AMAC Exclusive – by David P. Deavel
The first step is the hardest. The proverb may well be correct, but sometimes the difficulty of that first step causes the walker to shy away from doing it again. After complaints (including one in this space) earlier this summer about the scandal of former governor and current gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe’s continued radicalism in favor of abortion without restrictions, funding of Planned Parenthood, opposition to religious liberty, and support of radical attempts to keep serious Catholics and other Christians from being able to hold high office without even a peep from Virginia’s two Catholic bishops, they did speak out through Virginia Catholic Conference executive director Jeff Caruso in comments to the Washington Free Beacon. It was a good first step, as we noted earlier, but it was not nearly enough and in the nearly two months since it has not been followed by any further action even as McAuliffe becomes more brazen in his campaigning. This is both an outcome of a pattern of behavior taken by many American bishops over many decades and yet another instance of it that will discourage other bishops from action.
It was not nearly enough. First of all, it is perfectly fine to make statements through the director of the Virginia Catholic Conference. These organizations serve the Catholic bishops of a given region in advancing their public policy positions and views. But, first, Caruso’s statements were restricted to McAuliffe’s promise to repeal Virginia’s conscience clause. Nothing was said about his unbroken radical extremism concerning abortion restrictions that has continued into this race—or any of the other positions he has taken that affect the Catholic witness and ministry in the Commonwealth.
Second, nothing has been put on the Virginia Catholic Conference website about these comments to one newspaper. In fact, a search of that website indicates that there has been nothing said about McAuliffe since 2017. Searches of the separate websites for Richmond and Arlington dioceses give the same result. Ditto for the diocesan newspapers. A search of the Richmond diocese’s Catholic Virginian brings up no matches for “McAuliffe.”
If the rebuke of McAuliffe’s threat to strip conscience rights in the state were important enough to make in the first place, shouldn’t the bishops want people to know about it?
No follow through. Not only have the bishops not made any attempt to inform their own flocks of that first rebuke, they have said nothing since about him. Let that earlier paragraph sink in. The self-described “very strong Catholic” Terry McAuliffe’s campaign promises to stop Catholics as individuals and corporately from acting on their consciences have been met with one statement that is not even available on any official Catholic websites in the two Catholic dioceses. Nor has there been any statement or even mention of McAuliffe’s campaign threats, er, promises, since then on the issues even as McAuliffe continues his campaign for abortion, which is called in the Catechism of the Catholic Church an “abominable crime” that is “gravely contrary to the moral law.”
McAuliffe has indeed not only made abortion his issue, trying to paint his opponent, Glenn Youngkin, an extremist who would bring Texas’s heartbeat bill to Virginia (Youngkin says he wouldn’t support such a bill but would support a 20-week ban), but has become even more publicly radicalized in his limitless support for it.
McAuliffe recently told reporters outside an abortion clinic in Charlottesville, “Everyone needs to know that abortion is on the ballot here in Virginia.” Not only is it on the ballot, it is on the ballot as a kind of ultimate issue. He responded to a question, in a WVTF Radio interview on September 7, about whether he supports any limitations on abortion by repeating a phrase he has used for years. He would be a “brick wall” when it comes to any legislation that might stop, slow, or even give pause to a woman considering an abortion. Given that the context of the question was a bill proposed in Virginia by Democratic delegate Kathy Tran in 2019 that would have eased the limits on third-trimester abortions and, per Tran’s own admission, allowed them up until birth, this is truly radical stuff. In follow-up at a press conference on September 7, he told National Review that what he really wants in a new term as governor in this sphere is “a bill sent to me that would enshrine Roe v Wade in the [Virginia] constitution.” In other words, he will concede no possible limits on this abominable crime and indeed wants its legality permanently enshrined in law.
McAuliffe doesn’t even pretend, as did pro-abortion Catholic politicians of old from 1970s Jesuit priest and Democratic congressman Robert Drinan and 1980s New York governor and presidential hopeful Mario Cuomo on down, that he is “personally opposed.” In fact, he recently bragged about that gruesome decision to make a glad-handing and smile-laden campaign stop at the abortion clinic in Charlottesville.
Yet bishops Michael Burbidge of Arlington and Barry Nestout of Richmond still say nothing about any of this.
Catholics of a certain age are unfortunately used to this pattern of behavior. Too many bishops have been, like old Bob Drinan and Mario Cuomo, personally deeply opposed to abortion but reluctant to speak out in the public sphere about it. Sure, they’ll appear on Roe v. Wade day at a rally and declare what the Church teaches. Absolutely, but when it comes to specific politicians, members of their own flock for whom they have a responsibility, they do not want to rock the boat too much or appear to be partisan. They will speak to the politicians in private about this matter and work it out. Handshakes over chicken dinners and some photo-ops will work everything out.
Except that nothing much happens. The politicians keep publicly supporting abortion and appearing as “very strong” or “devout” Catholics. They keep outwardly supporting abortion and opposing the rights of conscience. And eventually, as with McAuliffe, the mask of “personally opposed” falls. It’s not that abortion is something they reluctantly include in a list of other good positions, but it is the issue in which the campaign lives and moves and has its being.
Abortion is on the ballot in Virginia!
It’s not just Virginia. Joe Biden, who was supposedly reluctant and personally opposed when that was what was called for, has become just as radical as Terry McAuliffe. One of his first statements as President was on Roe v. Wade day and called for “codifying” that horrendous ruling and “appointing judges that respect foundational precedents like Roe.” And most recently, he has now reversed his earlier statements (or finally revealed a long-standing position) about that “personal” belief. “I respect those who believe life begins at the moment of conception,” Biden told reporters on September 3. “I don’t agree, but I respect that. I’m not going to impose that on people.”
And yet Biden’s own bishop, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, only responded to that statement in a press conference the next week because somebody from the audience asked him to clarify. When he did, he gently noted that Biden was “not demonstrating” Catholic teaching.
Strange, I think Biden was actually repudiating it.
How different was Cardinal Gregory’s response to a different presidential action in June 2020. Repeating the false claims about President Trump’s having ordered tear gas at a Washington, D.C., Episcopal Church merely to make room for a photo-op, he condemned the then-President’s subsequent visit to the St. John Paul II National Shrine in no uncertain terms: “I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree.”
If a Church violates Catholic religious principles by allowing visits by a politician not defending the rights of all people, then it might behoove Cardinal Gregory to examine more closely not only Joe Biden’s lack of “demonstration” of Catholic teaching, but his official documents declaring an intention to “codify” the Supreme Court decision that declares the unborn have no rights.
I have no confidence that Cardinal Gregory will do so. Nor will he consider any of the Biden administration’s other attacks on religious freedom and practice. Nor will a great many of the other bishops. They will continue to try to smooth along the inherent contradictions involved in Catholic politicians who deny Catholic moral teaching on the most important issues of our day yet are never challenged publicly by the shepherds of the Church.
Why not speak out? Perhaps they don’t want to buy trouble—after all, perhaps the governor or the president will not hit us too hard if we don’t make noise?
But they have been and are buying trouble in two ways. One of the ur-dictums of English common law is that silence implies consent. Politicians who never hear public criticism may infer that the bishops really consent to what they are doing. These politicians will never fear going too far since they are already there.
Even more important, such silence is a true scandal. Not just in the common sense of being something naughty at which people titter, but in the older sense of a stumbling block to faith. Do the bishops really consent to what Terry McAuliffe, Joe Biden, and hundreds of other politicians are doing and promising to do with regard to abortion, religious liberty, conscience protections, or a dozen other issues? Do they really care about truth? Catholics and others who look to the bishops for spiritual and moral strength will ignore the bishops more and more if they keep adhering more to go-along-to-get-along than the biblical, “We must obey God rather than men.”
It’s a problem of long standing, and there is no easy solution. In the case of bishops Burbidge and Nestout, they have taken one commendable step. But without taking more, they will not avoid this encouragement of bad political behavior, scandal for those in the pews, and shame for themselves.
David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas (MN). He is the co-host of the Deep Down Things podcast.
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