Cultural Engagement or Culture War?

The chirothecoe are coming off. Last week, Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago published an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune about the outrage sparked by the release of undercover videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing the dismemberment of unborn children in order to harvest their organs. Not everyone was happy with what the archbishop had to say, specifically this paragraph:

This newest evidence about the disregard for the value of human life also offers the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment as a nation to a consistent ethic of life. While commerce in the remains of defenseless children is particularly repulsive, we should be no less appalled by the indifference toward the thousands of people who die daily for lack of decent medical care; who are denied rights by a broken immigration system and by racism; who suffer in hunger, joblessness and want; who pay the price of violence in gun-saturated neighborhoods; or who are executed by the state in the name of justice.

One of those apparently upset with the archbishop’s comments was Archbishop Charles Chaput, who wrote this article in his archdiocesan newspaper that is already being interpreted approvingly as a direct rebuttal by, among others, Breitbart and Phil Lawler at +Chaput begins his column with these words:

Here’s a simple exercise in basic reasoning. On a spectrum of bad things to do, theft is bad, assault is worse and murder is worst. There’s a similar texture of ill will connecting all three crimes, but only a very confused conscience would equate thieving and homicide. Both are serious matters. But there is no equivalence.

The deliberate killing of innocent life is a uniquely wicked act. No amount of contextualizing or deflecting our attention to other issues can obscure that.

+Chaput goes on to affirm the consistent ethic of life, note that opposition to abortion does not give one a pass on other important issues, and makes other fine points. Still, the message was clear: There can be no moral equivalence between the evil of abortion and other evils.

I agree entirely. But, here’s another simple exercise in basic reasoning. Before rebutting a particular point of view, should one not first ask if anyone has asserted the thing being rebutted? If you read +Cupich’s op-ed, you will find that he nowhere asserts any moral equivalence between abortion and any other pressing moral issue. Instead, the central message of his article was that moral outrage evidences an awakened conscience, and perhaps those who are shocked by some attacks on human dignity, but not others, should ask themselves why their outrage is so selective. +Cupich is trying to start a conversation, encourage reflection, invite people to re-examine their presuppositions.

The pro-life movement seems stuck. The outrage sparked by the Planned Parenthood videos was channeled almost immediately and entirely into a debate about defunding Planned Parenthood. I would love to see Planned Parenthood defunded, and the money redirected to the far more numerous community health centers that do not perform abortions. But, I wonder if channeling pro-life sentiment into political action immediately and exclusively is the best way to proceed. I have toyed with the idea that perhaps the best strategy for the pro-life movement would be to announce that we would not advocate for any legislation for a decade, concentrate only on persuading people of the rightness of our position. As soon as you turn an effort to persuade a culture into a political operation, everyone has to take sides, usually partisan sides, allies from past battles that had nothing to do with abortion feel compelled to defend their side, and nothing changes. Well, not nothing. The one thing we know for sure about this latest controversy is that both the pro-choice lobbying groups and the pro-life lobbying groups will raise a ton of money, further guaranteeing a lack of meaningful progress on making our culture, and eventually our laws, more attentive to the moral status of the unborn.

The pro-life movement will remain stuck so long as its most prominent voices and arguments are the kind displayed by +Chaput in his column. Maybe it feels good to thump one’s chest – “there is no moral equivalence!” – but what is the next sentence? Where does that conversation go? Who is going to be persuaded? It is a conversation stopper, not a conversation starter. 

Archbishop Cupich has been a bete noire for conservatives for many years, but now that he is in Chicago, not Spokane, he has become an even larger target. Last week, in the Wall Street Journal, Nicholas Hahn went after +Cupich because of a press conference he held with EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. One wonders if Hahn would have criticized Cardinal George, who first got the ball rolling on the archdiocese’s work with EPA’s EnergyStar program, had he lived to see it come to fruition? Hahn’s broader point, that the Church should stay clear of political entanglements, at least when the politics in question are the politics of the left, betrays his truly remarkable failure to grasp even the rudiments of Catholic social teaching, to say nothing of the Church’s long history of advocacy, much of which has political implications. And, in the event, what is the problem with the Archdiocese of Chicago saving millions of dollars in reduced energy costs by participating in EnergyStar, money that can help to keep schools and parishes and ministries afloat? The problem is, of course, that working with anyone in the Obama administration cuts across the political ambitions of a certain kind of Catholic conservative. +Cupich is a different kind of Catholic conservative, the kind that recognizes the Church’s need to stay above the partisan fray, work with people of good will on issues of mutual concern, and encourage discussion among those with whom one disagrees. There is nothing essentially liberal or modernist about such a recognition, it just does not fit the culture warrior narrative that seeks to keep the Church joined at the hop with today’s Republican Party.

Archbishop Cupich’s voice, like that of Pope Francis, may make some conservatives upset, but in sending his op-ed in the Tribune around last week, I found it provoked some very interesting conversations, especially with my pro-choice friends. They had been disturbed by the videos but were not sure what to do with that sentiment. I found that when they had read +Cupich’s column, they were doing some soul searching, asking why they were concerned about the undocumented but not the unborn. None of them expressed an interest in joining us in the pro-life cause immediately, but a seed was planted, their conscience had been pricked and +Cupich’s column led them to a deeper confrontation with the contradictions of their politics. I can scarcely imagine a more useful, pastoral consequence from an op-ed, nor a greater long-term contribution to the pro-life cause. Those who prefer to beat their breasts because of a perceived “false moral equivalence” may not ever notice such a consequence and, just so, will never persuade anyone to re-evaluate their position on abortion. It is +Cupich who is helping the cause, and his critics who are only singing to the choir.  

This discussion is important as the U.S. bishops consider revisions to their document “Faithful Citizenship,” which has for too long been used as a cudgel to silence anyone who thinks abortion is the only issue upon which a Catholic voter should consider his or her choices. And, the discussion is about more than Faithful Citizenship. It is about the approach advocated by Pope Francis of engaging people, rather than scolding them. +Chaput’s column shows how a thoughtful man can find himself constrained by ideology. Perhaps the most damning aspect of +Chaput’s column was that it did not even mention, let alone evidence any sympathy with, women facing a crisis pregnancy. The ideological constraints do not permit it. It is +Cupich who is seeking to throw off those constraints and engage the culture in useful, encouraging ways, rooted in people’s experience, celebrating their generosity and directing it to the victims of abortions, both the child and the mother. His contribution should be lauded, not criticized, unless of course, you are a GOP strategist.  



Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here