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.”