What do you do when your national bishops’ conference goes bonkers? That is not a question I ever imagined needing to ask and answer when I attended my first plenary meeting of the U.S. bishops’ conference as a journalist many years ago.
It is a question that has forced itself on us all this year, first with the churlish statement USCCB President Archbishop Jose Gomez issued on inauguration day. “I look forward to working with President Biden and his administration and the new Congress,” Gomez wrote, but then betrayed that pleasantry by raining on President Biden’s big day, warning that Biden “has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage and gender. Of deep concern is the liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences.” All of that needed to be said, but if you really want to work with the new president, you do not say it publicly on his first day in office.
Gomez found himself contradicted by several cardinals and bishops, either explicitly or not. The “working group” he had announced to cope with this pro-choice Catholic president was quickly shuttered. (Thank God!) But, let’s be clear: Gomez is not an outlier. His decision to issue that statement reflected the views of the 10 committee chairs on the working group, only one of whom apparently opposed the statement. The chairs were elected to their posts by their peers.
Behind closed doors, the bishops continue to fret about Biden in a way they never did about Trump. And, I suspect a majority of bishops still want to pursue the highly misguided effort to draft a statement on “eucharistic coherence,” aka, how to deny Biden communion. Never mind that this is a discussion that happens only in America. Never mind that the conservative’s hero, St. Pope John Paul II, routinely gave communion to the pro-choice mayors of Rome and other Italian officials. Let them plow ahead in this misguided effort. The conservatives may have a majority of the conference, but they do not have the two-thirds majority that is required to pass a teaching document. Even if they did, a teaching document would require the approbation of the Holy See, and I doubt that would be forthcoming.
As bad as the Biden working group and its statement were, the bishops outdid themselves in the first week of March with a ridiculous statement about the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine. Archbishop Joseph Naumann, chair of the committee on pro-life activities, and Bishop Kevin Rhoades, chair of the doctrine committee, issued a joint statement that began: “The approval of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine for use in the United States again raises questions about the moral permissibility of using vaccines developed, tested and/or produced with the help of abortion-derived cell lines.” I am always alert to the use of the passive voice in USCCB statements. Who had any questions about the “moral permissibility” of these vaccines? And why is the U.S. bishops’ conference raising a moral qualm where our theology tells us none need exist? On the basis of what loony theology are they inviting people to prefer one vaccine to another?
Archbishop Naumann puts the “arch” back into “archbishop.” I remember precisely the first time I saw him. At the Harborplace Marriott in Baltimore where the U.S. bishops hold their annual plenary meeting, there is a long escalator that brings the bishops down from the floor where they meet to the mezzanine level where they go for lunch. Near the foot of the escalator are two large armchairs. Each year, on Mondays, Michael Hichborn, then from the American Life League and now with the Lepanto Institute, would be sitting there with a friend and two bishops would always stop, talk to them and then leave together for lunch at a nearby restaurant. One of the bishops was Naumann. Hichborn is famous for outing people in order to get them fired from Catholic institutions and for his relentless attack on the U.S. bishops’ anti-poverty program, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. He is not what you would call a theological sophisticate, but he has had Naumann’s ear for years.
Similarly, the Charlotte Lozier Institute pretends to be the “research arm” of the Susan B. Anthony List, a Republican Party pro-life group. If you really care about stopping abortion, you would know that you need pro-life Democrats to do so, but the Susan B. Anthony List only endorses Republicans, and they looked the other way when Trump went on his killing spree with federal executions as his term ended. The Lozier Institute was likely the proximate cause of the USCCB nuttiness. In December, it released a statement about the moral issues they perceived in using cell lines from aborted fetuses.
Last week, even the conservative Ethics & Public Policy Center had had enough and issued a blistering statement criticizing the bishops’ conference that was signed by a bevy of pro-life conservative professors. It concluded:
To be perfectly clear, we are not saying that people are justified in using and promoting these vaccines because the great goods they provide offset the evil of appropriating a prior wicked action. Rather, we believe that there is no such impermissible cooperation or appropriation here. The attenuated and remote connection to abortions performed decades ago and the absence of any incentive for future abortions offer little if any moral reasons against accepting this welcome advance of science.
This is what it has come to. The U.S. bishops issue statements that articulate lousy theology derived from the Lepanto and Lozier Institutes that even the Ethics & Public Policy Center recognizes as baloney.
It has been 21 years since M. Cathleen Kaveny published the definitive essay on the issue of cooperation with evil and “Appropriation of Evil: Cooperation’s Mirror Image” at the journal of theological studies. Kaveny actually used the example of using cell lines derived from aborted fetal tissue to explain why this new category of “appropriation of evil” was needed because the structure of the moral issues differs from the classic theology of cooperation with evil. She focuses on the crux of the matter: “The most important question is whether the appropriator intends to ratify the auxiliary agent’s wrongful act in making use of that act’s fruits or byproducts. Does the appropriator make use of them as if it were the appropriator’s own action, as if it were an action that he or she would have engaged in, given the opportunity and/or necessity?” The U.S. bishops should consult with Kaveny, not with Lepanto, the next time they need some theological expertise!
I do not know what it will take to pull the bishops out of the hole they are digging for themselves. It is not simply a matter of consecrating enough bishops who are not culture warriors. They must walk down the difficult path of forging some unity among themselves. It is not true that all roads lead to Rome. Some paths lead in different directions. But in the history of the Catholic Church, there is no unity apart from communion with the Bishop of Rome. These latest episodes would not have occurred if the bishops’ conference was genuinely learning from the pope to whom they have all taken vows of obedience. It is time they start.
Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.