A woman religious smiles during the opening Mass of the National Prayer Vigil for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception January 18 in Washington. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

The annual March for Life in Washington will bring thousands to the National Mall today. While the event is not organized by a religious denomination and is officially secular, Catholics make up the backbone of the prolife movement. The March is the most anticipated organizing date on the calendar for many Catholic universities, high schools, and dioceses across the country. Buses will arrive packed with young people. The opening Mass before the March at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is broadcast live by the conservative-leaning Catholic-media empire EWTN. Catholic bishops view the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion as an opportunity to preach, teach, and encourage political activism from statehouses to Congress. This context makes a Catholic bishops’ decision to boycott a local March for Life in Arkansas after organizers chose a death-penalty supporter as the keynote speaker all the more remarkable and important.

The state’s Republican attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, “has good anti-abortion credentials but otherwise is decidedly not an appropriate pro-life speaker,” Bishop Anthony Taylor wrote in a letter to his diocese this week, because she has “worked tirelessly to secure the execution of four criminals who pose no further threat to society.” The organization leading the march, Arkansas Right to Life, refused the bishop’s request to find a new speaker. “As you know, the church teaches a consistent ethic of life in which human life and human dignity must be protected from the first moment of conception to natural death and every stage in between,” the bishop emphasized in his letter. “This means, among other things, that all lives have inherent God-given dignity. Even people who have been sentenced to death possess this dignity, which is why capital punishment must be acknowledged.”

Nothing the bishop says here is groundbreaking. He is simply articulating traditional Catholic social teaching. But the reason behind the bishop’s decision not to attend the anti-abortion rally and the public nature of his opposition is significant for the trajectory of church politics in the Francis era—and a sign of a more expansive values debate in secular politics. In the years following the death of Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who championed a consistent-life ethic that connected myriad issues that threaten human dignity, the cardinal’s vision lost ground to church leaders who wanted focus on abortion. Critics of Bernardin’s approach, from cardinals to Catholic intellectuals and activists on the right, feared that a “seamless garment” framework that situated abortion as part of other threats to life diluted the church’s primary role in defending the unborn. Deal Hudson, a Catholic advisor to President George W. Bush, described it this way in his book Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States. “In spite of Bernardin’s intentions, the broadening of the prolife position enabled the Catholic Conferences (state Catholic conferences) to back away from the abortion issue and distance themselves from prolife activists who were demanding more action from the bishops,” Hudson wrote. “The American bishops, who truly can be credited for helping to lead the prolife movement after Roe v. Wade, gradually withdrew from grassroots involvement to attend to what they considered larger matters.”

Abortion is still legal, and for decades the church was too often perceived in the popular imagination as the Republican party at prayer.

Hudson goes on to list as a notable exception to this supposed withdrawal the late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York. A favorite of Pope John Paul II who became a towering figure in the prolife movement, O’Connor famously clashed with Geraldine Ferraro, a pro-choice Catholic who ran for vice president in 1984, and frequently with then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo. George Weigel, a papal biographer of John Paul II who had entrée to top officials in the Vatican during his pontificate, also pointed to the New York cardinal in his 2011 First Things essay, “The End of the Bernardin Era.” Weigel writes that “O’Connor’s staunch and unyielding prolife activism as archbishop of New York was crucial in keeping that issue alive at a moment when the prolife energies of the American episcopate showed some signs of flagging. In doing so, O’Connor...set in place one of the markers that would eventually help displace the Bernardin approach to the Catholic Church’s interaction with U.S. public policy debate.” But ditching the Bernardin model was a mistake, both tactically and morally. Abortion is still legal, and for decades the church was too often perceived in the popular imagination as the Republican party at prayer.

As I’ve written before, Pope Francis and the bishops he’s appointed have swung the momentum back to a consistent life-ethic framework in ways that have implications for the church’s political witness. A pope who describes economic inequality, climate change, the plight of migrants and the death penalty in strong prolife terms makes it harder for Republican politicians to get a free pass simply by opposing abortion while doing little else to build a culture of life. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy highlighted what the Francis papacy means for the intersection of the Catholic Church and U.S. politics shortly after the pope’s election. “Both the substance and methodology of Pope Francis’s teachings on the rights of the poor have enormous implications for the culture and politics of the United States and for the church in this country, Bishop McElroy wrote. “These teachings demand a transformation of the existing Catholic political conversation.”

The death penalty needs to be part of this renewed Catholic political conservation. State-sponsored execution is clearly a prolife issue, but conservative Catholics with access to political power have too often refused to accept this. The National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, for example, an annual event in Washington that attracts members of Congress, judges, and policymakers, chose the governor of Texas to be the keynote speaker two years ago. Gov. Greg Abbot, a Catholic, leads a state notorious for its number of executions. During his campaign for governor, Abbot was asked about whether his Catholic faith and pro-death-penalty position were in tension. “Catholic doctrine is not against the death penalty, and so there is no conflict here,” he breezily told the San Antonio Express-News editorial board. His answer conveniently distorted the essence of Catholic teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, while not excluding the use of capital punishment if it is the only available recourse to protect society, quotes Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium vitae in affirming that those situations are “very rare, if practically non-existent.” During a 1999 visit to the United States, John Paul preached that the “dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” Pope Francis has gone even farther, calling the death penalty “inadmissible” and “contrary to the Gospel.”

By taking a courageous action, a Catholic bishop in a conservative state has reminded us that prolife hypocrisy must be challenged. Other church leaders should follow his lead.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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