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Will Catholic bishops hamper the pro-life cause?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 30, 2020

When Cardinal Blase Cupich cautions against political partisanship—in remarks made after the March for Life—informed readers recognize that he is questioning the degree of Catholic commitment to the campaign against legal abortion. Not for the first time; back in November, the same cardinal sought to soften a statement that listed abortion as “the preeminent priority” of the US bishops’ conference in the public-policy realm.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) voted down Cardinal Cupich’s proposed amendment, leaving the USCCB statement intact.* But 69 bishops supported the amendment, prompting some concerned Catholics to question the depth of these bishops’ commitment to the pro-life cause.** Other observers, taking a rosier view, saw the USCCB vote as a victory for the pro-life cause. In fact it was neither a victory nor a loss; the vote upheld the status quo, and confirming the longstanding split within the episcopal conference between those who see abortion as one among many important political issues, and those who truly see the right to life as “preeminent.”

But let’s look beyond the “seamless garment” debate—a debate that the USCCB rehashes every election year—and look at the more specific plan of action issued by Archbishop Joseph Naumann, the head of the bishops’ pro-life committee. Focusing to the needs of women who face difficult pregnancies, he called attention to the Catholic hospitals and Catholic Charities affiliates that provide services for these women. Then, in third place, he mentioned the “thousands of pregnancy care centers staffed by many Catholic volunteers.”

There’s something just a bit off-balance about that account. Catholic hospitals and charitable agencies do wonderful work—for women who have decided to continue their pregnancies. But the pregnancy-care centers (CPCs) are the shock troops in the battle against abortions. They deserve top billing.

Archbishop Naumann’s statement was an introduction to a new USCCB program, the “Walking with Moms in Need” initiative. On paper it’s an excellent plan, calling for each Catholic parish to become aware of the needs of pregnant women, and the local resources available to help them. As Archbishop Naumann explained, “Each parish is best able to identify the local pregnancy help resources that are currently available and to identify potential gaps that need to be addressed.”

Yes. Absolutely. But if there is a CPC already in place, having already studied the needs of pregnant women in the locale, and already working to supply those needs, isn’t the proper role of the parish to support that CPC? There’s no need to re-invent the wheel, and there’s an urgent need not to duplicate efforts and compete for scarce resources.

If you read Archbishop Naumann’s statement carefully, you notice the distinction he draws between hospitals that are run by Catholic institutions and agencies affiliated with Catholic Charities on one hand, and CPCs—which may or may not have a formal Catholic affiliation—on the other. Quite understandably, bishops are reluctant to assume responsibility for organizations that they do not control. So the Catholic hospitals and Catholic agencies claim top billing. But the CPCs are doing prodigious work, vital work—our work, God’s work—and deserve our unstinting support.

What worries me about the “Walking with Moms in Need” initiative is the possibility that an organized campaign will develop, filtering down from the USCCB through the dioceses to the parishes—to set up CPCs that adhere to a set of standards approved by the hierarchy. I do not mean to suggest that the existing CPCs are perfect; they aren’t. But I question whether the USCCB can improve on the existing models, and in the absence of some Platonic ideal of the CPC, I am inclined to “let a thousand flowers bloom.” It would be tragic if, responding to the USCCB initiative, earnest Catholics formed their own new CPCs, and thereby interfered with the efforts of existing institutions.

Does my concern strike you as far-fetched? Then let me tell you a story.

My friend Rod Murphy is a decorated and scarred veteran of the pro-life battle. For decades he has worked to help women with problem pregnancies. He set up a CPC in Worcester, Massachusetts, which has been operating for more than 35 years, saving roughly 200 babies a year. Rod knows what he’s doing, and other pro-life activists have called upon him, leaning on his experience, to help set up CPCs elsewhere in New England, and in Florida, in Maryland, in Alaska, and even in foreign countries.

So it made sense that Rod Murphy was invited to speak at a pro-life conference in Connecticut in October 2018. But then the invitation was rescinded. Deacon David Reynolds, a spokesman for the Connecticut Pregnancy Care Coalition (CPCC)—an umbrella group of CPCs established with the support of the Connecticut bishops—eventually explained. The CPCC is committed to a non-confrontational approach, “to provide clients with transparent and unambiguous information and reject any deceptive advertising practices.” Reynolds wrote to Murphy: “It has come to our attention that some of the methods you employ may conflict with these principles.”

To be sure, Murphy’s model can be seen as provocactive—especially by abortion advocates. He favors centers located as close as possible to Planned Parenthood abortuaries. He recommends drawing in abortion-minded women by advertising pregnancy tests, not leading with pro-life slogans, since he assumes that the women coming to his centers are leaning toward abortion; he wants the centers to give the unborn children one last chance at life. Some CPCs exist primarily to serve women who have decided to continue their pregnancy despite difficult circumstances. Others, like Murphy’s models, are set up to serve “abortion-minded” women, to try to show them—even at the 11th hour—that there are alternatives to the procedure they have in mind.

Abortion advocates object to these tactics, claiming that they are misleading, and the CPCC, falling into that line of thinking, inveighs against “deceptive advertising practices.” But is it “deceptive” to advertise tests, to offer “options” for pregnant women? The CPCC also recommends against fielding sidewalk counselors to speak to women outside abortion clinics; that too is considered too confrontational.

Writing to a CPC that Murphy helped to set up, explaining why he would not allow the group to solicit funds in local parishes, Bishop Michael Cote said: “I would expect any pro-life pregnancy center operating within the Diocese of Norwich, and receiving funds from the diocese or local parishes, to be a member of [the CPCC].” He voiced his hope that the new CPC would eventually fall into line with the soft-sell approach of the bishops’ favored group, which is “in line with Catholic teaching and always welcomed by the diocese.”

Do you detect, in the bishop’s statement, a suggestion that the more aggressive approach is at odds with Catholic teaching? The bishops of Connecticut, through their support for the CPCC, have chosen one approach to providing support for women in difficult pregnancies. But is there any formal teaching of the Catholic Church that requires support for that approach—as opposed to the approach that has been used for years, with notable success, by activists like Rod Murphy?

Bishop Cote, in his letter to the local CPC, boasted about the involvement of the Connecticut bishops in setting up the CPCC. “We are the only state in the country to have such a legal entity, whose mission is to support the efforts of the pro-life pregnancy centers in Connecticut,” he wrote. But not all the pro-life pregnancy centers. The CPCC won’t support the CPCs that imitate Rod Murphy’s successful approach. To the CPC that had not yet won CPCC endorsement, the bishop strongly suggested toeing the line. The Norwich diocese wouldn’t help now, he said, but “I hope such a relationship can eventually come to exist…”

So what worries me about the USCCB initiative—which, again, looks so good at first glance—is the possibility that the bishops across the country will follow the lead of the bishops in Connecticut, and set up their own guidelines for the CPCs that seek their support. Inevitably those guidelines will exclude some CPCs and encourage others. And if the Connecticut experience is any indication, the bishops and their policy “experts” will not listen to counsel from pro-life veterans who have built and operated CPCs, and saved thousands of lives.

If you’ve been watching the US bishops’ conference long enough, you may recall that years ago, the USCC (as it was then known) set out to establish a television network. A successful young Catholic network, EWTN, already existed. But the bishops did not favor Mother Angelica’s approach. So they tried to set up their own network, in competition with an existing Catholic effort. They sank tens of millions of dollars into the effort. And they failed, utterly. First, because EWTN had already succeeded in reaching a huge Catholic audience. Second, because bishops have no special expertise in television broadcasting.

In their laudable determination to help women with difficult pregnancies, the American bishops must not make the same mistake again. There are thousands of CPCs already at work, guided by experienced lay people. Some are explicitly Catholic, but most are ecumenical—and don’t the bishops favor ecumenical alliances, especially in public affairs? Support them. Encourage them. Endorse them. Learn from them. Don’t compete with them. Don’t try to make them fit a single mold. Don’t thwart them.

*For the record, the Cupich amendment would not have removed the phrase “preeminent priority” from the USCCB statement. But it would have—following the logic of the “seamless garment” approach—listed other political issues that should be considered “equally sacred.” If issues A and B are “equally sacred,” how can A be considered preeminent?

** We don’t know the names of the bishops who supported the Cupich amendment. The USCCB uses an electronic voting system, rather than taking roll-call votes—or even standing votes that would allow reporters in attendance to identify the positions of individual bishops. (Accountability, anyone?)

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Feb. 05, 2020 9:52 PM ET USA

    Ah, yes, the bishops wish to be “non-confrontational.” Sounds just like the “pastoral” approach they promised would succeed in bringing pro-abortion Catholic politicians back to Catholic teaching.

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Feb. 02, 2020 8:35 PM ET USA

    How typical that the bishops don't confront powerful Planned Parenthood and Catholic politicians who support them and legal abortion. How typical they target small crisis pregnancy centers.

  • Posted by: steve.grist2587 - Feb. 02, 2020 4:17 PM ET USA

    CPCs in our area have a long history of successfully convincing abortion minded moms to choose life, often when the moms are on their way to a scheduled abortion. Therefore, CPCs are hated by abortionists. Also, the local CPCs receive significant financial support that is not funneled through the diocese. Abortionists would love it if CPCs come under the control of a USCCB style bureaucracy. Please forgive my cynicism, but are bishops concerned about babies or money? #ObviousAnswer.

  • Posted by: phil L - Feb. 01, 2020 4:59 PM ET USA

    Thanks! All those typos are fixed now.

  • Posted by: Foundas - Feb. 01, 2020 2:22 PM ET USA

    After his stay in WA I would have to say Cupich is pro-choice more than pro-life. He intimidates and defames those that speak out against him.

  • Posted by: feedback - Feb. 01, 2020 1:36 PM ET USA

    Heartfelt THANKS for the article! I hope you don't mind me to point out a couple of typos: 1. "(PCPs)" instead of: (CPCs), 2. "to identity potential gaps" instead of: identify, 3. "funds form the diocese" instead of: from. Phil, God bless you and your work.

  • Posted by: [email protected] - Jan. 31, 2020 11:35 PM ET USA

    Cupich is of the seamless garment background and with ties to Mccarrick. I don't trust anything he says. Most of what he supports is not of Catholic tradition nor doctrine. He is a wolf in sheep's clothing. St Michael protect us from the likes of Cupich.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jan. 31, 2020 6:00 PM ET USA

    Smells like bona fide clericalism.