Who’s minding the store at the Catholic bishops’ shop?

A seemingly innocuous news release was distributed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' media office earlier this month. It was a tribute to the late Rabbi Balfour Brickner of New York, which included praise from Eugene Fisher, the associate director of the USCCB's Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Fisher described Rabbi Brickner as "one of the greatest American religious leaders of the second half of the twentieth century. He was a man of social vision and moral courage who never backed down from the good fight for the rights of others."

On the surface, it's basically the type of boilerplate you find in abundance upon the passing of a person of some significance. Questions begin to arise, however, when you consider what the statement leaves out.

Rabbi Brickner, you see, was not in sync with what the Catholic Church teaches about abortion. He was Jewish, obviously, and would not be expected to follow the teachings of a different faith. The question, however, is why an official statement of the Catholic bishops' conference would heap such praise on a man remembered by Planned Parenthood as "a powerful voice for reproductive rights."

It was a voice he used in many forums, as noted in a Planned Parenthood web posting: "Rabbi Brickner served on the boards of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the PPFA Board of Advocates, the PPFA Clergy Advisory Board, Planned Parenthood of New York City, and the New York affiliate of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice."

According to the teachings of the Catholic Church, regardless of one's faith affiliation, one cannot be considered "a man of social vision and moral courage" if one supports abortion, which the Church considers evil in all situations. It is evil for Catholics, evil for Jews, evil for Muslims, evil for Hindus, evil for Druids, evil for atheists. It cannot, under any circumstances, be considered good.

So why is a USCCB official saying such good things about a man who favored such a bad thing?

If it were an isolated incident, it could perhaps be excused as a case of ignorance. But it is not an isolated incident.

Last year, a USCCB employee named Ono Ekeh was spotlighted for his extracurricular activities – specifically, running a "Catholics for Kerry" web group. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), of course, created quite a firestorm by raising money for pro-abortion activists while also claiming to be a faithful Catholic. Apparently, for the USCCB management, there was no problem with Ekeh's hobby until it became public knowledge. Ekeh is no longer employed by the bishops' conference.

There was also the case of Pamela Hayes, who served as a member of the bishops' national review board, despite admitting to a reporter for a Catholic publication that she supported pro-abortion political figures such as President Bill Clinton. She also supported the pro-abortion political action committee, Emily's List. She served her term on the review board and then left.

What is it about the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops bureaucracy that permits such apparent indifference to clear-cut Church teachings on abortion?

I have long asked (and have not been provided a satisfactory answer to) the question, "Why is it that abortion is not considered a 'social justice' matter by the institutional Catholic Church in America? What greater injustice is there?"

In other words, if racism is an injustice, if discrimination against women is an injustice, if low pay is an injustice, if poor health care is an injustice, if an unfairly applied death penalty is an injustice, then why isn't abortion an injustice?

One possibility is that the USCCB's institutional structure permits it to be that way.

It is good that pro-life matters have a single USCCB office devoted to those concerns – and only those concerns. It shows that the "seamless garment" argument (that there are many "life issues" of equal magnitude) doesn't hold water and that abortion is not on the same plane as hunger and homelessness. Hunger and homelessness, of course, are important concerns and are issues every Christian must confront. However, food and shelter are irrelevant if you're killed even before you're born.

The Catholic Church rightly teaches that abortion is a grave evil. But the institutional separation of abortion from other concerns also permits pro-life matters to be marginalized, and permits them to be thought of as outside the context of social justice and independent of such other concerns as "ecumenical talks" with other faith groups. Such a structure permits the myriad of other offices, secretariats and committees to say that abortion isn't their job.

One simply has to question, then, the effectiveness of the USCCB at teaching the Catechism of the Catholic Church inside its own four walls.

There's Section 2322 of the catechism, for instance, which states: "From its conception, the child has the right to life. Direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, is a 'criminal' practice, gravely contrary to the moral law. The Church imposes the canonical penalty of excommunication for this crime against human life."

Attention should also be called to Section 2326, which teaches: "Scandal is a grave offense when by deed or omission it deliberately leads others to sin gravely."

And that is the trouble with an organization that has seemingly grown "tolerant" of the actions of those who promote the sin of abortion. Its endorsement of people and organizations that would deny the basic right to life to the human being in the womb sends a message that is not just confusing but scandalous.

The evidence may be anecdotal, but the anecdotes keep adding up. Maybe the USCCB just has a case of the Beltway Blues, brought about by its location in Washington, D.C., and the necessity of filling its employee roster with residents of the local area, which is a city with a pronounced pro-abortion tilt.

The Vatican encourages establishment of national bishops' councils, but nowhere is there a mandate for an institutional bureaucracy such as the one that currently exists in the United States. It is perhaps hoping for too much to ask that the nation's Catholic bishops dismantle this unwieldy creation, though cleaning house and starting over from scratch could be the best solution. At the very least, the bishops should consider moving the USCCB's main office to the Heartland, where people are more in tune with Catholic values, and where homegrown employees are available who wouldn't fawn over pro-abortion celebrities.

Omaha or Lincoln would be nice.


Release issued: 23 Sept 05