan gloated in the interview, “[W]e’ve gotten more done on the pro-life issue in New Mexico by talking to people that don’t agree with us on everything.” What did the New Mexico bishops do to help pass Senator William Sharer’s bill for parental notification (for abortion on minors)? It died in committee.

In his interview and recent radio program (September 2), the archbishop took full credit for a lot of work done by a coalition of Catholic and non-Catholic lay people, along with various Protestant churches and advocacy organizations such as Right to Life of New Mexico, to defeat the domestic partners and embryonic stem cell research bills. The gallery at the capitol was packed with individual Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, not by any presence organized by the archbishop and his lobbyists.

Archbishop Sheehan is especially proud of the abolition of the death penalty in his state. Perhaps the killing of preborn children and the statutory rape of minor girls were less urgent matters for the New Mexico bishops than abolishing the death penalty—a hollow victory, considering New Mexico is a state where capital punishment has been rarely enforced. There has only been one execution in New Mexico since 1977 and a total of nine since 1930, while 6,200 preborn children are executed by surgical abortions in the state annually. Governor Bill Richardson lost no political capital by going along, and he got a nice “atta boy” in Rome for it.

What did the archbishop say to Richardson in Rome when he stood behind the governor who, mugging for the cameras cheered, “Viva President Obama!”? The archbishop said nothing in front of the international press, when he had a golden opportunity to speak the truth courageously and admonish the governor, who is supposedly Catholic, to work within his party to abolish the executions of American babies in their mothers’ wombs and to defend the sanctity of marriage.

Church leaders must stand united and strong

Once not terribly long ago, there was a British leader who wanted to “build bridges” with another aggressive change agent who was flexing his military muscles in Europe. For the sake of keeping the peace, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Pact in September 1938 with Adolf  Hitler, to avoid confrontation with Germany over the Sudetenland. Chamberlain was hailed as a peacemaker at the time. His contemporary, Winston Churchill, was repudiated as a warmonger for warning England about the National Socialists. In March 1939, six months after he signed the pact, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia.

Thanks to advice from Catholic quislings such as Doug Kmiec, Obama was holding his tongue before the election, to avoid alienating values voters, and he focused instead on secular issues such as the economy, Iraq, health care, etc. But once he was elected, the mask came off as evidenced by his appointments, nominations and executive orders.

Archbishop Sheehan should reflect on the serious flaws inherent in a strategy of appeasement. “Collaboration” and building “common ground” with forces working to directly undermine and destroy the moral foundations of our society is sheer folly and the height of idiocy. “Building bridges” on loose and shaky ground with no firm foundation on bedrock moral principles is a prescription for disaster, and further weakens and erodes the Church’s standing in society. Many more innocent babies will die, parental rights and marriage will be further attacked and marginalized, and many of our freedoms taken away. These are the bitter fruits of appeasement and cowardice.

In his interview, Archbishop Sheehan claimed, “We’d be like the Amish, you know, kind of isolated from society, if we kept pulling back because of a single issue.” Rather than becoming isolated like the Amish, we Catholics are called to evangelize our fellow Americans, and engage and transform our culture with our indomitable faith.

What we need in America is an uncompromising, principled Church. We cannot negotiate with evil. Catholics must be countercultural, ready to engage and must stand united. We are not called to fit in and go with the flow. More than a few American bishops have stood up boldly and raised their voices this past year. May God bless their courage and tenacity. We should follow them.

Phil Sevilla is executive director of Project Defending Lifea nonprofit Catholic pro-life ministry in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and an American Life League Associate group. Project Defending Life’s ministry office and chapel are located next to Planned Parenthood of New Mexico, the state’s largest abortion mill. Phil is also president of the Catholic Coalition of New Mexicoa 501(c)(4) educational and lobbying organization, promoting pro-life and pro-family values in legislation and in Catholic communities around the state.